Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How to Prepare a Standout College Application

by Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey

Jossey-Bass     2013
331 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

One of my teenage grandsons is sure that he will be going to Harvard. My other grandson thinks that he will probably end up at a community college. A recent article by Lacy Crawford in the Wall Street Journal says that last year Harvard had a 5.79 percent acceptance rate. Although my grandson is very smart, there is very little likelihood that he will be accepted at Harvard--unless he writes a killer application, which according to Chisolm and Ivey, will greatly increase his chances.

The book, How to Prepare a Standout College Applications, is a proven guide to writing a college application that will help students be accepted to the college of their choice. The authors suggest that their advice will separate out a stellar application from the LMOs (like many others). They have seven strategies including; work smarter, not harder; think like an admissions officer; tell your story; focus on the core four--passion, talent, initiative, and impact; sweat the details; make the form work for you; and show, don't tell.

They then proceed to walk the student through the process step-by-step. In her article, Crawford suggests that parents stay out of the process as best they can. She feels that the clincher for most students is the personal essay. Chisolm and Ivey would concur and offer many tips to help students tell their story in a way that conveys their passion, talent, initiative and impact. 

How to Prepare aStandout College Applications a very useful book; comprehensive and easy to read and follow. The authors know what they are talking about. It is advice that is valuable for every prospective college student. This book will go to my Harvard-bound grandson.

Monday, August 26, 2013


by Cassandra King
Maiden Lane Press     2013
390 pages     Fiction

This spring, my husband and I drove the Blue Ridge Parkway, spent a night in Asheville NC, visited the Biltmore Estate and were thoroughly enthralled with the area. Its beauty is mesmerizing. My best memory of that week was watching the blue mist rising with the dawn and descending with the dusk. Cassandra King uses the mountain setting to its best advantage in her new Southern Gothic, Moonrise. The setting is a perfect foil for the quasi-ghostly plot.

Emmet Justice, a TV journalist, has recently married Helen Honeycutt, a dietitian who runs a TV cooking show. Both have been married before and each has a young adult child. Emmet's wife, Roselyn, had been tragically killed the year before in an automobile accident in the mountains. The newlyweds move into Roselyn's family summer home, Moonrise, shortly after they are married. Several cottages are also on the beautiful mountain lake; they are the homes of longtime friends of Emmet and Roselyn. Emmet's friends think that this new marriage is a rebound relationship, and "the bride" as they call Helen won't last once Emmet comes to his senses. Thus they are not very welcoming to Helen, and she struggles to find her place in the group. 

Moonrise is narrated by three women who tell the story of the summer; Helen, Tansy, and Willa. Tansy is one of the neighboring cottage owners and a childhood friend of Roselyn. Willa runs a housecleaning business and takes care of the homes of all the cottage owners. Helen tells her own story. She has a lot to deal with--a huge house that belonged to the dead wife; a husband who seemingly is still grieving; and a step-daughter who doesn't want anything to do with her. Also intrinsic to the story are the other cottage owners--Linc and his wife Myna, Noel, who lives with Tansy, and Kit, Roselyn's oldest and dearest friend. And although she is no longer with them in the flesh, Roselyn fills the house and the friends with her presence. They are all interesting characters, although the women are far less likeable than are the men. 

I had to keep reminding myself that Helen is in her mid-forties. She comes across as a much younger and very insecure woman. One reviewer suggested it is a weakness of the novel that she allows herself to be mistreated by Tansy and Kit--particularly Kit. There are times that the back-stabbing and cattiness is reminiscent of junior high school--or perhaps Real Housewives, Blue Ridge Mountains. Yet, friendship remains one of the major themes of the book. These characters have known each other for decades and have become family to each other.  

King has been called the queen of the Southern Gothic genre. Indeed, Moonrise is replete with hints of ghostly presences, sinister plots, and haunted gardens. King says: "The lush, haunted landscape of the South is every bit as romantic as the wild moors of England and lends itself beautifully to the creation of a mysterious, darkly foreboding Gothic atmosphere." She also says that place is often a central character in her novels, and it certainly is in Moonrise, from the peaceful lake, to the neglected gardens,  and the mansion itself.  Helen calls the house her "own personal House of Horrors." She says, "Funny, a house as grand and richly furnished as Moonrise at my disposal, and I can only relax when it's out of my sight."

In an interview King mentions that she got the idea for the book during a summer vacation spent at an old house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She brought along Daphne Du Maurier's famous novel Rebecca, and the combination of the setting and the novel inspired Moonrise. This is the 75th anniversary of Rebecca, which was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Moonrise is, in part, an homage to Rebecca. I read Rebecca years ago, but my husband and I watched the movie this week. You can find the whole movie on YouTube here. It was Hitchcock's first American project and it won the 1940 Academy Award for best picture. Great movie. 

 Southern Gothic is not one of the genres that I usually pick up, but once the plot of Moonrise began to move, I moved along as well. When I looked up after closing the book for the last time, I realized that I was in Michigan after all. In my mind's eye, I was back in the Blue Ridge Mountains with the mountain mist descending at dusk.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Taste of Home Recipes Across America

by Taste of Home
Reader's Digest 2013
512 pages     Cookbook
The Shortlist

If you have ever eaten in a regional restaurant and thought "Wow, this is wonderful! I would love to make this at home!," then this cookbook is for you. Recipes Across America is divided into regions and the best, iconic recipes of the region are arranged by Main Dishes, Sides, and Sweets. If you want to know how to make a Philly cheese steak sandwich, beignets, pierogies, or chiles rellenos, this cookbook is the one for you. 
 Like most Taste of Home cookbooks, the recipes come primarily from home cooks, and like most Taste of Home cookbooks, there are lots of pictures. I tried the Long Island ice tea recipe, which was delicious.  Perusing the cookbook for something to fix with the chicken thighs I had thawed for supper, I was reminded that I used to make arroz con pollo, so I tried out that recipe. It was delicious as well.

I know that this will be a cookbook I will use over and over. The index is very complete making it easy to find something to fit whatever ingredients I have on hand, one of my prime requirements for a cookbook. I am not one to go running around finding ingredients to add to my larder. Right now I am looking for pork recipes since we just shared a pig with family members. This is the first time I have had so much pork around. Recipes Across America has a wealth of recipes to choose from.

I was so pleased to receive this book from the publicist. It is fun to read as well as a great source of recipes--735 in all. There are some great cooks in America.

Other Taste of Home cookbooks I have looked at include The Taste of Home Cooking School Cookbook and Taste of Home Best Loved Recipes. Both cookbooks are well-used at our house.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Let Him Go

by Larry Watson
 Milkweed     2013
269 pages            Fiction

Let Him Go by Larry Watson is a revelation. Heartbreaking story, painstakingly plotted, every word meticulously chosen. I couldn't stop until I had finished it and then I dreamed about it all night. Probably the best recommendation of all.

The year is 1951. George and Margaret Blackledge from Dalton North Dakota have lost their son, James, and now their daughter-in-law Lorna has remarried Donnie Weboy. She has moved to Donnie's family in Montana and taken the Blackledge's grandson Jimmy, a child of about four, with her. Margaret has persuaded herself that Jimmy is not being well cared-for and that he should be in Dalton with his grandparents and the memory of his father. She convinces her husband that they need to pack up and take a road trip to see Jimmy and bring him home. They drive to Montana to the community where the Weboys live and attempt to extricate Jimmy from the Weboy clan. What follows is compelling tragedy. 

The reader feels nothing but sympathy for Margaret and George. Margaret, in particular, can't let go of the loss of her son and now the loss of her grandson. George has kept it all inside, but when Margaret decides to go to Montana with or without him, he goes. A retired sheriff, he seems to know that they are embarking on a journey from which no good can come, but her mission becomes his. The reader comes to know these characters intimately; they are appealing people locked in an untenable situation. 

Interestingly enough, even the villains of the piece, the Weboys, have their own appeal, particularly the matriarch, Blanche. We have seen characters like her before, a "Ma Barker," protecting her no-good children at all costs. Her pithy comments bring a touch of humor to an otherwise tense situation. Blanche and Margaret are not all that different--neither one can "let him go."  It is indeed gripping to see the extent to which both will go to accomplish their goals.

The theme of "letting go" pervades the book. Margaret can't let go of Jimmy; George can't let go of Margaret; the Weboys can't let go of one of their own. Even the Montana community can't let go of any of the ne'er-do-wells in their midst.  

The other theme that I found appealing is that of hospitality. The Blackledges find hospitality everywhere they go--whether they are invited to sleep in an empty jail or the shack of a young Native American man. Even Blanche invites them to dinner at her ranch. Most touching, however, is the nurse and her husband who offer the couple a bed and emotional hospitality when they need it most. Although hospitality is portrayed as a Western virtue, I believe that it is a concept to which all readers can relate. Almost everyone has been treated to extravagant hospitality at one time or another. And because George and Margaret are such appealing characters, they seem to accumulate acts of hospitality. 

Larry Watson is a new author to me.  I really like his style of writing, but I think that I will wait a little bit before I get emotionally entangled in another of his books. One reviewer said: "Watson’s novels are thought provoking, and that remains true among all nine of them, whether the book is a focus on romance, coming of age, or mystery.  They are not just a quick story to read, but a tale that one can’t help but dwell on, at least for a short time, after the final page.   It is like, there is more to it than what you just read, but the remainder is actually within YOU.  There is always the quandary, the dilemma, and whatever solution the author arrives at in the book, you have to decide, is that what I would do?"

I was reminded of Train Dreams by Dennis Johnson that I read last year. There is a similarity of style and subject matter. I was also intrigued to know that Watson's books have been chosen by several communities for their community reads. I think I will recommend Let Him Go to our community and certainly to my book club. 

On further reflection, as a grandmother of eight, I certainly could empathize with Margaret; I want all my grands close to me. Yet I hope I would be wise enough to understand that I am only the grandmother. When my husband died when my children were young, the grandparents on both sides of the family offered me tremendous support, but on my terms. They were willing to do nearly anything for me or my children, but it was always up to us. Having read about Margaret, George, and Blanche, I understand more fully the need to "let him go."

A review on The Literary Outpost:
Larry Watson's website:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites

by Kate Christensen
Doubleday    2013
353 pages            Memoir

People write memoirs as a way of sorting through their lives and trying to come to an understanding of how they got to this moment in time. People read memoirs to either empathize with the author or to understand a life far different from their own. 

Kate Christensen wrote Blue Plate Special as a way to taste again the major events of her life. She says: "To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths--good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you're chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon." As she approached her 50th birthday, she began to write short essays about her very eventful and rather unconventional life. These essays became Blue Plate Special.

Christensen writes about her life chronologically, and food ties the events together. She begins by telling about eating soft boiled eggs for breakfast as a very young child on the day her father beat up her mother. The major sections of the book end with very personalized recipes written in a narrative style rather than a recipe style. Some of the recipes look very good, but that is not the reason for their placement. The recipes become part of the memoir. In many respects the recipes are a "gimmick"  that knit Christensen's life story together. I was a bit put off by the linkage and felt that the story was good enough to tell without the food. On the other hand, Christensen does a lot of food writing (the Wall Street Journal, for example), and most likely, for her, the connections with food are meaningful. The reviewer in the LA Times quotes her as saying: "I've lived half a century. If I write about food and use my life as a fulcrum to move the story along, maybe I've lived long enough to fashion a narrative that has a happy ending."

I was far more interested in her unconventional upbringing, beginning with her alternative mother who was married several times, an absentee father, and the philosophical community in which she was raised. For reasons unknown to me, I knew nothing about Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner, and anthroposophy, the philosophical basis of the Waldorf Schools. It is said of Rudolf Steiner: "Since the teacher's death in 1925, a quiet but steadily growing movement, unknown and unseen by most people, has been spreading over the world, bringing practical solutions to the problems of our global, technological civilization. The seeds are now coming to flower in the form of thousands of projects infused with human values." Christensen was raised in Waldorf Schools and at one point at the end of her teenage years, she worked in a Waldorf School in France. (As is so often the case, once you know about something, you hear about it all over the place. My little great niece is starting in a Waldorf preschool in Oregon this fall. There are no Waldorf schools in West Michigan, so I am off the hook.) 

Seldom has the disintegration of a marriage been so eloquently described as Christensen's marriage to Jon. The reader's heart bleeds for them; they are both good people in an untenable situation. Blue Plate Special is well worth reading just for the painful description of the marriage. She says: "In October 2008, I finally left for good after too many episodes of self-medicating alcohol abuse, severe panic attacks, manic spells, depressive spells, out-of-control behavior, and overwhelming, debilitating sickness of soul...Not once did I regret leaving--I was devastated and sad, yes, but I also felt suddenly miraculously better, as if I had been let out of a cage or freed from a spell." Ultimately, Christensen and the reader both come to the realization that many of her life problems stem from the episode of her father beating on her mother. 

I agonized for many days over how to write about Blue Plate Special, trying to understand why I was compelled to read it; what is it that makes us read the self-indulgent musings of others. Yet, I guess that is what memoir is--a self-indulgent retelling of a life circumstance. Many reviewers compared the book to Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle. But what I felt was most important in Blue Plate Special was the eloquence of the writing. It is the writing that moves the book along and moves the reader with it.  Christensen is the author of six books.Her novel, The Great Man, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2008. She spends less time talking about her books than she does what she was eating as she wrote them.

Kate Christensen's blog: