Monday, December 31, 2018

The Best of 2018

Another good year of reading. I expect a spectacular year in 2019. Stay with me because this will be my tenth year of blogging about books. 

There were a lot of books that I wished that I had gotten to this year. Actually, I have a whole list, including Transcription, Virgil Wander, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, November Road, All the Lives We Never Lived, and Why Religion. I’ve got them all on my Kindle. I hope to start the new year with them and make January a big month. Join me on the journey.

So, anyway, here is my list for 2018.

Best Book of the Year
The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Nobody does narrative nonfiction better than the ever-curious Susan Orlean.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Many smoldering fires in a brilliantly written book.
White Houses by Amy Bloom. Everything we didn’t know about Eleanor Roosevelt.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Historical fiction at its best.
French Exit by Patrick deWitt. Absurdist comedy.

Picture Books
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy. Praise for everything RBG.

Mysteries and Thrillers
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn was my first mystery of the year and probably the best.
The Third Hotel by Laura ven den Berg. Weird but highly effective.

Audio (Miriam and Sci Fi—can you believe it???)
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Much better than the movie.

Science Fiction (Two sci fi in one year. Unheard of!)
Artemis by Andy Weir. A fascinating look at a colony on the Moon.

Milk by Mark Kurlansky. Everything you wanted to know on the topic—and more. Great narrative nonfiction.
Super Hero Ethics by Travis Smith. This is not an important book, but a really fun read.

You are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler. A book to pass on to a grieving friend.
Brother John: A Monk, A Pilgrim, and the Purpose of Life by August Turak. A beautifully illustrated look at the spiritual life.

Educated by Tara Westover. A stunning look at the power of education and persistence.

Best Titled (maybe not the best book, but a great title)
The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg. My little granddaughter loved to call me “the little old lady behaving badly.”

Important but Disliked (Can there be such a category)
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.  I knew I was reading an important topic but I felt manipulated.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food

By Ann Hood

W.W. Norton     2018
256 pages     Essays

Why is it that sometimes you just need a book that you can read without fuss or anxiety or excitement—just a book that comforts. Ann Hood’s Kitchen Yarns is just that. I began this book of personal essays just before I started preparations for Christmas, and it made me look again at the food I was cooking with an eye toward why I was cooking it. Why do I always want wild rice casserole and frozen yum yum for Christmas dinner? Because there is a story behind each of those dishes.

In Kitchen Yarns, Hood does exactly that. She tells the story of her life—from her happy childhood, through failed marriages, the death of her brother, and then of her young child,  Grace, until her current happy marriage and her career as an author. Each essay, each story is told through the lens of a dish or a meal. She understands the power of a good meal and the power of a good story. The reviewer in People Magazine says, “perfect holiday-season fare. . .you’ll want to keep both kitchen and Kleenex close at hand.”  

The stories brought me peace, because I also believe that meals, properly prepared or even just thrown together, bind us, inspire us, and comfort us. Hood says, “I always believed in food as the greatest comfort. Food can’t heal, but it can soothe and comfort us. “ I am leaving on Tuesday to go to the funeral of the 104-year-old mother of my oldest friend. Of course, my friend and her siblings are planning meals for guests that will warm their hearts and their souls.

This is the major gift of Ann Hood’s book—food and the joy that it brings. But—the recipes are good too. True to Hood’s style, the recipes are, for the most part, uncomplicated, filling, delightful. I really want to try the tomato pie and the Chicken Marbella. The Kirkus reviewer suggests that some of the recipes are marginal, but I think that is part of the value of the book. Some of our best food memories are of the memory rather than the food.

Ann Hood speaks my language. I first met her when I read, The Book that Matters Most a couple of years ago. I came to realize that Hood fashioned the character Maggie after her own struggles following a divorce. You will really enjoy both of these books.

Ann Hood’s website.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.

By Oren Jay Sofer

Shambhala     2018
284 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Here is a brief summary of Say What You Mean by Oren Sofer.

We spend so much of our lives talking to each other, but how much are we simply running on automatic—relying on old habits and hoping for the best? Are we able to truly hear others and speak our mind in a clear and kind way, without needing to get defensive or go on the attack? In this groundbreaking synthesis of mindfulness, somatics, and Nonviolent Communication, Oren Jay Sofer offers simple yet powerful practices to develop healthy, effective, and satisfying ways of communicating in his book Say What You Mean

Sofer is a teacher of meditation and Nonviolent Communications in both Buddhist and secular contexts. His advice is sound and the techniques he prescribes can help everyone engaged in meaningful conversation.  He suggests that there are three steps to creating skillful communication. At the outset, they seem simple enough: lead with presence, come from curiosity and care; and focus on what matters. Each section of the book focuses on one step with the last section of the book fitting everything together. There are practices within each section, and I found myself underlining a lot of great information and helpful guidance.

The techniques he suggests include feeling confident during conversation; staying focused on what really matters in an interaction; listening for the authentic concerns behind what others say; reducing anxiety before and during difficult conversations; and finding nourishment in day-to-day interactions.
As I was looking over the book, I was thinking about a family member who has trouble expressing what he is feeling. Much of what he expresses are his current frustrations, and it takes a while to sit with him and get to the heart of the matter. Yet, when one listens closely, his love, care, and worry come out, and the conversational partner is able to discuss the important things. When I talk with him, I am listening for the authentic concerns behind what he is saying.

I hate chit-chat, primarily because I am no good at it, and I hate meet-ups and parties where it is all about chit-chat. Say What You Means offers sound advice on talking about what really matters.

I was privileged to read an advance copy sent by the publicist. Out today, Saw What You Mean is mindfulness in action.

Oren Sofer’s website.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Feral Detective

By Jonathan Lethem

Ecco     2018
336 pages     Literary?

OK, so I am way confused. What did I just finish reading? The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem. Was it a mystery? Was it dystopia? Was it political? Was it a love story? Four days after finishing it, and I am still not sure. I read it because it was on a bunch of lists and also because I had just finished Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, and I thought I was going to read something lighter. WRONG!!!

Here’s a quick synopsis of the book.  Phoebe Siegler, a consummate New Yorker, travels to the Mojave Desert in search of Arabella, a friend’s missing daughter and an 18-year-old dropout of Reed College. She hires hirsute Charles Heist, the “feral detective,” who lives with three dogs and an opossum. Quickly falling for his woodsy charms, Phoebe travels with Heist to the far reaches of the desert, where the mostly female Rabbit group is engaged in a long standoff with the male Bear group. To save Arabella, Heist will have to do battle with the charismatic Bear leader, called Solitary Love, as Phoebe learns to question her assumptions here on “the far side of the Neoliberal Dream.” 

There is a lot of questioning of life after Trump. (The book was written right after the election.) The Publisher Weekly reviewer suggests that “The novel feels like it was written as a kind of therapy in the aftermath of the 2016 election” but the election references scarcely engage the reader--like just more of the weirdness of the plot and the characters. By the same token, there are a lot of references to Leonard Cohen, in very reverential tones. Why bring Leonard Cohen into this mess?

Phoebe is a ditzy character, sometimes entertaining, but mostly an enigma. Why in the world is she here—a New York girl in the Mohave desert. Ostensibly she is there to find her friend’s daughter, Arabella, who has disappeared. Phoebe is here because she quit her journalism job in disgust after the 2016 election. She is not someone that the average reader can identify with—well, with the exception of the Trump stuff! But then neither is Charles Heist, the private investigator she hires to help her look for Arabella. Ditz that she is, she immediately falls in love with Heist, so when she loses him in the desert, we are not sure who she is now looking for—Arabella or Heist. The plot is disjointed and crazy.

The best part of the novel are some of the written descriptions. All the settings in the book are very elegantly written. The reader can visualize exactly where the characters are at any given moment. They are perhaps too eloquent for the crazy plot. As the New York Times reviewer says, “There’s a good book lurking in this material. The plot is shaggy and complicated; so much so that even the author loses interest in it.” Here is a sample quote to illustrate what I mean.  Laird and Phoebe have just left the highway to head out into the desert. “We were hardly the first to go here, though the marks on this Etch A Sketch surface grew directionless and baroque. The joyriding treads inscribed grooves on the planet, suggesting the possibility of a tire-based language with communication with drones or satellites above, for beaming meaning back at passing contrails.”

I knew the name Jonathan Lethem, although I had never read any of his books. Most reviewers complained that this was a poor representation of the author. Part of me is curious to see if that is the case, but on the other hand, I really don’t think I want to attempt any more.

When I was two, my post-war Marine father was stationed in the Mohave Desert dismantling the Marine war machine. I lived there for one year. When I was in my 50s I went back to the desert to see if I could find where I lived as a toddler. Found the base, but the Quonset huts had been replaced by nice condos. You know what, after The Feral Detective, I have no desire to return.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Vancouver Noir

Sam Wiebe, editor

Akashic Books     2018
250 pages     Short Stories (Noir)

As my readers know, I am intrigued with Akashic Books’ series of noir short stories based in cities all around the world. I was particularly attracted to the stories in Vancouver Noir because we had a marvelous few days in Vancouver on our way to an Alaska cruise.  We fell in love with the city. In this collection of 14 stories, however, we see a different side of Vancouver than seen by the tourist traveling through.

Sam Wiebe, the collection’s editor, has written an intriguing story about a elderly policeman with dementia who believes that he is still solving crimes. More importantly, in the collection’s introduction, Wiebe has created an excellent definition of noir, which he used when choosing the stories for the collection. He says, “Noir is bad shit happening to people much like ourselves. At its heart, noir is the ugly shadow of ourselves we always knew was there, but out of convenience, chose to ignore.” He goes on to discuss how it is possible that there can be such a destructive underbelly to a city with such an idyllic image. He says, “So welcome to Vancouver, the place where the west ends. And welcome to Vancouver Noir. It gets dark here. Know that going in.”

The narrator and protagonist of the story, Terminal City, visits the city for the first time. She’s not sure what she will find. “I’m not certain there will be anything good to eat. Maple syrup and beavers. Possibly cheese. I just can’t imagine what Canadians might eat.” However, what she finds when the plane lands far exceeds her expectations. “The city itself is stunning. City of Glass. Of Oceans.” The narrator arrives in Vancouver as a paid hitman—or woman, in this case. The discovery of who she is going to kill comes as a big surprise to her and to us. A great story.

Another story I particularly enjoyed had a Big Little Lies feel to it. Called The Perfect Playgroup, the story has a terrific first line: “Sage is more fabulous dead than alive.” The story takes place in the ritzy neighborhood of West Vancouver and concerns a group of upper middle class moms with young children. The construction of the story is ingenious and keeps you questioning how and when Sage is going to be fabulously dead!

Vancouver Noir is one of my favorites of the Akashic noir collection. It is eminently readable with vibrant characters and haunting stories. Every entry gives us a sterling example of the city I didn’t get a chance to see when I was visiting. The collection’s authors are all renowned writers, as one would expect from a city like Vancouver.

Here are some of the other Akashic noir books that I have read and blogged about: Montana Noir, Lagos Noir. At one point about a year ago, I wrote a posting about the difference between noir and neo-noir, which you can find here. Take a gamble. Take a dip into the sea of noir.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Small Great Things

By Jodi Picoult

Ballentine     2016
470 pages     Fiction

If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am embarrassed to say that I hated this important book and almost didn’t finish it. Am I a bad person?

Jodi Picoult is no stranger to topical novels ripped from the headlines. In Small Great Things,  Jodi Picoult tackles race and racism, white privilege, and white supremacy all in one ugly and divisive story line that almost defies description.    
Here in a nutshell is a summary of the book. Ruth, a Black nurse, is forbidden from treating the baby of white supremacists. When the baby goes into cardiac arrest, Ruth hesitates before giving the baby CPR, leading to a devastating outcome, and a legal battle against the baby's parents. The novel explores not only overt racism, but the more subtle ways prejudice shapes relationships and our worldview.

I was angry all the way through the book. I thought, Why is Picoult trying to speak in the voice of a black woman and a young white supremacist? Why so many stereotypes? Why is she tackling so many topics, leaving me to be agitated and uncomfortable the whole 470 pages! Why did she write such a long book? Why couldn’t she just use the voice of Kennedy the white woman public defender?

I almost stopped reading several times, bolstered by a friend telling me that she got so angry she quit the book. I finished because my sister, who was as uncomfortable as I was, finished reading it—and she didn’t even get to book club on Thursday night. My copy of the book is riddled with handwritten questions, exclamation points, question marks, and other signs of exasperation.

I finished it because of book club and because the wise women who are in my club were going to  have a lot to say. And did they ever! First, we all acknowledged that the plot was a bit contrived and conveniently ended. We all wondered why she chose to add so many plot devices. We all acknowledged that we are so filled with our white privilege and our liberal white bias that we think that we are doing all we can to help race relations in our country, when in effect we are actually less liberal than we think we are. In the end, we decided that having this discussion was the ultimate value
of the book and that despite its many flaws, Small Great Things delivered exactly what Picoult wanted the book to deliver. One reviewer said, “But it’s also exciting to have a high-profile writer like Picoult take an earnest risk to expand our cultural conversation about race and prejudice.” Another reviewer called it a courageous and important work.

Well, if you read it, you will have to decide for yourself what you think about it.  Me—I’m moving on to a cozy mystery. Whew! Thank God this is over.

Here is an interview with Jodi Picoult at Book Expo 2016.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Golden Sequence: A Manual for Reclaiming Our Humanity

By Jonni Pollard

Ben Bella Books     2018
200 pages     Spiritual

Sometimes a book comes to you just at the right time. The Golden Sequence has been just such a book for me. A family member is doing a lot of soul searching contemplating a career change. I have been suffering along, and then The Golden Sequence helped me think through the challenges he is facing and find my role in the solutions.

From the book cover: “The Golden Sequence is based on ancient Vedic teachings re-envisioned for a 21st century mindset to provide a practical blueprint to owning your purpose and your power. Rediscover our human nature, learn how to reclaim it as your greatest power, and start to love yourself by seeing the difference you can make in the world.”

Pollard found a new purpose for life when he embraced the Vedic tradition and its teachings called The Golden Sequence. He says, “This teaching is the product of years of teaching people from all walks of life, who, like me, were no longer willing to tolerate the weight of suffering and who desired a simple process to learn how to transform their suffering into lasting fulfillment."

The Golden Sequence has four parts called the “Four Golden Insights” and Pollard explains all four parts. Life is sacred; love is our nature; wisdom is our power; fulfillment is our purpose. As a person who has practiced meditation for more than 15 years, I found his insights to be easily understood, especially by those who have not ever practiced meditation. I particularly liked this statement, “love evokes the desire to be in deep relationship with life—to know it, to unite with it, to cooperate with it, to create with it, to nurture it, and to grow with it. And it is through that love that we discover the deepest meaning of life and our highest purpose.”

After discussing the fear that keeps people from love, Pollard develops the techniques to invite the Golden Sequence into our lives. It is intention-based and involves “the power of our will, infused with our intent” to bring about the shaping and the transforming of our reality. He closes with an invitation to daily practice to close the Golden Sequence and bring peace, love, and service to others.

As I pondered how best to respond to my family member’s quandary, I found this book to be of immense benefit. I have found that is very easy in the midst of a crisis to forget to meditate and to forget to pause and reflect. The Golden Sequence brought me back to intentional living and to the reality of love and fulfillment. Pollard says, “it is a practical methodology to use when you become lost or trapped in suffering, defensiveness, and fear.”

Jonni Pollard’s website. The Golden Sequence is published today.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Library Book

By Susan Orlean

Simon and Schuster     2018
336 pages     Nonfiction

I will just start out by saying quite flatly, The Library Book is the best book I have read this year. More than just an exploration of the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book, is a love story about libraries, librarians, and books.

Susan Orlean had just recently moved to the Los Angeles area when she learned about the library fire that had happened decades ago. She had decided that with this move, she was done with writing books—too long, too hard. “Working on them felt like a slow-motion wrestling match.” Yet, she became so intrigued with the fire that she couldn’t stand not getting involved. And her narrative encompasses not just the fire, but the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, one of the first major library systems in the country, as well as the challenges libraries across the country face in the 21st century.

There are a lot of stories being told. There are Orlean’s reminiscences about growing up reading and combing the library stacks as a young girl with her mother. There are the stories about the people who directed the Los Angeles library through its history. There are details about the fire and how it spread. There are interviews with many librarians, patrons, and the security guard. She even explored the life of Harry Peak, the young man who was accused of starting the fire, although he was never charged with the crime.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “Libraries may embody our notion of permanence, but their patrons are always in flux. In truth, a library is as much a portal as it is a place—it is a transit point, a passage.” This type of philosophical pondering fills the pages and echoes what I have always felt about libraries. The book filled me with remembrance of the two Carnegie libraries of my childhood and youth in Little Falls and  Duluth Minnesota—particularly of the marble stairways leading up to the treasure trove of magic—of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and on and on and on. It reminded me of my career choice of being a children’s librarian and how much I loved story time and reading precious picture books to rapt audiences of children. It also reminded me of how busy the Kalamazoo Public Library is, the tremendous number of activities that go on there daily, and the sheer number of people who walk through the doors every day. For example, this morning I booked an appointment to the free legal clinic for a friend. The library has always been a portal for me, and Orlean expands on that sense of discovery in every way possible.

Most of all, thankfully, The Library Book is an ode to the public library and its place in the lives of the patrons and the communities in which they reside. Orlean says, “The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality. In the library, we can live forever.” Susan Orlean has a marvelous article about growing up in the library in The New Yorker, where she is a frequent contributor.

Here are a few of my favorite books about libraries: The World’s Strongest Librarian; This Book is Overdue;  and The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu. Here is also where you can find an essay I wrote several years ago about public libraries.

The Library Book is narrative non-fiction at its best.  Go to your closest library and check it out. You will love it as much as I did.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Super Hero Ethics

By Travis Smith

Templeton Press     2018
152 pages     Philosophy

The subtitle of Super Hero Ethics is: 10 comic book heroes, 10 ways to save the world. Which one do we need most now?

My husband loves superhero movies, as do two of my sons-in-law and numerous grandchildren. Until now, I have tried to stay away from the compulsive watching and the related arguing about the relative merits of one or the other superhero. When the publicist sent me Super Hero Ethics, I realized that it seemed like the next good read for my husband and me to delve into. We enjoyed reading the book very much, especially the ways in which the personalities and ethics of the ten highlighted superheroes reflect the ethical and political mores of our country—currently.

Smith, who is a political science professor at a Canadian university, seeks to look at these ten superheroes—all males, I might add—through the lens of discovering which one is most praiseworthy, whose behavior represents our highest ideals and whether they should serve as models for “admiration and emulation.” Smith says, “the book is premised on the idea that it’s not their superpowers that make superheroes so super. It is their extraordinary character, their inherent qualities that make them heroic and render them worthy of praise. . . Superheroes provide exaggerated and extraordinary representations of the qualities that human beings must cultivate in order to confront the quandaries of ordinary life.”

So, with that ethical high ground in mind, Smith compares the Hulk and Wolverine, Green Lantern and Iron Man, Batman and Spiderman, Captain America and Mister Fantastic, and Thor and Superman. Smith has an intimate relationship with the comics and movies that have fueled the history of superheroes. He looks at these superheroes through Christian eyes, although his emphasis is not overtly Christian in focus. In the last chapter, he crowns the most ethical hero.

I am a novice at this stuff, as I said. I didn’t know, for instance, that there was a rivalry between DC and Marvel, although to my credit, I had heard the name Stan Lee. I do watch the Big Bang Theory on occasion, so I am familiar with people debating superhero strengths. For a while, one of my nephews dressed only in Captain America clothing, and my little grandson is Ant Man for Halloween this year. With this book, however, I rapidly became an expert.

I had never heard of Mister Fantastic, so we watched the Fantastic Four movie the other night, and just last night we watched Thor Ragnarot so we could understand Thor a little better. Now, I am up to date and feeling really trendy since we finished the book this morning. One thing I loved about Travis Smith and Super Hero Ethics is that it was philosophical without being stuffy, and I also loved how devoted Smith is to these characters. My husband and I both agreed on Smith’s reasoning for picking the super-superhero he chose. I do wish, however, he had focused a little attention on Wonder Woman, my own personal superhero.

Super Hero Ethics is a geeky but fun read. We recommend it. One more thing—if Travis Smith uses this book in his political science or ethics classes, I’ll bet his classes fill up in a second. A lot better than the Ethics textbook I had to read.

Here is an interesting interview with Travis Smith.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance

James H. Lytle,

Susan L. Lytle,
Michael C. Johanek
And Kathy I. Rho, editors
Teachers College Press     2018
192 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

This posting is a brief look at a book on educational leadership sent to me by the publicist. Information on the book says, “This groundbreaking volume encourages today’s educational leaders to reposition the way they think about leadership and its challenges. Through essays, experienced school and district leaders reveal how they conceptualize their roles, how they learn by posing and solving problems of practice, and how they cope with increasing expectations and complexity of their work.”

There are eleven essays by educational practitioners on three basic elements of educational leadership: learning from and with students; collaborating with teachers and the school community; and leading system-level inquiry. “The argument is that when school, district, and other educational leaders position themselves as inquirers, their leadership can illuminate and improve many aspects of institutional life and create intellectually demanding and rich learning environments - for both adults and children"

Like everything else in the country, K-12 education is in a major transition, and these essays seek to understand the  challenge of looking at education from the standpoint of inquiry learning. Reading them should benefit educator leaders everywhere.

For more information, please visit 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Brother John: A Monk, A Pilgrim, and the Purpose of Life

By August Turak

Illustrated by Glenn Harrington
Clovercraft Publishing     2018
48 pages     Spiritual

August Turak is a very successful businessman and entrepreneur. In his book Brother John, he describes a time—a moment—when he experienced a life changing experience at the Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. It was a simple act of kindness that changed the entire focus of his life. He wrote about the experience for the Templeton Prize competition. It is an annual award granted to a living person who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works." He won the competition in 2004 with an essay to answer the question, “What is the purpose of life?”

The essay, telling of his ongoing relationship with the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey and especially his brief encounter with Brother John, has become an adult picture book with illustrations by artist Glenn Harrington. Both the writing and the illustrations are profound. It is easy to be distracted by the glorious illustrations and not focus on the power of the words. The book bears several readings, and I feel could be easily read aloud to a spiritual growth class for a meditation hour.

Those of us who have experienced spiritual awakenings can relate to Turak’s search for meaning and his subsequent change of heart and focus. The most important words in the entire growth experience were given to Turak on a piece of paper by his spiritual guide at the abbey, Father Christian. They said, “You would not seek Me if you had not already found Me. And you would not  have found Me if I had not first found you.” This prayer forms the spiritual basis for the entire book and forms the basis for the rest of Turak’s life.

Mepkin Abbey has continuing spiritual growth experiences for those who are searching for life’s meaning. Like Turak, visitors can come for the day or stay for a time at the abbey’s retreat center. The abbey, however, is suffering from the aging of its monks, as is explained in this New York Times article. Profits from this book will go to maintain the abbey.

I cannot stress enough how beautiful this book is. I am making a list of people that I want to share it with, starting with my spiritual sisters for our shared birthday. I am grateful to the publicist for sending it to me. It is a perfect blending of text and illustration. The book is released today.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Man Who Came Uptown

By George Pelecanos

Mulholland Books     2018
262 pages     Noir

Although The Man Who Came Uptown reads more like literary fiction than it does mystery or noir, George Pelecanos is widely understood to be a writer of crime fiction. He is also a television writer and producer. I watched two of his shows and loved them—The Wire and ‘Treme. He also wrote The Deuce.

The reason why this feels more literary than crime is that Pelecanos is an incredible storyteller who has a gift for creating believable characters with a lot of depth. Basically there are four main characters: Phil Ornazian, Thaddeus Ward, Michael Hudson, and Miss Anna. Ornazian is a private investigator who is willing and able to do bad stuff, but he feels that he is more a vigilante—killing, and robbing for the good of the community. His ethics, however, are a bit blurred, but he comes across as likable, mostly because he goes home to his wife and family every day. His partner is Thaddeus Ward, an ex-cop and now bail bondsman. Together they target criminals that they know have a lot of money. They contract some of their work; the rest they take the spoils.

Michael Hudson, on the other hand, is a nice guy who is in the county jail awaiting trial. While at the jail, he discovers literature through the gentle recommendations of the young librarian, Miss Anna. Charges are dropped through the efforts of Ornazian, and Michael returns to his mother’s home, determined to make a new start on life. He is such a believable and likable character that I was anxious to complete the book because I cared so much about him.

Of course there is crime. Ornazian reminds Michael that “he owes” him, so Michael drives for him when Ornazian and Ward go on the attack. The beauty of the book lies not so much with the plot and the crime story but with the relationship Michael develops with the librarian and with the joy Miss Anna has in recommending books to the jail prisoners. She teaches Michael to love reading through the books she recommends. The first thing he does when he gets out of jail is to buy a bookcase. Michael thinks, “When he read a book, he wasn’t in his cage anymore.” As a reader and a librarian, this brought joy to my heart.

There is a redemptive aspect of this book that moves The Man Who Came Uptown out of classic crime noir to literary fiction and moves the reader to remember the books that saved her. It was, for me, a great introduction to a wonderful author.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


By David Sedaris

Little, Brown     2018
259 pages     Humor

I have eagerly read essays by David Sedaris in his hilarious books and magazine articles over the last many years, beginning with listening to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim on a long car trip. I saw him when he came to Kalamazoo in 2011.  So, I was overjoyed when we chose Calypso for our book club this month. The reviewer in the Guardian says that his diary-essays defy description; “he’s the lone inhabitant of a category of his own invention.” Yesterday, I finished reading Calypso, and  I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it. Yes, in many ways, it is similar to his other books, but Sedaris is showing age and maturity in this collection that we have not seen before. Still funny; still ironic; still sarcastic; but just older.

The major topics of these essays are death and family. He approaches for the first time his mother’s alcoholism. We have met his mother many times in his books but her alcoholism has never been a major topic. He also talks a great deal about his aged father—with the grudging respect for the way in which his father has mellowed over the years.

Calypso is much darker and more honest that any of his other writings. Death is ever present in this volume. In the poignant story, “Now We are Five,” he tells of the first Thanksgiving at the family cottage following the suicide of his sister Tiffany. Sedaris, his siblings and their families, as well as his partner, Hugh, are trying to come to grips with what happened. Sedaris manages to put a spin on the narrative in such a way that we acknowledge their pain but smile at the way the family is able to move on. Sedaris comments, “They’ve always done that for me, my family. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

Many of the stories in this volume concern family gatherings at Sea Section, the family cottage in North Carolina. David and Hugh bought this cottage so that the family could gather several times a year. Sometimes I wonder how the family reckons with always being in the limelight of his stories. As I was reading this week, I decided to go to Google Images and see if I could find pictures of his siblings. One thing I found was an article about his brother Paul, who is a small business owner. In the article, it mentions that Paul is always having people ask him if he is related to the famous David Sedaris. Wonder how Paul felt about David writing about his liquid diet? But then, if your brother has been writing about you your entire adult life, I guess you rather get used to it.

One of the reasons that I relate so well to Sedaris is because he loves his family so much. However, in a very well-placed essay, he described how he shut his sister Tiffany out of his life. He is as shocked by his action as we, the readers, are. We who are close to our family would say, "I could never do that!" but then we have never shared that life experience.

Well, most of you know David Sedaris and his writing. The reviewer in the New Your Times says it best. “The brilliance of David Sedaris’s writing is that his very essence, his aura, seeps through the pages of his book like an intoxicating cloud, mesmerizing us so that his logic becomes ours.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food

By Arlene B. Englander

Rowman and Littlefield     2018
167 pages     Health and Wellness
The Shortlist

The subtopic for the book, Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food, is “A five-point plan for success.” And indeed it is exactly that. This is not a diet plan; there is no connected cookbook; and there is no daily eating guideline. Englander is a psychotherapist so she approaches the problem of overeating from the standpoint of the emotions. She helps her readers learn how to savor meals as a way to relearn how to eat to promote health and wellness. She uses the mnemonic device SELF to help develop awareness and growth. It includes stress, exercise, love your food, fluids and healthy foods.

Here is what Englander says about why she wrote this book: Let Go Of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food: A Five Point Plan for Success is meant to help those who’d love to eat what they like yet be able to stop just at the point of satisfaction without overeating. By learning the difference between healthy eating (which is eating for pleasure and the satisfaction of hunger) and emotionally overeating (eating to distract ourselves from painful thoughts and feelings ), we can learn to eat in a healthier more satisfying way. What’s equally important is to learn to successfully cope with stress away from the table, so we can actually find more pleasure in and more control of, not only our eating experiences, but our lives, as well.

I read this book before a two week “taking care of myself” challenge to my wellness. Through my entire adult life, I have dieted, lost and gained, been alternately disgusted and proud of myself, and been emotional about it. Reading Englander’s book was a great start to a new chapter in my healthfulness. Easy to read and understand. Lots of good ideas.

Publisher’s Weekly review.
The book’s trailer.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Burn Zone: A Memoir

By Renee Linnell

She Writes Press     2018
305 pages     Memoir

Here is a quick summary of the book.

"After seven years of faithfully following her spiritual teacher, Renee Linnell finally realized she was in a cult and had been severely brainwashed. But how did that happen to someone like her? She had graduated magna cum laude with a double degree. She had traveled to nearly fifty countries alone before she turned thirty-five. She was a surf model and a professional Argentine tango dancer. She had started five different companies and had an MBA from NYU. How could someone like her end up brainwashed and in a cult?"

Many people search for spiritual belonging. And when you find a space or a group or a church/synagogue/mosque where you are comfortable, a great longing can be satisfied. Renee Linnell’s journey is no exception to this understanding. She says in the preface, “The only way to true joy, to true bliss, to true freedom, is to begin the work of uncovering our real selves—to chip away at the parts of us that are false, the fa├žade we created to please our parents, the mask we built so the world would approve of us.”  The trick, however, is to know when the group is asking too much of you, when your life has lost its sense of proportion, or when you cannot function without the group.

“All my life I had been searching.” Thus begins Renee’s journey with a meditation guru and what she came to realize was a spirituality cult. It took a great amount of determination for Renee to finally realize that she needed to be in control of her own selfhood and her own destiny.  My experience, although not broad, is expansive enough that I have known several people who have been drawn to people or groups that promise them answers for their searching and questioning. My own brother and his then-girlfriend were drawn to the Children of God, a major cult of the 1970s. While they voluntarily left after several months, my brother’s good friend and his family stayed in the group for about 10 years and had to have help getting resettled when the cult dissolved.

Not all searching results in cult-like fervor or people becoming totally wrapped up in an organization or a cult. The reader gathers, however, that Renee gives 1000% to everything she does in her life, so going headfirst into the University of Mysticism seems like something she would do.

Renee Linnell’s memoir is a cautionary tale about finding purpose in life, asking appropriate questions, finding balance, and knowing when enough is enough. Great writing, great story, great reading.

Renee Linnell’s website.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover

Random House     2018
335 pages     Memoir

I finished Tara Westover’s powerful memoir, Educated, completely stunned—encouraged and heartbroken all at the same time. This morning the NY Times bestseller list has it listed at #2, and it has been on the bestseller list for 30 weeks. Obviously, it has struck a chord with the book-reading parts of the country. Perhaps it is the writing; perhaps the narrative; perhaps it is because of the controversy it has engendered. I waited to post my feelings about the book until after I had the conversation with my book group on Thursday evening. I wanted to hear what they had to say—women whose opinions I trust implicitly.

Much has been written about this memoir. It is, in brief, the story of a young woman’s understanding of her upbringing in a survivalist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. Her mother is a midwife and herbalist; her father runs a scrap yard and builds barns and sheds in the community. Other than church, the seven children in the family had little access or understanding of the outside world, because they were homeschooled. Yet, Tara and two of her brothers were so intellectually motivated that they went on to higher education. Tara, herself, gained a PhD from Cambridge University.
In part, the memoir is a horror story of a child’s memories of all the terrible things that happened—car accidents and work accidents, all of which were treated by herbal therapies and home remedies, and never with a trip to the doctor. Chief among the memories are those of a mentally unstable older brother who physically abused Tara and the other younger siblings.

Yet, Tara persisted. She had (and has) a beautiful singing voice, and had the opportunity to work with the local community theater, something that made her father really proud. She taught herself enough math to pass the college admissions exam, and graduated from Brigham Young University. After time at Cambridge and Harvard, she finished a PhD in history in 2014.

One of my book club members pointed out that Tara continued to return home to her family—over and over—until she realized that the relationship was so very toxic with her parents and her siblings that she could no longer survive if she continued. So, other than keeping in contact with her two PhD brothers and their families, she remains estranged from her family.

Here are some takeaways from the book. One is that a person can be so cloistered within a family and community that she thinks this is what the world is. As an example, it wasn’t until Tara went to college that she had any notion of the holocaust, or basic geography. Additionally, her father’s authoritarianism was so all-consuming and narcissistic, it took a basic class in psychology for Tara to realize that her father might be suffering from schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. When all you read is the Bible or the Book of Mormon, your view of the world is so very limited.

Then, it is apparent that each family member has a selective version of what actually happened within their family dynamic. The fact that Tara’s parents were not able to see her brother’s mental illness and the earnestness by which they defended him and how they couldn’t see how debilitating it was for Tara just made the reader want to scream, “Please help him! Please help her!” Yet, when the book came out, Tara’s other siblings expressed views about their childhood that were quite different from hers. Of course, this is quite common—certainly my siblings have totally different memories about our childhood than I do. The editors very wisely did a great deal of fact checking before the book was released.

A great blog posting on the Sylvan Sanctuary blog summarizes Educated in great depth, but the author also has found the other sibling’s negative comments about the book, and the family’s lawyer has even gotten into the act disputing the way she remembers her life on the mountain. Nothing, however, can take away from the riveting narration and the very skilled writing. It is a book you just can’t put down.

Earlier this summer, I read and wrote about The Gospel of Trees, the memoir of a girl who grew up in a missionary family in Haiti. The two books make great companion pieces about the psychological damage that too much religious fervor can make on a young woman’s soul.

Educated was the PBS book club book for the month of May. Here Tara is singing a favorite hymn on the PBS Newshour. Also the review in New York Times.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


By Andy Weir

Broadway Books 2017
320 pages     Science Fiction

Ever wondered what life will be like on the moon after it is settled and developed? Andy Weir explores this intriguing notion with his futuristic novel, Artemis—his follow-up the highly successful The Martian. My husband and I watched The Martian, and I suggested that we read Artemis as our morning read aloud. It was more fun for me than I anticipated, being that I am no big fan of science fiction, and the main reason is because I enjoyed getting acquainted with the protagonist and heroine, Jasmine Bashara--Jazz. My husband enjoyed it for the science.

Jazz and her father, a welder, had come to live on the moon from Saudi Arabia when Jazz was a little girl, so she really had known no other home. The reader readily acknowledges that Jazz is really smart, but she has chosen a “career” as a smuggler and porter. In an attempt to make enough money to move to larger living quarters, she signs on to commit a huge crime that involves sabotaging the colony’s aluminum factory.

Jazz is a fun character, but she is really the only fully realized character. I rather enjoyed her crass take on life, but I also appreciated her brilliance and ingenuity. Jazz really knows her science and totally understands the ways in which science is at play in everything that happens on Artemis. She uses her innate knowledge to her advantage as she undertakes the crime at hand. The other characters are only important as far as they supplement what Jazz is doing. There is a lot of rough language, but we felt that it was appropriate and probably essential to the character development. I kept wondering what actress will play Jazz when they make the movie.

The backdrop for the adventure, the small bubble-town of Artemis, is very skillfully set. The details are so clear that the reader can visualize exactly where every event is taking place and can follow the plot explicitly. All the details that made The Martian such a big hit are readily present in Artemis. It makes the novel flow easily and the morning read alouds a lot of fun.

The major strength of the novel is how accessible the author makes the science. It was one of the things that made my husband keep reading. He wants to know the facts, and Weir delivers the real world facts that keep the plot moving. The NPR reviewer says, “In keeping with the book’s matter-of-fact storytelling, characters keep flatly telling Jazz she’s brilliant and talented. But that comes across more believably when she’s contriving a clever way to disable an aggressive remote-controlled rock harvester, or open a jammed valve from inside a sealed environmental bubble.”