Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Book of Life

By Stuart Nadler
New York, Back Bay Books, 2011
182 pages    Short Stories

Big title—intimate stories. Stuart Nadler has assembled seven of his stories about modern Jewish life in The Book of Life. Actually these are seven stories primarily about modern Jewish men. One review of the book that I particularly enjoyed was by a Milwaukee bookseller. He says that Nadler’s men (boys as he calls them) are haunted by five things: family, faith, career, libido and hairline. All of these are stories of men at life’s crossroads, facing difficult decisions or suffering from the consequences of decisions made. All are filled with angst. The reader is able to identify with the stories because the situations are universal and the emotions raw.

My favorite story, and one of the most poignant, is The Moon Landing, in which two brothers clean out their parent’s home following their deaths. Both parents had been heavy drinkers, which is how the narrator remembers his childhood. He speaks of the liquor cabinet as “the center of this house, our own Ark of the Covenant.” 

The brothers are not friends; the narrator a screenwriter and recovering alcoholic living in California and the other brother, a lawyer in Boston. The narrator had not been home in 25 years; the younger brother was the good son, who visited his parents on weekends. Both are full of regret as they attempt to dismantle the house and their parent’s lives while maintaining their distance and their resolve …”the evidence of a childhood spent perfecting the art of psychological camouflage…the sort of survival skills we learned in this house.”

The memories of their parents overwhelm them as they work, both the good memories and the bad. The two men have grown so far apart that all they have in common are their parents and their childhood, and as they empty the house, they fight against the painful trigger responses that guided them into their adulthood. It is a touching story, and it is a story that we know—certainly those of us who have cleaned out a parent’s house with our siblings. I continue to be amazed at how childhood experiences and parental misguidance haunt us well into adulthood.

I connected with this story in a very visceral way because of things that were happening in my own family. A relative had just finished a court hearing in which she had her mother committed to a treatment center for drugs and alcohol. At the same time, she was cleaning out her mother’s house. She recounted to me the painful ways in which she tried to keep her equilibrium while she dealt with everything that was swirling around her. The Moon Landing by Stuart Nadler helped me understand her reality a little better. 

Stuart Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and this is his first book. He says of these stories that “they all reflect what had become by then (for him) serious preoccupations with religious identity, cultural assimilation, morality and sin and of course the enduring difficulties between fathers and sons.” 

There has been early praise for his work. The review in Shelf Awareness says, “A dazzling debut short story collection replete with characters wrestling with guilt and regret but fighting for lives with humor, spirit and the odd transgression.” Kirkus Reviews calls him “a writer’s writer.” I received this book in an ebook form from the publicist.

If you enjoy short stories, you might also appreciate American Salvage written by Kalamazoo author Bonnie Jo Campbell. It was short-listed for the National Book Award, and I read it and blogged about it last year.
Stuart Nadler’s website:

Monday, September 26, 2011

In Honor of Banned Book Week: My Experience with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Librarians are the primary champions of the right to read in the United States. Because I spent most of my career as a children’s librarian, my support of the right to read was primarily cerebral, but about half way through my career, there was a movement to question the books in our library. The first challenges came from an area church in the form of a list. Our first inclination that this was happening came when a parent helper arrived with a list one day and began to make a pile of books that had witches in them, including Strega Nona by Tomie dePaolo, Hansel and Gretel, and other fairy tale books. She told us that these were evil books and shouldn’t be in our library.

This particular challenge burned out rather quickly; the parents just made their wishes known, and I told them that if they didn’t want their children reading books with witches in them, they needed to tell them not to pick those books. I had no intention of removing classic children’s literature from our library.

Several years later, I experienced the only real challenge of my entire career. A third grader checked out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. This is a retelling of several urban legends and old scary tales. Included in the book is the old story about the couple who are parked in a recreation area parking lot when they hear a report on the radio that a madman with a hook for a hand has escaped from the asylum. Scared, they quickly start their car and leave. When they get home, they discover a bloody hook attached to their car door handle. Of course it is a cautionary tale, and certainly one that I had heard as a kid. The drawings by Stephen Gammell are without a doubt the scariest part of the book. The book is classified as non-fiction because Schwartz researched and documented each story from the region of the country from which they arose. Was it an appropriate book for a third grade girl? Probably not, but it was perfectly appropriate for an elementary school library because of its classification as a well-researched set of folk tales. 

Well, the mother of the third grader approached the school board president and the superintendent. The first I heard of it was when the superintendent came to me and asked me to remove the book from the library to avoid a stink at the school board. I told him I would have to get back to him, but I would appreciate it if he would read the book before he made a decision about it. (Neither he nor the school board president read the book, I might add.)

