Friday, April 3, 2015

Believing Cassandra

Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World, by Alan AtKisson

As a sustainability communicator, I'm glad I read this book at last. It came highly recommended from my friend and our company's sustainability director. Even though I read the first edition (published several years ago), the concepts are ever fresh.

Alan AtKisson is a true optimist at heart. He reminds us about the Greek myth about Cassandra, who was blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed because no one would believe the truth she had to share. Can you imagine how that would feel?

And that is the essence of how we need to communicate about the perils facing our planet. When we preach doom and gloom, it's easy for people to turn us off and believe that nothing they can do can possibly help (I often find myself feeling the same way!).

AtKisson has been working in sustainability since 1988 and in 2013 he was inducted into the Sustainability Hall of Fame. Believing Cassandra was his first book, in which he shares how he got into the field along with personal stories of his life's journey, interspersed with data and anecdotes about what people are doing around the world to combat climate change.

His aim is to give hope, and for all of us to find a way to be optimistic about the challenges facing our world. He urges us to break Cassandra's curse by giving people a reason to hope instead of letting the doomsayers take over the messaging. Because if that happens, no one will listen.

This book has already helped me transform my thinking about how to communicate about sustainability, especially to those people who are unconvinced of the need to turn the tide.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Glass Castle

The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

I first read The Glass Castle soon after it was published in 2006, but as I wrote in my review for another of Walls' books, Half Broke Horses, my book group chose it for March. I loved Half Broke Horses so much that I decided to read The Glass Castle once again!

The story opens with Walls, aged 3, starting a kitchen fire and getting third-degree burns because she was cooking hot dogs and her dress caught fire. At age 3. Hospitalized for several weeks, her parents take her out of the hospital before she has fully healed and has been discharged. And she's right back to cooking hot dogs at the stove, because that's what her parents tell her to do.

Rose Mary Walls (Jeannette's mother) had been raised to be independent, but she took that to an entirely different level. Probably bipolar, Rose Mary wanted to spend all her time making art, not raising children. So the children had to raise themselves. They didn't get groceries for weeks at a time...because Jeannette's dad Rex drank away any money they had, and Rose Mary couldn't be bothered to find a way to feed the kids.

Nomads and rebels, Jeannette's parents took their kids all around the country, and they would flee towns in the middle of the night when her parents were unable to pay their debts. They slept in cardboard boxes and peed and pooped in a hole in the ground until it overflowed.

This book has so many shocking stories...it's unfathomable that her parents would think how they raised their children was okay...but alcoholism and mental illness will do that. All three of the Walls children got out as soon as they could.

Now Walls' mother lives on her property in Virginia (you can get a glimpse of her mom in this youtube video). She is a hoarder, to no one's surprise. Even though her parents provided very little stability in her life, it's clear that Jeannette had a deep, complicated love for both of them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Half Broke Horses

Half Broke HorsesHalf Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

My book group selected The Glass Castle for March, and since I had read that book many years ago, I decided to read Half Broke Horses instead.

I loved this true-life novel/biography of Walls' spitfire grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, born in 1903, who was a "mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconino County, and it wasn't half bad to be in place where no one had a problem with a woman having a moniker like that.”

The book opens with a flash flood, and Lily helps save her younger brother and sister by having them all climb into a tree and clinging to the branches overnight, for dear life, while everything around them is awash in water.

When they wade home through the water the next day, her mom sinks to her knees, thanking their guardian angel for saving them. The way Lily saw it, she was the one who'd saved them:
"There weren't no guardian angel, Dad," I said. I started explaining how I'd gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them. Dad squeezed my shoulder. "Well, darling," he said, "maybe the angel was you."
As an oldest child, this story resonated with me immediately. In crisis as a child, I too rose to the occasion.

Lily was not your typical girl child. She worked side by side with her ranch-running dad, breaking and training the horses. When she was 15, she took off on her horse, solo, for a 30-day journey to Arizona, where she'd landed a job as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, even though she'd hardly had any formal schooling herself. (She spent a wonderful semester in a Catholic school, where she thrived, until her dad spent the tuition money to buy some dogs imported from Europe, which were soon shot by a neighbor.)
“Since Mom wasn't exactly the most useful person in the world, one lesson I learned at an early age was how to get things done, and this was a source of both amazement and concern for Mom, who considered my behavior unladylike but also counted on me. 'I never knew a girl to have such gumption,' she'd say. 'But I'm not too sure it's a good thing.'”  
Lily drove cars and flew planes, and she worked her fingers to the bone, carrying two jobs when she needed to, running a ranch and teaching in her spare time.
“Teaching is a calling too. And I've always thought that teachers in their way are holy - angels leading their flocks out of the darkness.” 
The irony of reading about her hard work was not lost on me one day, when all I wanted to do was lie in bed reading this book!
“It was good work, the kind of work that let you sleep soundly at night and, when you awoke, look forward to the day.” 
During the depression she sold moonshine out their back door (keeping it hidden under the baby's crib) to save their ranch.
“You can't prepare for everything life's going to throw at you. And you can't avoid danger. It's there. The world is a dangerous place, and if you sit around wringing your hands about it, you'll out on all the adventure.” 
She taught in a polygamist community and taught them about Amelia Earhart and women's suffrage. Soon she received a visit from the polygamist elder, who directed her to stop teaching these things to the children. She refused, and the next time he paid a visit, she prepared for it with her rifle. Of course, her contract wasn't renewed the next year, but it was the children's loss. She stuck to her principles and stood up for justice everywhere, always characteristics I admire!

She raised two children, one of whom was Rosemary Smith Walls, Jeanette Walls' memorable mother.
“God deals us all different hands. How we play 'em is up to us.”
Lily was not a fan of Rex Walls, Jeanette's ne'er-do-well, alcoholic husband, but she knew she couldn't stand in her daughter's way. Lily believed in encouraging independence, resilience, and spit and vinegar in her children, a tradition Rosemary carried to an entirely new (crazy) level in her own child rearing.

I loved this book and I would have loved to meet Lily Casey Smith. What a great American hero. This book has been described as Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, so true for me! Of course, after I finished it, I had to re-read The Glass Castle.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Evil at Heart (Gretchen

Evil at HeartEvil at Heart, by Chelsea Cain

I read these books because they're set in Portland and I got the privilege of hearing Chelsea Cain speak in 2010. I read Evil at Heart when I flew to Denver for a business trip--it was a great airplane read!

Gretchen Lowell is an evil serial killer on the loose, and Oregonians are apparently obsessed with her. Now of course I agree about the insidious influence of sensational media on citizens, but this seemed a bit over the top to me. I have to hope that if Gretchen Lowell were really a true character, she wouldn't have hundreds of admirers and fan clubs.

If you can suspend reality, it's a thrilling read. I will wait a few years before reading the next one though...it's a bit too light--and violent--for my regular tastes!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Animal DreamsAnimal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver

I first read Animal Dreams soon after it was published in the early 1990s, but I reread it in February for my book group. Kingsolver masterfully writes colorful characters; the plot in Animal Dreams is secondary to characters and setting.

It's a story packed with community, redemption, ecological justice, family, and sisterhood...strong women and deep female relationships.

When I read this book initially, I did not have three boys...and now I do. I could relate so much to Emilina, Codi's friend who has multiple boys. And the storyline with Codi's sister Hallie recalled that horrible separation scene in The Color Purple between Celie and her beloved sister Nettie.

It takes a little while to get drawn in, but it's a beautiful novel, well worth the effort!

Prime Time

Prime Time: Love, Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit: Making the Most of All of Your LifePrime Time, by Jane Fonda

The ageless Jane Fonda breaks our lives into three acts, and she focuses most of this book on Act III. Weaving her personal life stories with strong research and tips on aging, food, fitness, friendship, love, and sex, Fonda recommends that we each perform a life review--especially while our elders are still alive so we can interview them--to better understand where we've come from and where we're going.

I must confess that I finished this book several weeks ago and forget much about it, but I made a few notes. Here are some highlights that stood out for me:

  • The importance of education, no matter your age. For every added year of education, you'll add one year to your life expectancy, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity.
  • "Girls' voices go underground at adolescence, whereas boys' hearts go underground when they are around five or six years old." (Lest you are of the opinion that Jane Fonda is a man-hater, she addresses the very real challenges men face, as well as women.)
  • The importance of resilience, which can be even more important than what happens to you.
  • The concept of a fertile void: For women in midlife, the void is fertile because we are becoming midwives to our new selves.
  • An aging brain just works differently, not less effectively. As we age and lose our crystal-clear memory, it's actually "judicious pruning." Dr. George Vailliant, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, likens the aging memory to "an attic that has filled up carelessly over the decades but now, with age, we clean it out and select only the most cherished, meaningful items to keep."
  • Fonda's experience among the early feminists, making her realize the power and beauty of female friendship, while burning "away my individualistic dross and allowing the pure gold of friendships to enrich and cushion me...I often think how different, how frightening, aging would be for me had this not happened...I know that I can lose everything but that my friendships with women, together with my family, will always be there, no matter what." (Fonda talks at length about the value of her friendships, which resonated me.)
  • Women over 85 are the fastest growing age group in the world!
Fonda has two chapters focused on sex during aging, with some particularly interesting information! She also discusses spirituality and shares her experience of going on a meditation retreat, trying to quiet her mind.


In the end, a well-worth-it read on aging for women!


Friday, January 23, 2015

Keeping the House

Keeping the House
Keeping the House, by Ellen Baker

Each chapter in Ellen Baker's novel begins with an excerpt from a 1950s homemaking guide...about how women can keep their husbands happy. The central theme of Keeping the House is the pressure to be perfect that women faced in the early to mid-1900s.

Told through the lens of Dolly Magnuson, a homemaker who moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin in 1950 without any friends in the area, the book goes back to the late 1800s when Dolly begins visiting an abandoned mansion and uncovers the secrets of the family who inhabited it.

Dolly's unhappy in her marriage, just as Wilma Mickelson, the matriarch of the great house, was unhappy in hers. They also both feel stifled by the provincial attitudes of the people in the town. This sweeping novel illustrates the pressures women faced, trying to create a perfect house while sacrificing their own needs. It's homemaking before feminism.

I enjoyed the frequent references to Lutherans in Wisconsin. It was worth the read!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Best books of 2014

Here are the best books I read in 2014. Click the title to read my review. They are listed in approximate order of how much I liked them (#1 being the best). I'd love to hear what you thought of any of these books. If you've read any, please leave me a comment.

You can also refer to my best books lists back to 2001 here. Enjoy! This is cross-posted in Every Day Is a Miracle.

Fiction

1. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
2. My Notorious Life, Kate Manning
3. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
4. The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Sherman Alexie
6. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
7. Word Nerd, Susin Nielsen
8. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce
9. The Ayah’s Tale, Sujata Massey
10. The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty
11. The Weight of Silence, Heather Gudenkauf
12. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
13. The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
14. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
15. After Eli, Rebecca Rupp
16. Lean On Pete, Willy Vlautin
17. What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty
18. We Are Water, Wally Lamb
19. Body Work, Sara Paretsky
20. My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, Paula J. Freedman
21. The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith
22. The Hundred-Foot Journey, Richard Morais

Nonfiction

2. I am Malala, Malala Yousafzai 
4. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout
5. My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor
8. God Is Disapointed in You, Mark Russell (still reading)
9. Believing Cassandra: Getting Beyond the End of the World, Alan AtKisson (still reading)

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Kizuna Coast

The Kizuna Coast (Rei Shimura Mystery, #11)The Kizuna Coast, by Sujata Massey

Hooray! Rei Shimura is back!

I've been reading Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura detective series since the late 1990s, captivated by these books because the main protagonist is a Japanese-American antiques dealer turned detective, living and working in Japan. I still remember my joy in first discovering this series! Sujata Massey is part Indian, part German, like a friend of mine, and lived in Japan for several years.

A fascinating character who I've always felt I could relate to more than most detectives, Rei Shimura led me through ten adventures, mostly set in Japan, before she retired in 2008 to live with her new husband Michael in Hawaii (Shimura Trouble). You can find the other Rei Shimura titles in chronological order on Sujata Massey's Web site, in case you want to start at the beginning (which I always prefer to do). It was a little odd, reading this one, because Rei had aged only a few years even though the series spans over 17 years, but I understand why Massey chose to keep her young.

Since Rei Shimura retired (and I sadly accepted there would be no more books in the series), I've begun following Sujata Massey online and became Facebook friends with her. She is delightful, and we have much in common (including the fact that we both turned 50 in 2014). I hope to meet her in person one day.

Fortunately, she's continued to stay busy, last year publishing The Sleeping Dictionary, a historical novel set in India, which was my second-top pick for fiction in 2013. (My parents' book group recently read The Sleeping Dictionary on my recommendation, and it was a popular pick!) She also published a beautiful little novella, The Ayah's Tale, about the relationship between an Indian ayah and the English children under her care.

My first week in Japan, befriending the neighbor kids, Fall 1986
But back to The Kizuna Coast! I was supremely lucky to be able to read an Advanced Reader Copy of this soon-to-be-published novel, which will be out in February.

I could relate so well to Rei Shimura's great angst when she saw news coverage of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. Even though I don't have relatives in Japan, it's where I met my husband and spent three of the most adventurous years of my life, and I have so many fond memories of the kindness of so many Japanese people. During those first few harrowing days, I was glued to the Internet and couldn't keep myself from watching that devastating wave destroy whole towns...my heart ached for Japan.

Soon after the tsunami hit, Rei's mentor Mr. Ishida calls her, asking for help. She gets to Japan as soon as she can and gets embroiled in a mystery...to find out what happened to Mr. Ishida's young apprentice, Mayumi, who has disappeared. She goes to Tohoku as part of a relief effort and is touched by people who have lost their loved ones and livelihoods. She experiences  絆 (kizuna, or bonds of love), which the Japanese show for each other during this difficult period. The Japanese public chose as the kanji of 2011 after they witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of assistance after the earthquake and tsunami. 

While not as literary as her last book (The Sleeping Dictionary), The Kizuna Coast was a quicker read and compelling just the same. Rei Shimura remains cemented as my favorite detective series, and I hope the series continues.

I'm so glad Rei is back! I read this book over the Christmas holidays while I had family visiting from England and Australia, and it was hard to put down. The only other book I've read about the Japanese tsunami was Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, which was my top fiction pick last year. I would love to read more, and I hope one day to return to Japan myself. In the meantime, I'm grateful that my favorite authors are making the trips, doing the research, and telling the stories themselves.



Golden Boy

Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin
Golden Boy
Trigger warning: rape

I loved this book about an intersex English teenager. Max Walker is his family's golden boy, but he and his family are harboring a secret. His parents Karen and Steve are successful attorneys, and Steve is eyeing an MP vacancy, so there's good reason to keep things covered up. His younger brother is definitively NOT the golden boy, but he has a sweet relationship with Max anyway.

But when Max has a horrific encounter with a boy from his childhood, everything shifts and the secrets begin to leak out.

Abigail Tarttelin is a young actor and novelist who is the crazy talented type who drives my husband crazy. She moved to London at age 19 to attend university but "sacked it off after a month because she had too much free time and it wasn’t fun enough," as she says on her Web site. In 2013 the London Evening Standard named her as one of the most powerful 25 people under 25 in London, and Golden Boy has won an American Library Association ALEX Award and was shortlisted for a LAMBDA Award for Best Debut LGBT Fiction.

This book is painful, poignant, and beautiful, and is an artful and sensitive depiction of sexual orientation and intersex issues. Read it! This is an author to follow!

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Perhaps I expected too much. I've read Ishiguro before, although it was many years ago. We even saw/heard him speak at Powell's in the early 1990s.

I read Never Let Me Go for my book group, and I had a difficult time getting into the novel. It didn't help that (1) a book group friend highly endorsed it, and in fact loved it, raising my expectations, and (2) I was listening to it on audio before getting hold of a hard copy. I am a visual learner and processor, so audio books are not the best choice for me. It does speed up the reading if you can listen and read at the same time (I listened to the book while driving).

Without spoiling this dystopian novel for other readers, I will just say that it was not my favorite. The protagonist, Kathy, tells the story in first person, about her childhood years at Hailsham, a private school in England. The narrative style was dry and distant, typical of Ishiguro.

I actively disliked Kathy's friend Ruth. I've known people like her before, and this story brought back unpleasant memories! I had a difficult time understanding Kathy's affection for Ruth, but the bottom line is that Kathy was powerless and naive in all aspects. I also found the dystopian plot (the purpose for Kathy and the others' lives) to be implausible and full of holes. I was expecting more out of this book...I didn't feel it was very compelling.

I wonder what Kazuo Ishiguro is like as a person, as the characters in his novel seem to live their lives as unfulfilled, unhappy people...it's almost as if he doesn't want his characters to be happy and he has a cynical, depressing view of life.

After reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake in 2014 and The Hunger Games trilogy in the previous years, I can't help but draw comparisons. I felt more sympathy for the characters in those books, and both plots seemed more believable to me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred-Foot Journey,
by Richard C. Morais


I found this at the library and thought I'd read it before seeing the movie, as is my habit! Turns out that Richard C. Morais wanted to make a film even before and while he was writing the book.

I loved the first half of the book...the colorful depiction of Indian cooking, Hassan's relationship with his family and then Madame Mallory, and the process of running a restaurant in India and then France.

But AD (after the deaths of both Hassan's feisty father and the equally feisty Madame Mallory), the book slumps. It takes us, very quickly, through Hassan's trajectory of becoming one of Paris' top chefs. Much of the fancy French cuisine, heavily butchery and innards-focused, does not sound very appealing to me. The second half of the book focuses on the Paris restaurant scene and the process and snobby politics of earning Michelin stars.

Hassan seems more devastated by the death of another character than his own father or most significant mentor. Morais also confesses that he didn't go to India until after he'd begun writing the novel, and then only for 10 days. This is evident to me, not in the way he describes Indian cooking but rather how he describes (or fails to) the culture. After Hassan moves to Paris, he's hardly even Indian any more. This doesn't seem realistic to me. I was hoping to have the author touch on the perspective of an Indian chef learning and practicing French cooking, and that just doesn't happen.

I've heard great things about the movie, so I'm looking forward to seeing that. I understand from friends that Madame Mallory does not die in the movie, and Hassan's also more in touch with his Indian roots.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a 50 Year SearchThe Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith

Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year SearchWith the success of the movie "Philomena," this book was reissued as Philomena with a cover showing Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the actors who play Philomena Lee and Martin Sexsmith in the film. The book, which came first, is not really about Philomena. It's about her son Anthony, known as Michael Hess in the United States.

Although I found the book to be mostly fascinating, it is decidedly not nonfiction. As a fictionalized account of Michael Hess' life, British journalist Sixsmith took extreme liberties with the story...inventing dialogue and fabricating scenes that didn't actually happen. I looked in the back to see his sources, but no interviews, letters, or other paperwork were cited. We know he interviewed people, but one of his key sources, Susan Kavanaugh, has said that he made up a lot of what's in the book and painted Michael's character in an unflattering way. How could Sixsmith have known what Michael said confidentially to his therapist and priest in confession? He should have stated at the outset that this was a fictionalized account of Hess' life.

With that said, I found Michael's story to be moving and interesting. I learned a great deal about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the inner workings of the Republican party during Reagan's tenure, and the Irish Catholic church. I already knew about the Magdalene laundries and found the beginning of the book to be fascinating and heartbreaking, as Philomena Lee's beloved son is ripped away from her...and she was powerless to prevent it. I saw the film "The Magdalene Sisters" back in 2003 and know the Joni Mitchell song well. Watch this 5-minute video with the song, which gives more information about the Magdalene laundries. The Catholic church has never taken responsibility for these abuses, and staunch Catholic defenders either defend the practices or deny that any abuses took place. In fact, young women and girls (such as Sinead O'Connor) were enslaved in these Catholic-run prisons until 1996.



Pope Francis meets Philomena Lee and Steve CooganIn my research, I was glad to discover that Philomena Lee met Pope Francis recently, giving her a sense of closure:
"I felt such a sense of relief yesterday for the guilt I carried and that I still carry a little bit today," said Lee on Thursday, a day after the audience. "Because you were made to feel so, so bad about having a baby out of wedlock. "He really made me feel so good inside because I carried the guilt inside me for 50 years, without telling anybody."
However, the Catholic church has yet to issue an apology or validate the abuses suffered in its name.

Back to the book. One quibble I had, echoed by Michael's friend Susan Kavanaugh, is the author's near-obsession with Michael's sexual practices. He is portrayed as a sex-obsessed, promiscuous. and thrill-seeking gay man who is incapable of staying faithful to his partners. That might be true, but we have no way of knowing where he got his information. It's almost as if he's implying that Michael contracted AIDS because of his sexual behavior. He also infers that Michael is never satisfied and cannot make a commitment because he is tortured by being abandoned by his mother. That seems to underline every single activity in Michael's life...that he didn't deserve to be happy. In spite of this, Michael led a highly successful career (as a closeted gay man and supposed Democrat) in the Republican party and the White House. That must have been enough torture for him--as he heard all sorts of homophobia, hatred, and AIDS jokes from the party itself and the religious right. One Goodreads reviewers put it well:
"Having stuck this very bad book through to the end, I really would have liked to understand Michael/Anthony's true character but perhaps only glimpses of that can be extrapolated from Sixsmith's words. He portrayed Michael on the one hand to be generous, witty, fun loving, brilliant, sensitive and on the other to be moody, self destructive, dangerous and insensitive. Completely misleading and contradictory. If a writer can't truly get to the heart of someone's character, then do bereaved friends and family still living a courtesy and don't write about character at all. If Sixsmith had focused on Philomena's quest rather than trying to fabricate a dead man's personality, he would have been more in his element."
Finally, Sixsmith's writing was choppy and didn't flow together well. In a few early chapters, we learn about a civil servant who is trying to stop the tide of Irish babies being sent to the USA to be adopted...Sixsmith alludes to his man's unhappy marriage as well, but to what point? He drops out of the story. We also never hear about Michael's relationship with his brothers later in life...one of them mercilessly bullied him as a young child. We know he doesn't include them in his will, but that's about it. Sixsmith also wrote a couple of chapters in first person as he described how he wrote the book--this totally threw me off and confused me until I figured out who was speaking. These chapters would have been better put in an introduction.

I would have liked to have known more about Michael's sister Mary in her later years. She is mentioned a few times and comes to see Michael at the end of his life. Given the fact that she was the most important person in Michael's life--and she is still alive--why didn't we get more of her story? I can find little about her on the Internet.

Judi Dench with Philomena Lee
Philomena herself doesn't come into the book again until the very end, which was a loss. I'm not sure why Sixsmith chose to portray the life of a man who had died...instead of the mother who was alive. Maybe so he could take literary license with the facts? Who knows?

I was annoyed by the ending, in which Sixsmith mentions Anthony/Michael's father...he alludes to the fact that his father might have been discovered, but says that is a topic for another book. What the hell? That is definitely not enough for another book. Why not share the information in this book??
Philomena Lee at her son's grave

Both Michael and Philomena stalled in their efforts to find each other. The Catholic church and the Irish government were not helpful. In fact, if the book is correct, Philomena found out about her son when her daughter Jane spied a photo of a new gravestone on the convent grounds. That small lead led to this story.


I give the real Philomena Lee and Michael Hess, both fascinating characters with interesting lives, five stars. The book gets two or three, because the story was compelling...but loses a lot in the telling.

Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed

You know those books that stun you and make you marvel at the beauty of the writing? This is that kind of book. But it's not for the faint-hearted or for anyone who doesn't like salty language.

Acclaimed author Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild (link to my review), wrote an advice column called "Dear Sugar" for The Rumpus for a few years. When she began writing, she described herself as having the “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” Yes, that fits well. It's just as much raw, honest memoir as advice columns.

Letters to Dear Sugar range from people trying to decide whether to stay with their partners to others who don't know how to handle their partners' sexual desires. One woman wrote in to ask about whether she should try to have a child, while others expressed confusion about whether it was okay not to have a child.

In every case, Sugar responds in the most loving, kind way she can...like your closest, most honest and compassionate friend. Honest is the key word here; sometimes it's tough love, such as the letter from a privileged young person complaining about her parents not being willing to pay off her college loans. On other occasions, Strayed shares candidly about her own sex life and relationships.

Here's another example: a man overheard his close friends talking about his relationship with a woman they didn't think was particularly good for him. Understandably, he felt betrayed and upset. Sugar responds empathetically, but then shares her own similar story and explains that his friends were not discussing his love life to be mean, but because they care about him.

Strayed is heartfelt, honest, and authentic in her responses. In one column, someone writes in with a simple but vague question: "WTF, WTF, WTF? I'm asking this question as it applies to everything every day." In response, Sugar shares her experience of her grandfather sexually abusing her. In so many of these columns, she guts herself to bear her soul.

Strayed made me cry many times, mostly when she shares memories of her dead mother...such as in her title essay, "Tiny Beautiful Things," when she offers advice to her 20-something self.

In one letter, a woman writes about her 6-month-old daughter with a brain tumor and how she questions God's existence...how can God exist if her baby is allowed to die? Even though Strayed is a professed atheist ("I don't even believe in God") and wonders who the hell she is to respond to the letter, she does respond in the most beautiful, graceful way imaginable. Here's an excerpt:
"What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?"
You can read Sugar's columns online on the Rumpus blog, as I've shared, but I encourage you to read it as a book. You can read them in bite-size chunks so you can savor them slowly. And as it's Thanksgiving week, I direct you to Dear Sugar's Thanksgiving column (not in the book), in which she shares 94 things to be grateful for, collected from her readers. I plan to read this post gradually and savor it throughout the week!

I will leave you with a few great quotes from Dear Sugar:
“It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.” 
“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.” 
"You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
“Forgiveness doesn't sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.” 
“But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.” 
“We are all entitled to our opinions and religious beliefs, but we are not entitled to make shit up and then use the shit we made up to oppress other people.”
“I can’t tell you what to do. No one can. But as the mother of two children, I can tell you what most moms will: that mothering is absurdly hard and profoundly sweet. Like the best thing you ever did. Like if you think you want to have a baby, you probably should.
I say this in spite of the fact that children are giant endless suck machines. They don’t give a whit if you need to sleep or eat or pee or get your work done or go out to a party naked and oiled up in a homemade Alice B. Toklas mask. They take everything. They will bring you the furthest edge of your personality and abso-fucking-lutely to your knees.
They will also give you everything back. Not just all they take, but many of the things you lost before they came along as well.” 
 “The place of true healing is a fierce place. It's a giant place. it's a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light.” 
“One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.” 
Loved this book. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Body Work

Body Work (V.I. Warshawski, #14)Body Work, by Sara Paretsky

I've been reading Sara Paretsky since my 20s...she's one of my favorite detective novelists. V.I. Warshawski is based in Chicago, and she's a hard-boiled feminist, whiskey-swilling, kick-ass detective. That's why I like her.

In Body Work, V.I. encounters edgy young artist/entertainers, grumpy night club owners, Eastern European gangsters, and Iraq war vets, while trying to help out her young, impulsive cousin Petra.

This novel was not my favorite...I did finish it, but it was not as compelling as her other books.

I will continue reading all of Paretsky's books, in the hope the next one will be better!

All About Those Books

My youngest son, Nicholas, loves "All About That Bass,' that contagiously catchy, retro-inspired pop song. "All About That Bass" has been accused of "skinny shaming"

("I'm bringing booty back; go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that...") 

and encouraging women to feel validated by what a man thinks

("Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase and all the right junk in all the right places...my mama she told me don't worry about your size...
she says boys like a little more booty to hold at night"). 

I'm not too concerned about the "skinny shaming," because there's just no comparison to the fat shaming that overweight people experience. But I don't like the word "bitches." I've clearly explained to my kids that they are never to use that word...I don't like the way it's become so commonly accepted in popular culture (thanks, Breaking Bad).

I'm glad to report that I've found a better alternative to the original song, and it's "All About Those Books," by Mary Ellen and the Readers! It's produced by Mount Desert Island High School in Maine. Enjoy! I'm glad to report that I've found a better alternative to the original song, and it's "All About Those Books," by Mary Ellen and the Readers! It's produced by Mount Desert Island High School in Maine. Enjoy! 



Thursday, October 30, 2014

A House in the Sky

A House in the SkyA House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett

This is sure to be near the top of my list of the year's top nonfiction reads. Canadian Amanda Lindhout grew up in a dysfunctional family and escaped by poring through National Geographic magazines, dreaming about exciting adventures.

When she grew up, instead of going to college, she opted to work for several months as a waitress at high-end restaurants and save all of her money...and then spend everything she'd earned on several months of travel. Soon she began taking photographs in the hopes of funding more travel. In addition to more "secure" countries, she also ventured to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Sudan and worked in Bagdad for an Iranian broadcasting company. She became addicted to travel...and the more daring and dangerous, the better.

Then in 2008, she decided to go to Somalia, the most dangerous country in the world (at least, at the time), primarily because no one else was going there and she wanted her big break. She convinced her Australian ex-boyfriend Nigel to go with her. Crazy? Yes! Naive? Completely. But she didn't deserve to get kidnapped, gang raped, and tortured. In spite of it all, she was able to forgive her captors and after her release after 460 days, she founded a nonprofit foundation, the Global Enrichment Foundation, to provide university opportunities to women in Somalia. (See accomplishments at right) She's since returned to Somalia a couple of times.

She and Nigel converted to Islam in the hopes of it protecting them, although it didn't really. I was particularly touched by the poignant interactions Lindhout had...exchanging notes and handmade gifts with her co-captive Nigel on Christmas, a desperate and tender encounter she had with a woman in a burkha on the day she and Nigel tried to escape (unsuccessfully), and the rare times she got to speak to her mother.

Lindhout doesn't always come across well--especially in her traveling days before the kidnapping--but her bravery is phenomenal. She kept herself grounded by meditating on hope. The book is beautifully written, and I'm surmising that is cowriter Sara Corbett's doing. It's been optioned for a movie, and Rooney Mara will portray Lindhout.

The saddest thing about this book, in the end, is that after all they endured together, Amanda Lindhout and Nigel are no longer in contact. Nigel wrote his own book with his sister, and it was highly critical of Lindhout and her family. They've fallen out and lost their shared connection through the greatest crisis of their lives.

Highly gripping, educational, and inspirational. I strongly recommend it!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lean On Pete

Lean On PeteLean On Pete, by Willy Vlautin

I picked this up on a library visit, drawn to it because the author hails from Portland and part of the story is based here. At first, I balked at the writing style because it reminded me of Hemingway--passive voice, telling versus showing, etc. But then I settled into it, and I'm glad. I found this story to be heart breaking and memorable.

It's the story of a 15-year-old boy, Charley, who has bounced all over the Northwest with his single dad who is neglectful and inattentive. Charley's seen way more than a 15-year-old should see, and it only gets worse in this story.

Horses at Portland Meadows
The story opens when Charley and his dad arrive in Portland and he begins hanging out and working (sort of) at Portland Meadows, a once-busy and now shabby horse racing track. He's hired by a crusty, grumpy, dishonest, and mean old man named Dell, who takes advantage of him and constantly insults him. He treats his horses horribly, while Charley befriends them, especially one in particular: Lean On Pete.

Soon marked by tragedy, Charley ends up on the run, not knowing where his next meal will come from or where he will sleep that night. Lean On Pete is the only true friend he has. Although he sometimes has to resort to stealing and breaking and entering, he is a hard-working, ethical young man in spite of it. He heads east to find his aunt, the only relative he has, with very little information to go on.

Stories about children whose safety nets fail them always touch me. This story was profoundly sad, but redemptive at the end. Vlautin exposes the underbelly of horse racing and also of western towns, truck stops, and cities where those of us who lead privileged lives look the other way when we see kids like Charley.

Here's a great book trailer, with photos of some of the locations, and here's Vlautin talking about this book and what prompted him to write it...along with a song.






After Eli

After EliAfter Eli, by Rebecca Rupp

In this thoughtful middle grade/young adult novel, young Danny struggles to cope with the death of his older brother, Eli, in Iraq. He's not getting much help from his angry father and vacant mother, who grew much more distant after Eli died. Eli had filled the gap of his parents' attention, and now not only was Eli gone, but his parents were even more far away.

Over the summer he befriends two unusual young people: the decidedly "uncool" but extremely smart Walter, and the beautiful, exotic Isabelle, who has quirky and creative younger twin siblings.

I actually found Isabelle to be annoying and pretentious. One Goodreads reviewer described her well as an irrelevant Manic Pixie Dream Girl (defined as "a fantasy figure who 'exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.'” Walter and the twins offered more of an appeal for me.

My favorite parts of the book were Danny's memories of Eli, who was sarcastic and mischievous but loving, and Danny's friendship with Eli's high school friend and purple potato farmer and his girlfriend, who come to be like a family for him.

Rebecca Rupp approaches grief with a quiet, sensitive touch, and even though Danny chronicles the death of various people in his "Book of the Dead," the book was redemptive in the end.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

A few years ago my husband and I watched "Man on Wire," the documentary film about Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. I kept remembering that movie as I read Let the Great World Spin, as that breath-taking feat is the centerpiece of this novel. This was my take on the film:
It was a fascinating story of how they engineered this legal and amazingly daring feat, but in the end I was gravely disappointed in Petit's personal character. At times I felt it moved too slowly and jumped back and forth...and I wanted to cheer for Petit but was disappointed in the way the experience changed him.
This is not the type of novel I'm typically drawn to, because I tend not to prefer short stories. But one of the benefits of being in a book group is being exposed to the types of books one wouldn't normally read. Well written, with a wonderful sense of setting, Let the Great World Spin tells the stories of a variety of different characters, many of whom encounter each other at some point in the day or in their lives.

But one of my major gripes with novels is when each chapter starts from the different perspective of a different character (can you say Game of Thrones?). And as soon as I grew to love a particular character or story (like the Irish priest John Corrigan and his brother Ciaran--the most interesting story), that story ends and we move onto someone else. So I found it a bit hard to sink into this novel, with all that moving around.

On the other hand, the novel tells the story of New York City in so many different slices...of the priest Corrigan who works amongst the prostitutes and dealers in the Bronx ghetto and loves a Latina single mom...of the prostitutes themselves, whose children become prostitutes...a Park Avenue mom befriending a black mother, both grieving their sons who died in Vietnam...a drug-addicted artist who finds herself involved in a hit and run...and a prostitute's daughter who was raised in love and stability, who returns to New York full circle...beautiful individual stories woven together...

A few of the stories didn't work for me...the hackers in California who call pay phones in New York to quiz passersby about what's going on between the towers, and the young graffiti artist who is also a photographer. I found these stories to be the least interesting and engaging.

I'm glad I read this novel, though...it was especially poignant to read this book during September, as we all remember the World Trade Center and 9/11.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Such a wonderful quiet surprise of a book! Harold Fry, an Englishman in his early 60s, is feeling driftless in his retired years. One day he learns that his old coworker and friend, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer all the way at the farthest north point of England. He's inspired to walk all the way up England--a 600-mile journey--to see her, with the hopes that she will stay alive until he can get to her. He thinks this will save her.

Along the way, Harold reflects on his life and his marriage, and gradually we learn what has made Harold be the way he is. He attracts followers and meets interesting people who help him along the way. Even though all he possesses in the beginning is a pair of yachting shoes and a simple set of clothing (no rain gear, map, or cell phone), he is determined to keep things simple along the way and refuses to invest in hiking boots or better attire or equipment.

I thought this was a sweet, sensitive book, and extremely English. It's also very sad--both about Harold and his wife Maureen's life and own son--and about Queenie herself. But in the end, he finds redemption...always a good ending in my book!

Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat

Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother's Tokyo Kitchen
Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother's Tokyo Kitchen, by Naomi Moriyama with William Doyle

Naomi Moriyama grew up in Tokyo with a typical Japanese mom provided attractive, nourishing food for her daughter.,.on the strict orders of Naomi's school!
(On the first day of school, a teacher made a speech: "We request that every mother make lunch for your daughter every day. Our main theme at this school is to help our students learn how to be giving and loving. One of the ways your daughter learns this is from your love-packed lunch box.") Can you imagine hearing this kind of a message in an American school???
Moriyama ended up moving to the U.S. to attend college and subsequently met and married her American husband. But she also came to miss and appreciate her mom's Japanese home cooking.

This book is a combination health book and cookbook. Moriyama includes statistics about how Japanese people live longer and have the lowest obesity rates in the world. They are also extremely active (few Japanese people use their cars every day, especially city residents)--instead they use mass transit, walk, or bicycle. I walked more during the three years I lived in Japan than I've ever walked in my life.

Moriyama also shares her own personal experiences--for example, when she arrived in the American Midwest to attend college, she gained a great deal of weight right away. When she moved back to Tokyo for awhile, she lost it all without dieting or exercising. The Japanese lifestyle, combined with fresh ingredients and home cooking, is the secret sauce!

Picking mikan (mandarin oranges)
As I was reading Moriyama's stories, I kept thinking of my wonderful stay in an old, traditional Japanese farmhouse on the western coast of Honshu (the most populated island in Japan), where we picked fresh persimmons, mountain potatoes, and mandarin oranges. My friend Debbie and I learned how to make gyoza (potstickers) and sushi, and the family had a brazier-fired kotatsu where they ate dinner each day. (A kotatsu is a wonderful table with a heater underneath it--we had one in our apartment with an electric heater, and the heat was kept under the table with a blanket...I loved that kotatsu as we didn't have central heating!) That weekend was the most traditional Japanese of any time I spent in Japan--it was fantastic.
Picking Japanese mountain potatoes (which taste amazing!)
Grandma on her tractor
Debbie and me with Grandma and Mama
(who was the mom of one of our businessmen students)

At the kotatsu at dinner--puzzled by the American Almond Roca we brought as a gift
(I don't think they liked it very much!)
Japanese home cooking is so much more than sushi and sashimi...you can find more of it at American Japanese restaurants than when we first returned from Japan. I loved delicacies such as spinach soaked in ground sesame seeds, okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pizza), takoyaki (octopus balls), yaki soba (fried noodles), ramen (noodle soup), gyoza, zaru soba (cold soba noodles with a dipping sauce), oyakodonburi (chicken and egg over rice), clams in sake broth, anything cooked with miso, rice balls with pickled plum seasoning, mochi with red bean paste, broiled mackerel or salmon, nabe (a soup that consists of each person dipping his or her own meat and veggies into a broth), traditional Japanese breakfasts, and edamame (steamed soybeans, now readily available in the U.S.).

Japanese roasted sweet potato street cart
Moriyama also enfolds some priceless Japanese history in her pages, including the stories of some kick-ass Japanese women in ancient times: Queen Himiko and Tomoe Gozen. (I need to learn more about these two!)

This book made me miss Japan and Japanese food so much! I love the way Moriyama gives tribute to her mom's own Tokyo kitchen...and I definitely want to incorporate more Japanese cooking into our own kitchen. But the truth is that cooking Japanese does take a great deal more time, and we don't all have Japanese housewives in our families!

I made one of the recipes in the book the other night--Eggplant Sauteed with Miso--and it was oishii (delicious)! This book inspired me to do more Japanese cooking and think more about what I'm eating--is it fresh? Is it processed? Has it been made with love? And I'm longing for Japan!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Silkworm

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

This is #2 in J.K. Rowling's new adult mystery series. Detective Cormoran Strike is an interesting character--he's a disabled veteran with a prosthesis, born to a famous rock star father but alienated from him, motherless and still deeply ambivalent about breaking up with his psychopath girlfriend. I preferred the first book in the series, The Cuckoo's Calling, but this one still contained vintage J.K. Rowling story telling.

The Silkworm is all about the dog-eat-dog world of writing and the publishing industry, and it doesn't paint a particularly warm picture! For example, this quote accurately sums up the novel:
...writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels. 
Novelist Owen Quine writes a poison pen novel about everyone he knows...then he shows up dead. Quine's novel itself is a bizarre, sexually weird, and symbolically complicated story that I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to read. The writers, publishers, agents, and their family members in The Silkworm are mostly all cut throat and vicious. They have few, if any, redeeming qualities. 

Also, I would love to see J.K. Rowling write a book with a really standout, great female lead...instead of consigning women and girls to the supporting character role (ala Hermione Granger). Robin, Strike's assistant, is smart, resourceful, and dedicated, but she's still stuck with her boring drip of a boyfriend and can't seem to realize he's no good. I'm finding that to be tiresome! Also, she's desperate for more opportunities to become an investigator, but this process is so slow it makes me sleepy!


J.K. Rowling is a skilled writer, and I will keep reading anything she writes...but this one just didn't hit the mark for me.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Word Nerd

Word NerdWord Nerd, by Susan Nielsen

We picked this book up at a children's book shop in Vancouver, BC, a few years ago, and I've finally read it. Rare for me, I even finished it in one day! Highly readable.

I loved the painfully awkward and uncomfortable Ambrose...who is deathly allergic to peanuts and always manages to say the worst possible (and often, honest) thing. Consequently, the only one who really likes to be around him is his mom. Because his dad died while his mom was pregnant, and Ambrose almost died because of his peanut allergy, his mom is obsessively overprotective.

When Ambrose crosses some school bullies who put a peanut into his sandwich, he and his mom decide that home schooling might be the best approach. He befriends Cosmo, a grumpy ex-con, ex-druggie son of his Greek landlords, and his life changes. They join a Scrabble club together, after much cajoling and conniving by Ambrose. (His mother has instructed him not to have any contact with Cosmo.) Soon Cosmo falls in love and Ambrose's life finally starts to get interesting.

In the quirky world of competitive Scrabble players, Ambrose finally feels at home.

My Beloved World

My Beloved WorldMy Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

What a phenomenal woman! I never would have guessed that someone so accomplished--reaching the top rung of her field at a fairly young age--would start her life with such large obstacles. She had an alcoholic father, was raised by a hard-working single mother in poverty, and continues to struggle from anxiety. In this memoir, she opens up and shares her stories from a young age...from when she was first diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and had to start giving herself daily injections...to talking about how her marriage failed. She decided to write a book because "People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible."

She revealed more about herself than typical for a Supreme Court justice and knew she might be judged harshly for some of her choices, but she made this decision consciously to offer comfort, and maybe inspiration, by showing that an "ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey."

From an early age, she chafed against injustice...beginning with Catholic school, where she reflected that "I accepted what the Sisters taught in religion class: that God is loving, merciful, charitable, forgiving. That message didn't jibe with adults smacking kids." The nuns also criticized working mothers, which angered Sotomayor because her own mother worked long hours in a couple of jobs to send Sonia and her brother to that private school. This passion for justice fed her desire to become a judge, and after she became a judge she dreamed of becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Even though she has accomplished amazing things in life, she has not done it without carrying along a load of doubts. From her school days well into her professional career, she wrote about settling into new places or positions before jumping in with both feet. In college, she didn't want to join a club in her first year until she had gotten the lay of the land.

I love Sotomayor's views on mentors and friends: "Whenever I make a new friend, my mind goes naturally to the question, what can I learn from this person? There are very few people in the world whom you can't learn something from, but even rarer are those souls who can reveal whole worlds to you if you observe them carefully." From her far-flung Dominican family from childhood, to her current family of close friends and relatives, Sotomayor highly values close relationships with others. Although she never had children, she has a special affinity for them and has close bonds with countless godchildren. She has a special relationship with her niece was an early preemie.

Living with diabetes her whole life has given Sotomayor a wise, deep appreciation for life:
"I've lived most of my life inescapably aware that it is precious and finite. The reality of diabetes always lurked in the back of my mind, and early on I accepted the probably that I would die young. There was no point fretting about it; I have never worried about what I can't control. But nor could I waste what time I had; some inner metronome has continued to set a beat I am unable to refuse. Now diabetes has become more manageable, and I no longer fear falling short in the tally of years. But the habit of living as if in the shadow of death has remained with me, and I consider that, too a gift." 
I share her philosophy of every experience containing a lesson or a blessing:
"With every friend I've known, in every situation I've encountered, I have found something to learn. From a task as simple as boiling water, you can learn a worthwhile lesson. There is no experience that can't avail something useful, be it only the discipline to manage adversity. With luck, there will be plenty of time ahead for me to continue growing and learning, many more stories to tell before I can begin to say definitively who I am as a judge."
Although I had a hard time sinking into this memoir at first, it was well worth the effort!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

We Are Water

We Are WaterWe Are Water, by Wally Lamb

I've read everything Wally Lamb has written, and this plot sounded promising. Sadly, I found this novel lacking in comparison to his others.

It's the story of Anna Oh, an artist, wife, and mother, who has left her marriage of 27 years and is about to marry another woman: Viveca, a wealthy art dealer who helped Annie become a successful artist.

Annie has three children with her psychologist husband, Orion: Ariane, Andrew, and Marissa. The book spans all of these lives and many others.

Here are the three things I found difficult about the book--if you'll read other reviews you'll find a theme in my criticism of certain novels:


  • Too many characters...did we really need to know about all of them? I also noted some convenient coincidences with some of the characters.
  • Most of the characters were not really likable.
  • Each chapter began with a different character perspective. This seems to be a popular novelistic approach, but it often makes it harder for me to connect with the characters or get drawn into the book.

Annie is a damaged soul--and we find out why--but I found it hard to sympathize with her much. The novel examines the generations of damage caused by sexual abuse, and reading it from the perspective of the pedophile was particularly difficult for me.

How many books do we have available that tackle the subject of a woman leaving her husband and getting married to another woman? This book could have treated that topic in a much more compassionate way. Instead, I found myself wondering what she saw in Viveca, who seems to be a shallow snob. Maybe Annie just doesn't choose very wisely...similar to her children.

Lamb digs deep into these characters' souls, and most of them have complex personalities. I guess I was just looking for more soul and redemption, which I've found in his other novels. This is still a good book, but not as great as his others.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid

Free Spirit : growing up on the road and off the gridFree Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid, by Joshua Safran

When I first chose this book, I thought Joshua Safran was one of the Safran Foer brothers. I'd read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, and later on read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. From what I can tell, there is no relation whatsoever, but "Safran" must be a relatively common Jewish name (as is "Joshua"). I'm so glad I found this book anyway!

Joshua Safran, an award-winning attorney who has committed his career to combatting domestic violence, tells the story of his childhood. This book was born when he represented a battered woman who had been serving life in prison for killing her batterer. This case resonated with him, as he realized he had a story to tell about his own experiences.

Safran's mom with her
feminist artist friends in San Francisco
Safran's mother ("Claudia") was a counterculture feminist artist/activist, and when he was four years old, they left Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and hit the road. He was raised in an extremely open, permissive home and "homeschooled." He heard his mother having sex with her lovers. He felt inadequate because he didn't have a vagina. They hitchhiked all around the west coast (mostly in Washington state), constantly seeking a true intentional community--utopia. Safran's village of parents were not necessarily related to him--he had a few positive role models along the way, but none of them were ideal. Many of his childhood experiences made me squirm with discomfort...being bullied after he puts himself in a regular school, being completely separated from his mother and nearly sliding down a mountainside or drowned at a hippie festival, or careening up a mountain with a drunk driver (his stepdad).

Safran as a child
But as much as his mother was proudly independent and strident in many ways, she ended up with loser after loser. (His father wasn't actively in the picture.) The last one--who she married--was physically abusive. Safran observed the abuse and felt humiliated for not supporting his mother and stopping her attacker. This book, more than any other I've read, describes well what it's like to be in a home full of domestic violence.

Joshua Safran constantly yearned for a "normal life," but wasn't able to find this until he'd graduated from college, married someone who also was raised in a hippie home, reconnected with Judaism, and creates his own family.


Now he's a practicing Orthodox Jew, husband and father, and attorney. He's written the story of his childhood with his mom's permission. It's a story of redemption and discovery in spite of a very difficult beginning.

This book brought me to tears at the end...especially this paragraph:
"People sometimes ask me: If you could do your childhood all over again, would you grow up in the cushy suburbs you always dreamed of? And I always give a complicated answer. As a father, I have done everything in my power to give my children the stable, secure, and comfortable childhood I never had. But I also recognize that while my early life was difficult, I received an unconventional and powerful education that taught me self-reliance, righteousness, and empathy like no other. In the end, I would rather slog back down those trails at my mother's side again. There are many ways to judge a mother, but I think the best way is to look at the man her son grew up to be." 
As a mother of three sons who sometimes doubts her own parenting strategies and patience (who doesn't?), this is reassuring and touching. And the way Safran has dedicated his work to helping women who are unable to help themselves is the most inspiring of all.

If you're interested in knowing more about Joshua Safran's story, take a look at this video presentation of him talking at Google:


I'm a hippie at heart, but this book shows the dark side of living off the grid and on the edge of mainstream culture...especially for children. Safran is already working on a sequel and his mother, Claudia Miriam Reed, is writing her own book. You can view her spoken word poetry about domestic violence here.