Friday, March 30, 2012

Dancing on Broken Glass

By Ka Hancock
New York, Gallery Books, 2012
394 pages     Fiction

Dancing on Broken Glass is a family story—a family story of strength, bonding, support, and overwhelming amounts of love, caring, giving and sharing. Ostensibly it is the love story of Lucy and Mickey, two people with challenges—Lucy has a history of breast cancer in her family, and Mickey, who is seriously bipolar. But it is most definitely more than that, because much of Lucy’s family lives in the small community where they have chosen to settle down, so their love story includes many others.

The book has an interesting style format; the narrative framework, as well as Lucy’s story, is told in regular print, and Mickey’s story and psychological trials are in italics. It helps move the narrative journey along because the reader doesn’t have to second guess who is speaking. It also means that the end of the book is in italics, which makes it a bit difficult to read.

The title and the theme of the book come from a statement made by Mickey’s doctor when he says, “Lucy, every marriage is a dance; complicated at times, lovely at times, most of the time very uneventful. But with Mickey, there will be times when your dance will be on broken glass. There will be pain. And you will either flee that pain or hold tighter and dance through it to the next smooth place.” Beautifully written, don’t you think? And that is one of the ironies of this book; much of it is beautifully written.

On the other hand, Dancing on Broken Glass is a book of unremitting sorrow—so much sorrow that I could barely get through the book. Granted, I am more than a bit of a cynic, and I have experienced a lifetime of sorrow including death of a spouse, but nowhere have I experienced this much sorrow. Father dead as a young man, mother dead of cancer, a failed adoption, bipolar, and on and on and on. I know that it is supposed to be a novel of resilience and family ties, but my cynical brain was going: “Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

A lot of it hit pretty close to home for me, and it made me wonder if I was too close to the painful things the book explores. For instance, I have friends who are grieving the loss of a daughter to breast cancer; she died shortly after her baby daughter was born. I know their sorrow because they share it within the church community, and I frequently see that darling little girl who will never know her mother.

But, at the same time, when the pain and hurt just kept coming and coming, I wanted to shout, “Enough already!”  I tried to fathom what the author was thinking; I read a couple of interviews, including one in which she said that she was trying to express the ultimate commitment of marriage in a society where marriage and family are treated “casually.”  “Some may think it’s an idyllic view, but it’s so important. I believe that when you’re being your best self, when you understand yourself and really learn and understand the person you’re committed to, despite real, significant challenges, you can have something that lasts.”

One reviewer calls the book “a heartwarming journey,” but I have to say that my heart was not warmed, and I am not sure whose would be—perhaps people who like to cry their way through books. Maybe if I were younger and just starting out on the journey of my life, I would be inspired by the love of Mickey and Lucy and the odds they faced, but at this point in my life, I have perhaps seen too much and I didn’t need to be burdened by so much more sorrow. It was almost like reading the Book of Job over and over, but interestingly enough, without the accompanying religious faith.

In the end, I felt like the Kirkus reviewer said it best when she called Dancing on Broken Glass “a tidily crafted but treacly excavation of misery in the name of higher sentiments.” I had to look up the word “treacly,” which, it turns out, means cloying like molasses. That about says it all.

I received Dancing on Broken Glass from the publisher. I sincerely wanted to give it a stronger review, and I guess I would recommend it to people who are not nearly as cynical as me. On Hancock’s website she quotes a reviewer who says, “This book will break the heart of anyone who has one.” Ouch. 

The review in the Deseret News:
Ka Hancock’s website:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 17 Day Diet Cookbook

By Dr. Mike Moreno
New York, Free Press, 2012
198 pages   Cookbook

Last year, the 17 Day Diet book was published to great acclaim and climbed the charts of the best seller lists. Although I had read about it, I knew very little about the diet before I received The 17 Day Diet Cookbook from the publisher. 

The diet is based on four 17-day cycles: Accelerate; Activate; Achieve; and Arrive. The cookbook focuses on the first three cycles, accelerate, activate and achieve with a set of recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for each cycle as well as menus utilizing the recipes. Each cycle is briefly explained, so it would be difficult to follow the diet by just having the cookbook.

This is a very attractive cookbook with lots of white space, easy to follow recipes, and color plates showing a few of the recipes. The recipes feature a lot of grains, some of which I have used very infrequently. I had to search the grocery store shelves for barley. I tried four recipes in the Activate section of the cookbook. We ate from the cookbook for two evenings and then ate the leftovers for lunches. In all cases, I followed the directions exactly and didn’t vary the recipes at all.

The first evening we ate the Slow-Cooker Cuban Ropa Vieja (p. 83), which is a full-bodied pulled beef recipe made with flank steak. We both really liked this recipe, although flank steak is somewhat expensive to use for barbeque-style beef. On a positive note, however, it was delicious and the flank steak shredded nicely. Another time, I would make it with a cheaper cut of beef. We also had mushroom barley sauté (p. 92), which my husband liked because he really likes mushrooms. On the next night, I made fajitas out of the left-over flank steak and added cheese and sour cream to the meat which we ate in flour tortillas. Very good. 

Another evening we had chicken posole (p. 78) made with chicken breast, hominy, and green chilies. This stew was also good, and since I had never cooked with hominy before, it was a new taste treat. It was delicious the second day as well. I also made a brown rice biryani (p. 87) which we ate a little of with the stew, but ate it again for lunch the next day. I found the biryani to be very easy to make. It called for frozen mixed vegetables, but I think it could be made with any vegetables and would probably be healthier made with fresh vegetables in season. On the second day, my daughter called to ask me to find something to take down to the daycare for my granddaughter’s lunch. She’s 10 months old. I took the biryani for her lunch, and the child care workers told me that she loved it and ate up every bit of it. Apparently she is a big fan of Indian food and is gaining a love of sushi as well.
I am going to keep this cookbook and not pass it along like I do many of the books I receive. I know I will be making those recipes again and trying out some of the others, as well. I am always on the lookout for healthy recipes that use fresh fruit and vegetables. This cookbook fills that need.
Here is the link to the 17 Day Diet and some additional recipes:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Girl Next Door

By Brad Parks
New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2012
336 pages    Fiction

Sometimes, a reader just has to take a break and read something fun! My break from heavier reading was The Girl Next Door by Brad Parks, which is the third book by Parks about Newark Eagle-Examiner reporter, Carter Ross. I began this book not knowing about the other two in the series, Faces of the Gone and Eyes of the Innocent, so I don’t believe that it is necessary to begin this mystery series with the first book.

Carter Ross, investigative reporter, is one of the victims of the crisis in the newspaper industry. Like most reporters, his job is in jeopardy, and he is in real danger that the suspension he is under will become permanent. The real victim, however, is a newspaper delivery woman who is killed in a hit-and-run while she is delivering papers. Nancy, the victim, is also a union rep, and the newspaper is engaged in a bitter battle over the pay scale for their delivery people and other unionized employees. Carter stumbles into the story, just like he stumbles through life. He says of himself, “I was the kind of reporter who usually stayed at least ten highway exits away from prudent.”

The mystery, itself, is a bit contrived. I had the murderer figured out very early in the book. But frankly, the mystery is only part of the fun. Carter is a charming and appealing character and his musings on life, death, Newark, and pizza are fun and insightful. One reviewer called Parks "the literary love child of (Janet) Evanovich and (Harlan) Coben." 

There are spots that are just laugh out loud funny. The scenes between Carter and Lunky, the college intern are marvelous. Lunky is clueless and tends to create literary criticism instead of news articles. But he is able to come to the rescue when necessary and it is he who saves the day when Carter screws things up for almost the last time. The give and take between Carter and Lunky about Philip Roth are priceless and also serve as important clues.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl Next Door which I received as an ebook from the publisher. I do have to say a couple of words about reading a mystery in ebook format. I have always enjoyed reading the end of a mystery first to find out "who-dun-it." I really enjoy knowing the villain because I like to see the techniques the author uses to develop the plot. I didn't have to do that in The Girl Next Door because it was fairly obvious from the beginning. However, because the book was on my Kindle, I couldn't figure out quite how to read the end of the book first. So, as long as I am reading mysteries on my Kindle, I guess that I will have to deduce the crime like a purist.

Here is a review in the Newark Star Ledger, Brad Parks old newspaper:
Brad Parks website:

Cool photo gone viral

Been embraced by any good books lately? I am reading a bunch that I am going to be reviewing in the next week or so.

The Girl Next Door by Brad Parks
Gossip by Beth Richardson Gutcheon
Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock 
 The 17 Day Diet Cookbook by Dr. Mike Moreno

Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle
Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

It's going to be a big embrace!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good

By Barb Stuckey
New York, Free Press, 2012
407 pages   Non-Fiction
The Short List

What a fun career—a food inventor. Barb Stuckey always knew that she wanted a career in the food industry, and she arrived at a career as a food developer via food service management. She loves food, but more importantly, she understands food.

In Taste What You’re Missing, Stuckey tells the story of taste in a way that is so manageable and interesting that you are compelled to read further. Each aspect of taste: sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami has its own chapter with experiments at the end of the chapter to help you come to an understanding of those tastes and their identification. She also tells stories to make everything more understandable—and palatable! 

I especially enjoyed the chapter on salt. She talks about how her father put salt on his grapefruit—it helped to make it sweeter. I always put salt on cantaloupe. It was good to find out that the reasons why I do that. I also appreciated the long story she told of a biker who almost died because of a depletion of salt. The right amount of salt is the amount that lets the flavor come through, so that you are tasting the food not the salt.

While I was in the midst of this book, I was planning a St. Patrick’s Day family dinner and made two Irish stews, one of beef and one of lamb. I poured a bottle of Guinness in each pot, as per the recipe. The lamb stew tasted wonderful, but there was something not quite right with the beef stew, made with exactly the same ingredients except for the meat. Everyone tasted it; everyone recommended something different to do to correct the taste. Finally, I decided to add a little bit of sugar and that counteracted the sour taste of the Guinness, which was apparent in the beef stew but not in the lamb stew. The sugar made it perfect. Barb Stuckey says: “A food that’s not balanced tastes wrong. A food that’s balanced makes you want to take another bite…the book teaches you how to balance food when you’re cooking.” Apparently, I read right!

I would recommend Taste What You're Missing to food lovers as well as cooks and would be cooks. I received it from the publisher and will pass it on to a family friend who was eyeing it the other evening.

The book’s website:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

by Rob Bell
San Francisco, HarperOne, 2011
224 pages    Spiritual

Early in the book, Love Wins by Pastor Rob Bell, he says: “Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do.”

In eight short, sermon-like chapters, Bell discusses and disses some of the basic beliefs of the Christian religion—please note that I said religion, rather than faith. The chapters read more like sermons than theology and therefore are easy to read, a real plus for people not willing or able to pour through theological tomes.

Some have said that his writing is Universalist in nature, meaning that he believes no one is outside the grace of God and Jesus came that we all might have life and have it abundantly. As one reviewer said, it is a book with a “hope-filled message of transformation.” Bell takes on the topics of heaven and hell, topics sacred to evangelical Christianity, and apparently he has caused a bit of a firestorm by saying that theology that relies on discussions of heaven and hell is “simply missing the point.”

 As I am reading the reviews, my liberally-educated theological soul is crying…”What?” I didn’t read anything heretical or revolutionary in his writings. He begins by focusing on a haunting painting in his grandmother’s house that showed travelers on a narrow cross-shaped path leading over hellfire to a town called “heaven.” He tells about how disturbing that image was to him growing up. I recall helping my best friends with their catechism lessons when I was about 6 or 7. In those catechism books were horrifying (to me) pictures of heaven, hell, and children being lifted up to Christ, who was sitting on clouds of glory. Even then I believed, as Bell does, that the Christian faith isn’t about going to heaven when we die, but about entering into a living relationship with God. The works and words of Jesus are our example and guide. The Sojourners reviewer says that to Bell, heaven and hell are not simply places we go when we die, but they are connected to who we are in Christ now. “We are called to accept the gift of a transformative life that can endure even death. This life is a gift from a God who truly desires life on earth to be like it is in heaven, both now and for eternity, and who lets us serve as partners in this work of reconciling a world that God loves and will never give up on.”

I have a friend who has already been to hell. Alcohol, drugs, prison, schizophrenia.  He’s been to hell with a capital H. He is trying so hard to rehabilitate himself with God’s grace. Heaven, for him, right now, is a nice little apartment, supportive friends, a relationship with God that lifts him up every day—and a little truck to drive around to painting jobs. Love wins—in the terminology of Rob Bell.

The core of Bell’s book is that God will not give up on us—no matter what. The hard work about being a Christian is living…living a life that is in constant relationship with God, a life that is thoughtful, relevant, kind, and loving…I guess the Evangelicals would call it “spirit-filled.” I have just finished a 10-week study of the Beatitudes, where we struggled mightily with Jesus’ words and our response to them. I can’t remember even mentioning the words “heaven or hell” except to mention that we had begun reading Bell’s book. Our conversations were all about understanding Jesus’ message through the Beatitudes, finding peace, being in relationship with those we love, and living a Christian life in the world. And that is the gist of what I took out of my reading of Love Wins

Our church congregation is reading Love Wins as an all-church Lenten study, and the chapters are the themes of each week’s sermons. An interesting choice for a liberal congregation that committed itself to social justice issues long ago and whose members firmly believe in God’s grace extending to everyone.  I would think that if Bell would preach at our church, he would be preaching to people nodding their heads in agreement. 

And therein may lie the problem. Bell has been the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI, a bastion of Calvinistic theology. I just read that he has left Mars Hill to “pursue other opportunities.”  As I was reading reviews and other Internet drivel, I came across this comment following Julie Clawson’s review on Sojourners: “I don't need to read anything. Rob Bell is a heretic. A universalist heretic. John Piper says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Oh, it does, does it? It is very hard to shake up the established “church.” 

You might also be interested in Jay Bakker’s book, Fall to Grace. Bakker and Bell could be best friends.
The thoughtful review by Julie Clawson on Sojourners:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Defending Jacob

By William Landay
New York, Delacorte Press, 2012
421 pages     Fiction

Jacob is 14 when his family’s world falls apart. Any parents or grandparents of 14-year-old boys know that they are totally self-absorbed and enigmatic, and Jacob is all of that and perhaps more. To the astonishment of his parents, he is accused of stabbing and killing a classmate in the park on the way to school one morning. Jacob is so inscrutable that his parents have no idea what he knows, what he feels, or how he is reacting to the arrest and the ensuing trial. 

There is, of course, much more to the set-up than that. Andy, the father, is the narrator of the story and is the Assistant District Attorney who is first assigned to investigate the murder. Andy is a very good narrator. He is insightful, knowledgeable, and all-seeing except, perhaps, when it comes to his son. When Jacob is accused, Andy is taken off the case, and the prosecution is given to a junior—and very ambitious—assistant district attorney. Conflict #1.

Conflict #2 is the secret Andy has been harboring his whole life—his family has a background of murderous men, and his father is in prison for life for murder. His wife, Laurie, has never known this aspect of his life and when she finds out, she becomes increasingly more devastated and conflicted. She begins to doubt the innocence of her son. The psychologist is telling them that Jacob may be damaged, that he has a “heart two sizes too small,” and that he has very little capacity for empathy. This would be something that a mother would know and some aspects of Jacob’s nature become more apparent to Laurie than to Andy. Deep in her heart, she believes that he might be guilty.

Conflict#3.  Andy believes his son is innocent and that a known pedophile may be the guilty party.  The reader never knows whether Andy truly believes in the innocence of his son or if he is playing the lawyer’s role of making the case. The family lawyer says: “The question is, how far will you go for Jacob? What will you do to protect your son?” And I am not sure we readers ever figure that out. Yet, we trust Andy’s instincts, and we become convinced that Jacob could not possibly have committed the crime. Perhaps Jacob lacks empathy, but does that make him a killer?

The plot twists are dizzying and the conclusion is so devastating that I could not go to sleep after I finished reading last night. I had a hard time separating Jacob in the book from my 14-year-old real-life grandson with his baggy pants, gray hoodie over his head, and his non-communicative stare. How would I have felt if this had happened in our family? How far would we go to protect him?

There are many serious issues discussed in the book—the role that social media plays in the lives of teenagers; the nature of genetics; and much more seriously, the very source of evil. Years ago, I read a book by Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. After I read that book, I spent a long time thinking about the source of evil and its role in human nature. I certainly kept People of the Lie in my mind as I was reading Defending Jacob. The reviewer in the Washington Post asks a similar question: “Is it possible that some people lack free will and are driven toward violence by genetic inheritance?” 

Defending Jacob is #4 on the New York Times best seller list for March 4, 2012. It deserves to be there. I received my copy from the publisher a couple of months ago where it languished until I was reminded of it when it appeared in reviews in national newspapers. This book is for all you lovers of mysteries, legal thrillers, and shattering endings. Author William Landay says that the imprint of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent “is all over this book.”  If you loved Presumed Innocent, you will love Defending Jacob as well.

William Landay’s website:
Audio interview with William Landay: