Follow up with David A Koop…….

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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……..

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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……

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(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…….

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“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…….

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(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.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness…….

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(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……..

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(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………..

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(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……….

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(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…………

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(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.