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 façade 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.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

French Exit

By Patrick deWitt

Ecco     2018
256 pages     Literary

Frances Price is a New York socialite with a adult son, Malcolm, who lives with her, and a family cat, Small Frank, who apparently is the spirit of Frances’ dead husband, Franklin. Frances is everything you could imagine a 65-year-old socialite to be: sharp-tongued, full of preconceptions, and mannerisms. She delights in “implied insults and needling insinuations.” As an example, Frances doesn’t like Malcolm’s fiancé because she once ordered gazpacho out of season.

A scandal has defined Frances through the years in New York society. She had returned home and found her husband Frank dead in bed. Instead of calling the police, Frances went skiing for the weekend—because there wasn’t anything to be done about it. Now, Frances has no one but her son and one friend, Joan. She also has just a limited amount of money and decides to sell her apartment and move to France to live in Joan’s Paris apartment.

A French exit, by the way, means to leave a social gathering without saying your farewells. And in the first, really funny scene, she does exactly that. However, for Frances, the meaning of French exit has a slightly sinister tone to it. She actually plans to exit herself once she gets to Paris. “Sometimes the world corrected itself, she knew this, for it had so many times in her past. She understood intuitively that it would not correct itself now, though.” In other words, Frances is bored with life and wants to make her own “French exit.”

Why Malcolm joins her in Paris is one of the unanswered questions in the book. Is he so spineless that he has to follow his mother around endlessly? And indeed he does, leaving behind a fiancée who is not sure why she loves him. Susan, Malcolm’s fiancée, wonders why she had “come to care for this lugubrious toddler of a man.”

Well, once they get to Paris, they collect a cadre of crazy people, including a psychic, who calls the presence of Frances’ husband from the cat, a private investigator, a doctor named Touche, and a great cook who feeds them souffles and cocktails. Friend Joan arrives at her apartment, and she is soon followed by Malcolm’s fiancée Susan and her new boyfriend. Chaos ensues. These scenes have been compared to a Noel Coward comedy of manners. French Exit may best be called a tragic comedy, because although there is always a comic turn to everything, we know from the very beginning tragedy is just around the corner. The NPR reviewer suggests that you can’t take anything too seriously, because if you do, the entire novel falls apart.

Frankly, once I got into the premise of French Exit, I enjoyed all of it. The New Yorker calls the novel “stealth absurdism.” It took me a bit to realize that was what I was reading, but when I figured it out, I settled in and just went along for the ride. Patrick deWitt has written books in several genres, but this is his first comedy of manners. Out now,  movie The Sisters Brothers is a slapstick Western starring inept outlaws. The movie is based on another of deWitt's novels. I really wanted to see the movie before I wrote the review of French Exit, but the movie hasn’t come to Kalamazoo yet.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Liza Jane and the Dragon

By Laura Lippman

Illustrated by Kate Samworth
Akashic Books     2018
32 pages              Picture Book

Liza Jane is upset with her parents. Even though her life is excellent, with a canopy bed, pizza and a movie on Friday nights, and plenty of pretend dress-up clothes, Liza Jane feels put upon. She thinks her parents don’t listen to her or care about her feelings. So she fires them and hires a dragon who promises to do everything for her that her parents don’t do—like order pizza on nights other than Friday. However, the dragon doesn’t obey Liza Jane's commands perfectly, so she fires him and hires her parents back.

I read this book with 7-year-old Adela, my granddaughter, who is never hesitant to add her opinion to a discussion. We both felt that Liza Jane had to be 7-years-old. She thought Liza Jane sounded just like her, and I felt that Lippman got  7-year-old sassiness and sense of injustice down pat.  Adela and I were both only mildly intrigued by the plot line, and not at all sure why a dragon was who Liza Jane should have hired. The dragon is as sassy as Liza and absolutely as annoying as she is.

The illustrations are cute with Liza Jane and the dragon in bright colors and the background in sepia. Because of the sepia tones, I didn’t even notice the first time through that Liza Jane is biracial—her father is white, and mother is African American. This is definitely not a book about female empowerment, but basically about a bratty little girl and her bratty dragon.

In other words, I would not consider Liza Jane and the Dragon to be a necessary purchase. Cute but not essential.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Dead Cats and Other Reflections on Parenthood

By Jesse McKinnell

Shine Box Publishing     2018
215 pages     Fiction

I have spent several days trying to come to terms with what I want to say in this posting about Dead Cats. I can’t answer the question over whether I liked it or not—although I am not sure that the author Jesse McKinnell cares whether I “liked” it. Frankly, it is not a book one "likes."

Do you remember Orin Scrivello, the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors? Well, Joel Peterson, the protagonist in Dead Cats, reminded me a lot of Orin. He is sadistic, abusive, and drug addicted—and a dentist. One of the first scenes in Dead Cats concerns Dr. Peterson torturing patients while under the influence. He mentions: “Here’s a little-known fact: Dentists have all the good drugs. Here’s another one: It’s really easy for some of these delicious little vials to get lost.” Unlike Orin, however, Dr. Peterson doesn’t drive a motorcycle; he drives a Porsche, which he wrecks early in the novel.

Everything starts to go downhill with the death of the family cat, Friskers. In the silliest first scene in all of literature, Dr. Peterson drives over the cat with the aforementioned Porsche. Peterson has already been banished to the guest house behind the main house where his estranged wife and two young daughters live, but when the little girls see their father kill the cat, his wife Mary files for divorce.The divorce court scene with the dead cat in attendance is equally ridiculous.

Oh, and then there is Kurt Cobain, the dead rocker, who is a constant presence in Peterson’s life and seems to guide Peterson’s every downward movement. The reader can’t tell whether Cobain is trying to save Peterson or save himself. At the point Cobain enters, the plot moves from funny to pathetic. I really hoped that Peterson could come to his senses and try to put his life back together, and occasionally the reader glimpses a future. At one point, I thought that Peterson might be in a coma after his accident and the rest of the plot was just  a convoluted dream that Peterson might wake from to solve every problem. Finished the book still hoping for that conclusion.

The redeeming grace of the novel is the writing. It is strong—alternating between extremely funny and extremely grotesque. Couldn’t decide. This is McKinnell's first novel. McKinnell says that he dreamed the plot of Dead Cats. All I can say is that it must have been quite a dream!

Here is an interview with McKinnell by one of the book’s reviewers.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Praise Song for the Butterflies

By Bernice L. McFadden

Akashic Books     2018
244 pages     Literary Fiction

Praise Song for the Butterflies is my first exposure to author, Bernice McFadden, although she is the author of nine previous novels and the winner of several awards. Her books primarily deal with the experiences of the African American community, and Praise Song moves the experience from the United States to Africa and back.

The novel begins with a rather startling 2009 stabbing in Harlem by a woman named Abeo, who we learn is married with two children. This scene is designed to capture the reader’s attention, which it does immediately. The shock is real; wow! I didn’t see that coming!

The book then moves to “before” in 1978 when Abeo Kata is a young girl in Port Masi, Ukemby, a fictional African country situated between Ghana and Togo. Abeo’s family are substantial members of the community; her father Wasik a government employee, and her mother, Isme, a stay-at-home mother of Abeo and a baby boy. They are practicing Catholics having been converted in their village, but when Wasik’s mother came from the village to live with them after her husband died, the climate in the home changed. Wasik’s mother believes in the Gods of the countryside, and when Wasik is accused of  unethical behavior at work and put on leave, his mother encourages him to take Abeo to the priest out in the countryside shrine to appease the Gods. The next section of the book concerns Abeo’s horrendous 15-year-experience as a ritual shrine slave, a tradition called Trokosi.  Abeo is completely broken in body and spirit when she is rescued by an American woman who has made it her mission to rescue the girls in Trokosi slavery and offer them hope and a new life.

The theme of the book follows a quotation of Charles Dickens; “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.” The plot moves swiftly and the chapters are short, a compelling format that keeps the reader’s sadness and anxiety at bay a bit. At the end of the novel, we are thoroughly engrossed in Abeo’s new life and her butterfly-like freedom, so when we return to the stabbing in Harlem, we understand fully why it must happen. We are finally honored to see a young woman, one who has survived unspeakable pain, become a woman of grace and courage.

I loved this book. I had been exposed to ritual slavery in some other books, but McFadden’s writing style as well as the length of the book made reading about this horrendous practice bearable and enlightening. It also expresses the indomitability of the human experience and gives the reader the courage to face her own life tragedies. I appreciate so much being introduced to Bernice McFadden by the publisher. I appreciate so much getting to know Abeo Kata.

Praise Song for the Butterflies will be published on Tuesday, August 28.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Third Hotel

By Laura van den Berg

Farrar, Straus & Giroux     2018
224 pages     Fiction

I have spent 3 days reading The Third Hotel, and I have no idea what I have just finished. One reviewer called it “strange, unsettling, and profound from start to finish.” Ok. I believe that.

Don’t quite know where to start. Here is the summary:
“In Havana, Cuba, a widow tries to come to terms with her husband’s death―and the truth about their marriage―in Laura van den Berg’s surreal, mystifying story of psychological reflection and metaphysical mystery.
Shortly after Clare arrives in Havana, Cuba, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema, she finds her husband, Richard, standing outside a museum. He’s wearing a white linen suit she’s never seen before, and he’s supposed to be dead. Grief-stricken and baffled, Clare tails Richard, a horror film scholar, through the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, clocking his every move. As the distinction between reality and fantasy blurs, Clare finds grounding in memories of her childhood in Florida and of her marriage to Richard, revealing her role in his death and reappearance along the way.” 

Yeah! I told you. The Third Hotel is strange and unsettling. I looked up the definition of magical realism in my search to put a name on the genre in which the book might fit. Wikipedia defines it this way: “a genre of narrative fiction that, while encompassing a range of subtly different concepts, expresses a primarily realistic view of the real world while also adding or revealing magical elements.” I believe this fits the bill, although in many ways, van den Berg’s writing defies categorization.

At its heart The Third Hotel is a meditation on grief and loss. Clare has just lost her husband Richard. Her level of grief is profound, and when she sees him from a distance in Havana, she follows him as she seeks answers to all the unanswered questions of her life and marriage. When she finally meets up with him and they take a journey into the mountains of Cuba, the mystery that is her husband is amplified and her grief is compounded rather than appeased. The reader never comes to a conclusion about who or what Clare is seeing when she discovers Richard; is he a ghost, a doppelganger? “She ordered herself to stop recognizing him, since what she was recognizing was plainly impossible, but then she crept closer and saw just how possible it was.”

What is absolutely certain is that Laura van den Berg is an incredible writer. The setting, the imagery, and the language is absolutely breathtaking. I loved the descriptions of Cuba, and I felt like I was on the scene every moment, even if I didn’t quite see Richard like Clare did (or did she actually see Richard?). We are so very clearly exposed to the inner workings of Clare’s mind; “the gap between her inner reality and the world around felt so enormous she feared she was going to be swallowed up.” All the way through the novel, we are privvy to Clare’s inner reality. We are never sure what to believe—what she is seeing. One of my favorite lines relating to Clare is: “the ice cube she had pressed against her heart in childhood was proving slow to thaw.”

The New York Times reviewer cautions the reader looking for noir, a mystery, or a thriller. He says,  “Don’t take the bait when “The Third Hotel” starts voguing like a thriller. Instead, read it as the inscrutable future cult classic it probably is, and let yourself be carried along by its twisting, unsettling currents.

In his praise for the novel and its author, the Washington Post reviewer says, “The most transforming kind of fiction is capable of causing a dislocation of reality: a bit of the bizarre, a lot kept beneath the surface and worlds opening within worlds.”

I recommend The Third Hotel with caution. Look out so that you don’t become crazed trying to figure out the plot; rejoice in the vivid descriptions of Cuba and the incredible writing; and breathe a sigh of relief when it is finished—if indeed it is finished. 

Additionally, I am done reading about grief-stricken widows for a while. I feel like my summer has been filled with their stories. On to other stuff. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the Corner of the Oval

By Beck Dorey-Stein

Spiegel & Grau     2018
352 pages     Memoir

“This place. This place. This place could break your heart.” With this poignant reminder, Beck Dorey-Stein begins her memoir of the five years (2012-2016) she spent as a stenographer in President Barack Obama’s White House. Beck, short for Rebecca, got the job through a rather unimaginable way. She had been working as a tutor and teacher at the Sidwell School, where the Obama girls went to school, but in an attempt to move on, she answered a Craigslist ad for a stenographer at a Washington law firm. Surprising, she finds during the second interview that it isn’t a job at a law firm at all, but a job transcribing notes “from the corner of the oval” office. Over the ensuing years, she kept meticulous notes of this incredible experience, fully aware that she was part of history in the making.

At once extremely funny and gut-wrenching, Dorey-Stein describes the men she dated (and bedded), the places she was privileged to visit, and the great friends she made among the White House staff. Once she is confident in her position and her gift for writing, she shares her reflections with White House staffers, and they all encourage her to become an author.  While she is critical of the “ladder-climbing bobbleheads” that make up a great deal of the Washington young adults, she is clear-eyed about her own experiences among those bobbleheads.

I stopped counting the number of times that Jason, the scoundrel, came to Beck’s hotel room on Presidential trips. And I laughed aloud when she was afraid that Jay Carney thought her hair straightening machine was a vibrator or the time she forgot her underwear and mentioned, “Today I’ll be traveling commando with the commander in chief.” Throughout, you never forget that Dorey-Stein is a young woman who parties a lot, drinks too much, and is far too critical of herself and her failings.

I was already feeling tremendously nostalgic for a president of integrity, grace, and humor when I opened From The Corner of the Oval. This account of Obama’s second term from the eyes of his stenographer just made watching Omarosa expose details about the Trump White House all the more painful. Dorey-Stein witnessed some of the greatest moments in the Obama years. I almost cried when she told about watching the speech after the church shootings in Charleston when Obama broke into singing “Amazing Grace.” I was touched when on Dorey-Stein’s birthday, her friends got her a ride on the Presidential helicopter and the President told her about how he met Michelle. Ah—the humanity of the man, and the humility with which he faced his job.

The most interesting review came from Paul Begala who calls it “equal parts C-Span and ‘Sex and the City.’” Other former White House staffers have expressed their impressions of this memoir, but as Begala says, you just keep rooting for Beck to succeed, become a writer (which, of course, she has) and find love. This is not a book about Obama policy or Obama wins and losses, but it  charmingly relates the brief interactions Dorey-Stein had with a wonderful man. The reader ends up being sad that the presidency is currently a laughing stock and longing, like Dorey-Stein does, for those glory days when a beautiful family brought honor to the office of President of the United States.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Becoming Starlight: A Shared Death Journey from Darkness to Light

By Sharon Prentice PhD

Waterside Press     2018
185 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Although I only read parts of Becoming Starlight by Sharon Prentice, I wanted to share the book with you. It seems that currently there are a plethora of books about grief and the death of spouses and partners. Frankly, I was burned out before Becoming Starlight came from the publicist. I just couldn't relive my own grief journey again. This book, however, appears to be particularly meaningful. The theme of Prentice's memoir is grief as a spiritual journey. Prentice has a “shared death” experience at the moment of her husband’s death. Here is a summary of the book.

“Becoming Starlight is the true story of one woman’s tumultuous relationship with God during the soul-wrenching deaths of her daughter and husband, and her eventual redemption as her soul slipped over to another framework of existence—a realm of pure love and light—by means of a Shared Death Experience (SDE) at the moment of her husband’s death. 

The little known Shared Death Experience—a profound transcendent consciousness—afforded the author a peek into forever-ness, a lifting of the veil between this life and the next.

Deeply embedded in Becoming Starlight is a life-and-death struggle with Spiritual darkness and loss of faith. It’s a story brimming with the stuff of life—tremendous love, agonizing loss, quiet rage, inconsolable sorrow, and a complete fall from Grace. At the heart of it is a war between who lives and dies, a battle that brings us face to face with our own mortality.”

As well as telling the story, the concept of shared death is explored and many examples are given from Prentice’s life experience. In my own experience with death, I know that there are people who wish to die in the presence of family, thus sharing the experience. I also know that there are people who choose to die when they are alone—making death a singular experience. This would be the case for my father, who waited until it was quiet and he was alone. My husband waited until his whole family was in the room. I said, “You can go now. Everyone is here.” And everyone in the room saw and felt his spirit leave his body in a whoosh. This is the type of experience Prentice describes in great detail in her memoir.

If this book has resonance for you, here are some other books that I have read and written about—these are the most recent.

·         Waiting for You at Midnight by Vicki Salloum
·         You Are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler
·         Grief Works by Julia Samuel

Here is Sharon Prentice’s website.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Me and My Fear

By Francesca Sanna

Flying Eye Books     2018
40 pages     Picture Book/Children

My love affair with Francesca Sanna, her books and her illustrations, continues with Me and my Fear. Two years ago, Sanna published the outstanding book, The Journey, about refugees beginning the journey to safety. This new book, also beautifully illustrated, finds our little girl, now an immigrant, facing her fears as she reaches a new home, a new language, a new school, and no friends. Fear becomes her constant companion, and “she” (her fear) keeps growing and growing. The character, fear, is a white blob with a face. It grows and takes up the whole room, but then shrinks as the girl learns to deal with her fear. The breakthrough comes when she makes her first friend at school.

I read Me and My Fear with my granddaughter, Adela, age 7. I did have to explain to her that the white ghost-looking blob was a representation of the idea of fear. Once that was understood, Adela felt that the book was wonderful. We talked some about a girl in her class who had moved to Kalamazoo from Czechoslovakia and couldn’t speak any English. We wondered if she had the same kind of fears as the little girl in the book.

I told her that one of my current fears was falling and breaking something. I said that it was a common fear for older people. “Grandma, you’re not old!” she said. But when I asked her what her fear was, she quite surprised me by saying that she was afraid that her mommy and daddy might die and leave her and her brother alone. I told her she was experiencing  a common childhood fear, but she had a big family and if something were to happen to her parents, there would be lots of people to take care of her and her brother.

I believe that Me and My Fear is a great follow-up to The Journey. I think that it has many classroom applications, and should be used in classrooms where there are immigrant and refugee children. As with my granddaughter, some great discussion can follow for individual readers and classrooms.  The Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “this creative depiction shows how friendship, empathy, and connection can help bring the overwhelming down to size for all.”

Friday, August 3, 2018

Collaboration: The Ways We Work Together

By Tomas Moniz and Alicia Dornadic

AK Press      2018
38 pages     Children nonfiction

Collaboration is a charming book, in both English and Spanish. It describes the manner in which the we work and play with each other and with the world around us.  It is designed for children in the early elementary grades. I read it in English with my granddaughter Adela, who is going into the second grade.

First we discussed the term collaboration, then we read the book, and then we discussed the ways in which she collaborates. She happens to be attending a summer day camp that her mother is running for a bunch of elementary school children, so she had lots of examples of collaboration. Her analysis of the book was that the words could help children understand how people work together, but she felt that some of the pictures were difficult to decipher. They are watercolors, rather monochromatic, and do need some interpretation. We also talked about how reviewing this book for my blog was also a collaboration.

My favorite lines were “the way you turn the page and I read the words and we dream the story.” I loved the thought “we dream the story.” Adela’s favorite page was “the way you sing the words I make the beat we make music.” She had just come from singing at a nursing home with her other grandma and the children from the day camp. They collaborated with guitars, drums, and a viola!

We would recommend this book for classrooms—particularly bilingual classrooms. My daughter will use it in her classroom this school year as she teaches her school children to work together.

The publisher AK Press, is primarily a publisher of adult books. This is their first foray in children’s book. It’s a meaningful start.

Maybe Congress should be sent copies and Adela will come and explain collaboration to them!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Baby Teeth

By Zoje Stage

St. Martin’s Press     2018
320 pages     Thriller/Horror

Why, oh, why did I ever start Baby Teeth? That was the question I asked myself over and over as I sat transfixed, suffering along with Suzette, a mother living in fear of her young daughter, Hanna. The plot summary of the book is almost beside the point, but here it is from the Amazon website.

The trials of parenthood are known to all: the sleepless nights, the teething, and the tantrums. In Baby Teeth, mom Suzette faces an additional trial: a young daughter, Hanna, who makes Wednesday Addams look positively angelic. Hanna is besotted with her father and violently opposed to sharing him with her mother. Withdrawn, refusing to speak, she’s waging a campaign of terror with Suzette as the prime target. But, apart from issues at school that Dad is able to excuse away, he sees no evidence of the terror his wife reports and stands ready to defend his silent angel, even against her mom. It’s the classic bad seed setup, but author Zoje Stage ups the ante, using alternating chapters to devastating effect. The swings from Suzette's panicked attempts to right the ship and fix her daughter to Hanna's chilling interior monologues drive much of the suspense in this creepy thriller. And the alternating chapter setup allows Hanna the last words, words which left me open-mouthed. Ever wanted to shout, “He’s behind you!” at a horror movie in a theater? Well, Baby Teeth may leave you wanting to howl something similar at the pages of a book.

The Hanna chapters are the most devastating because the reader is exposed to the machinations of a truly depraved mind—in a brilliant 7-year-old. At one point Hanna muses: “she knew how adults thought. They liked what they could see right in front of them, solid things. They encouraged imagination but hated anything imaginary. Hanna knew they didn’t understand how reality was malleable. It flowed on a wave in front of Hanna’s eyes, and she could choose to be outside or within it.” This, of course, is not how an ordinary child would think—but Hanna is not an ordinary child. For one thing, when she finally speaks to her mother, it is with the French accent of a child burned at the stake as a witch. No wonder Suzette is totally freaked out.

An excellent essay in the New York Times by Ruth Franklin looks at books and movies about “bad seeds.” Franklin references The Bad Seed and We Need To Talk About Kevin but particularly discusses how the mothers are the ones who suffer the worst from evil children, because the fairly absentee father can only see what is presented to him when he returns from work in the evening. In the case of Baby Teeth, he only sees his loving and adoring daughter, and all the evil Suzette reports to him seem to have no reality.

Is Suzette to blame for this evil child? Franklin asks this question as she explores how Hanna and the other psychopathic children of literature got that way? “Are some children simply born evil?” This was the thought that haunted me as I turned the last pages of the book.  Recently, my daughter who teaches in a public preschool had a 4-year-old boy in her afternoon class who was truly psychotic. By the time he came to my daughter’s classroom in February, he had already been kicked out of three other schools. He became her only charge when he was in attendance, and she had to monitor all his craziness—from manipulating his classmates, to horrendous fits, to the time he tried to strangle her. There were many days when the principal had to be in the classroom with my daughter because the boy was too manic to be contained. Eventually he was referred to mental health professionals and sent home for the rest of the school year. Like Suzette, this little boy’s mother was afraid of him and was helpless to know what to do. 

There are moments when every parent thinks that they are going crazy; there are moments when children lose control. For some children, fit throwing is a way of life, and this is the type of fear that Zoje Stage exploits in Baby Teeth. Is my fit-throwing child OK, or is there something wrong with him/her. Hopefully, none of them are like Hanna.

Here is Zoje Stage’s website. This is her first published novel and has received tremendous reviews.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Waiting For You at Midnight

By Vicki Salloum

Moonshine Cove     2018
240 pages     Fiction

In Waiting For You At Midnight, Vicki Salloum’s intimate look at grief is raw and very real—so real, in fact, that the reader forgets that it is a novel.

When Arabella Joseph’s husband Logan died of cancer in 2015, she is overcome with grief and fear. She muses, “What am I going to do without you? That is the quintessential question. How can I live a life without you? I am without any defenses. I am scared and alone and in pain.”

The narrative alternates between Arabella’s remembrances of her relationship with Logan and her struggles to move forward with her life after his death. She feels that she was only a whole person when she was with him and she initially has no understanding of what to do and when to do it.

Arabella is a writer, but also a long-time recovered alcoholic/drug addict, so her associates and friends are the people that she meets at the recovery meetings she attends on a nearly daily basis. She looks to the people in the group for friendship and companionship, but her grief and longing is so intense that she is worried that she will relapse. The relationships are powerful, and many of her recovery friends are very supportive and helpful to her. A couple of the men she meets at the meetings are interested in a relationship with her, but they also carry a great deal of baggage.

I was particularly interested in her contemplation on grief and loss. I understood the tragic journey a spouse takes when his/her partner is suffering from cancer—the dissociation, the anger, the unspeakable inability to “solve the problem.” My favorite parts, however, have less to do with Arabella’s struggles after Logan’s death than with the beautiful story of their relationship—how they found each other, how the accepted each other’s failings, and how they grew a loving and engaged marriage.

I wondered about why she wanted to have another relationship so quickly, and why she chose such damaged men to anticipate having a relationship with. Her loneliness was palpable, but the book’s climax doesn’t offer any relief from the pain which continues beyond the book’s climax. The book just stops.

This is not a cheerful book nor is it easy to read. I began it at the beach but had to put it away until I was in a more appropriate setting at home. I did, however, email the author, because in the bio it said that her husband had recently died, and the book was dedicated to him and his life. I asked her why she chose to write a novel rather than a memoir. Here is what she said: I choose to write my book as fiction because only part of it is autobiographical.  A big part of it is imagination.  Several major events in the book did not happen and many characters in the book, through inspired by people I know, were made up.  When I write, I sometimes start off with what I know and then, working in the unconscious, the imagination takes over and the result is an imaginary world that is only partly autobiographical.  However, in Waiting for You at Midnight, the voice and mood are very real.  The book, written as fiction, accomplished what I wanted it to:  it served as a tribute to my husband.  My love for him was in that book and that's all that counts.”

The value of Waiting for You at Midnight lies in its ability to help the reader understand the depth of the grief experience. At times, it almost was so close to my own grief experience that I had to catch my breath. Another book that is similar in tone but a memoir is You are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler.