River of Dust by Virginia Pye….


River of Dust@EllenWeeren or @AReasonToRead

Reading this book was a special treat for me because I had the chance to meet Virginia Pye before I read her novel – even got me a signed copy, I did. And, by the by, she is delightful.

This historical novel is set in Northwest China in 1910 and chronicles the lives of a missionary couple whose young son, Wesley, is kidnapped by nomads right before their eyes.

Some reviewers have called this a “dark” novel but I disagree. I think it’s a beautiful (albeit sad) telling of what might happen when parents who, for what they believe is the greater good, willingly expose their child to dangers he would not have experienced otherwise.

It’s a story about birth and loss and guilt and trying to start over under impossible circumstances. It’s the ultimate test of faith –  not just in God but also in the ones we love – it’s the slow unraveling of reasonable madness.

I simply loved it!

The idea of using China as a backdrop for her novel came to Virginia from her grandfather’s journals detailing his time there as, you guessed it, a missionary. She has said the similarities between this story and her grandfather’s end with the setting.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres but the books usually take so long to read. Virginia, however, wonderfully and concisely captured the essence of the time and place, making River of Dust a fairly quick read – and yet, it’s still compelling. I kept wondering what I would do in those circumstances.

I never came to an answer.

This is a story that will stay with you for a long time.

virginia pye2




Capturing Every Day Life by Jane Goodrich


capturing every day life

Jane Goodrich is a NYC-based newborn and child photographer. And a dang good one at that. She has written this guide to capturing photos of kids in every day life situations. The tag line is “the no-nonsense, cheese-free, read-while-they-nap, easy-as-pie guide to taking top-notch, world class photos of your kids.”

Yep, that about sums it up.

It’s a great first book for anyone who is interested in learning to take his/her camera off automatic mode and harness the full creative power that DSLR cameras offer. Jane shares simple definitions to complex terms and really explains the basics in an unintimidating way. She also gives practical suggestions for making the most of a photo shoot or just capturing the moment at hand.

The book is awesome. Several months ago, I started taking photography classes and often walked away more confused than I had been when I went into the class. Of course, good photography requires lots of practice. But, ahem, in order to practice, you must understand some basic concepts. Photography is all about capturing light – and you can do that several ways – via the available light, the shutter speed, the ISO, the aperture, and flash.

Did I lose you? Then pick up Jane’s book. You’ll understand the terms and will be able to apply them to taking your own great pictures. She gives the best explanation of ISO that I’ve ever heard (that’s on page 15).

Jane also has a fantastic blog where she shares lots of interesting articles and tips. You can find that here.

When I received the request to review Jane’s book, I wrote to her and told her how excited I was to read it and explained that I am a complete novice budding photographer. She wrote back and said, “if you have any questions, just let me know.”

So, I did. And she helped me understand what was happening differently when I took these two pictures and how to avoid it from happening again. As you can see, the first picture is hazy and the crab nearly gets lost. What? You didn’t see a crab – look at photo 2.

13_08_08_sunrise and pepper_EllenWeeren_0227

 Ah, there he is…13_08_08_sunrise and pepper_EllenWeeren_0324

She also gave me permission to just claim the first photograph was a result of artistic interpretation. Yes, you can see why I love her already.

Jane also has a new book out called “Where is Charlie’s Nose.” (I haven’t read this one yet, but if it’s anything like Capturing Every Day Life, it’s bound to be really good.)

where is charlie's nose

I thoroughly enjoyed Capturing Every Day Life by Jane Goodrich and highly recommend it to anyone who is intimidated by that knob at the top of his/her camera.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell……


@EllenWeeren or

This debut novel by Lisa O’Donnell is
creating a lot of buzz (tee hee). the death of bees

The story starts out with Marnie sharing that she has buried her parents in her backyard. Readers just as quickly learn that Marnie and her younger sister Nelly are trying to take care of themselves in a house that is literally falling apart while the neighbor’s dog continuously digs up their dad’s bones.

I could see this being a Tim Burton movie. It’s dark and ridiculous at the same time.

It’s a fast read. And I guess it’s YA crossover to Adult – but with all the cussing and adult topics sprinkled in, I’d definitely make sure parents read it first to decide if it’s appropriate for teenaged readers.

The story had a lot of promise – the whole “Death of Bees” opportunity for symbolism was forgotten too early in the story – and parents being buried in the backyard is an intriguing premise – but to me, it all fell short. Things very neatly tied up that weren’t necessarily plausible and things that required more explanation (like how the school continuously ignored the girls situation) weren’t explored enough.

Having said that though, everyone in my book club really liked the book, except me. So there you go.

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler by Trudi Kanter…..


Trudi Kanter’s memoir about a young Jewish hat-maker
living in Vienna during Hitler’s some girls some hats reign was originally published in 1984. It was rediscovered in a second-hand book store in London and re-released.

The story of Trudi’s life is presented in a gentle way – giving the reader the full understanding of the tension of the time, without completely examining the atrocities going on. It gives us a look into the everyday life of a person trying to survive and thrive under very dire circumstances. And yet, Trudi managed to live and love and, in many ways, succeed.

The book’s conversational tone makes it an easy read. In fact, reading it is much like talking with Trudi (or having tea with your grandmother). The author focuses on the people in her life – her parents, her ex-husband, her husband, and her employees. They are all affected by the Holocaust in different ways and we get a peek into the good and bad in their daily living.

It was a stressful, harrowing time – but in between the moments of real desperation, Trudi also shares with us her happiness.

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler seems to a be a full disclosure of the best and worst of the era of Hitler.

the time keeper by Mitch Albom……


If you are familiar with Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, then you already have a sense of the time keeper by Mitch Albom.

by Mitch Albom

by Mitch Albom

I thoroughly enjoyed both of those books, so I was excited to learn about the time keeper. At first, I was a little hesitant to buy in to the whole concept because the book is about understanding time. That is a huge undertaking. It shouldn’t have surprised me for one second that Mitch Albom would be able to pull it off.

In the beginning of the story, we meet the man who will become Father Time – the inventor of the concept of measuring periods of light and darkness. God wants him to understand what he has done and how the world will change because of it – perhaps why time was never meant to be measured in minutes and seconds or even full days and months.

Father Time is asked to think about his creation in isolation for what seems to be an eternity. Then, when he is released, he is tasked with finding two people who are intimately aware of time – one who wants more time and one who wants less.

As the story unfolds we learn about the journey the three embark on separately until their worlds meld and they face the “end of their own time” together.

In true Mitch Albom style, it is a beautiful tale told in fable-like fashion where truth and understanding are the most valuable lessons. We learn why time matters and why it shouldn’t. And we are reminded that our own actions are never performed in a bubble – there is always an impact on someone else.

I highly recommend this book. It can be purchased via Amazon here for $16.49.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton….


I loved this book – the secret keeper kate morton

The Secret Keeper – by Kate Morton.

Loved it!

The story opens with 16-year-old Laurel sitting in a tree house, where she witnesses her mother stab a stranger in the chest and kill him.

Yep, it’s good right from the beginning.

This is what Kate Morton’s website tells you about the story…

1961: On a sweltering summer’s day, while
her family picnics by the stream on their
Suffolk farm, sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out
in her childhood tree house dreaming of a boy
called Billy, a move to London, and the bright
future she can’t wait to seize. But before the
idyllic afternoon is over, Laurel will have witnessed
a shocking crime that changes everything.

2011: Now a much-loved actress, Laurel finds herself overwhelmed by shades of the past. Haunted by memories, and the mystery of what she saw that day, she returns to her family home and begins to piece together a secret history. A tale of three strangers from vastly different worlds–Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy–who are brought together by chance in wartime London and whose lives become fiercely and fatally entwined…

I can’t comment too much on the plot because – alas – this is a book about secrets and how they unfold. The last secret totally surprised me. Yea!

The plot does jump back in forth between the past and the present as it introduces us to Laurel, Vivien, and Dorothy.  They are three fascinating women connected in ways that only Kate Morton can imagine. Thankfully she shares the threads that weave them together with her readers in a beautiful tale of womanhood and motherhood – of independence and interdependence.

This is a story about dreams and decisions and who our mothers were before we got the chance to meet them.


The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff…


This historical fiction called The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is an excellent book club book. There’s lots of layers for dicussion – polygamy, parenting, religion, and murder. It’s all there.

The storyline bounces back and forth between modern-day, where BeckyLyn has just been arrested for her husband’s murder – and 1875, where Ann Eliza Young recently separated from her husband Brigham Young.

The book is probably longer than it needs to be and the dense build up of the historical conflict for women in the Mormon faith is a little overdone – we get it – being the 19th wife would come with some complications. But overall the book is very interesting and, as I said, opens up a lot room for book club talk.

There are some surprises in the book also – a big plus for me.

My book club is made up of women so our discussion focused a lot on trying to understand how women can tolerate being one of so many wives. We didn’t really understand how it makes sense – although we did get perpetuating the “way it’s always been”.

At one point, one of our members asked the group to imagine having 19 husbands. Holy smokes. No thank you.



1222 by Anne Holt…


When Scribner asked me to review this book,
I jumped at the chance 1222to read Anne Holt‘s latest crime story 1222.

The basic story line is that a train crashes in Northern Norway during a horrific snow storm and the survivors are taken to a nearby hotel until the blizzard subsides. (The title comes from the fact that they are 1,222 feet above sea level.) All seems well until a priest is found murdered just outside the hotel door on the morning after the crash.

Hanne Wilhelmsen, a wheel-chair bound retired detective, is one of the survivors. She carefully observes the other passengers and pieces together what happened. The interesting wrinkle in this book is the other characters’ willingness to talk near Hanne as if she wasn’t there – likely because they see her as lesser because of her wheelchair – but it ends up being how the mystery is unraveled. The other irony is that Hanne enjoys watching people but not so much inteacting with them – quite a challenge when trying to interview witnesses and suspects.

Hanne is a little grumpy and I kept forgetting that she was a woman. That’s not good or bad – just my experience.

Amping up the drama and mystery is the fact that the passengers from the private car on the wrecked train have been isolated on a separate level of the hotel.

To be honest – because that is what I promised to be here – I had a hard time buying into the idea that this hotel would have been totally stocked full of supplies to support a train load of people for several days when it was practically empty of people, except for staff members. Beyond that, the story is engaging and the unfolding connections between people are interesting.

This is the eighth book in a series but the first one translated into English. So English readers are likely missing out on some historical information/backstory on Hanne Wilhelmsen – but I think that’s okay. If you like a mystery – especially an isolation mystery where the people are bound together by circumstances/location and cannot escape each other – you will likely enjoy this story.


how to stop time by anne marlowe….


I think I have shared that I am writing a novel called The Alligator Purse. In my story, the main character Savannah is addicted to heroin. Someone suggested to me that Savannah isn’t believable as a heroin user. To help fix that, they also suggested I read this memoir – how to stop time, heroin from A to Z by ann marlowe.  

My exposure to drugs has (thankfully) been very limited. I know nothing about heroin. (Which was apparently abundantly clear.)

If you are a writer, you will probably enjoy this book from a technical level. It is written like a dictionary – broken down into sub-topics which are discussed alphabetically (but with references to other subtopics that apply). I haven’t read a book in this format before and I enjoyed its snippet-style of story telling. Heroin addiction is a heavy topic and it was nice to read about it in small doses (no pun intended).

If you know someone struggling with heroin, this book would give you a lot of insights into what they are facing. It was fascinating to me to read about Ann’s addiction. And to learn that she was highly functional in her professional life.

Apparently some critics have argued that her story doesn’t sound authentic enough – whatever that means. According to her own words, Ann scheduled her life around her drug use. That sounds like at least a heavy dependence to me.

The only reason I mention the critics is to also mention that Ann never claims to know what all addicts go through – this is her story and her story alone. This isn’t a “here’s what happens to anyone who is addicted to heroin” story but rather a “here’s what happened to me” story.

Ann is a professional writer and her story is well written. I was shocked and sad and even laughed a little. This is a terrific book. I am very glad I read it!

Spirit of the Wolf by Linda Star Wolf with Casey Piscitelli….


Merging the world of the wolf with Shamanism, authors (and mother/son team) Linda Star Wolf and Casey Piscitelli join with artist Antonia Neshev to introduce the power of lupine energy.

The artwork alone is amazing. And this book would make an excellent gift for anyone with an affinity for wolves. Neshev earned international acclaim when the artwork on the cover of this book appeared on a t-shirt.

The teachings and inspirations in the book will appeal to those who believe in the spirituality of nature and its ability to help humans move forward peacefully in their own lives.

There are several of Samuel Briedenbach’s teachings sprinkled throughout the book as well. He is a scientific Shaman who believes in a spiritual DNA connection with nature and animals.

The essence of The Spirit Wolf seems to be captured in its quotes from Art Berg:

The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer

and William Blake:

What is now proved, was once only imagin’d.

The authors and artist share their own knowledge and experience to help everyone connect with their inner wolf. This book won’t be for everyone, but for those who believe (or want to believe) in the power of lupine, it will be especially poignant.

The book is on sale at Amazon for $13.46 and you can buy it here.

Drinking Diaries (an anthology)…………..


The tag line under the title of Drinking Diaries reads “Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up”.  And they do with brutal honestly and reflection.

I bought this book because Jane Friedman has an essay in it. She’s very well known in the world o’ writing and her essays appear on quite a few websites I read regularly. In one essay titled Finding and Longing for Community, Jane comes across as quiet, academic, and maybe even reserved. Of course, I don’t know Jane, but she seems so down to earth and grounded. She is certainly successful in the writing world. So, the fact that she has a drinking story intrigued me. And her essay is intriguing – and quite revealing.

As are all the essays.

I am not really sure how to describe this book. It’s great that it’s an anthology because, not unlike drinking, it’s best served in small doses. The stories are heavy and heart-breaking and real. There is humor sprinkled here and there like an olive adorning a potent cocktail.

If drinking has been a part of your life in any way – even via its absence – I think you will be glad you read these stories. You might also start to see your own drinking in a different way.

A lot of the stories come from the perspective of daughters who were affected by drinking parents. If you are a parent, it’s interesting to see drinking through a child’s lens. If you had a parent who drank (or drinks), the stories might feel pretty raw.

In a very general way, this books feels like an AL-ANON meeting (the support group for those who love an addict). It’s just a simple sharing of stories and experiences without too much judgement. And it’s a great place to start a discussion about drinking in our lives and what affect it really has on those we love and those who love us.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot……


art from www.amazon.com

This non-fiction story is about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cervical cancer in the early 1950s.

While Henrietta was undergoing treatment for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. George Gey  (a researcher) obtained some of her cells – without her knowledge or consent. Those cells were the first human cells to remain “alive” outside of the human body. Sadly, Henrietta died – but miraculously, her cells live on even today.

And the study of those cells has led to amazing advancements in medicine, including the polio vaccine, various cancer treatments, and so much more.

Normally, I read a book with my eyes wide open – but this book I read with my mouth wide open. I simply could not believe the liberties that doctors were allowed (and by the by, still are allowed) to take with human tissues. No consent necessary. Even if they will profit from it.

And it’s not just taking samples – it’s testing. While doctors and researchers were dissecting and analyzing cells outside of Henrietta’s body, other doctors were conducting research – including injecting cancer cells into their patients – without asking permission or forgiveness.

Rebecca Skloot does a lovely job of introducing us to the Lacks family and sharing their journey with us.

It was by complete accident that the Lacks children even learned that Henrietta’s cells were taken from her and being used all over the world. The cells were named HeLa cells (the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names). And they have not profited in any way from their discovery or continued sale – even though they struggle to pay their own medical bills.

This book sounded a little intimidating to me because of the science/research tilt – but Rebecca explains everything so easily that even I (a mere English major) can understand it.

The Lacks family saga saddened me tremendously. In a land where these types of things just aren’t supposed to happen, they simply do happen.

The bottom line for me is – please use my discarded tissue for research if it will help other people, but you really should ask me first if it’s okay. And if you are going to make millions on my tissue, please share at least some of those profits. Yes, thank you.

This is an amazing story and I think you will be very glad you read it!

You can purchase it on Amazon here.

And NPR did a story here.

Suzy’s Case by Andrew Siegel……


One of my favorite classes in college was Biomedical Ethics. So, when I received a request to review Andrew Siegel’s medical malpractice story titled Suzy’s Case, I jumped at the chance. Plus the main character’s name is Tug Wyler. That’s a fabulouso name for a medical malpractice attorney.

image from www.Amazon.com

The story starts a little slow and it involves a tough set of circumstances to read about. Suzy is a little girl with sickle cell anemia who leaves the hospital in much worse shape than she arrives in – she walks in sick and leaves in a wheelchair, brain damaged and paralyzed. Her mother believes the hospital did something wrong – the hospital suggests Suzy is simply a victim of her own disease and an unfortunate turn of unpreventable medical events.

Tug Wyler is brought onto the case when the original attorney decides after 6 years of litigation that there really isn’t much of a case. Tug is a little crass and very quirky but he is a dedicated attorney looking to get the best results for his clients. Admirably, he tries to distance himself from cases that he knows to be fraudulent. In the beginning of the story, we see Tug  defending his own actions in front of the Disciplinary Committee. He knew one of his clients was lying and refused to represent him in a “zealous” manner as required by the Professional Code of Conduct. This reveals his honest nature and makes him more than just an “ambulance chaser” – which is important given the negative stereotypes surrounding medical malpractice attorneys.

As we meet and get to know Suzy and her mother, it’s hard to not to care about this little girl and to be curious about what exactly happened to her – not only because her story is tragic, but also because medical malpractice is a reality. Sadly, it can happen to anyone. Siegel did a good job of building suspense and answering questions slowly to keep his readers engaged in the story.

The real beauty of this story, though, is its exploration of what Tug is willing to do to ensure justice is served for the victims of medical malpractice. Tug makes decisions that teeter on a delicate balance between defending the truth and bending it.

I have not read a medical malpractice novel before and this was an interesting journey into a complicated and contrived world – where the truth often hides behind self-preservation and big payouts.

This is Andrew Siegel’s debut novel and it was published by Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Defending Jacob by William Landay……..


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I read Defending Jacob by William Landay for my book club. If you want a book rich with discussion possibilities, this one is it.

Jacob is a high schooler who lives in a small town. In that town, one of his fellow students is murdered. Jacob’s dad is the Defense Attorney on the case – until Jacob is accused of the murder. It turns out that Ben (the murdered boy) was bullying Jacob, giving him quite a motive.

This book opens a lot of avenues of discussion….

  • Nature v. Nuture
  • The Impact of Working Parents
  • Genetic Predisposition
  • Bullying
  • Community Reaction to Crime
  • Murder and Suicide
  • What Defines Normal Behavior in Children
  • What Parents Are Willing/Unwilling to Believe About Their Children

You better serve wine. 8-)

The story was well-paced and I really liked the first half of the book. I felt like Jacob’s story could go either way and I struggled to decide whether Jacob was innocent or guilty. But then the book turns and a lot of surprising things happen. Which is generally good in a book. But this story just had too many twists. It felt contrived and too easy at the same time.

It really would make a good book for any discussion group and maybe even a good book for parents/teenagers to read together. I just wasn’t thrilled with plot development toward the end.

Hi My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist by Baye McNeil………..


I met Baye through blogging. He was one of my first followers and one of the first people to really take my blog seriously. He read, he commented, and he complimented.

Thanks Loco!

Baye (aka Loco), of course, has his own blog about living and teaching in Japan. He took his life story and turned it into a memoir called Hi! My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist.

Baye McNeil's thought on life and racism

I loved Baye’s writing from the first post of his I ever read. Admittedly, initially, I thought he was a little angry. (Sometimes he was.) But he was never dismissive of someone else’s ideas – he was always willing to consider a different point of view. I quickly found the discussion sections of his blog to be the most insightful. And he was open to any question – even silly questions from a white chick like me. And he was open to changing his perspective.

This book of his is no different. He looks at himself in a mirror that most people aren’t willing to hold. Baye shares stories of how he was taught to hate (in defense of being hated) and how he continues to fight those internal demons. He shares how race has impacted many of the relationships in his life, personally and professionally.

Beyond being a open discussion about racial tensions and pressures in America and the world, Baye’s own story is compelling. He grew up in New York, did a stint  in the military and college, and ultimately ended up teaching English in Japan. Baye found the love of his life and lost her. She left him a legacy of encouragement to “write!” and be the real writer he was meant to be. He was in New York City the day the twin towers were brought down and (exactly 9 1/2 years later) he was in Japan the day it rocked with an earthquake that changed the Japanese landscape but not the Japanese people.

Baye’s constant companion throughout his time in Japan is an empty seat on a train. He does a beautiful job of weaving the importance of this unlikely character throughout his memoir. She buffers him and angers him and teaches him to dig for the truth.

Ultimately, what I enjoyed most about this book is the way that it showcases how overwhelming stereotypes can be and how insignificant they become in one-on-one relationships. And I love how Baye constantly looks for (and generally finds) the good in others and in himself.

I highly recommend this book as a fabulous tale and a needed lesson. You can purchase it here. I myself have a signed copy. (Don’t hate ;-)  )

Follow him on Twitter @Locohama.

Smooches Baye – great job!

If You Ever Need Me, I Won’t Be Far Away… By Bruce Farell Rosen


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.) Bruce Farell Rosen

Bruce Farrell Rosen’s memoir outlines the major events of his life. In If You Ever Need Me, I Won’t Be Far Away, he shares his connections to music, sports, writing, traveling, his family, and above all his mother.

At the beginning of the book, we learn that the strength of Bruce’s marriage is teetering. He tells us that he had an affair with a woman he met when he was buying a piano in New York for his son. The piano was to be a graduation gift from him and his wife to their son. The relationship understandably created a rift in his marriage and he struggles with mixed feelings about his wife throughout the book. He wants to make his wife happy (and even feels responsible for her happiness) but cannot commit to their relationship.

He shares that “perhaps (for his ex-wife) the thought of being here without romance was too painful a consideration. She wasn’t interested at all, though I did try; I so much want her to be happy, to enjoy life in its richness. Sometimes I am so sad that she is sad.” He goes on to say, ” She cannot be my medicine, but often, I would like to be hers. And when I try, I get pulled into a place of sadness from which it can take a few days to emerge. I strive to observe borders, to recognize limitations, but the lines are often amorphous – emotions, thoughts, feelings just spilling over like a faucet that continues to pour into an already-full glass.”

Bruce also writes a lot about his mother and his special relationship with her. She was a seer and tremendously important in Bruce’s life. He believes that her death was a troublesome turning point in his life. Her absence weighs heavily on him. Bruce tells us “God, I know, truly does give us just as much and no more than we can handle at any moment in time. The loss of my mom will take a lifetime to digest, so profound was her influence.”

It seems as though Bruce battles with depression at times, or at least intense sadness. The book has a maudlin feel to it. The connections to music, sports, foreign cities, and world events are certainly interesting. And it is clear that Bruce cares a great deal about the people in his life.

But the book’s 600 pages are just a lot. I think the story could have been told in about half of its current page count.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain…..


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

The Paris Wife is a novel but, in the epilogue, Paula McLain tells her readers that she tried to mirror the true story of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, as much as possible. The story takes us through the first marriage of Hadley and Ernest and their exciting beginnings in Paris.

The story is very well-written and the characters are entertaining. Wonderful literary personalities like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald dance across the pages. We learn about Paris in the 20’s and the artists who journeyed to the city to hone their talents with like-minded souls. And we learn, maybe a little too much, about the famed Ernest Hemingway.

There is a lot to really like about this book, however, the story is just sad. Hadley tells us in the beginning that things won’t work out – but I wanted to believe I read it wrong – that I had confused myself with the silly truth of it all. But she did tell the truth and so the whole journey has a melancholy overlay that never dissipates.

Reading this book is a bit like watching sugar dissolve in clear water. There is the promise of sweetness, but we realize the crystals can  mostly only sink, their load too heavy for the frigid water to gracefully absorb it. In the end, we are just left with a cloudy, murky mess.

If you are mad at your spouse, wait to read this book. Otherwise, dive in. You’ll will be glad you read it.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott……


by Anne LamottAnne Lamott is a (pretty well-known) writer and she writes this book to encourage others to write. She doesn’t even demand that writers write better – at least not at first. She just wants us to write.

It’s wonderful.

It’s funny in unexpected ways. Many times I read a line and thought, a second later, “now that was funny”. Anne Lamott writes with a humor that is natural and seeps into her words. I love her conversational tone and her advice is fabulous.

In Bird by Bird, she gives us permission to write a “shitty” first draft – because we must. We must get something down on paper and then fine-tune it. She reassures us that she knows no-one who can write perfectly the first time. Well, she admits to knowing one person who can do it – but she doesn’t like her very much.

The gist of her message is that we should take our writing bit by bit. Anne shares the story of her brother writing a paper for a school project. He waited until the last minute, of course, and was overwhelmed by tackling the whole world of birds at once. Her father simply said to him, “take it bird by bird”. He encouraged his son to write in little bits. That’s great advice for life, too, by the way.  One thing at a time.

Readers also get insights into plot, character development, jealousy, and tons ‘o writing stuff. There is a lot to learn between the pages but it never feels like a text book. Anne shares her knowledge through stories and examples that really “show, instead of tell”.

Even if you hope to never pick up a pencil again, you can enjoy this book.

This is another book that I will give as a gift to friends. It’s all sorts of yummy!

Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty by Diane Williams……


Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty

I might be admitting my significant literary limitations here, but I just did not get this book.

Reading it was akin to what it must have been like for the characters watching the king’s parade in the Emperor’s New Clothes. I tried really hard to see what was not right in front of me. It’s likely I should have been making real connections but they simply did not appear for me. I didn’t understand the symbolism that is probably very profound.

Diane Williams book is a collection of contemporary short stories – some of them very short (barely even one paragraph). So it is a book you can read in small doses or quick spurts.

If you like digesting a book and figuring it out, this might just be the book for you. The descriptions are vivid and the cover of the book is fabulous!

There is an interview with the author here if you want to hear her take on it all.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case. This disclaimer doesn’t matter so much in this review because from the very beginning of this book, we know that one Wes Moore becomes a Rhodes Scholar and another Wes Moore is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail. But I will discuss details from the book, just so you know.)

This is a story about two men, both named Wes Moore who live just a few streets away from each other in Baltimore, Maryland. They both grow up relatively poor, without fathers, in less than ideal neighborhoods. One Wes Moore goes on to become a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated veteran, White House Fellow, world traveler, and a successful writer/businessman. The other Wes Moore lands in jail, convicted of murder and sentenced to confinement for life.

Of course the questions  beg, “How could this happen? What was the difference?”

I won’t say that this is the most eloquent story that I have read but it is perhaps one of the most important.  I don’t think I have ever felt the full weight of my parenting responsibilities as strongly as when I turned the last page.

This book is about Wes Moore and his literary twin but it also about their mothers – the decisions they did and didn’t make. It is about what they did and didn’t do because they wanted desperately to believe in their sons. And it is about what they refused to believe or were too tired to believe, ultimately understanding that their children were not innocent bystanders in their own destinies.

The author of this book is the success story – he beat the odds. But some might argue the odds were in his favor. He had parents who had gone to college and expected him to go to college. He had tremendous support from his grandparents and his mother was willing to work her arse off to make sure her son went to a school that offered him a chance to succeed. And finally, he accepted that a life without fear was a life worth working for. He doesn’t look over his shoulder to make sure the shadows of his mistakes don’t eat him alive.

I would also argue that it was critical that his mother refused to believe that her son could do no wrong. She watched for warning signs and paid attention to them. When Wes seemed to be getting lost in the streets, his mother shipped him off to military school. This decision infuriated Wes and he tried hard to distance himself from his mom. That is a tremendous sacrifice. She risked losing her relationship with him in order to save him.

We don’t learn a lot about the other Wes Moore’s mother but we did hear that she ignored some pretty significant warning signs (and even real evidence) about her son and drug activity.

The tragedy in this story is that the other Wes Moore did try to turn his life around. He entered a work training program and sought legitimate employment. But the draw of life on the streets with his older brother proved too alluring. The other Wes Moore claims he was not at the robbery when a police officer was shot but the jury decided otherwise. He will spend the rest of his life in jail. The shadows of his mistakes will sleep under him and taunt him at night.

In this time of Presidential elections and debates, the argument over “right to life/freedom of choice” cannot help but surface. What this book shows is that we must must distract ourselves from the rhetoric and turn instead to the reality of it all. We must shift the focus from judgment and blame to education and support. And I do not mean just financial support. We are very busy demanding that young girls not get pregnant in the first place, but we are hesitant to support sex education. And once the babies are born, we literally cut the umbilical cord and send them home with parents who are just children themselves.

It is a vicious cycle of ill-equipped parents raising children who will become ill-equipped parents at often very young ages. Of course, wealthy parents make horrible choices too. Their denial and ignorance is simply more gracefully coupled with the resources that allow access to lawyers, treatment, support, and forgiveness.

I wish this book had contained more of the other Wes Moore’s stories. The author interviewed him extensively and I missed hearing more from him.

What I did really like is that this book was written from a journalistic standpoint. The author did a great job of writing without judgment, apologies, or excuses. He tells the story that is and leaves the reader to determine why.

Several colleges are giving this book to their incoming freshmen so that they can weigh the importance of the choices they make. I would argue that doctors should be giving this book to new parents when they have their first sonogram so that they can weigh the importance of the choices they make.

The words on the back of the jacket seem to capture the essence of the story best, “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

Follow up with David A Koop…….


When David Koop sent me his book to review, he wrote in his letter that I could reach out with any questions I had. Of course, I had questions – this man is fighting a killer disease and he writes a book called “Cancer – It’s a Good Thing I Got It!” So I wrote to him with two questions.

David and his ostrich boots

Honestly, I figured he’d be a little busy with his family, doctors appointments, speaking engagements, book signings, and, I dunno, waging a war on cancer. But true to his word, David wrote me back. Here is what he had to say…

1. You took a big risk with your title and I am curious about that, especially given the battle you are waging. Why was it important to you to put a cheery spin on such a daunting topic – even though you do not write the rest of the book from a PollyAnna perspective?

The title came from two things in my mind.  First was the very real fact that just a few short days after getting the diagnosis I would have fallen over dead. Because of the bone and tissue scans the doctors performed to diagnose the cancer, they found that massive pulmonary embolism and a few days later it broke loose. Had the filter not been in place, I would have fallen over dead. So in my mind I am very lucky I got cancer, for if not, I would not be here, period.

Second is my understanding that each and every year, depending where you look, there are about 150,000 to 200,000 books published. That is quite a bit of noise to be heard through. I wanted people to notice my book and to understand from the title that it would not be anything like so many other books. Here is something different, fun and interesting to read.

2. Now that the book is out there, is there anything you wish you had included?

I am fortunate to say that I am very happy with how the book came out and more importantly that it is being received so well by so many different people across the globe. My message is being heard and it is helping people and that warms my heart and gives me motivation to get up and push through those days that are just so hard. I am making a difference in the world, who can really ask for more?

As I said in my review, there is a lot to take away from this book whether you are battling cancer or not. David’s attitude is contagious and his optimism infectious. It is a testament to the power of being grateful for every blessing and taking advantage of every moment. Thanks David for sharing your story! Your story is being heard and you are making a difference.

(David’s book can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Outskirts Press, or the Someday Group.

Cancer – It’s a Good Thing I Got It by David A. Koop……..


When I first saw this title come across my email inbox, I have to say, I was skeptical. I thought the title was risky. Who could possibly be thankful for getting cancer – especially osteo sarcoma (a form of bone cancer)? And I as I turned the last page of the book, I understood that David Koop would rather not have cancer than have it. But what David beautifully helps us realize is that it doesn’t much matter what we want – sometimes we just have to deal with what we have. And the fact is, cancer did save David’s life – in the tests for diagnosing his cancer, the doctors found an embolism that would have surely killed him had it not been treated immediately.

His motto throughout the book is “Decide then do.” I love that. David doesn’t seem to have many regrets – disappoints, sure – but not regrets. What a fabulous way to live.

Cancer - It's a good thing I got it

Cancer Memoir by David Koop

What I liked most about David’s story is that it is a wonderful balance – he never underestimates the challenges he faces but he is not trying to scare or shock anyone either. And he is never preachy. His matter-of-fact retelling of his story never asks for pity and never gives up hope.

David was a single father of a seven-year-old boy when his diagnosis came in. His doctors told him frankly to “get his affairs in order.” That was in 2006. In 2012, he is still giving motivational talks, still writing a blog, and still working with The Someday Group. There are days when he can’t get out of bed and days when he is in a lot of pain, but he seems to grab tight to those moments when he isn’t in pain and make the most of them.

It is clear that this is a story about cancer and David begins by telling us his diagnosis story. Then he sidetracks and gives us the history of the important people in his life. Those stories take us about halfway through the book. That was a little frustrating because I wanted to hear right away about his battle. I wanted to get to the end and learn how he is doing now. But that is the way life goes, right? We have to become who we are and journey to our current situation – then delve in to where we are. And, as David shares, waiting is often the hardest part of the cancer journey – waiting for tests, waiting for treatments, waiting for answers, and just waiting, waiting, waiting.

David’s story is honest without really being emotional. For the most part, it is easy to read without crying – which is amazing given all that he faced and continues to face. But it is a story that should resonate with everyone who reads it – battling cancer or not – because it reminds us that time is precious and people are important. He doesn’t pretend that any of this was easy or that it should be. And he doesn’t waste time asking why or trying to change it. He fights hard with the determination of a parent who wants to raise his son. He proves that love can be a forceful weapon.

David begins each chapter with a quote. My favorite quote was the introduction to Chapter 29.

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent”
~ Marilyn Vos Savant.

That just about says it all.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht……


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

Téa Obreht is a storyteller, there is absolutely no doubt about that.

The Tiger’s Wife is a magical folk-take, rich with layers of simple lore, sophistication, complexity, and then, somehow, simplicity. It celebrates the relationship of Natalia and her grandfather beautifully. It explains how their lives are intertwined and tangled in a way that cements relationships beyond simple DNA.

Her debut novel is intricately laced with details and imagery. I personally have a hard time holding on to a lot of details when I read a complicated story, but I don’t think it matters too much if some of the specifics of this story dangle through the knotted threads of my memory. That is the way of folktales – they slip and tilt with every retelling so that the listener (or reader) gets to enhance it in his own remembrance. The larger layers of the story are clear and strong and vibrant, and they easily carry us through the novel.

The characterizations are fabulous. We get to know the people we are reading about and enjoy their nuances. One of my favorites pieces of the story is when Natalia’s grandmother learns that her husband has died. He was out of town when he died and it took some time for the news to get to the family. Natalia’s grandmother is supposed to observe 40 days of mourning and she is angry that 2 days of mourning have been stolen from her because she washed his clothes, made his bed, and prepared food for him not knowing he was already dead. This piece of the story provides lovely insight into the overwhelming loss the widow feels. So much has been taken from her.

As the story unfolds, we see how the four-year-old Natalia at first holds tight onto her grandfather’s hand as he takes her to the zoo to visit the tiger and on walks through trails. We share in her sense of wanting to keep up with his larger stride and not slip behind, to not slow him down. And then we can understand how Natalia temporarily outgrows her grandfather as her companion for adventure because he might instead slow her down.  All the while, walking in his shadow, as if to see if she can fit inside it without being lost herself. She studies medicine just as he did and lives in his house. She embraces and mimics his passion of caring for children in far-away villages.

Finally she yearns once more for the closeness she once shared with her grandfather and they begin their adventures all over. Then, as the deathless man holds tight to his promise, Natalia loses her grandfather again -this time forever. She connects the readers to him largely by sharing the landscape and the people of his stories with us. Through her, we get to meet the tiger’s wife.

But the story captures more than just the connection between a man and his daughter’s daughter. It reveals how legends are born of gossip and based in fear. How  important histories are often not written in books and stocked away on shelves but are captured in slanted memories and shared over cooling cups of coffee.

As a writer, I enjoyed not only the story but the words Téa used to tell it. She has a fabulous way with prose and there were several passages that I stopped to reread just to enjoy the way they flowed. Here are two examples…

The way is nothing like the drive Zora and I made to Brejevina, though here, too, there are vineyards, shining green and yellow toward the east. Old men cross the road in front of you on foot, behind flocks of newly shorn sheep, taking their time, stopping to wave the fat lambs over, or to take off their shoes and look for bits of gravel that have been bothering them for hours. The fact that you are in a hurry is of no particular interest to them; in their opinion, if you are making your journey in a hurry, you are making it poorly.

And the second is Natalia’s reply after hearing that man with whom she is walking had lost his son and had unexpectedly found his body near the trash…

I said: “I’m sorry,” and regretted it immediately, because it just fell out of my mouth and continued to fall, and did nothing.

This book was fabulous and I highly recommend it!

The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas…….


“But through it all, they wrote.” 

That line is the opening sentence on the book trailer for YouTube and that is the beauty of the stories in The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas.

This book captures why women have continued to write against tremendous odds for centuries. It is a celebration of the way 12 amazing women captured words with a pen, pencil, or quill and poetically spread them across pages.

The authors spotlighted are…

Lousia May Alcott
Jane Austen
Charlotte Brontë
Willa Cather
Enda Ferber
Madeleine L’Engle
L.M. Montgomery
Anaïs Nin
George Sand
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Edith Wharton
Virginia Woolf

The author is not only fabulous with her own words and insights, but she is an amazing illustrator as well. The pages spill over with wonderful stories decorated with amazing art. It is clear that a lot of research went into getting this book right – the stories are drawn from diaries, journals, memoirs, and good old-fashioned letters. They give us the gift of so many lessons – struggling but not giving up, doubting and not doubting, and exceeding our own expectations.

I will end this review by simply saying that I love this book so much that I have already purchased it as a gift for a friend. And she loves it too!

The Wayward Life and Times of Dipsy Doodle Dandy by John Peaker…….


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I read this book some time ago and I have been avoiding writing this review. No, that doesn’t sound so good, does it?

From reading his stories, you can tell that John Peaker had a fun time growing up in the “golden age” of riding bikes without helmets and drinking water straight from the hose. He seems quite impressed with his own antics. But really, to me, the stories were riddled with a bunch of bravado. Reading this book was not unlike sitting next to drunk guy in a bar who was stumbling down memory lane – telling stories that are likely embellished and probably much more interesting in the retelling than the actual happening.

If you know someone who is older and loves to tell bawdy stories, this book might be a good gift. I think the hilarity would be lost on younger generations (some of the stories would simply be bad examples for teenage boys) – which is probably John’s point – we have gotten too far away from the ability to enjoy life without being plugged in to one gadget or another. Kids don’t always pick physical play outside in the fresh air over thumb wrestling with a game controller in dark and dusty basements.

The book is an easy read – it’s just  a series of short essays – even the print is larger than normal.

What I did take away from this book is that we should all turn off the tv or the xbox and take the time to share our stories with each other and maybe even go so far as to write them down.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz…….


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

The Four Agreements is not a new book. In fact, it debuted 15 years ago and has been on the New York Times Bestsellers List for over 7 years. The author is celebrating the book’s fifteen-year anniversary by publishing an illustrated version. And it is lovely.

This book would be a wonderful gift for anyone on your gift list this season. The pages are beautifully illustrated and even their colors are soothing. The message of the book is timeless. Don Miguel Ruiz encourages us to make four agreements with ourselves so that we can each find peace and live joyfully. He calls his book “a practical guide to personal freedom.”

The book is based on the teachings of the ancient Toltecs of southern Mexico who were known as the women and men of knowledge. The lessons in the book are actually quite simple and as I read the words, I kept thinking, “well, yes, that makes perfect sense. I should start doing that. right. now.”

The author reminds us of fundamental truths that can change our perspective and increase our satisfaction with our lives. Perspective is everything. He encourages us to stay away from gossip, which he poetically calls poison, and not to worry so much about what others think of us. He reminds us that very often what people think of us is truly just a reflection of how they view themselves.

Don Miguel Ruiz spells out the agreements right on the inside of the cover of the book – so I don’t think I am revealing a secret when I share them with you. They are:

  1. Be Impeccable with Your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always Do Your Best (and here he reminds us that our best is different under different circumstances – he in not encouraging perfection, just sincere effort)

The gentle ideas in the book are so basic but are also easy to slip away from.

Honestly, there were a few places in the book where I felt like I was reading in circles. But I think that is because the ideas are so important and simple that the author wanted to stretch them out for emphasis. I will absolutely re-read this book periodically to remind myself to keep things in perspective and to not take things personally. And, seriously, this book would make a fantastic gift.

Love from the Other Side by Carol Shimp……….


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

In Love from the Other Side, Carol Shimp delves deep into her own experience with the spiritual and paranormal worlds.

Carol knew from an early age that she had a connection to the spirit world but did not feel like she could discuss that connection with anyone. When her mother died, she decided it was time to find out more about her special link to those who had passed on from their physical existence on this earth.

Her own confidence in her abilities was ultimately tested one day while she was shopping with her daughter. That is when Carol first ran into the spirit of her former fiance/high school boyfriend. He becomes an almost ever-present and quite disturbing part of her life. In order to find out what he wants and how to help him “move to the light”, Carol visits with a spiritual guru. Together they work to uncover what “Danny” wants and needs from Carol.

Honestly, this book will not be for everyone. Readers must come to it with an open mind. It is an interesting story and I was curious to find out how it all came together. But readers wary of all things spiritual will likely find their limits tested when it comes to what they are willing to believe as real. I have no doubt that this book is an honest portrayal of what Carol experienced. But Carol’s encounters are surprising, especially when “Danny” visits Carol while she is sleeping in bed with her husband.

Love from the Other Side is Carol’s first book and the writing is simplistic so it is a quick read. If you want to find out more about her story, you can visit her website.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness…….


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

A Discovery of Witches is a tale of “witch meets vampire” and then, “witch falls in love with vampire” – while almost everyone in the entire other-world (non-human world) tries to stop them from being together.

There are vampires and witches and daemons, oh my.

Diana (the witch) is a historian (specializing in alchemy) who is conducting research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. She stumbles upon an ancient manuscript that is thought to hold many secrets about the beginnings and histories of all of the non-human characters in the book. She herself has avoided magic her entire life. So, while she knows that something mystical happens when she is able to unlock the book and read its pages, she is not fully aware of the significance of the text that sits open before her and simply returns the book to the library shelves when she is finished with it.

Matthew Clairmont (the vampire) has been drawn to the Oxford library because he has heard the fantastic tale of a witch who uses no magic in her daily life yet has the power to summon the lost book called Ashmole 782. Matthew has lived among and studied with the best – Darwin, Guggenheim, and the likes who have defined history. He has turned his focus to studying DNA, particularly in wolves, and in the lineage of all creatures. Matthew fears that vampires might be dying out and hopes to find answers in the crackling pages of Ashmole 782.

Together Matthew and Diana literally take on the world in search of missing pages and answers.

The book kept my attention for all of its nearly 600 pages. But it was clearly written as the first of a series, leaving many, many questions unanswered. I much prefer it when a book stands more on its own and additional tales supplement (rather than rely on) the initial story.

The story held some pieces that just did not make sense to me. The title for example – A Discovery of Witches – the story is not simply about the discovery of witches – but vampires and daemons as well. Hmpf. Additionally, these creatures exist among humans who are suspicious of them but aren’t really supposed to know they exist. Yet, there a few scenes in which humans are clearly aware that these vampires, witches, and daemons are not human. But that’s it. We just know that they know and move on to the next scene. Maybe those (and other) gaps will tighten later in the triology.

The writing was solid but it was riddled with cliches and repeated words/descriptions (especially of smells and clothing). That was distracting to me. I do think it would be hard to write about magic. As an author, you would have to create realistic, believable reasons why magic could not just instantly solve any problem. I thought that obstacles in this book were too easily overcome even without the aid of magic. At one point, Diana is captured and Matthew comes to her rescue. He is able to scoop her away without so much as a challenge.

Toward the end of the story, Diana and Matthew go to visit Diana’s aunts in their enchanted house. The house is a lot of fun and the creativity the author summoned to create and describe the house is really good. It is a clever house and would be so fun to live in.

Overall I liked A Discovery of Witches well enough but probably won’t continue on with the series.

My Ruby Slippers, The Road Back to Kansas by Tracy Seely……..


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley is a wonderful story about how “place” defines us. Tracy had lived in 7 different towns and 13 different houses by the time she was nine years old. Finally, she adopted California as her home and grew tired of the “Wizard of Oz” references whenever she mentioned where she had grown up.“There’s no place like home? Are you kidding? Nearly everyone I meet here has escaped Kansas or somewhere like it, and no one dreams of going home. Who would give up her sparkling ruby dancing shoes for a farm house in the middle of a desiccated nowhere?”

And not unlike Dorothy, a tornado (but this time of an emotional sort) drew Tracy back to explore the places that she temporarily called home. After her parents died two weeks apart from each other, Tracy found a list of addresses barely secured with aged tape inside of her baby book and ultimately decided to find out about where she really came from. She says, “Now I’d lost my chance to ask my parents for more. But in their dying, I’d also gained the freedom from being their child. I could map our emotional landscapes to the places we had lived, free of their watchful and wary eyes.”

A lot of things happen to the author that aren’t so fabulous but she is never whiny and does not seem angry (although I am sure that was a hard fought settling in of acceptance). I love the conversational, reflective tone of the story. It really is about discovery that slowly reveals itself and, just as slowly, is digested. As I read this book, I felt like I could have been sitting next to the author on a long flight, getting to know her. At times, it was as if she was talking about someone else, simply sharing insights and  memories and allowing those listening to draw conclusions for themselves. Tracy’s own story delicately unfolds amid the history of many of the places she visited. History buffs will be particularly drawn in to these parts of the book.

Toward the beginning of her story, Tracy takes a class on meditation. She learned to practice focused, deliberate breathing. That is how reading her story feels – deep breath in…..exhale….. deep breath in again.

Tracy shares a lot with the reader about what it meant to be a part of her family on a very personal level. She allows the reader to like and dislike both of her parents. Her father was a selfish man who inflicted a lot of emotional pain on the pivotal women in his life, assuming  that their forgiveness was automatic, even when it wasn’t earned or asked for. Her mother was forgiving to a fault. Tracy’s father wrote down his own mini-memoir in letters to his own brother before he died. In his final act of  abandonment and betrayal, Tracy was not included in the story.

There are some sub-stories that she dangles but does not explore very deeply. We don’t learn much about her own children and I never fully understood why her sister wanted to commit suicide. She does not delve too far into her own experience with breast cancer. At one point, she mentions that she has a slant towards ghosts but never expands on that.

Maybe more books are coming – and that would be a very good thing. I would love to hear about the other parts of her life.

All in all, though, this is a story worth reading. Tracy magically captured how places grow along with the people who absorb them and why that matters. She writes, “It’s about inhabiting every place, fully knowing why the land is there and what it teaches. Living in ways that sustain the ecology of our place. And that includes the people.”

Little Bee by Chris Cleave………..


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story. This is particularly true with Little Bee. The publishers of this book have decided not to put any kind of summary on the book’s jacket. So, if you haven’t read the book Little Bee and want to be surprised by even what it is about, you might want to wait to read what is written here until you are done.)

If you are a lover of words, this book is for you! Chris Cleave must use a magic wand as a pencil. Periods serve not just as a end to a sentence, but as a chance for the reader to stop, take a breath, and reread the words before it.

One of my favorites passages is when Little Bee says:

” On the girl’s brown legs there were many white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I have survived.”

This is so wonderful on many levels. First of all, nearly everyone in the book has a secret, a scar. And with this, Little Bee brings the reader into the secrecy as well. With this, we are a part of it. Come in, dear reader, let me whisper in your ear too. This paragraph also tells you, without question, that Little Bee is a survivor. “A scar does not form on the dying.” She is proud to have survived.

My other favorite aspect of Little Bee’s character is that she is forever trying to figure out how she would kill herself if the need arose. Often with humor, she will assess a situation and how best to get out of it. The themes in the book are heavy and the author did a wonderful job of letting us laugh a little in between the intensity.

Little Bee is a fabulous story about a young girl who ends up, through no fault of her own, in a detention center for illegal immigrants in England. She spends two years there and the story begins with her release, then returns to outline how/why she was sent there. It is a story about escaping only to be captured and about how being captured might not be the worst case scenario.

It is a story of secrets and about the decisions we make in the moment. And then how we must live with those decisions. It is a test of character that some fail, some pass, and some are just too practical to take.

The book starts off really strong and I could hardly put it down. The “why” of the story takes a while to unfold – almost a little too long. But the momentum carries you through and holds your attention. After you find out why, the story slows down. At first, I thought it lost some steam. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that the story simple settled as the characters settled and the ending just faded into reality. The realization sinks in that the characters cannot control every twist in their lives, they must just live through them.

I highly recommend this book!

Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent……….


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read this book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I wanted to like this book. No, I wanted to love this book.

I wanted to leave the story believing that angels are watching and that Jesus is waiting at the right hand of the Father. And I wanted know for sure that I will see my grandfather again. And maybe even a few cats and a goldfish named Freddie.

But, really, Heaven is for Real is just okay. The good news is that it is a super fast read. The writing is very simplistic which is probably intentional since it is the story of a small boy. But it is meant as a book for adults to read, so its simplicity is unfortunate.

Heaven is for Real is about a little boy who visits Heaven while having emergency surgery for acute appendicitis. The story is told by Todd Burpo, the boy’s father who is a minister and had recently experienced several significant medical setbacks of his own. The little boy’s name is Colton. He seems charming and, according to the story, he is convinced without a doubt that he has been to Heaven and met Jesus.

I have not read a lot of “afterlife” stories and I guess, to be fair, I am reluctant to believe them. But this story did not sell it for me.

Some of the details just seemed to not make a ton of sense. For example, Colton tells his parents that Jesus was wearing a purple sash and that he rode a unicorn. Those details did not lead me to an ah-ha moment but a hmmm moment.

Todd follows behind many of the descriptions from Colton and explains how they make sense according to the Bible and his own faith.  Todd defending every memory made it feel like a debate. Even before the reader has a chance to form an opinion on a memory, Todd is right there anticipating. It was as if he was saying, “Oh, you’re not sure that could be true, let me tell you why it might be or could be or simply is.” I would have preferred to have been left to decipher the details on my own. To be allowed to form my own opinions.  Maybe that would have encouraged the magic behind the experience to seep into the story and would have allowed me to connect with it on a more personal level. After all, if you have faith, you don’t need to necessarily understand everything.

Colton’s descriptions unfold over a significant period of time. His parents wanted to be careful not to guide his memories (which is good) so they were reluctant to probe too deeply. However, I would think a young child from a religious family would be brimming over with excitement to share every single detail of his story. Immediately. And continuously.

In my own mind, I wonder why God would allow someone to visit Heaven and return to earth if they weren’t meant to share and share and share. To testify that Heaven is, in fact, for Real.

Todd also states that Colton was never officially dead. Thank God, right. But I am not sure how that plays in to the authentic “afterlife” experience. If actually dying is critical to that experience than “hmmmm” again.

There are certainly some happenings in the book that are more convincing. After the surgery, Colton told Todd that he saw his father in a room praying while Colton was having surgery and that his mother had been on the phone, although no one had told him where his parents were during that time. Colton claims to have “seen” them. It’s hard to explain that away.

Anywho, it is a simplistic story that is easy enough to read. I think it has more entertainment value than spiritual awakening potential. The story could have been better if we heard more from Colton’s mom. As a mother, I would have liked to have heard the mother’s voice in the telling of the story.

Now that I am surely damned to hell, I am off to read Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova…………


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about a story not yet explored – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I truly enjoyed this book, even though it dealt with a difficult topic. Lisa Genova shares the fictional tale of Alice – a Harvard professor/researcher and wife/mother of three adult children – who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s just after turning 50.

The author put soft edges around her story so that we could learn about the disease and its impact without resistance and from a safe distance. And although there were times when I was sad and there were characters who impressed me less than others, I also chuckled throughout the story. Alice’s story starts off with unremarkable little events that could happen to any of us of the aging persuasion. Her story turns when she can no longer embrace those silly little annoyances as normal.

The book is about Alzheimer’s for sure and Lisa Genova is well versed in that field. But the book is about relationships as well – parents and children – husbands and wives – and friends with deep connections. The story teaches us that just because someone loves us dearly doesn’t mean that they can suffer by our side graciously at every turn. And that disagreements don’t mean that love isn’t profound and forgiving and genuine. And that new friends with a common thread can become a lifeline.

Luckily, there is very often time to find a new connection with someone that we have forced away with too much emotional tangling. We sometimes let conflicts rule our relationship because of differences that we focus too hard on. However, it is possible to find a  new way to celebrate a friendship or a family member – or to embrace a new person in our lives. But that time can be fleeting and it is always precious – whether Alzheimer’s overshadows the clock or not.

Alzheimer’s is certainly challenging for the patient but the family experiences every memory loss, every misstep just as deeply as they have been cut by the disease themselves. The author did a nice job of showing the challenges that come with Alzheimer’s from a number of vantage points. And how difficult it is when life changes so dramatically for one person in a family but flows into the future less interrupted for the rest of its members.

The message of the book is that people suffering from Alzheimer’s are not completely lost – they simply cannot find their map – or at least they don’t know how to use it – but they might very well understand that there is a map and they may know exactly where they want to be on it and with whom. Lisa Genova did an excellent job of sharing how it might have been for a real life Alice to sit in the room and not recognize faces or stories for large portions of conversations – even when those exact conversations centered around her and what would/could happen to her. How pronouns move too frequently and quickly in conversation and it can quickly become impossible to keep track of who is doing what. How her most beloveds would discuss her as if she was invisible. And how that slow realization could creep in that all the fuss was, in reality, about her – but she often realized that nugget too late for her to participate in the dialogue and ultimate decision-making.

We see that loved ones can take advantage of illnesses too. Alice’s husband makes a very tough decision at the end of the story and claims that she simply doesn’t remember participating in the discussions leading up to the final outcome. But Alice was still savvy enough to understand how convenient it was that he claimed that they had talked about everything – then he told her she simply didn’t remember. What would all allow ourselves to do if we knew that ultimately our actions would not be remembered? How closely would we align ourselves with someone who would soon appear to not know us – even if we had spent a lifetime building life together? What responsibilities would we neglect even if we know others are paying attention and can remember the nuances?

All in all, it was a safe look into a world that is largely not understood. The characters dance together in a lovely way and weave a story that you’ll be glad you shared with them.

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen……


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I was quite excited to find a copy of this book on the library’s “new release” shelf. You can only check it out for 14 days – no renewals. There was something energizing about having it in my hands. Yeah me.

Not to mention that Anna Quindlen is the author of five best selling novels – five. And she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her New York Times column. She is what we call accomplished.

And the writing in this book is good. The conversational pace makes it easy to read and the storyline makes it hard to put down. However, the entire tone of the book is sad and heavy. There are times when it is hard to breathe through the words. Even as the main character – Mary Beth – unfolds the story of her life, the tone is melancholy. Even as she tells about her family and their successes, the air is thick. Mary Beth’s family also faces some serious struggles – eating disorders, depression, and controlling boyfriends.

It seemed that her family’s successes and struggles carried the same weight and, really, were equally burdensome. Mary Beth could not seem to bask in good fortune or happiness. Every observance seemed to earn (or better, to be denied) the same level of  attention – a barely-just-scratched-the-surface level of attention. Mary Beth’s daughter stops eating for a while and loses a significant amount of weight. Mary Beth never really discloses how they discovered, dealt with, and recovered from that.

Mary Beth watches her children a lot from a distance and even says at one point that all the parents know their kids are drinking and having sex but they mostly  choose to look the other way. That was fascinating to hear and consider from her vantage point – especially because I have a teenager and two preteens. It really made me wonder what, as a parent, I will allow myself to ignore and what the consequences from that embraced ignorance will be. We learn toward the end of the story that Mary Beth carries with her quite a bit of guilt which allowed her to be inactive in many ways. In ways that cost her dearly.

The climax of this story is horrific and, I thought, unexpected. I am not sure that I would recommend reading this book because of just how awful the events in the story become. I was unbelievably sad from the climax until the end of the book with many of my own tears soiling the pages in between.

However, the storyline does make you think about the choices that you make and don’t make. About how decisions (and non-decisions) can guide us to a different future. Conversely, the story also gives us the opportunity to consider whether mental illness simply takes its own hold regardless of the circumstances. It allows us to believe that sometimes we just have no control over misfortune. Even so, toward the end of the story, Mary Beth allows herself to examine whether or not her decisions caused some of the events in the story to take place. But that is an extremely painful process and, once again, she barely scratches the surface of self evaluation.

This book also made me think about how I view my own life and family. Am I always adequately grateful for the blessings in my life? Probably not as much as I should be. And in that vein, it was worth every word and tear.

Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown………..


Imagine taking your deepest darkest secret that is tangled and seeping with fear and embarrassment  and criticism and compassion and misunderstanding and writing a book about it. Then put your name and your picture on the cover for all the world to see.

That is what Harriet Brown did in Brave Girl Eating. Her daughter “Kitty” is a smart, talented, successful young lady and a competitive gymnast who falls deep into the chasm of anorexia around the age of 14. Harriet chronicles their journey and sprinkles in a lot of scientific data (that can get a little thick if you are thankfully not looking for answers – but the statistics are absolutely gut-wrenching).

It’s a memoir but it also serves as a reminder to keep a watchful eye on our children and to not ignore the warning signs that are very easily shrugged off – not just for anorexia, but for everything.

Harriet’s approach to tackling the demon that is anorexia took her off the traditional treatment map where families are generally blamed in large part for the disease. Harriet understood that by the time families seek therapy, they are a mess, they are struggling, and they are scared. They also often feel like the are out of options and are quickly running out of time. It is at this point that most girls are removed from their families and sent away to residential treatment centers.

However, Harriet researched and then embraced Family Based Therapy (FBT) which kept her daughter at home with her and her husband. She fought with her daughter over nearly every morsel she ate, she lost her patience, she feared (probably fears) for her daughter’s life, she counted every single calorie, she cried, and she kept going. She didn’t always know what to do but she always did something.

All the while, Harriet has her own battles – as every parent in America does – she suffered panic attacks and was herself 30 pounds overweight. She struggled that Kitty struggled with not becoming her. That’s tough.

Her story dabbles in how Kitty’s anorexia affects the rest of the family but it does not focus on it. Kitty’s story consumes them all in different ways but does not afford them much opportunity to focus on anything else. The story reflects that.

Harriet talks about how anorexia immediately changes what you find acceptable – how it shatters your confidence in what you believe you know. Every fight with Kitty was about deciding what to give in on and what to stand firm on. She details realizing that there was the Kitty that she knew and loved and the Not Kitty who was a fighter and manipulative and scary in many ways – but also desperate and strong and not willing to go away easily.

Harriet explains the devastating impact of malnutrition not only on the body but also on the brain’s ability to reason. She chronicles how hard it was to feed Kitty enough so that she could gain weight – toward the end of the book, Kitty was eating nearly 4,000 calories a day and still not gaining weight. Because not only did Kitty not want to eat, she was growing taller – which constantly changed her target weight. And anorexia completely changed Kitty’s metabolism so that she needed so many more calories than the average teenaged girl – yet she remained under her target weight. As Harriet says, they were chasing a moving target and never really got close enough to touch it.

There were two things that stuck with me the most throughout the story. One was when Harriet tells of Kitty smelling sour because her body was digesting itself. That brought me to my knees. It was devastating to comprehend all of the realizations of just how deep in trouble Kitty really was that must of come with that.

The other was when Harriet ran into another mother at the grocery store who asked her how Kitty was doing. She had heard Kitty was sick. She hoped she was doing well. Oh, and by the way, she could have told Harriet that Kitty was sick. Harriet was furious – she really wanted to know why this friend hadn’t said anything.

That’s easy, right? We all know the answer to that. We all hold back our concerns when the stakes are the highest. Because we don’t want to overstep our bounds or pry. We are afraid to meddle. What if we are wrong? But I guess we need to start asking, what if we are right? We probably all know of a child who is in trouble or on the verge of trouble and we step back. We assume the parents know. And of course there is a danger in upsetting the parents. But there are dangers that are far graver than that.

This entire story was fascinating to me. I know with two daughters and a son, there will be a point when we are exposed in some way to eating disorders – whether it be through friends or girlfriends or (hopefully not) our own children. Even with my adult  friends and family – the potential exists. I pray that we never see anorexia’s ugly face up close in personal in our children’s lives but there is a good chance we will. This book gave me a chance to learn about it in a non-urgent way.

The book is not a “why me” story. It is filled with action and reaction but it is never a sob story in the sense of asking for pitying. It seems to really scream – you don’t want this to happen to you, but it if does, maybe this will help.

Harriet was careful not to share real numbers from Kitty’s experience because she feared that young women would use the book as a model, a how to guide. That was also one of Harriet’s biggest reasons for resisting entering Kitty into a residential program. She was afraid of Kitty learning too much from the experts – not the therapists – the patients.

All in all, it was well worth reading. If you have a child or a mother or a sister or even a friend, consider investing some time in this story.

Fall for the Book……….


A neighbor just told me yesterday that this week is 2010 – Fall for the Book week at George Mason University. So if you are anywhere near Northern Virginia, check out the schedule here. The dates are Sept. 19 – 24.

I went to one of the sessions today on blogging and ebook publishing. It was interesting to hear what people who are getting paid to write are doing right. All of the authors on the panel were science fiction/fantasy writers – so not exactly my genre – but I learned about some great resources and was inspired to stop resting on my unlaurels.

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan…..


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

A friend gave me this book to read because I am also in the Middle Place – as are so many of my friends – that place where you are still someone’s child and yet someone’s parent. Other people have said that this book is about Kelly’s journey with cancer. I am not so sure about that. She certainly talks about her discovery, diagnosis, and treatment but the focus of this book seems to be more about her role as daughter. Her father’s daughter.

Nearly everything in the book rolls back to a connection with her dad. Which in many ways is lovely. I have a rock star dad and never want to lose my identity as his daughter. However, I was surprised that when her father was diagnosed with cancer she quit, for the most part, telling her own story of her own battle with her own cancer and adopted his. We hear about his doctor’s visits and his pain and his ability to fight his battle. And, oh by the way, Kelly seems to be doing fine – she becomes a subplot. She tosses aside the role of protagonist in her own story. There is even a point in the book where she is discussing treatment options for her father with her own doctor right before surgery. Her husband does point out that this is actually her surgery not her dad’s. No kidding.

Her father is surely a larger-than-life character with charm and charisma and he very obviously had a tremendous impact on how Kelly sees the world and rotates in it. He gives her strength that she cannot fully explain and love that she knows will never be taken away. He gives her the gift that I hope I am giving my children – acceptance.

There are several flashbacks in the book that don’t seem to relate to the thread of her life with cancer or to her life as a child and a parent. But they are snapshots of her life as a daughter. Certainly her experiences with her dad shaped the way she handles her own cancer but we miss some of the stories of the impact cancer must have had on her life and her family’s life. And, to be fair, part of that might be Kelly’s practical approach to “it is what it is”. She doesn’t seem to wallow in self pity or really even ask why cancer happened to her. She seems to just do what it takes to move forward – sometimes with a beer in hand.

She talks about her role as a mother and a wife and the role of being the daughter of a mother – which is, funny enough, different from being the daughter of a father.

Kelly has a sense of humor and does not take herself too seriously. Gotta love that. She is an optimist for sure. When she finds out she has cancer, she sends out an invitation to a party a year in the future that will be celebration of all that is behind them. And she is not afraid to admit her mistakes.

Best of all, Kelly has a wonderful way of saying things. When talking about gaining weight, she simply says, “before college added things to my body that laziness has created a permanent home for.” Now that does sound more poetic than “I am fatter than I used to be” or “wow, my jeans just must have shrunk in the dryer”. So her voice is engaging and entertaining.

All in all it was a good book. I finished it in 2 days which means it is a super easy read because I am not a fast reader at all. There were funny parts and sad parts. I am not sure she shared all the raw emotions that she felt – and maybe that made it easier to read because it was never gut-wrenchingly sad.

I am not sure Middle Place was the best title. Maybe “My Father’s Daughter” would have been better.

Maybe she didn’t focus as much on her role as a wife and a mother because there wasn’t the same urgency there. Her children and her husband were healthy and available and by her side. Her mother and her brothers seemed predictable and present – but please don’t read that as boring.

Her father battled cancer once before when Kelly was younger and living out of the country. Her family kept the news from her so that she wouldn’t end her adventure early. Maybe she wanted to reclaim possession of her presence in his life and treatment this time. Her father was battling for his life at the same time Kelly was and that must have been a scary place, whether it was in the middle or not.

And I guess everyone, every where is in some sort of Middle Place. We are all trying to figure out where we fit in the world and it’s often between opposites – student or teacher, parent or child, patient or caregiver, success or failure – and why can’t we simply be all of them at once? Why do we ever have to choose?

Up Next – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eudenides


I started this book a while ago and never finished it. I cannot remember why. But I do remember how much I loved the language of it – some of the passages were simply magically written. Plus, the author is a Pulitzer Prize winner. That can’t be all bad, right? Well, we are about to find out.

(and the picture of the cover is from Amazon)

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga…….


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

Written from the perspective of a driver in India, this book made me look at things a little differently – which is good. I happen to be an American living in India right now and I happen to have a driver. Most days I am thrilled to be so fortunate – but there are days when it seems bothersome. This book was a good reminder that my driver surely feels the same way.

The author reveals the ending of the story in the beginning – that Balram murders his boss. This did capture my attention and make me want to find out why. Which may have been the main reason I got through the first 5o or so pages. It started off slow and did not pull me in right away. I was glad I finished it though.

I am still trying to make a clear connection to the title of the book with the storyline – I am sure there is somewhere in the book that this is spelled out and I simply missed it. My best guess is that white tigers are rare and strong and that the main character of this book seems to be someone who is uniquely strong enough to survive in India. And not just survive – but succeed. And like the white tiger – there are those who would like to capture him. Throughout the book, Balram sees wanted posters with his pictures on it. He seems to enjoy hiding in plain sight and taking chances in his own little game of cat and mouse.

Balram Halwai is the main character and the book is basically his letter to the His Excellency Wen Jiabao the Premier of China who is planning to visit India.

In his introduction, Balram explains that even though neither man speaks English, this letter must be written in English because that is the only language in which it can all be explained. This is an interesting paradox in India. It is said to be an “English-speaking” country and in many ways it is. But often things do get lost in translation making for muddled and frustrating communication.

I was never clear on why Balram was writing this letter. Mr. Jiabao was planning a visit to India and Balram claims he wants to share with him the real India. But Balram was a calculated man who really only took action that would result in his own personal gain. So, I found the premise of the book a little weak.

Beyond that though, it was fascinating to “hear” what a driver might think of the people he works for. I think that those of us with drivers forget that the drivers have opinions too. The drivers in this book were mistreated and laughed at and disrespected in many ways. I don’t know how common that really is but we certainly forget that they might not always like us and the things we ask them to do. That they might laugh at our jokes but that sometimes might only be because they believe (or fear) their laughter is tied to keeping their job.

There was also nice insight in the book into the hierarchy of staff in India.

Balram really is not that likeable of a character. He does not send money to help his family back in the village. He is certainly selfish and cocky  and clever. And yet, he is someone you can sympathize with.

Balram’s predicament is one you often see in India. People with lots of smarts do not really have the opportunity to nurture their abilities and are often tempted to use their smarts in clever ways just to survive. And unfortunately, that means sometimes breaking the law.

Balram writes the book at night by the light of a flickering bulb. That is a little how this book felt when I was reading it. Like we were sneaking a peek at the other side of life in small little flashes – and sometimes it is better to see reality in flickers rather than all at once.

In the Meantime………A funny thing happened on the way to the future…..


I am getting together my thoughts on the White Tiger and they will be coming soon to a post new you. But in the meantime, I read a Readers Digest article on Micheal J. Fox’s new book – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned.

First let me say that I love, love, love Readers Digest. It is a great way to get some reading in without committing to hundreds of pages. I always learn something and I always laugh. If I let myself read the survivor stories, I always cry too.

The May 2010 issue featured an article written by Amy Wallace on Michael J. Fox’s new book. If you grew up in the 80s, you will surely remember him mostly for his absolute pain-in-the-smartarse-that-you-cannot-help-but-love tv personality of Alex on Family Ties. He is also very well known for his role as Marty McFly in Back to the Future.

He was diagnosed with Parkinsons in 1991 and somewhat disappeared from the stage for a while. It seems like he is back full force participating in life and lucky for us that he is. I am crazy about the title of this book – since it captures so much of who he has appeared to us to be – and I cannot wait to read it.

It’s ironic that he is remembered most for his past roles because, in the article, he claims proudly that his recipe for happiness is to live in the moment and leave the past behind.

He is quoted with quite a few tidbits of life philosophy that will be good for all of us to remember:

Key to Marriage – give each other a break.

Parenting Advice – always be available to your kids.

Just in General – “Don’t waste time imagining the worst case scenario. It rarely goes down like you think it will and if by some fluke it does, you will have lived it twice.”

I am off to the book store Amazon.com ………….

Up Next – The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga


This is a book of fiction told from the perspective of a driver in India. It should present interesting contrasts and similarities to The Help. I would say this book is popular in India but that is not quite correct. It is well known for sure, but not everyone who reads it is amused by the tale and the possibilities it presents.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett………..


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I come to write this blog post just after reading the riot act to my own house staff. Right now, my family of five lives in India and we have the good fortune of having a driver, a cook, a house cleaner, a guard, and a laundress. But all of that “help” comes with some (major) unhelpfulness too. You find yourself trying to decide what is acceptable within your own house and what exactly you are responsible for in the lives of those who work for you. You have be very careful to be sure you are the one establishing the rules while maintaining compassion and understanding.

So, I would say that I read The Help from a different angle than most Americans would. I also grew up in the South (at least for the most part). So I totally “got” this book. It is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s. The main character is a recent graduate from Ole Miss and she returns home to find that life is pretty much as she left it. Her name is Skeeter.

One of the early conflicts in the story is that one of Skeeter’s friends has decided to make it her personal campaign that no maids should be allowed to use the bathroom facilities within the houses where they work. As a result of her friend’s campaign, another friend named Mrs. Leefolt decides to press her husband to build a maid’s bathroom in the garage – even though they cannot really afford it. She does not want her daughter using the same bathroom as her maid for “sanitary” reasons. Ironically, it is the maid’s bathroom that her daughter prefers and it is where her daughter learns to properly use the toilet.

Your initial reaction to this is probably very similar to mine – “that is absolutely ridiculous”. But then it didn’t take me long to put two and two together and remember the fact that my staff does not use the bathroom in our house either. Hmmmmm. Oh uh. Now the ugly is staring me right in the face.

I had to do a little self evaluation there – slightly painful – but necessary. (And that is what a great story should do – make you think a little.) So, ouch. But, it is a little different for me (did I just write that out loud ;-) ). Four of the five people who work for us are men and I have two younger daughters. We do have two proper bathrooms in the back of the house (in the staff quarters) that they are welcome to use any time. But dang it, as liberal minded as I like to think I am – my staff does not use the bathroom in our house and that is not likely to change anytime soon. It’s true – when you point your finger at someone – you get three staring right back attacha. Dang it.

But this isn’t about my life in India (I actually have a blog for that already A Reason To Write) – it is a book review so I should add here that I loved the story. It was surprising to learn that this is Kathryn Stockett’s first book. I felt completely connected to the characters. I wanted to know what would happen in their lives. I understood why they made the decisions that they made – even when I did not agree with them. I laughed and sympathized and stomped my foot. The book totally grabbed me and held me close. My friend Nancy summed it up nicely when she said, “I am going to miss those girls” after putting the book down for the last time.

A lot of discussions that I have had about this book focus on who is the best character. Honestly, they all bring something to the table. There is Skeeter whose mother desperately wants her to get married and to have straight hair. Skeeter desperately wants to live her own life and to just be accepted by her mother for who she is. Skeeter shakes things up quite a bit in the book and, with the help of Aibileen, brings a big dose of justice to the entire story. There is also Mrs. Hilly who is just a text book Southern belle snot. And Minny who takes no prisoners but really does have a soft spot in her heart.

Another major player is Constantine. She was Skeeter’s family maid who disappeared right before Skeeter returned home from college. Nobody was giving up any details, especially Skeeter’s mom, about where she went and why she left. Part of Skeeter’s growth through the novel comes from the slow revelation of where Constantine really went and why. The reality of what happened in many ways shaped Skeeter’s relationship with her own mother more than Skeeter’s own relationship with her mother did.

Mae Mobley is Mrs. Leefolt’s daughter. She is the apple of her maid’s eye. The relationship between Mae Mobley and Aibileen is fascinating and I would love to see a sequel to this book on Mae Mobley as an adult. She receives much more love and compassion from her maid than from her own mother. How that would manifest itself in Mae Mobley’s adult life would surely make for more good reading.

But my favorite of all is Celia. She married up and no one can understand how she managed to do it. She is so desperate to be perfect that she fails miserably at it – partly because she simply doesn’t even know what to do and partly because absolutely no one will give her a chance. She finally gets to attend the “party of all parties” as she sees it and ends up wearing a horrid dress and drinking so much she throws up. I think I enjoyed her character the most because she is the one who shows a real connection between the help and the family. Her maid is Minny – who is a mess in her own right. She just couldn’t manage to keep her sassy mouth shut. That sass of hers got her fired and kept her from getting another job – except with Celia – who didn’t rank high enough to get the full details on Celia.

Anyway, Celia is an outcast and her lifeline becomes Minny on several levels. She ends up saving her in a number of ways but then literally saves her life. They balance each other out so nicely. And they actually care about each other. Celia is caught between desperately wanting to fit in but feeling more comfortable with her staff. The relationships are sad and fascinating and mostly sincere.

This book is also about the roles women play in general as wives, mothers, friends, bosses, etc. They are universal roles no matter the generation or the date or the setting.  The role of the mother is the same no matter what your upbringing and a mother who loses a child feels that loss deeply no matter how big her wallet is. The characters in this book are full of life, love, trust, mistrust, and they are all looking for a purpose.

It is fantastic read and Nancy is right – you will miss these girls when you are done. Enjoy!

The great news is that if you are in DC you can meet Kathryn here:

Tuesday, September 21 – 8:00 PM
DC Area Fall for the Book Festival
Reston Center Stage Theater
2310 Colts Neck Road
Reston, VA 20191

the Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton


(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

Hmmmmmm. I didn’t think this book was fantastic. It felt very disconnected.

I will say that it is an easy and quick read. But unfortunately, you don’t really get to know the characters well enough to believe them completely. And the flashbacks just don’t retrace themselves back to the main story line. It’s too much of a little bit here and a little bit there without enough of a purpose to the side stories. I actually think it would have made more sense if the book had been written in chronological order.

Henry Dampier is a young Bible Salesman. He orders free Bibles from charitable groups all over and cuts out the “free copy” page so that he can sell them door-to-door. My favorite part of the book happens in the very beginning of the story when Henry calls on a house to sell Bibles. He finds the woman of the house very upset because her cat has died very unexpectedly. She knows he is under the steps and is not moving – but she cannot bear the thought of looking at him. She is just hoping he died peacefully. He did not. Henry finds and then buries the cat for her – and tries very diligently to hide the true cause of the cat’s death from its owner to protect her from becoming too upset – and then he ends up giving her a free Bible.

This sheds a lot of light into Henry’s character. He truly wants to protect the woman simply to protect her – not for any gain on his part.  Unfortunately though, Henry never seems to evaluate his own character and his own potential flaws. We learn more about Henry through this interaction with a dead cat than we learn about him from any of his dealings with the humans in the story. Henry really feels more like a bystander in the story rather than a participant – he is watching what is happening to him rather than directing what is happening. And sure, we all know people like that, but I personally think a protagonist should be a little more active in his own life.

Throughout the novel, Henry has grappled with the many contradictions in the Bible. He was conflicted about how all of it could be true – but he seemed to believe it must be true because it is simply the word of God. There was the real opportunity to draw parallels between the contradiction in Henry’s own life and the conflicting truths of the Bible. But the author just didn’t take it far enough to link the two ideas.

In the beginning of the story, Henry thinks a lot about the Bible – then he loses sight of his interest in understanding it all. Or he brushes off any decisions he makes that might not be right by simply believing the Bible has conflict – so his life has conflicts. He does not try to resolve any of it. It might be that he is distracted by his new adventure as an “FBI agent”  and his new girlfriend but the book really just feels like some paragraphs are missing.

Along his journey, Henry meets Preston Clearwater who is involved in a car theft ring – Preston, however, tells Henry that he is working with the FBI on top secret cases and needs Henry’s help. Henry jumps right in to help his country out but is hesitant to give up his Bible Salesman job. Selling Bibles allows him to meet and continue to see Marleen – the very sudden love of his life – but it does not jive with his new gig as an FBI agent supposedly working undercover. This leaves a big hole in the story. It doesn’t fit that a man sneaking in and out of towns with less than honorable intentions would allow his new fledgling partner to be seen out and about, especially when murder was involved.

Henry comes from a very small town and was brought up simply. So it is not entirely unrealistic that he would be gullible to a fast talking man who appears to know about the world. He was used to just believing what other people told him was true. But still – at some point things don’t add up. Henry misses the big warning signs on a lot of what happened throughout his life and some of it just wasn’t that believable from a reader’s stand point.

This book is also hailed as having masterful comic timing. I missed that part too.

This book just seems to be a puzzle made out of square pieces – I think it could have been much more interesting and much more connected if the pieces of the story linked together rather than simply lying next to each other.

But what do I know? The book was/is a Bestseller and the author teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He has published eight other novels. So there.

Have you read it? What do you think?