In the meantime, I contacted the American Library Association. They sent me a huge pile of papers to read and told me that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of the decade’s most challenged books. At that point, I was armed for battle. I had to decide if I was ready to be fired over a children’s book. For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t even Catch 22 or Huckleberry Finn!

The superintendent came to me again, took me into the back room of the library and tried to reason with me. He told me that there were thousands of books in my library; why would I risk my career over one book. I told him that this was a book that could face down a challenge because of its provenance, and that I was willing to defend it.

Well, the gods intervened. Halloween came. On the morning of Halloween, the principal came screeching into the library. “Miriam, you have got to see this!” I ran out into the hall to see the mother who was challenging the book arriving at school with her kindergarten daughter and her third grader. The kindergartener was dressed like a witch, the third grader was dressed like a skeleton, and they both were carrying ghost balloons. We took pictures of both children as part of the day’s activities, and later the superintendent suggested to the mother that perhaps she had better withdraw her challenge.

A crisis averted. When I retired, the Scary Stories book was still in the library as were the Strega Nona books and the fairy tales. I continue to believe that one way that children learn to cope with a hostile world is to read widely.  I also maintain that if parents check their child’s book bag and find books from the library that they don’t want their child to read, it is their responsibility to censor their child’s reading. It is not the library’s responsibility. 

Last year I reviewed This Book Is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson. It is the study of modern librarians. She has a marvelous chapter in the book about censorship and four librarians who challenged the Patriot Act. Well worth reading.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


By Nikolai Grozni
New York, Free Press, 2011
287 pages      Fiction

I have a new word in my book vocabulary—roman a clef—a novel in which actual persons and events are disguised as fictional characters and events. Wunderkind is a novelized version, a roman a clef, of the teenaged years of the book’s author Nikolai Grozni.

Grozni was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria and was a teenager when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989 taking the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria with it. Wunderkind tells the novelized story of his life as a piano student at the Sofia Music School during the years preceding the revolution.

Much of Wunderkind reads like any coming-of-age novel about a disenfranchised youth. Certainly there are twinges of Holden Caulfield in Konstantin, the protagonist, who is self-absorbed, rebellious, and extremely insolent and impertinent. He is living in a totalitarian state for which he shows total disdain, as do many of the youth with whom he comes in contact. What Konstantin has that most youth do not have is an amazing talent as a pianist, and an overwhelming love of music. In his regular classes, Konstantin is student number 14, who is failing all his classes. In the studio, however, he is the star musician.

The narrator’s love of music is what captured me as I began reading, and frankly it was the music that kept me reading when Konstantin’s ugly behavior began to be a bit wearing and tedious. Konstantin loves Chopin, and many of the chapters are named for pieces in the Chopin repertoire. As Konstantin practices, he describes the music he is playing, and for a moment, he is able to transcend the difficulties of his life and the rebelliousness of his nature. He loses himself in the music—something that only true musicians are able to do.

It is obvious that Grozni is passionate about music. I understood completely when he has Konstantin muse about what makes a great musical experience. “Sometimes, only sometimes, when the planets were aligned fortuitously, when the performer and the audience were in accord with the gods, the magic happened. Being a vessel, an oracle speaking foreign tongues, making prophecies—that was the true role of a great performer. Temperament was the courage to become the music and not allow your petty human emotions to get in the way.” There are so many eloquent passages in the novel—almost all about music—it made me wish to share those magical musical moments. 

The major plot movements occur in the last few chapters of the book when Konstantin is expelled from the music school, the revolution begins, the unspeakable happens to the beautiful violinist that Konstantin loves, and the boy grows to a man. If you are reading for plot, this is probably not the book for you. 

The musical pieces that make up the chapter headings can be found on the author’s website, each piece played by a famous pianist. There is also a link to a video of the author as a teenager playing Chopin. One of the quotes on the back cover is by Patti Smith, the singer and author of Just Kids. I can see why she was asked to read and comment on the book. Her memoir is also about the creative process and the passion of youth. She, her friend Robert Maplethorpe, and Nikolai Grozni would have had a lot in common.

Every other year in Kalamazoo, we are privileged to hear some of the world’s greatest pianists at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. One component of the festival is a series of concerts featuring the world’s best young pianists. During one festival, I had the privilege of driving a young Chinese pianist to her several concerts around the area. One afternoon, she came to the house to practice on my grand piano; I sat at the kitchen table and listened to sounds coming from my piano that I could not possibly have made. It was a transcendent experience. 

There are moments like that in Wunderkind, moments when you wish you could be hearing what Konstantin is playing, when you wish you could be feeling what Konstantin is feeling. Grozni’s descriptive voice is such that you are almost there. 

Nikolai Grozni’s website has pictures of the Sofia Music School, pictures of himself as a young pianist, and a video of him playing Chopin. I received this book from the publisher. I probably would not have found the book otherwise, and I am a better person for having read it.

Read also an opinion article Grozni wrote during the Egyptian Revolution, comparing it to the revolution in Bulgaria in 1989:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 by Rebecca Skloot
New York, Crown Publishing, 2010
366 pages    Nonfiction 
Would Henrietta Lacks have wanted her cancer cells donated for scientific discovery? We will never know because her cells were taken without her consent. Rebecca Skloot traces the amazing history of those cells in her marvelous book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. 

This is science writing at its best—science writing for the rest of us. Divided into three parts, Life, Death, and Immortality, Skloot tells the story of a poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks, who died at the age of 31 in 1951 of a particularly virulent form of cervical cancer. She left behind several small children, including a baby daughter and a son who was born after her diagnosis. Because she was treated and died at Johns Hopkins hospital, one of the most important research hospitals in the United States, her cancer cells were taken to try to grow them for experimental purposes. For reasons that continue to be unknown, those cells grew in as powerful a manner in Petri dishes as they did inside Henrietta’s body. They were called HeLa (the first two letters of her first and last names). 

The cells have been used in every type of research, from cancer, to polio, to AIDS. They continue to be sold for research, although Johns Hopkins maintains to this day that their institution never made any money from their sale. One researcher is quoted as saying “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you disassociate your materials from the people they come from. But if you could get a sample from Henrietta’s body today and do DNA fingerprinting on it, her DNA would match the DNA in HeLa cells.” Henrietta’s cells “simply outlived and outgrew any other cells they encountered.”

Skloot tells the story of the cells, the scientists that developed them, their uses, and the destiny they took on. She also tells the story of the lives that were left behind when Henrietta Lacks died. For more than 10 years, Skloot was the friend and reporter of the lives of Henrietta’s husband, children, and grandchildren, especially her youngest daughter, Deborah. By telling their stories, she moves her book out of science reporting into the most empathetic form of human reporting. The story becomes engrossing and engaging, reading more like a novel or memoir than a science book. The New York Times reviewer says: “Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.” Skloot became passionate about learning about HeLa as a teenager in biology class, and that passion shows through on every page of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. 

There are several extremely moving parts. One researcher comments that when she saw Henrietta’s body on the autopsy table, she noticed that Henrietta’s toes had red nail polish on them. "When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she's a real person." The most moving passage for me came when Deborah and Skloot are traveling together doing research. Deborah gets extremely worked up trying to understand this complicated scientific history. She comes close to having a stroke during the course of one trip, and her cousin lays hands on her, praying for Deborah’s release from the burden of worry about her mother’s cells. He asks that God transfer the concern to Skloot, a person who understands it all.

The family’s confusion is palpable and understandably so. Who could figure out a dead relative who lives on in billions of cells world-wide? As one family member says, "Nobody round here never understood how she dead and that thing still livin’. That's where the mystery's at." Deborah frequently muses on the question that is on everyone’s mind. Someone’s making money off of Henrietta’s cells. It certainly isn’t the Lacks family. As Deborah says, "But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors? Don't make no sense" They are comforted by the thought that HeLa is Henrietta’s spiritual body and that without a doubt, “Henrietta has been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being.”

As the history of Henrietta Lacks, HeLa, and the Lacks family is recounted, important scientific and moral questions are pondered. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book and should be required reading for every student of biology or medicine. It is one of the finest examples of narrative nonfiction available.

A BBC documentary that first told the story of Henrietta Lacks to a wide audience:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Beyond Human: Claiming the Power and Magic of Your Limitless Self

By Jaden Rose Phoenix
Seattle, Cherryhurst Press, 2011
162 pages     Spiritual

I thought as I began reading Beyond Human: Claiming the Power and Magic of Your Limitless Self that I was moving out into uncharted territory yet again. What I found, however, was that I understood much of what Jaden Rose Phoenix was discussing, but just not with the words she was using. When I transposed her “new age-y” terminology into the language of Christian spirituality, I kept up with her concepts and vocabulary. And I found much to value in this basic guide to mindfulness and soulfulness.

Phoenix calls herself an alchemist and spiritual healer. Beyond Human is an explanation of her techniques for moving beyond pain, fear, illness, and spiritual discomfort to a newer, higher plane where contentment—may we even say joy—is possible. She asks the question: “How does an ordinary person come into great personal power by expanding their consciousness?” The first section of the book consists of explanations and exercises to help the reader come to a greater understanding of self in order to be able to move beyond what she calls the “3-D world.” The second section of the book applies these new-found techniques to the common problems that plague the seeker—health, money, and love.

The exercises she outlines in the first section are very useful. I have used many of these same techniques in my own life and in the spiritual growth classes I teach, Companions in Christ. I especially liked a technique she uses to move her clients from their “head space” to their “heart space.” I practiced this technique several times as I was reading the book, and I will use it with my own class. 

I also agreed with her that “1) fear is an illusion and 2) that fear is not a valid excuse.” She proposes several exercises for getting the mind out of the fear mode and into the heart mode where the fear doesn’t operate. She suggests that if we follow our “guides,” we will move beyond our fears and “small self-ego” and move into the “heart space of awareness” where we can understand and act on the guidance we are being offered. One reviewer suggested that she explains “techniques to make positive shifts away from our control-freak-expectation oriented brain barriers.” 

I appreciated that she understands that people respond to her suggestions in different ways, and that what she is proposing may work differently with each individual. When the reader uses her techniques and exercises, they will find the peace and joy they seek, but it will not necessarily be what they were expecting at the outset, nor will the outcome be what Phoenix might have experienced. It is all about openness and letting go.

She does use some vocabulary that may be beyond the novice reader. I was confused by her calling herself an alchemist. I tried to find a definition of what a modern alchemist was, immersed as I am in Merlin the Magician. I didn’t find an adequate definition. A better understanding of that concept might have been helpful. Also, she speaks frequently about her left-brained self. I understood what she meant because of my experience as an educator utilizing this concept in education. (By the way, as if you haven’t gathered by now, I am very right brained!) I do know from experience that people mix-up the concept of left and right brained. A brief explanation might have helped here as well.

She closes the book thus: “Expanding our consciousness brings us into awareness of our full being. As you practice the exercises in this book, your awareness will become fluid and flexible. Eventually, you will be easily living (and even thinking) from your heart-space. As a result, you will experience a different kind of peace that comes from a connection with your whole being and whole awareness. Life is so much more immediate when you live from your heart rather than your head.”

I received this book from the publicist. I will take it to my step-daughter when we go to visit her next month. I know that she will find the exercises practical for her own use as well as for her clients.

Jaden Rose Phoenix’s website: Doesn’t she have a marvelous name!
You might also want to read my review of Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss, a book which delves deeper into a seeker's guides.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Liquid Smoke

By Jeff Shelby
Madison WI, Tyrus Books, 2011
280 p.    Fiction

It is the first time that I have met surfer/private eye Noah Braddock, but Liquid Smoke is Jeff Shelby’s third mystery in this series. Unlike some of the other mysteries I have read recently, I was able to quickly move into the characters and the plot. There weren’t too many assumed details to confuse me.
Liquid Smoke is a classic PI mystery with all the standard characters to make it fun to read—wise-cracking PI, vengeful cops, loyal friend, awesome girlfriend, and on and on. Noah is approached by a lawyer, Darcy Gill, who tells him that his father, whom he has never met, is on death row at San Quentin. When Noah goes to meet his father, he finds a man who is prepared to die for crimes he admits he committed, and when Noah returns from the prison, he finds Darcy Gill dead at his beach house. The mystery begins here and moves quickly to the disquieting and very dark conclusion. One reviewer says “Shelby convincingly takes wisecracking Braddock to a dark, life-changing place few PI writers have been, making Liquid Smoke his breakout novel.” 

The chapters are brief and to the point. Everything moves along quickly. The dialogue is tight. Shelby is a master of the genre. Each chapter gives just enough information to move us on to the next chapter. One interesting aspect of the book is that there is a prologue which is very foreboding. The reader is forced to admit that whatever happens in this book, it’s not going to end well for Noah Braddock. The reader is also forced to think through the moral dilemma presented by the decisions Noah Braddock makes. I really wonder where Shelby will go next with Noah. He has left him without his entire backup system—no girlfriend, no beach house, and possibly no best friend.

I have been thinking a lot about books in series, and why we like to read them so much. Actually, when I was a widowed mother raising three kids, PI novels in series were all that I read. There was great comfort in opening another book with the same people that I read about in the book I had just finished. I knew Stephanie Plum, V.I. Warshawski, and Mickey Haller intimately. I think that books in series (Private Eye mysteries in particular) are like a pair of old jeans—they're just so comfortable to slip on. 

Several reviewers mentioned the development of the character of Noah Braddock in the three novels currently in the series. So, I might recommend that you begin at the beginning by reading them in order: Killer Swell, Wicked Break and Liquid Smoke. Although I received Liquid Smoke from the publicist, they are available from Amazon. Our local public library has all three.

Jeff Shelby’s blog:
A clever post by Jeff Shelby on The CrimeHouse review site: