I just finished American Gods, my 4th Neil Gaiman book, and I have to say that should Neil Gaiman ever need a personal assistant, I’m available. He doesn’t have to pay me much as long as I’m guaranteed some daily tutelage wherein we discuss the electromagnetic nature of the written word. I’ll even sign up to do his laundry if it means I could sit at his feet and take notes. He can wax philosophically about the craft of writing while the tighty-whities whirl about good-naturedly in the spin cycle. I’ll even add fabric softener.
How does Gaiman do it? From where does he conjure these fantastical worlds? Many, perhaps all of Gaiman’s characters have, if not a toe, then an entire body immersed in mythology — Norse, Greek, Roman, Native American, Hindi, more. It’s obvious that the man has done some reading, but beyond the myth and the ability to craft a delicious sentence — not too tart, hot, or sweet with just the right amount of description and dialogue, so plump and full of raw talent it could be sashimi — there is this knowing, as if he alone has solved the puzzle of the human condition.
In America Gods, we meet Shadow, a name apropos of the person Shadow has become. Shadow spent three years in prison for a crime he didn’t want to commit. He learned a few things in there, like the arts of judiciousness and waiting. Prison forced a certain transcendence upon the reluctant hero, stalled as he was, and above all, he learned to adapt. The only thing Shadow wanted from his old life was Laura. Knowing she was waiting on the outside made the inside bearable. So it was unfortunate that a week before Shadow was about to be sprung, he got called down to the warden’s office, an uh-oh in the making. You didn’t think Shadow was going to receive a get out of jail free card, did you? Come on, it’s Neil Gaiman. Apparently, Shadow sensed it, too, so when the warden delivered the unfortunate news, that Laura was dead, Shadow felt the icy fingers of a cosmic stranglehold creeping up on him. Now what?
The warden granted Shadow an early release so he could attend Laura’s funeral. Once the worst happened, it was almost easy to find out the rest: Laura was having an affair with Shadow’s best friend, Robbie — the one who ran a gym, the Muscle Farm, and who was going to give Shadow a job when he got out. The reason they were both dead was because Laura’s mouth was where it shouldn’t have been, especially not while Robbie was driving. Maybe Robbie wouldn’t have lost control of the car and hit the tractor trailer head on, pardon the pun, if he and Laura had been buckled up for safety. The news of the affair pushed Shadow into the extreme discomfort zone, and then Laura visited him and it got worse.
With nothing much to do, Shadow took the first job he was offered as a body guard and a driver for an eccentric yet affable old dude. Before it’s all done, Shadow will face a slew of gods, the living specter of his beloved and decomposing Laura, the many faces of death, and more Gods than are in a comparative religion class.
Read the book now before it becomes a series (premiering on Star on April 30th. You know the book is always better.
Loving Lady Lazuli
According to Romance Writers of America, romance books garnered $1.08 billion in sales in 2013 and accounted for 34% of the fiction market. With stats like that, I’m wondering why I didn’t choose the romance genre but then I remembered — I have no talent for it. Ah, but Lady Shey does. Loving Lady Lazuli is the classic storyline of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, but told as a relentless, breathy romantic mystery.
It’s been decades since I read a bodice-ripper if you don’t count the Outlander series by Diana Gabladon which markets itself as romance, but is really a hybrid — the love child of Romance and Historical Fiction — and I may have never read another one if I didn’t chance upon Shehanne Moore’s blog and struck up a friendship with the Lady Shey. Now, announcing your desire to read a virtual friend’s book and write a review can be a tricky process even if they don’t live across the street from you because, well, the blogosphere has limits, too, writer’s tend to travel in the same circles, and you just don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Thank GOD that I just adored this book because all that worry is now a moot point. After reading a few chapters of Loving Lady Lazuli, I was hooked. Moore writes a self-described brand of romance that she calls “smexy”— a cross between smutty and sexy — a classic pot-boiler of a book with the trademark characteristics of historical fiction adding to its allure.
Loving Lady Lazuli is the story of Sapphire, the renowned London jewel thief who no one has ever seen. Sapphire’s greatest defense has been her invisibility. Her many costumes and identity changes have allowed her to remain elusive and because of that, the most successful jewel thief in England. But one evening Sapphire makes a terrible mistake. Her “mark”, the famous Wentworth emeralds, are in her grasp, but the escape route is not. Her partners have let her down and there is no way out except a long trek across an open field in winter, and in an evening gown, no less.
Complicating matters, there is a witness, the rich, young, handsome Devorlane Hawley who happens upon the bewitching Sapphire while driving by in his coach. The unsuspecting Hawley has no idea what’s happening when he offers Sapphire a ride. It all happened so quickly, that kiss, that hand where hands should not be when strangers are involved, the pawning off of the Wentworth emeralds into Hawley’s pocket without him even knowing, and her alighting from the coach before he could catch his breath and clear his addled brain. Months later, he’s been enlisted into the army, the rich man’s version of punishment for a theft, preferable to hanging from the end of a noose, but still a high price to pay for a crime he didn’t commit. She caught him all right, with a breathy kiss and a swift goodbye and he will use all his resources to exact revenge.
For ten years Devorlane harbored his enmity, for ten years, he replayed the events of that night, and for ten years he swore that one day he would find and catch Sapphire and make her pay for ruining his life. Ten years of feeding and nourishing that hatred which festered like the wound to his leg when, upon his return, he is met with a sight that makes his heart both soar and shatter — it’s her, Sapphire, sitting in his drawing room. Now who’s caught?
Want to find out? Then read Loving Lady Lazuli, a romantic page-turner of first order. You may want to ditch the tea and crumpets for something stronger!
“A buoyant, commendable mystery that piles on red herrings with ferocity and glee…the spiraling final act, culminating with the killer’s staggering reveal, is an exhilarating ride.”
—– Kirkus Reviews
Welcome to the first in my series of author interviews leading up to Mystery Thriller Week. My first guest is D.M. Barr, author of Expired Listings. Barr’s debut novel, Expired Listings was selected for review by the Midwest Book Review, in January 2017:
Critique: Expired Listings by D. M. Barr is an exceptionally well written, genre-busting, riveting psychological thriller laced with satiric, romantic and erotic elements. A consistently compelling read from beginning to end, Expired Listings is a masterfully crafted suspense thriller that will prove to be an enduringly popular addition to personal reading lists and community library collections. Expired Listings is also available in a Kindle format ($2.99).
Shall we start with D. M. Barr’s bio, in her own words?
WHO IS D.M. BARR? By day, a mild-mannered salesperson, wife, mother, rescuer of senior shelter dogs, happily living just north of New York City. By night, an author of sex, suspense and satire. My background includes stints in travel marketing, travel journalism, meeting planning, public relations and real estate. I was, for a long and happy time, an award-winning magazine writer and editor. Then kids happened. And I needed to actually make money. Now they’re off doing whatever it is they do (of which I have no idea since they won’t friend me on Facebook), and I can spend my spare time weaving tales of debauchery and whatever else tickles my fancy. The main thing to remember about my work is that I am NOT one of my characters. For example, as a real estate broker, I’ve never played Bondage Bingo in one of my empty listings or offed one of my problem clients. But that’s not to say I haven’t wanted to … .
[photo credit, D. M. Barr]
Here’s a synopsis of this “genre-busting, psychological thriller”:
What if people were dying around you and you weren’t absolutely sure you weren’t their murderer? Someone is ‘deactivating’ the Realtors in Rock Canyon and almost no one seems to care. Not the surviving brokers, who consider the serial killings a competitive boon. Not the town’s residents, who see the murders as a public service. In fact, the only person who’s even somewhat alarmed is Dana Black, a kinky, sharp-witted yet emotionally skittish Realtor who has no alibi for the crimes because during each, she believes she was using her empty listings for games like Bondage Bingo with her sadistic lover, Dare. And yet, mysteriously, all clues are pointing her way. Along with clearing her name and avoiding certain death at the hands of the ‘Realtor Retaliator,’ Dana has an even bigger problem: she’s inadvertently become a person of interest in more ways than one to Aidan Cummings, the sexy albeit vanilla detective investigating the case. While his attentions are tempting, Dana is torn—does she continue her ironically ‘safe’ but sterile BDSM relationship with Dare, or risk real intimacy with Aidan? Kink, Suspense and Satire–Expired Listings masterfully combines all three while exploring the universal need for validation and the toxic nature of revenge.
Ms. Barr and I had a little virtual chat about her work, writing, and life in general and here’s what she had to say:
What’s your writing background (schooling), backdrop (where you work at your craft), and backstory (what you will tell the world when you become super famous)?
I really never studied writing—fiction or nonfiction—at school. I started writing by writing a review of a comedy improv group for a boyfriend who was in that group and sent it off to a local paper called Downtown Manhattan. They hired me as their Nightlife Editor and I reviewed shows and restaurants.
A few years later, I wrote an article about Opsail 86 for a travel trade magazine (I was a travel agent) and they started sending me on press trips as a freelancer and later hired me as an Associate Editor. I ended up spending three years there before breaking off on my own to start a PR company that helped travel agents with their promotion and corporate communications. So I actually fell into writing.
My first fiction experience was in 1979 when I attended a two-week Writer’s Conference at Hofstra University. I was there to study nonfiction magazine writing when I wandered into a fiction class by mistake. I was absolutely fascinated but never dreamed I had it in me to write fiction. When I got serious about my book (2013!), I took some classes at the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center, which was more of a critique group and got me into the habit of handing in pages. So no formal training in style—all learned by the seat of my pants.
What are your favorite books?
Oh, wow. Hard to narrow down. Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, Trinity, The Grapes of Wrath, Lonesome Dove, The Kite Runner, Iron House by John Hart, all of the Marshall Karp Lomax and Biggs series and all of Michael Connelly Lincoln Lawyer books. I also love Jennifer Crusie for romance and Kerrilyn Sparks for comedy/paranormal. And I’m leaving a million other books out.
Expired Listings started out as a real estate parody that warned my fellow real estate agents about the dangers of our business and it just evolved. Since I love psychological thrillers, that’s slowly what it became, with satiric, romantic and erotic elements. I loved adding layer over layer to the story.
Do you see the need for all these sub-genres or do you think we’ve become over-specialized, as in, a story isn’t just a story any longer, but a specific type of story?
Since my book is a hodgepodge of genres, I was very put off by the number of agents and publishers who liked the writing but turned it down because they couldn’t pigeonhole it into a genre. Since most books aren’t sold on shelves but can be categorized into several categories online, I couldn’t understand this dogged devotion of theirs to genre. I refused to cut the story in half to fit in, I didn’t want to be formulaic. I stayed true to the story I wanted to tell, for better or worse.
Why writing and not ceramics, or gourmet cooking, or anything else really? If not writing, then what?
I like being read, making someone laugh and entertaining people. But it’s not my only hobby. I’m a competitive trivia player, I love word games, I love to travel and I rescue senior shelter dogs.
From where do your ideas come?
From everywhere. I used to think there was only one book in me. Now there are so many, there’s no time to write them. Anything I hear that might be funny or offbeat can either be its own story or part of a larger one.
What’s your routine? Do you work out while writing, take breaks, or simply gut it out?
I don’t have one. I write when I have the time and I plow through. It’s good to have deadlines though. I have thought about hiring an editor and having her impose deadlines on when she expects pages.
Do you work outside of writing, i.e., do you have day job?
I’m currently a Real Estate Associate Broker.
What has been your greatest writing lesson? How about life lesson?
Publishing is glacially slow so be prepared for that. Don’t ever let a bad review get you down—even the best books on Amazon have one-star reviews. Write the book that’s in your heart. Someone will want to read it. Never chase trends.
How many books to you have out?
Two: a novel and a novella.
Indie or traditional publishing?
One of each.
Country of origin?
Two, one of each.
I had two rescue dogs. I just lost one, a Newfoundland mix. I still have Doofus, my schnauzer-poodle mix. He’s about 14, dumb as a doornail, blind and sweet as can be.
Travel and if so, favorite place?
I’ve actually been lucky enough to travel the world as a travel agent and later as a travel writer and meeting planner, all before I went into real estate. Favorite place is Bora Bora.
Favorite childhood memory?
I was a huge Avengers fan, not the comic book ones, the British series featuring Steed and Mrs. Peel. When I was around 11, my dad got me backstage to meet my idol, Diana Rigg, after a performance of Jumpers (Tom Stoppard) in London’s West End. I stood there with my mouth open, amazed I was actually meeting her.
And the final question, do you think writing can save the world and if so, why?
I wish. Unfortunately, too many people out there don’t read or do read and don’t listen. Or do listen and disagree. Still, it’s so important to write and be heard because someone might listen.
Interested? Then check out Expired Listings and D. M. Barr. She’s waiting for you.
In an era of tell-all books and reality TV, it’s still unnerving for the average person to reveal too much about themselves, their dreams, and dramas. The translucent nature of living in a world that thinks it knows you simply because it has a few data points results in an exhausting and inauthentic existence. While revealing your deepest secrets along with the attendant emotions you’ve been harboring for the better part of forever is a rough and rickety bridge to cross, once you do, the secrets come pouring out like fine Irish Whiskey, purging the pain that held the memory to you and bringing an opportunity to shift nothing less than your entire consciousness. That’s just what Janet Brady Calhoun did and later described in her memoir, “Rabbit Warrior,” a book dedicated to the Self: self-healing, self-actualizing, and self-discovery.
Like most middle-aged women, Janet had been shackled by a few of life’s golden handcuffs: wife to an F&M College Administrator; mother of two lovely daughters; a sister in a family of four siblings; and a successful career woman, working, among other things, as the co-chair for Tom Ridge’s gubernatorial campaign and finally as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Human Services in Pennsylvania. Ironically, all left her both fulfilled and depleted. Her father, who she adored, died when she was 12, a death that left her despondent and dependent on her mother for her emotional sustainability. Whether one ever reconciles such a loss is an open question. Despite her father’s success as a dentist, he left her mother with little money, gambling debts, and four children. Possessed of nothing more than an indomitable spirit and an iron will, Janet’s mother pulled the family through, but that period, fueled by her mother’s own warrior spirit, cost Janet, and perhaps all of her siblings their emotional independence.
It’s no surprise then that the most brutal blows life dealt Janet came from the deaths of her mother and sister within a short span of each other. All those hurts caused by her father’s death came rushing back, nearly drowning her in their need to be acknowledged and released. So Janet left her home and her husband in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and moved up to Cape Cod for the summer where the family owned a home and where she did her best thinking. She took her journal and some essentials — books; the dream catcher her granddaughter made for her; wine — and headed to the Cape to call her spirit back. It turned out to be a very important summer, possibly the most important one, and it resulted in a brave and open-hearted book about the search for one’s true Self.
I must confess that at first I was annoyed. I didn’t really want to read a book about a privileged woman having an existential crisis in her home on Cape Cod when, for instance, one-third of the world doesn’t have access to clean water, but I had promised a book review so I took a breath and read on. The dialogue was a bit stilted and I had the feeling that I was voyeuristically reading over Calhoun’s shoulder as she scribbled in her journal with all its unfettered pain, anguish, and fear of being stuck inside her 12-year old emotional self — plus, she held back, probably out of propriety because nice women don’t tell all their secrets, even to their journals — yet in spite of my objections, I saw what Calhoun wanted me to see: a woman seeking redemption, not from someone else, but by and for herself because she was the only one in the world who could grant it.
Courage comes in all forms. It’s not handed out at birth and its not part of our genetic code; rather it’s something earned, and usually, it comes at a great cost. It takes courage to tell your story, the real story, not the one you create for public consumption. Rabbit Warrior is every man’s and every woman’s story. Your facts may be different, but I guarantee your pain shares similarities. Read Rabbit Warrior if you’re interested in how one woman moved some of her own pain offshore.
An American Tragedy
Theodore Dreiser’s, An American Tragedy, written in 1925 was extremely racy for its time, but the real tragedy of Dreiser’s novel was not the ultimate fate of the protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, as much as the societal conditions that precipitated it. Also, that I guessed the ending so far in the beginning of the book that, at times I had a hard time sticking with it. Dreiser’s prowess as a writer is overshadowed by his accomplishment as a sociologist and philosopher and in the fearless manner in which he shines a light on the American condition, one that elevated the rich and denigrated the poor of the 1920’s, a condition still in existence today. The American Dream, hard work equals becoming rich if you live in America, is simply not true, at least not for the masses, and Dreiser brilliance is in painting that picture of poverty and often hopelessness, of an American system that leaves its working class behind without choice or money or a pathway to an improved condition. Oh how the entitled look down their noses of those without money, how they chafe and groan about the burdens put upon them to uphold “society,” yet how Clyde longs to be part of that society. Yet the truly entitled are not those who have earned their money themselves, but have been handed it by their fathers who worked hard to ensure their own legacy which is then passed down to their children.
An American Tragedy introduces us to everyman Clyde Griffiths, born to unordained, self-proclaimed, missionary parents who run a small home for wayward souls and spend some time each day, singing church hymns and proclaiming the glory of the Lord on street corners along with organ accompaniment. Unfortunately for Clyde, this lifestyle leaves him awash in embarrassment, desperate to break free from the daily horror and the impoverished conditions that permeate his home life. Clyde desires nice things with his whole being, dreaming of one day living the life of luxury. He lacks a formal education as a result of all his parents moving around, but soon lands a series of jobs which allow him to buy the things he’s so greatly desired, but he’s terrible with money, without the concept of saving for the future or creating a safety net because no one ever taught him how so he lives from paycheck to paycheck. There’s a longstanding fallacy that Dreiser manages to shed light on, which is, if you’re poor you’re stupid and if you’re rich, you’re smart. Clyde proved himself adept at getting out of his poor circumstances, he just didn’t have the training and foresight to stay there. Clyde wasn’t stupid, simply not as schooled as his cousins and there seemed to be no way for him to catch up.
Such is the systemic nature of poverty: a lack of education and no one to advise you of how to do things differently. Clyde’s rich relations tolerated rather than uplifted him as if they thought his poorness would rub off on them. Rather than looking at the odd one or two who break free of poverty, we should, as a society, be looking at why our fixes have made the trap of poverty inescapable because the 1920’s could just as easily be 2017. Reading Dreiser, you get the impression that he believes the world needs this tragedy, actually revels in it, that the rich need the poor so they can feel richer and the poor need the rich so they can feel subjugated and that we are all just pawns in a larger script. Dreiser manages to convey all this through the guise of the twin pillars of religion and law, one created to control the masses the other to admonish when that control failed to work. Poor people may have been born poor, but they are God-fearing, and therefore malleable because of the hope of a better life after this miserable one. Easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle and all. The rich, however, have little incentive to give up anything because, well, there’s just no proof of an afterlife, and aren’t material blessings at least tangible proof of God’s love?
There were a few plot deficiencies that pained me a bit, like how women, once used up, were completely dropped from the book, Hortense, Roberta, even Sondra, although again, this was the 1920’s and women had very little to do other than act in a supporting role for their men. As for the writing, at 867 pages, the book was a bit too long for me as was Dreiser’s desire to dissect Clyde’s thinking from every vantage point, but the book was written circa 1925 when a bit of verbosity was the norm, and moreover, who am I to quibble with a classic?
The character analysis, the strange and unnerving parallels to what’s happening in the U.S. today, the social implications of poverty and its reverberating effects all work to make this a great, albeit sad novel. An American Tragedy is worth your time as both a novel and historical text. Depending on how the next four years go, An American Tragedy could be more relevant today than when it was when first written. Read it. You’ll have a greater perspective regarding the challenges surrounding the nature of poverty by the time you’re finished.
There are those who doubt the hand of God in ordinary events and those who see it everywhere. A chance encounter with an old friend when you take a wrong turn on an unfamiliar street. A meeting with a stranger on a train who gives you the exact information you’ve been after for months. The miracle is that on any given day, the natural order of your routine could be upended by these coincidental, often helpful, almost unnoticeable moments when we are present and listening, where a small, serendipitous event enters through the side door, carrying with it the power to change your life. And so it was for Laura Schroff who almost missed the moment. To this day, she has no idea what made her turn around, talk to the child, investigate the situation a bit further, but she recounts it all beautifully in her memoir, an Invisible Thread.
Laura was having the odd, unscheduled day out, a break in her hectic schedule with no pressing need to be anywhere special when she passed a young boy panhandling for change on the street. At first, she barely noticed him amidst the cacophony of sound and craziness that comprised the streets of New York City. She kept walking. He was part of the backdrop of stimuli clamoring for her attention, and despite the outward appearance of someone so young begging for food, she barely registered his presence. Halfway across the street, she stopped and stood, processing what she had just seen. The light changed. A horn blared. She made no conscious decision to turn around and head back. She heard no voices, felt no hand of God guiding her, yet an invisible force was at work, and guide her it did. Without conscious intent she turned around and headed back to the boy. Rather than give him money, she took him to lunch at McDonald’s where she peppered him with questions, not to interrogate, but to understand his life and situation. He responded truthfully and with integrity. That day sparked a friendship with the boy, Maurice, although, at the time, neither had any inkling it would be more than lunch. The friendship has lasted decades and will likely last their entire lives.
Maurice was 11 when he met Laura who had her own complicated and troubled upbringing with an abusive and alcoholic father. While this bit of commonality provided an emotional understanding that helped to cement their friendship, the gap between their lifestyles couldn’t have been greater. She was a successful ad executive and he, the son of a drug dealer and a drug user with little to no chance of ever escaping the systemic cycle of poverty — the lack of education, of proper nutrition, or housing and supervision — where little help of any kind characterized his life. Yet Maurice did escape, and today as a grown man with kids of his own, he says it’s because of Laura’s love and devotion.
Today, Maurice credits her with saving his life and she credits him right back. Read all about their inspiring and extraordinary journey in Schroff’s raw, honest, and heartfelt book, an Invisible Thread. Tissues recommended.
Laura Schroff will be appearing at the Author’s Luncheon, sponsored by the Jr. League of Lancaster on Friday, December 2, 2016.
There are people who read scholarly works just for fun, those super smarties for whom reading novels is practically a waste of time. Not me. I want fiction. I want suspense. I want action. I want romance. Most of all, I want a good story and an escape from my routine. Well, guess what? You can get all those things in the scholarly yet action-packed book, Lincoln in the Atlantic World, by American History Professor, Louise L. Stevenson. Lincoln is Stevenson’s third book and is as original as it is wide-ranging, a treasure trove of information that you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Lincoln in the Atlantic World redefines our 16th president as a trendsetting risk-taker whose biggest gamble paid off resulting in the Emancipation Proclamation. By presenting little-known facts rarely focused upon in other scholarly works, Stevenson makes a strong case for Lincoln’s genius not only as a great statesman, but as a brilliant strategist, writer, and political cosmopolitan.
There’s plenty of swashbuckling heroism, midnight escapism, foiled assassination attempts, capture on the high seas, and a bit of sockdologizing — a non-word that loosely means someone pretending to be something they’re not while at the same time trying to get over on you. Professor Stevenson spent much of her career, searching through the tunnels and alleyways of Lincoln fact and lore, unearthing little tidbits of information that have been generally overlooked by the history books. The chapters are set out as “lessons” and they describe the various influences in Lincoln’s life — German, African, English, etc.— that together formulate the narrative that became the mindset behind Lincoln’s policies at home and abroad.
Cosmopolitan is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Abraham Lincoln, but new research by Stevenson demonstrates that he could well have been a dictionary entry next to the word. Both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was a man who believed that restoring the Union and ending slavery were a means of preserving not only the American republic, but also of republicanism as a goal for the world’s people, a view he’d expressed in the Gettysburg address.
Throughout his life, Lincoln internalized information about slavery, American politics, and international relations from sources centered in Africa, Britain and the European continent through his reading (Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, to name one), his association with German immigrants, and perhaps moreso, his humble beginnings and prior employment. The result was not a president interested in isolationist theories or American Imperialism, but one dedicated to bring to life the tenets of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. When Lincoln wrote that a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” should neither perish from the North American continent, nor “from the earth,” he wasn’t uttering empty sound bytes meant to get him reelected. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” the 272-word speech goes, a speech so concise, it was concluded before the crowd had finished assembling. No, Lincoln was in it for the long game. At the time, he had no way of knowing that his words would fan the fires of democracy and republicanism in such profound ways, but he knew he could not stand idly by, whatever the repercussions.
Lincoln’s many losses taught him that without coalition building, his political agenda was destined to fail. In a time of great turmoil for our country, Lincoln managed to turn the fickle nature of popular opinion in his favor simply by viewing the world from 30,000 feet. He embraced the New Americans that came from Germany and other parts of Europe in search of religious freedom and appealed to their sense of higher of justice and power to gain their political and editorial backing. He even used something as mundane as facial hair to make a statement. Stevenson argues that Lincoln, ever the erudite scholar of human emotion knew that much like today your face was your calling card, announcing who you were to the world at a glance. Lincoln’s facial hair was a strategic move meant to give him popular appeal to a more republican audience. He grew his beard as a way to participate visually in the Atlantic world of republicanism and liberalism.
The result? Lincoln gambled his entire career on a high-minded ideal, a new world vision for the republic he loved. It’s hard to say what would have happened if Lincoln lived. Perhaps the reparation period would have gone more smoothly, perhaps blacks and whites would have learned to live together in peace and harmony, perhaps there would be no need to argue today about whether to fly a Confederate flag over a courthouse in South Carolina, or to suffer rioting in North Carolina, or the other half a dozen venues where racial tensions have lead to death in the last year, or perhaps nothing would be different and the fight would be ongoing with no satisfactory resolution. One thing is indisputable, however. Because of Lincoln’s ideals and resolve, because of his cosmopolitan nature and egalitarian outlook, our 16th president gave an entire race of people back their voice. Today, a century and a half later, they are no longer afraid to use it.
Read Lincoln in the Atlantic World and fall in love with Lincoln and the Republic for which he stood all over again.
When I read the news you could have knocked me over with a well-placed word:
He was dead.
How did I miss that tidbit of information? How could I have not known that one of my favorite living authors is no longer walking about the earth plane? Shouldn’t I have felt the cosmic shift of the planets as his spirit left? Why didn’t the Earth herself — for whom he was such a consistent and persuasive advocate — rise up in protest at his departure. In March 2016, Jim Harrison died of a heart attack. (I wrote heartache at first. Freudian slip, eh?) What Harrison left behind — vibrant, sparse, yet effusive stories that resonated with a quiet truth — will have to be enough.
I remember reading my first, and favorite Jim Harrison book, Dalva, about a young Native American girl who gets pregnant at sixteen and because of her age and circumstance is forced to give up her child. It’s a love song to lost innocence and horrible consequences, a sad tutorial on all the ways that Native Americans have been screwed over, both singularly and in the macrocosm, and Dalva is a brilliant blend of the two, full of history, lore, and a collective plight that Harrison deals out in small bites in the form of letters interspersed throughout the story — classic Jim Harrison.
Then there were the food stories. One, the title escapes me, where Harrison was attending a dinner party with 12 or 20 or maybe more courses, a meal akin to Roman times when a vomitorium was a necessity to keep up with the feasting. He wrote about the experience afterwards, about how they had to take a walk after five or six courses to make room for more food and alcohol, and I remember his admonition of, “Courage, gentlemen,” referring to the prospect of what lie ahead, as if he were really referring to fighting a great battle or beast. Only Jim Harrison could make food so challenging and gluttony so soulful.
The Ancient Minstrel, the title of his last book and the name of the first of three novellas, is a memoir, somewhat fictionalized to protect those who wished to remain anonymous (his family), true to Harrison form and full of excesses: food, drink, women, eccentricities of choice, disdain for the temperament of acclaim, but not the money it brought. It begins and ends without resolution but somehow it feels as though there’s nothing left to say. The epilogue is a touching, Harrison-esque love song to his art and his wife: “The sanity of a good marriage will enable you to get your work done.” Amen to that.
I think Eggs is probably what Harrison would have been like if born a woman a decade or two earlier, internally self-directed, self-assured, deliberately plodding through life with a quiet bravado. Eggs tracks the life of Catherine, the child of alcoholic parents who rises above her family’s dysfunction, a beautiful spirit whose attachment to the land, her chickens, and her own heart’s choices proves the adage that we may not always get what we want, but, if open to it, we get what we need.
More than a few of Harrison’s stories deal with the topic of suicide. Even if he hadn’t thought about it personally, it was a point of fascination for him, something to be looked at from several angles. The final story, The Case of the Howling Buddhas, is about a clever, brilliant, self-destructive private investigator, leaving you with the feeling that Harrison called out his own death, the timing if not the exact nature of it. By the end of the The Ancient Minstrel, Harrison’s on every page of the book but still nowhere in plain view. In toto, The Ancient Minstrel is Jim Harrison’s swan song, so final, so deliberate, so determined to suck the last ounce of joy from the marrow bone that it feels as if there is — dare I? — nothing left to say. How much was truth and what remains as fiction we will never know for just as a tuning fork can bring another tuning fork into resonance, good fiction resonates with universal truths that readers can use as needed in relation to their own lives. More than that we don’t need to know.
Harrison leaves behind a much respected and well-appointed literary legacy, but it’s what he didn’t say that troubles me. What will I not get to read and ponder now that he’s gone? What noble truths will be lost to oblivion? It makes me want to write all the more furiously before my own voice is silenced. Is The Ancient Minstrel Harrison’s best work? No, but it’s true to his writing style and his most personally revealing, essential to any Jim Harrison collection.
I love books that retell a story in a way you would never imagine. Want to see every story you’ve ever read about Mary Magdalene turned on its head? Then put judgment aside and read Mary’s Message by Ann Crawford, the reimagining of what Yeshua’s life would have been like if Mary Magdalen had been his wife. In Mary’s Message, Mary is a priestess of the high temple practiced in the art of love and alchemy (could be why the Bible refers to her as a prostitute), a gifted teacher (could be why the Apostles had a beef with her), an energy healer and medicine woman (had she been born centuries later they would have burned her at the stake), and a positive thinker all wrapped up together in a powerhouse of a package, a woman in control of her thoughts and emotions and hence her reality, a woman worthy of being the mate of Yeshua ben Yosef, more commonly referred to as Jesus. I was entranced by the possible alternatives to the Bible stories and intrigued by how Crawford married the feminine nature to what has until this time been a strictly masculine-defined and patriarchal view of that time period of Yeshua’s life.
The way Crawford describes it — and since none of us were alive at the time, why bother disputing it — Yeshua and Mary Magdalene lived together in the temple where Magdalene lived and taught. When the time came, she went out on the road with him, assisting hm in preaching what would later become the Gospels. They were essential components of each other’s personalities, their marriage the intertwining of the feminine and masculine to form a complete unit through the bonds of matrimony, and as such, they instructed, supported and empowered each other and those around them. They evolved together, becoming stronger through the gestalt of the relationship rather than as separate entities, and the benefits of their union continued long after Yeshua “died” and was “resurrected.”
The story follows along with all the high points of Yeshua’s life as depicted in the Bible, but touchstones for that period in time is where the similarities end and many of the events such as Yeshua’s death are told with a very different spin. Moreover, while Yeshua had the utmost respect for Mary, her abilities, and point of view, the rest of the people alive at the time, and to some degree the Apostles, considered women as little more than chattel. This made the story all the more interesting to read as Mary and Yeshua navigated their interpersonal relationship while still maintaining a place in the larger community with its masculine-dominated mores and opinions.
If your Christianity is of the fundamental variety then Mary’s Message may not be the book for you, especially given the deep metaphysical and eastern religion tenets that run throughout. But if you can put aside preconceived notions and be open to a familiar story told in a brand new way then give Mary’s Message a look.
Great Personal Stories of Romance, Adventure and Connection
Have you ever cached? No? Nor have I. In fact, before a friend told me about the sport of geocaching, his newest hobby, I’d never ever heard of it. I call it a sport because it involves many things that an actual sport does: agility, tenacity, a keen eye, an intellectual curiosity (required), and more. Who knew there were thousands and thousands of people across the globe participating in this “catchy” ad hoc adventure and even stores that sell geocaching supplies and “swag”? If you’ve got no idea what all the hubbub is about then read Geocaching GPS: Great Personal Stories of Romance, Adventure and Connection, compiled by Kimberly Eldredge, the first of its kind geocaching anthology.
I only heard of this book because my blogging friend, Karen Allendoerfer, has one of her stories, Bobbing for Bob, included within. Bobbing for Bob is about the longterm commitment to marriage and goals — in this instance, the goal being a particularly difficult cache — and is one of the best stories in the book both for the writing and the lesson. In marriage and in life, the goal, and the tenacity you apply to it, defines the outcome. And sometimes sharing credit for something may just be enough.
All the stories showcase one of the book’s three main themes: romance, adventure or connection, and while not all of the contributors are “writers,” they are all adventurers committed to the cache and enamored of what geocaching offers them: time out in nature, time with family, time to dust off the frontal lobe and learn a new skill, to get out of the house and away from the TV, to move around and reconnect with yourself, your friends, your life, and forge some friendships in the larger geocaching community. When a cache is discovered, notes are made in the logbook such as FTF, failed to find, and there’s generally some swag — little trinkets, varied in nature — available for exchange. It’s an ongoing and exciting game of hide and seek with prizes available at the end. What could be better?
What I found most intriguing — in addition to the inspiring and characteristic geocaching names used to log into a find — was how story after story talked about introducing the sport to others, generally family members who either never heard of it or had poo-poo’d it and then were hooked.
Here is a sampling of what’s inside: “Concert on a Waterfall,” about a 22-pound pyramid, a didgeridoo, a harp, and spirits who enter the earth through the waterfall’s veil. “Along for the Hike” about a father and daughter who bond over geocaching even as the daughter is dying of cancer. “A Quick Stop Along the Way,” about a daughter who instills the love of geocaching in her father who had grown tired of waiting for her to arrive because she was stopping at geocaches all along the way. He ended up hiding 67 of his own caches within a 30-mile radius of his home in Arkansas where previously there were none to assure he could spend more time with his daughter. “Beauty in Abandonment,” about a woman who lost the friend who introduced her to geocaching, yet found her own spirit again at the first geocache she ever searched for with the friend who was no longer with her.
There’s so many more and they are as varied as the caches themselves. If you are interested in geocaching, are just curious to see what these crazy geocachers are doing with their spare time, or if you’ve been looking to get started, but need a boost, consider Geocaching GPS your primer.
Rain Clouds and Waterfalls
Rain Clouds and Waterfalls by Piper Templeton is a lovely little coming of age and beyond story set in a time when life was simpler if only because choices were limited. In other ways, life was more harsh as the dogma of the day ruled. People, especially children, had fewer options. They didn’t revere, as we do today, the meaning of individuality, and “Authority,” meaning work, school, teachers, parents, priests, etc., was spelled with a capital A. It was always the job of rock and roll, beginning with the Beatles, to peel back the veil of mass conformity so that everyone could let their individual light shine. Rain Clouds and Waterfalls offers a peek into that beginning time.
The stories follow the life trajectory of a young girl, Ellen, depicting isolated incidences as she goes from child to adult which, en toto, gives you the fuller picture of her life, especially as it is interwoven with the music of The Beatles. Each chapter is headed by a Beatles song. Sometimes the music is a catalyst for her actions, sometimes a balm, but always linked to the story within, allowing the reader to witness Ellen grow up with and through the music. The stories are bare bones, not a lot of fluff here and no extraneous subject matter. Often the language belies the gravity of that same subject matter which can be stark, harsh, sometimes unbearable. A brother who leaves, a friend who leaves, a boyfriend who leaves, a boss who comes through (finally!), parents who are perennially remote and self-absorbed, all leave you asking where is Ellen’s “good” in life, really, other than through the music of the Beatles?
The stories are told almost matter-of-factly without pity or pulling of heart-strings even though some very adult things happen to Ellen as a child. Set in New Orleans, I wished for more of a sense of place, at least from the adult Ellen. I also wanted the adult Ellen to try a little harder to create her own reality rather than letting things wash over here as she’d done as a child. I understand that not everyone can or will evolve in this way, but I was rooting for her. In fact, the majority of the world is so slow to change that sometimes it seems the only dynamic action occurring is that which is dramatized in film and literature. Ultimately, I think it would have better served the story to see more of that character arc as well as the arc of the language Ellen used as she matured. Overall, however, the stories are balanced and steadily told. The book would make a great art house film — soundtrack essential — with the protagonist growing year to year along with her love of the Beatles. For a quick, enjoyable read try Rain Clouds and Waterfalls.
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult is part The Amazing Kreskin, part Defenders of Wildlife, and part When Elephants Weep all wrapped up in the body of a mystery. Jenna’s mother, Alice Metcalf has been missing for ten years. Jenna who was three at the time her mother went missing desperately wants to find her and refuses to believe she’s dead because that would mean she’d never see her again. But the alternative, that Alice abandoned Jenna at the age of three, is the more painful one and an alternative Jenna can’t bear to consider. Jenna’s father has been institutionalized since the night her mother went missing so any help he could have provided will not be forthcoming anytime soon. Jenna lives with her grandmother, Alice’s mom who refuses to talk about her missing daughter which forces Jenna to do some undercover sleuthing on her own.
Jenna enlists the aid of a former detective on the case, Virgil Stanhope who changed his name and went AWOL as a result of the original botched investigation into her mom’s death 10 years before, as well as that of a local psychic, Serenity Jones even though she doesn’t much believe in that psychic stuff. Both Virgil and Serenity have experienced their own individual falls from grace and are outside looking in on their respective fields which plays a role in why Jenna was able to hire them in the first place given the unconventionality of a situation with a 13-year old spearheading the movement to solve a decade-old possible murder mystery. And that’s all I can say without giving some key plot points away.
Leaving Time waxes poetically in true Picoult fashion, reserving some of the most moving passages for the elephants themselves. I remember reading When Elephants Weep, and actually crying myself with the knowledge that these beautiful sentient beings suffered such cruelty at the hands of man. But whether you are a believer in the anthropomorphic qualities of elephants as I am, Leaving Time will teach you a few things about elephants and help you to feel a kindred connection with such divine animals, leaving a mark on your spirit in the process. Interested in large animal conservation? Read Leaving Time. You may even want to run off and join a conservation group on the African Plains, but definitely not the circus.
I just finished reading A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole for the second time. The first time was 30 years ago and I think I appreciated it more this time around because I now realize just how visionary Toole was. The book was written in the 1960’s and the circumstances surrounding how the book came to be are bizarre. It is most unfortunate, but aside from a first novel written at the age of 16, A Confederacy of Dunces is the only book Toole ever wrote. Much like David Foster Wallace, Toole struggled with depression, and after years of trying and failing to get A Confederacy of Dunces published and having so totally invested himself in the work, he committed suicide. His mother then toiled for many unsuccessful years to get her son’s book published posthumously until finding Walker Percy, the American author, now deceased, who at the time was teaching at Loyola University. Percy reluctantly began to read the book, but what started as a guilt read ended in astonishment, and A Confederacy of Dunces found a champion, finally achieving publication in 1980.
A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. One can only imagine how many other books Toole would have written but we are left with only this gem as well as his first, The Neon Bible. Sad that, but I’d like to think he’s already reincarnated as a brilliant 20-something, tossing out prose the way parents dole out Halloween candy. We’ll never know, though, will we?
And now, on to the review.
A more unlikely protagonist you won’t find in Ignatius Reilly: he’s obese, he’s a slob, he never removes his green hunting cap (not even to take a bath which, as far as we can tell, is not often), he has “valve” issues, and he’s a pubescent teenager experiencing the throws of sexuality in the body of a full-grown man. He also eschews sex, except for the single-handed kind, has a love/hate relationship with his mother whom he depends on for support, and a girlfriend to whom he can’t go a week without writing scandalously insulting letters. He has no job, no money, and such and inflated opinion of himself that you pity the people who have to live with him. When Ignatius’s mother, Irene insists that her college-educated layabout son go get a job or else, Ignatius must take to the streets in search of employment. When he does, each albeit short-lived experience is more outlandish than the last. And while it’s true that Ignatius is a narcissistic windbag of the highest caliber, he’s a smart windbag and often there are giant hairballs of truth in his diatribe even while the internal moral compass that he steadfastly tries to maintain to keep his equilibrium wavers more than true North in the 21st century. As smart, funny, insightful comedies go, this book ranks among the best.
A Confederacy of Dunces is set in New Orleans in the 60’s, then and now a city of dichotomies. If you are poor in New Orleans, there are very few opportunities to climb the proverbial ladder of success, a theme explored in the novel with hilarious outcomes. Toole’s characters could just as easily be navigating New Orleans today as racial inequality, gay rights, police brutality, and even America’s porn obsession are all front and center in this story. The plot is fresh and exhilarating and the philosophical musings on life and the world are provided at no extra charge. There’s a reason A Confederacy of Dunces won literature’s highest prize and it’s a shame Toole wasn’t around to claim it.
We all seem to be in transition these days and if the transition is a tad scary, Maddy’s Journey, by Julie M. Gotwald can help. It’s a kid’s story about moving to a new home, but with a twist. This time, it’s the grandparent doing the moving.
No one likes change, especially kids. There’s an inherent destabilizing factor that throws even the most stalwart of us into chaos. Maddy is a young girl worried about her grandmother’s impending move into a retirement community. The move means Gran will need to leave the house she’s always lived in which in Maddy’s opinion is a terrible thing. When Gran wisely tells Maddy that the only thing that will be different for them is the location of her home, Maddy decides to do some serious sleuthing. When they arrive at Gran’s new digs, Maddy slips down the hall and investigates every room that catches her eye. Ultimately, Maddy comes to the conclusion that Gran’s new place has all the essentials, and perhaps even a few perks. Most importantly, it has Gran and her stories. What more could a girl ask for? Maddy’s Journey is a lovely and supportive little book for any youngster who feels they may lose a loved one to transition.
Since I know the author through our volunteer work at the Jr. League of Lancaster, I thought she’d be up for a little interview about Maddy’s Journey and her writing process. And she was. Here’s what Jules has to say about writing, life, and her own journey.
[photo courtesy of the author]
I love the book’s dedication. Did your Gran have a big influence on your life and does she still?
HUGE! Gran actually lived in Kansas and I lived in Pennsylvania so it wasn’t that she was right down the street. How I had always wished she was though. She was my first pen pal and I wrote her until the day she died at age 96 when I was 25. I have always felt very lucky that she was in my life for as long as she was. I have letters saved from me to her that date back to the time I started writing. In college when a letter would come from Gran all of my good friends would somehow know and they would come by, wanting me to read them the letters. I think that is where my love of writing comes from — writing her letters all those years. Gran was always the best story teller. Even today I try and tell the stories I grew up hearing from her and they still don’t sound as good as hers. She would let her voice get very deep and soulful; I think that’s what made them so good, her voice. We went to Kansas just about every summer and I think the first thing my two brothers and I would always do was run into her house and ask for stories right off the bat.
Yes, my Gran still has an influence on my life. I think of her often and at odd times especially when I see something that reminds me of her. My daughter’s middle name is after her, Mary.
How long have you had the dream of writing for kids?
It has always been a dream of mine to be a published author. A class came up at the area community college on how to write a children’s book so I eagerly signed up. One of our assignments was to come up with an idea for a book. I had been working a couple years at Willow Valley Communities and had the memory of my Gran when she was in a retirement community so I kind of morphed the two ideas together. I think being a children’s author means being able to enter a world or magic and dreams so it’s a great honor to have my dream come true!
Do you think you’ll branch out to YA or adult novels?
Maybe someday. You never want to close a door.
You have two young children at home. Do you find yourself writing for them or just the world at large?
For now, I write for the world at large. I am sure they will do something and it will spur an idea in me.
Speaking of kids, how do you juggle two kids under the age of five, a husband, work, writing, your volunteer activities, and manage a bit of time for yourself. Any secrets for the rest of us?
Well, I don’t sleep much! It is a lot of work but I have a fantastic husband who is always by my side. It’s keeping that dream alive in your mind that pushes me.
You work in a retirement community for your 9-to-5 job. Is Maddy’s Journey based on someone living at the community or purely a work of your imagination?
Maddy’s Journey is part imagination but part just based on my Gran. As I meet with people who are thinking of moving to my retirement community they sometimes will ask, “how will I tell my grandchildren?” They know their grandchildren love to come to their home now and they don’t want that to change. That was a lot like my situation when I heard my Gran was moving from her home that I loved to visit to a retirement community in Kansas. But it’s not the four walls of a house; it’s the person who you love dearly. The physical things grandparents have, move with them when they go to a retirement community, so you just have to remember that it’s just a different set of four walls.
In the retirement community where I work there are many things to do in the building, like the mail room, wood shop, beauty salon, etc. So I decided as a head strong little girl who doesn’t want her Gran to move, Maddy needed to go exploring to see for herself how the new four walls of her Gran’s house would really be.
Favorite children’s author?
Nancy Tillman. I have read one of her books over and over to both of my children. Her stories speak to my heart.
If you had the ability to give the world one gift to help it along in its evolution, what would you give it?
Understanding. I think that would go a long way.
Maddy’s Journey is available on Amazon, B&N, and generally anywhere where books are sold.
They say all doors open for a pretty girl and I believe that’s true, unless you’re a poor girl, and then no matter how pretty you are, those doors are going to stay shut tight and double locked. My Sweet Vidalia, by Deborah Mantella is a story about a poor and pretty girl, Vidalia Lee Kandal Jackson, a straight-A student at the top of her class which means she just may have beaten the odds on a life that offered women, especially poor-ish ones, very few options if it wasn’t for what happened next. Set in rural Georgia in the mid-1950’s, My Sweet Vidalia is not a story for the faint of heart, but it is one for the poetic heart.
When JB Jackson first sets eyes on Vidalia, it is not with the best intentions, but no one has ever paid Vidalia much attention and eventually, JB’s good looks and sweet words just plain wear Vidalia down. Vidalia falls, or rather succumbs to JB’s charms, and soon the charm falls away and the nastiness takes over. By the time Vidalia sees through the veneer to the narcissistic and abusive man/boy JB really is, she’s pregnant and without options.
Their marriage forces Vidalia into a lifelong trap of deception and abuse so gut-wrenching that you want to turn away from every open plan, hungry belly, and closed fist. What makes this story different from others on spousal abuse and hard-core poverty is the lyricism of the language as told through the point of view of Vidalia’s first child, the stillborn Ceili Mae. As Ceili Mae explains right out, if she’d taken her first breath she would have been left out in the cold, but being born still means being possessed of an omniscience only available to those in the spirit world. “In plain-speak, had I but gasped, wheezed, panted, or sighed, even one little sigh, I’d have no recollection of events past, present, or to come. As I never did pull that first breath I see most of what was, what is, and what could be.” When Ceili Mae is stillborn, Vidalia looks about to lose her mind, but Ceili Mae pulls her back from the brink and mother and daughter forge an unbreakable bond that even death can’t sever.
The feisty Ceili Mae knows what her mother needs to take on such a challenging life so she spends her days by her Vidalia’s side, helping her navigate the treacherous terrain that living with a drunkard and abusive good-for-nothing of a husband entails. The juxtaposition of the harsh reality of this impoverished family and the way Vidalia communes with angels through the very live spirit of Ceili Mae makes the story tolerable for both us and Vidalia.
My Sweet Vidalia’s keen observations about race, and poverty and the disenfranchisement of the lower class, particularly women, can be exhausting as I can only assume systemic poverty is in its relentlessness, but the voice of Ceili Mae keeps you rooting for Vidalia straight through to the end. The secondary characters are not as complexly drawn as I would have liked to see, but it’s a small price to pay for the exquisite prose. My Sweet Vidalia reaches deep into your heart and then it keeps going. You’d be wise to go along.
The Signature of All Things
What a wonder is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, lush, verdant and efflorescent like the plants that fill its pages. You can’t help but get pulled in and up by the narrative in the way all living things reach for the sun. The characters are robust and noteworthy, from the daring, adventuresome and iron-willed Henry Whittaker, whose personality is as extreme as the some of the climates in which grow his favorite botanicals, and who endures much at great personal cost to rise above his very lowly beginnings, to his brilliant and stoic wife, Beatrice, who leaves her Dutch family to move to the United States with Henry and make their mark on the world, to their only natural offspring, Alma, as strong-willed as her father, and erudite as her mother.
As a child, Henry had tasted real poverty and loathed it. His less than illustrious start instilled in him the determination to escape from poverty and build a botanical and pharmaceutical empire. Despite Henry’s father’s employment as a gardner at the Kew botanical gardens, the jewel of the English Crown, the family lived in squalor, and for that Henry blamed his father. Through courage, determination and his refusal to be kept down, Henry moved to America and became king of the botanical import world, building an empire which he then passed down to Alma who became his equal in most all ways, although it takes her the span of the novel to figure that out.
From a young age, Alma strove for an intellectual understanding of the world around her. She spent the bulk of her childhood, analyzing and cataloguing the curious flora and fauna at White Acre, her father’s estate in Philadelphia, riding her pony into the woods to collect specimens and returning to study them under a microscope. Alma was neither comely like her adopted sister Prudence, nor impish and entertaining like her friend Retta. She saw little chance of ever forming a marriage bond so work was it, and being Dutch by ancestry, she thrived in that undertaking, throwing herself into it both physically and with her broad sweeping intellect.
Just when she thought there was nothing left to discover, Alma stumbled upon a category of botanicals she had heretofore overlooked: mosses. The discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. With the death of Alma’s mother, the care and keeping of Henry Whittaker had passed to Alma and, stuck at White Acre, Alma was in need of a new endeavor to rescue her from the boredom of knowing a place too well. Mosses filled that hole, giving her decades of research to keep her occupied in her newfound role. Yet despite all indications to the contrary, Alma will travel farther than she ever dreamed possible before it’s all done.
The Signature of All Things is a gargantuan undertaking and so much more than a well-researched bit of historical fiction. You will have to look pretty hard to find a heroine that’s as true to herself, and a book more remarkable in evoking that truth. Signature is alive with the enigmatic spirit of nature, a paean to the goddess energy in all living things, animal, mineral and vegetable. The very pages come alive with the spark of the divine that creates and imbues the world and everything that lives in it, or as Gilbert calls it, The Signature of All Things.
[photo of my front yard – winter wonderland]
We’re about halfway through the biggest storm the East Coast has seen since 1996 — Snowmageddon 2016, nature at her finest and fiercest, and beautiful if you, like me, are tucked in at home for the weekend, alternating between cups of coffee and rounds with the snow shovel. The snow is deep deep deep, so much so that even the dog wants no part of it. I think it’s Momma Nature’s way of telling us all to take a deep breath and go make some soup. There’ll be time for all the crazy we call our lives later. For now, relax. Your car isn’t getting out of the driveway today anyway, And for God’s sake, stay off the turnpike.
In celebration of the snow, here’s a review of one of my favorite books on winter, appropriately titled: Winter.
“It was early September and I was driving, literally, to the last road in the United States, a gravel-and-dirt road that paralleled the Canadian border, up in Montana’s Purcell Mountains. It was like going into battle, or falling in love, or walking from a wonderful dream, or falling into one: wading into cold water on a fall day.” – Rick Bass, Winter
Can Rick Bass help it if his Soul’s been on a nature walkabout for all of his life? In Winter [notes from montana], Bass’s wandering spirit is alive and well and living in the Yaak Valley in Montana without electricity, without heat, other than the wood-fired variety, and without much contact with civilization given that only 30 people lived in this remote valley at the time. To read his writing, you get the sense that Bass has explored every canyon and fissure from a hundred points of view so he could bring us city folk back all the details. Both as a geologist, formerly employed by the Oil and Gas industry (Oil Notes is a great read about Bass’s days in the field, looking for new veins of petrol), and now as a writer, advocating on behalf of nature and her wild places, it’s evident that Bass craves a tactile connection with the earth and is keyed in to her secret language, a language he then translates for us in everything he writes. Winter is a memoir of Bass’s first year spent in the Yaak Valley, living with his erstwhile artist girlfriend now wife, Elizabeth, and their two dogs, spend their days living close to the earth. He writes about it while she sketches scenes of the daily living, the serendipity of the path, and the sublime and exquisite stillness of the world — when you can actually find such an unlikely place — and how it contributes to the growth and grounding of us all whether we know it or not.
[My back deck – Snowtopia]
It’s cold in the Yaak Valley. Winter starts about September and goes clear through to March. When Bass and Elizabeth moved in the locals told him them they needed to cut A LOT of firewood. Bass took this advice seriously, cutting cords and cords of wood throughout much of the book as a fitness routine, as a commune with nature, as a spiritual experience, as an exercise in survival, all of which are or may be the same, and when he thought he was done, the neighbors laughed so he cut more. Cords later, he called it and it was just enough to squeak past the interminable winter’s finish line. He was sweating it a little toward the end. A couple more weeks of winter and they would have been toast. That’s the thing about ditching our modern conveniences.
[The Japanese Maple that welcomes visitors to our house.]
There’s a raw, feral power in the earth that we humans aren’t so used to anymore. While daily life in a crowded environment puts us off our game, time spent in nature forces us to be present, open our eyes, pay attention. Not only will you miss nature’s little delights if you don’t, but you could end up in a whole heap of trouble. There’s a thousand ways to die in nature, simply because you aren’t paying attention. Yet there’s a thousand more ways to live more fully, simply because you are. Winter is a profound journey into the heart of the earth’s best kept secrets. Don’t be surprised if, after reading it, you want to close up the house and head for the wild.
Webster’s defines noir as “1: crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.” Jon Fixx, one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie Books of 2015 is that and more, a madcap mix of noir and romance, a fabulously fun tale of a niche romance writer who’s life’s been on a downward spiral since his girlfriend, Sara, dumped him. The story manages to be predictable in the crime story genre kind of way, and also surprising because the main character is not a sleaze ball, or a criminal, or even a victim, but a guy who just happens to be good at what he does and which lands him in a predicament he can’t write his way out of. What I loved about Jon Fixx was the way the road took a sharp left turn every time you thought you knew where the story was going.
Jon Fixx is a romantic at heart and he’s turned that trait into a lucrative career. He’ll write your love story and package it up all pretty with the help of his best friend, Luci, who handles the artistic content, making you the star of your own show and simultaneously creating a wonderful keepsake to remember the event. Simple, yet elegant, right? Unfortunately for our hero, wrong. It’s not even close to being that simple.
The novel starts with a post-breakup, traumatized Fixx who just can’t grasp the idea that he’s no longer numero uno on ex-girlfriend Sara’s speed dial. He heads off on a solo road trip to Las Vegas to clear his head and regain some composure. True, she ditched him in a pitiless and cold-blooded manner, and true, he needed some time to adjust, but calling her for months afterwards in the middle of the night from various pay phones in the L.A. area just to hear her voice, then hanging up on her without saying a word borders on lunacy. It’s all relative though since the real lunacy is Fixx standing in the parking lot at a Howard Johnson’s rest stop, banging his head against the metal frame of the phone booth, trying to still the inner voices begging him to make the call while his conscious mind begs him to stop. The result is a few moments of blackout, a nice lump on his head, and a new friend, Donovan, the security guy who takes pity on him.
The breakup resulted in not only a broken heart but a severe case of writer’s block, a problem if you are writing under deadline. Fixx tries to beg off an assignment — a story about a particularly horrible high-profile couple — but the father who happens to be the Attorney General for the state of California will not allow it and demands Fixx finish the piece. He does, but tells the truth about them in an uncensored and brutally honest manner. Suddenly the wedding is off, the parties are furious, and Fixx is at risk of getting his faced smashed in at every turn. Surprise — things get worse when he’s asked to write his special brand of love story for a mob boss’s daughter and her fiancé. Fixx takes the job — as if he has a choice — and finds himself growing more and more attracted to the boss’s daughter, the mob boss’s daughter.
I had a bit of trouble initially with the way the book bounces back and forth in time, but the story is compelling, fresh and funny, so any momentary confusion I may have experienced from a non-linear telling was forgotten in all the fun.
The pace is quick, the narration light and airy, the sense of drama never over the top. There’s no sex, no bad words, and no gun violence — people only use their fists in this book — a refreshing throwback to a more manageable time. Crime + romance = irresistible noir = Jon Fixx. I can’t wait to see the movie.
[photo of Neil Gaiman shamelessly lifted from google images]
Neil Gaiman Triptych
Neil Gaiman is crazy. Neil Gaiman is deep. Neil Gaiman lives in bizarro world. Neil Gaiman is ridiculously English in his storytelling. Neil Gaiman may be an extraterrestrial. Neil Gaiman is one of the most gifted, prophetic, and ingenious storytellers alive today and I wish we were besties. I feel like I came late to the game and am trying to make up for lost time so I read three NG books in quick succession. Each had at least one foot if not an entire body wedged into the paranormal, making you believe that Gaiman may have witnessed some of this stuff first hand.
Anansi Boys: My first NG novel was Anansi Boys, a story about two brothers, only one of which knows he’s the son of a god who happens to be walking around on earth, posing as a human. The younger brother, Fat Charlie Nancy considers himself somewhat of a doofus. He lives with a dad he pretty much hates because he’s a total dick and embarrasses Charlie all the time, in effect, ruining his life. Charlie has no idea he’s the son of a god or that he has a brother. Charlie’s older brother, Spider, knows both things, but he left long ago and lives somewhere he won’t cop to so when Charlie’s dad drops dead while singing karaoke, Spider decides it’s time to pay Charlie a visit. Unlike Charlie, Spider knows his lineage, but when he shows up at Charlie’s apartment, attempting to put things into perspective, worlds start to unravel. Charlie learns that Dad is actually the human version of Anansi, the African spider god and trickster of tricksters, hated by many of the magical creatures of his own ilk because of his tendency to screw people over. Oh, and Spider actually has some of Dad’s mojo. Drawing on myth, archetype and ancient legend, NG spins a delightful tale that spools out, alternating between the real and mythical worlds, all while the brothers come to terms with their ancestry and each other. Anansi Boys is a terrific read.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is chock full of everything you want a book to be, heart, soul and otherworldly luminescence. It’s literary fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland for the new age except no one wakes up from a dream at the end. Or do they? Take your typical boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy loses girl story with a huge dose of magic and more than a bit of insidiousness thrown in — good vs. very very evil — raise the fear and fun factors exponentially, and you’ll have Ocean. Eleven-year old Lettie Hempstock and our tender, yet precocious seven-year old unnamed narrator meet following an unfortunate event where a tenant of the boy’s family has turned up dead. The Hempstocks take our innocent, but inquisitive boy into their care intermittently throughout the book as the danger to him ebbs and flows, ultimately at great cost to themselves. Still Lettie is a strong protector and feels an affinity for the boy when things look bleakest, plus the lake at the end of the lane is actually an ocean, the Hempstocks are immortals, and there are more portals to other worlds than anyone would have ever imagined. Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I felt a certain restructuring of my own mystical life, and am reminded of how much there is going on under the surface, both figuratively and literally. You could be standing right next to a completely different world, but your 3-D eyes simply can’t see it. Spiritual leaders have been telling us this for decades, and physics is now providing the scientific evidence to back it up. Perhaps the masses have not yet come to terms with such parallel universes, but with NG’s help, it’s only a matter of time. Fantasy aside, this was a deeply philosophical and spiritual read. Immerse yourself.
Neverwhere: Over 20 years in the making, Neverwhere first appeared as a BBC TV program, but because of the nature of TV production, NG had to change the story from what he’d originally envisioned. The newest adaptation is true to Gaiman’s original concept. Enter the Lady Door (pun intended), so called because she can open portals to other places at will. Richard is her unlikely Savior. When Richard finds Lady Door half unconscious on the streets of London, he takes her back to his apartment where she is able to rest and recover. Richard can’t predict that this single act of kindness will irreparably shatter the life he’s built for himself and others until Lady Door leaves and things begin to get weird. Lady Door awakens the next morning and leaves, promising not to call, and with an admonition not to follow. Fine, except the same “people” who were trying to kill Lady Door are now trying to kill Richard and The Lady is his only chance for survival. Richard leaves the safety of his apartment — actually, the apartment is no longer safe, having been let by his landlord while Richard was “away” — and sets out to find Door and convince her to take him along. Lady Door needs to find “the key” and Richard needs to get out from the underground tunnels of London where he’s been hopelessly stuck since finding Lady Door, something the key may be able to solve. Door reluctantly allows him to accompany her. What follows is one of the most fantastical and bizarre series of events to occur in one book: doors appearing out of thin air; portals to other realms; whole cities existing side-by-side, each within their own realities; people dying and then living again. Neverwhere is way cool and great fun.
A certain commonality runs through NG’s work, at least the three I read. The passive male protagonist is pulled, sometimes sideways, sometimes feet first into his power. He will demur to his wiser and more battle-worn counterpart, often a woman, when warranted, a refreshing change from so many testosterone-laden stories where the male protagonist always charges in and takes control. Then there’s the metaphysical, or paranormal, or fantasy elements — choose the designation with which you are most comfortable — and the cooperation and egalitarianism between the sexes. It’s courageous and weighty storytelling. Is this just the beginning, NG? Are you trying to bring the goddess energy back? I think Neil knows and he’s just not saying.
“I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not to become famous, not to gain entrance to the canon, not to challenge the system, not to show the bastards, not to prove to my family that I was worthy, not as a form of deep therapeutic emotional catharsis . . . but simply because I liked it.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
There’s Big Love in Big Magic, the new book by Elizabeth Gilbert, love of work, love of mucking around in the primordial soup of creativity, and love of manifesting into being that which makes your Soul sing. Why? Because you can. Because you have to. Because you, and sometimes the world, are waiting for it. Because being human means bringing your gifts to market whether someone wants to buy them or not, whether anyone notices or not, or whether anyone else who is not you thinks those gifts are a waste time or not. Big Magic says you must create because your DNA is hard-wired to create, and to deny genetics is to deny yourself. Big Magic is filled with lovely Gilbertian insights, the ones we wait for because we like the way she spins them, shining a light on the “aha” moments for us, the same moments we were reaching for, but weren’t quite able to grasp or bring into the light on our own. This is my third Liz Gilbert book and in some ways, it’s my favorite because, more than anything, it reminded me of my obligation to myself.
You all remember Liz. She’s the one who sold 12 million copies of a little book called Eat, Pray, Love by accident simply because she followed her heart along with the glow of an idea, the one that would make her — not the whole world, just her — whole. The book was honest and raw and full of self-analysis and grand truths that are indigenous to human nature, and repeatedly, people saw themselves in those pages. The books sold and sold, Oprah had her on the show, there was a movie with Julia Roberts, Liz became super famous, and in the process got herself right, and took at least a few of those 12 million people along with her. She had set out to do none of it except for the part where she made herself feel better. She wrote the book because she is a writer and that’s what writers do.
All awesome, right? Well, good luck, bad luck, who knows? A lesser person might be dismayed by the fact that none of her half a dozen other books, three of which were written following EPL, were not as successful — after all, 12 million is a bit of a hard number to top — but not Liz. Why? Ahem. Go back and read paragraph one, herein, please, or repeat after me: “I will follow my muse.” That’s it. Liz is still following her muse and a person in the muse’s thrall is a person on one fabulous joy ride. Many say, “you’re only as good as your last one,” but as Liz points out, to rest on the laurels of your “last one” simply because it was an amazing success is to fail to bring forth what you can, and have as an artist, agreed to bring forth. You continue to create even in the face of amazing, unbelievable, unprecedented everything-you-ever-dreamed-of-and-more success because there’s nothing else you can do. You take the job even if it means not living up to your own expectations or most brilliant version of yourself.
Well then, did I love Big Magic as much as EPL which was quite possibly in my top ten list of favorite books of all time? I think it’s like being asked to choose which of your kids you like best. You simply can’t because to do so would be a disservice to the family unit.
I have a t-shirt that says: “Artists Make Lousy Slaves.” I always feel so smug when I wear it, as if I have one of the Four Noble Truths emblazoned across my chest. After reading Big Magic, I see my t-shirt is all wrong. It’s actually the opposite. Being an artist, or a writer, or a musician, or using your creativity at all means being a slave to the muse, a slave to the process of creating; all you can really do is suck it up and get to work because that’s when magic happens.
Feeling stuck in your creative practice? May I suggest a little book called Big Magic? Read it and I can pretty much guarantee you will reap big, creative, may I say magical, rewards.
Combine elegant prose, a riveting tale that alternates between story time, and storyline, a provocative topic, war — unfortunately, always a provocative topic — and the predilection of the human spirit to survive even after losing all that is good in life, and you’ll have All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, a book so exquisite that you may just weep with the joy of its telling. At the very least you’ll get a few shivers. Let me start by saying that I had no intention of reading this book, mostly because I’m exhausted by the concept of war; we all are, but my friend, Lena, whose judgment I trust implicitly insisted, so I acquiesced. Oh my, people. Why did I wait so long?
The story begins at the end in 1944 in Saint-Malo, a city on the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France where 16-year old Marie-Laure LeBlanc waits, locked in the attic with little hope for the return of her uncle Etienne who was recently taken away by Germans occupying the city. Marie-Laure, the daughter of Monsieur LeBlanc, the principal locksmith for the Museum of Natural History and a master model maker, has fled Paris with her father to Saint-Malo by the sea to be with Etienne, Monsieur LeBlanc’s brother who resides still in their boyhood home, refusing to leave the house since his service in the first World War. Saint-Malo was supposed to be a safe haven for the pair, but during wartime, no place is safe.
The story then ruthlessly skips back to the beginning where a six-year old Marie-Laure loses her sight and is plunged into darkness by a congenital cataract condition that would likely be fixable today. Monsieur LeBlanc, meticulously and with the utmost patience as was his temperament, teaches Marie-Laure how to navigate the world using a cane and trial and error. In addition, he builds her a miniature model of the city of Paris so she may study it with her hands. Each day they walk to the museum and Marie-Laure counts curbs and storm drains, trying to make mental notes of her surroundings while her frustration builds and builds, until one fine day, she succeeds in navigating the way home by herself.
Things travel more or less smoothly along this path, that is, until Hitler starts mucking around and Paris is overrun by Germans. The curator at the Museum of Natural History has a very special job for Monsieur LeBlanc: transport the Sea of Flames, or perhaps one of its replicas, created to throw the Germans off the trail, out of the city. The Sea of Flames, one of the Museum’s greatest treasures, is a rare and invaluable diamond, believed to have been cursed by a goddess who had sent it to her paramour as a token of her affection. The legend goes that the diamond was intercepted by a human before it reached the goddesses’ intended love interest, causing the goddess to curse the finder to immortality and all those who were associated with the finder to mishap. Monsieur LeBlanc agrees to transport it out of Paris — or perhaps its replica — and he and Marie-Laure set off for Saint-Malo.
Meanwhile, Werner and Jutta are struggling to survive in Zollverein, a coal-mining district outside of Essen, Germany. They live in a small orphanage created as a refuge for those children whose fathers died working in the mines. It’s no secret that when Werner turns 15 he will be sent to the mines to work, the same mines that buried his father below ground and left Werner and Jutta above as orphans to scavenge whatever kind of childhood they could. Yet Werner’s inquisitive mind doesn’t leave much time for brooding about potential future disasters. Werner teaches himself math with the few books he’s able to find, and he and Jutta listen to radio broadcasts from Paris on a radio he’s rebuilt from parts ferreted out from the local dump. The broadcasts discuss science and the earth’s natural wonders, and Werner and Jutta spirits soar with this small, but uplifting distraction. When the Third Reich discovers Werner’s talent they draft him into an elite training school for German youth, many steps up from where he’s come from because of the newfound luxury of learning. Unfortunately, it comes with a price and the joy of math and science isn’t enough to sustain him.
So sets the scene for a ping-pong of a ride through a ten-year period in history as seen through the impressions and experiences of our two young protagonists. All the Light We Cannot See is another story about war, yes, but the language is so sublime, the story so delicately told, the characters so inexorably profound that reading it, you almost forget the gruesomeness and are left with the only thing that ever really remains: the light.
“To understand water is to understand the cosmos, the marvels of nature, and life itself.”
from: The Hidden Messages in Water
You would be hard-pressed to find a more beautifully-appointed and significant book than The Hidden Messages in Water. For years, Dr. Masaru Emoto pulls the very guts out of metaphysical concepts and literally examines them under a microscope. The result is The Hidden Messages in Water, and if the water crystals presented in this book are any indication of what happens in this hidden world, there is hope for mankind after all.
To get the water to form crystals, Dr. Emoto freezes it in a petri dish to -4 ℉(-20 ℃) for three hours, then takes the dish out and shines a light on it, exposing drops of ice, clinging to the surface of the petri dish. He then photographs the crystals for later study. He has 20 to 30 seconds before the ice starts to melt so he must work quickly. Taken in conjunction with his knowledge of the physiology of the human body, Dr. Emoto found the results fascinating. Apparently, water has a consciousness that can be altered through intention.
At the moment of conception, a human being is comprised of 99% water, at the moment of birth, 90% water, as an adult, that number goes down to approximately 70% water, and by the time we die, assuming we die of old age, we are only about 50% water. Without getting into the implications of what it means to dry out over time, Dr. Emoto believes if we acknowledge that we are comprised mostly of water, and also take into consideration his theory that water responds to positive thoughts and intentions, then water becomes the key to a happiness, and the only rational conclusion is that positive thinking is both necessary and essential to humanity’s well-being.
Over the course of his experiments, Dr. Emoto has looked at myriad types of water, like water exposed to both positive and negatives words and vibrations, water exposed to music, water exposed to love, to hate, to pollution, and water that was ignored. Water exposed to positive vibrations shows itself in extraordinarily beautiful crystals full of light. Water exposed to negative vibrations forms crystals that are deformed and disfigured with little light around them. Ironically, it is the water that’s been ignored that produces the most disfigured crystals. Dr. Emoto’s many experiments have demonstrated that water everywhere is linked by an almost eerie telepathy. Water is the first to relay information when something occurs on earth. An opening on the other side of the globe is captured in water, a volcano, a tsunami, an earthquake, it’s vibration transmitted through water.
If you want to do your own experiments with water, Dr. Emoto recommends cloud busting. You can remove clouds from the sky by breaking them into little pieces simply with the power of your thoughts. I’ve tried it and it works. In addition, there are other breakthroughs occurring with water like the use of ultrasound to break up dioxins, and the use of super thermoconductive materials that can freeze water at room temperature, making a special room to photograph water crystals unnecessary in Dr. Emoto’s experiments.
Yet, this is just the beginning of understanding what “wise water” can do. According to Joan S. Davis of the Zurich Technical University who has conducted research on river water for three decades, rain water can be considered “juvenile water” and by the time it has passed through to groundwater, sometimes decades, sometimes hundreds of years, it has taken on the wisdom of the ground’s minerals and become “wise water.” Although retired from the University, Davis has continued her independent research, particularly into how piped water — like the water in our modern water collection systems — degrades and is not healthy for the body. Dr. Davis is experimenting with crystals, magnets, and the redesigning of water taps to give a circular flow back to the water, thus increasing water’s vitality, or rather, giving it back.
Water reflects our emotions. Our reactions to the world around us as experienced through our emotions creates each of our worlds daily. By sending out love and positivity, you raise your own vibration and the world’s. By sending out negative messages of destruction, chaos and doubt, you contribute to the world’s destruction. Dr. Emoto believes that drinking water while holding a feeling of love and gratitude in your heart will change you forever. It will not only improve the taste of the water, but also the effect that water has on your day. Simply by sitting in front of water and thanking it for its blessing, you are changing the world. Dr. Emoto says “the message of water is love and gratitude”. So why don’t you start signaling now? You don’t even have to leave your kitchen.
p.s. Before Pharrell Williams extolled the joys of happiness, there was Bobby McFerrin:
In the days following WWII, women were struggling to define themselves. The war gave them a taste of what it was like to be out there, working alongside men, and earning their own money. After the war, the growing consensus among women was to stay put no matter how much men wanted to see them go back into the kitchen. In Lucia, Lucia Adriana Trigiani exudes the postwar giddiness of hope, and the promise of a safe and settled future set against the struggles of the temporarily-liberated, independent-minded woman. The book is by turns enchanting, exciting, nostalgic and full of the classiness of the early 1950’s when women didn’t leave the house unless they were turned out in their best versions of themselves.
It’s no surprise that Adriana Trigiani comes from a family of seven kids because the essence of the large, close-knit Italian family flows across every page of Lucia, Lucia. In her novel, Trigiani gives us the divine character of Lucia Satori, a beautiful woman caught between opposing priorities, the ones her family sets for her and those she sets for herself. Lucia’s family lives on Commerce Street in Greenwich Village. She may be the youngest, subjected to a hierarchy of four older brothers, but Lucia’s a forward thinker, a feminist before the term was even coined and she is not worried about handling herself out in the world. As the title suggests, she lives up to everyone’s expectations, but there’s a cost.
Armed with six months of secretarial school, Lucia sets out in search of a career. She lands a job as a seamstress for a fabulous dress designer in the Custom Department of B. Altman’s, a high-end department store. There she finds is the realization of her most closely held dreams, working as a career girl in a place that she adores. However, Lucia is much more than a seamstress. She’s an artist who can see what the final design will look like before the needle has been threaded. She and her best friend, Ruth, work under the tutelage of the second in command at B. Altman’s Custom Department, Delmarr. In addition to being an amazing designer, the perennial bachelor Delmarr knows what he has in Lucia and Ruth and he looks out for them accordingly, making sure that if they don’t get the recognition they deserve they at least get the raises.
Yet if that were it, there wouldn’t be much of a story, eh? For Lucia, the most beautiful girl on Commerce Street, there are more than a few bumps and bruises along the way: love lost and found again, familial bonds and old patterns, stretched to almost unrecognizable lengths before returning, more or less, to their original shapes; curses to deal with; and always a family’s abiding love to prop you up when you fall.
Solid writing, wonderful character development, and spot on descriptions of what it’s like to live in a big ethnic family, Lucia, Lucia will take up residence in your heart like your fondest childhood memory. Go on. Read it. You know you want to.
In The Book of Awakenings, Mark Nepo breaks open the harried existence we call life and folds it into bite-sized nuggets of wisdom that nudge us along toward expansion, a more open mind, a more indulgent spirit, all in service to elevating the soul. Nepo writes like a man who has crossed the desert and made it to the oasis for the revitalizing drink, then decided the oasis was a pretty fine place to be. A poet and philosopher by trade, Nepo is also a cancer survivor. While he fought the disease, life changed, became scary, possibly shorter, but decidedly different. Nepo suddenly saw the world through slow eyes, coming through the trauma more receptive and mature, and ultimately decided to write down his observations which turned out to be a boon for the rest of us. Just like tempered glass needs a little heat to coax it to its super state of existence, Nepo needed a little cancer to get his 3-D priorities right with his Soul.
The work comes across as if time is infinite (spoiler alert: it is), so why not settle down and make note of a few things while you can. A calendar book, meaning you can read the day’s entry or you can skip around and read it in any order you like, The Book of Awakenings is not about deadlines, but lifelines. I am reading it slowly, savoring it like I would an expensive box of chocolates, but in orderly fashion, leaving randomness for the second time around. You can’t absorb this book through a single read; it’s too rich with its lifetime’s worth of wisdom crammed into a bit more than 400 pages. The Book of Awakenings is a perfect read for anyone who feels as though they’re muddling through: losing life, losing purpose, losing love, identity, focus, or worse, the malaise has manifested as a dis-ease in the body and there you are, broken, alone, clueless as to how to break the cycle. It’s also perfect for someone with no problems, but many questions.
If any of these scenarios sound like yours, I have a suggestion: read The Book of Awakenings. While not a guarantee of success — only you can do that — it will help you find a path in the worst of times. The Book of Awakenings shows you why everything is a blessing, even cancer, and why there is no such thing as curses, only cursed thinking, which with a little work can be changed. Nepo wants you to celebrate life by seeing the good in all things, but don’t misunderstand. This is not a touchy-feely self-help book. Rather, it’s a retreat for the mind and soul that will provide the self-loving space for the body to follow.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful book ever having been written. A modern day Rumi, Nepo meets you where you are and turns you from the outside in. You owe it to yourself to follow.
p.j. lazos 7.11.15
Some Things You Keep
I admire those who have the courage to write a memoir. I don’t. Memoirs are so raw and vulnerable, like an open wound you can’t stop picking at — but what if you could write your way out of the bloody hellishness back to where you started, before circumstances caused your life to take a serious misstep into the abyss? In Some Things You Keep, JJ Landis goes for it, baring her soul along with many of her missteps. It’s a messy, emotionally exhausting place to be, except it’s not because it’s how her 6th grade self dealt with the trauma of her mother’s suicide: by spending a decade ignoring her own feelings. No tears, no cries for help other than the self-destructive, self-flagellating kind, no therapy, nothing, just another day. Your mom died. It was a suicide. You better go finish your math homework. This was the saddest part of the story, the fact that so many adults were around and none of them recognized how badly this child was struggling. Were we that clueless in decades past or was it our social custom to brush such heartsickness and immobilizing grief behind the curtains with the dust bunnies.
Some Things You Keep is a series of vignettes with each chapter standing alone, as if on a cliff, ready to jump, or maybe tuck and run, alternating between dark and darker versions of Landis’s life and world. The older she got, the more aberrant her behavior while the searing impact of her mother’s death was ever present. Desperate to understand, but at the same time break free of the crushing despair of that life-changing event resulted in an emotional paralysis. Too embarrassed to ask for help, as if it were her fault — again I say, where were the adults?! — Landis embarked instead on a journey of internal uncertainty and self-loathing that manifested itself in classic dysfunctional behavior — drinking, drugging, and bad-for-her boyfriends. As the adoptive mother of two kids whose birth mother also committed suicide, I have a small peephole of insight into this uncertainty. No matter how much love you heap upon kids who’ve weathered a similar event, they will always wonder why and whether: Why did she do it and was I responsible? The why is never certain even when educated guessing steps in since no one can know another’s innermost thoughts or the resulting reasons for their actions. The whether is always a definite no, but that doesn’t stop kids, and it didn’t stop Landis from harboring one self-recriminating thought after another, if I were a better daughter she would have loved me more, and throwing back a few — drinks, lines, whatever — just to put a finer point on it.
Despite the safe landing at her father and stepmom’s home, Landis couldn’t let the grief loose, and years of bottling up that kind of emotion is like trying to keep a tornado in a tin can; eventually, all kinds of stuff is going to get busted. Lucky for her — and I say lucky because a journey along the razor’s edge is a perilous one — she came out the other side. It took God, and a few missionary trips, and God, and a soulmate in her boyfriend turned husband, and God, and a few kids for her to finally be secure enough to face her demons and deal with the undiagnosed depression that had been her constant companion since losing her mom. While the journey goes on, you get the sense that now she’s doing all right, especially when you read her blog at http://www.jjlandis.com. All in all, a happy ending to what began as a very sad tale.
Have you dabbled in numerology, but found that the numbers never add up right? Are you enamored of feng shui, but find its overgeneralized process coupled with its rigid application and innumerable fixes to be indecipherable? Have you tried tarot, but found its mystical approach too impossible to quantify in your 3-D existence? If you answered yes to any of the above, then have I got a book or you. The Code, by Johanna Paungger and Thomas Poppe will unlock all the answers to all the questions you ever had about yourself, your life and the why of why you do things the way you do, and it will give you a blueprint — yes, a blueprint! — for how to live your life in greater harmony with yourself and your environment. Truly an eye-opening experience, The Code can be applied at any stage and in all areas of life.
The Code is premised upon the idea that your birth date provides most of the information you need to make the right choices as to how you would like your life to unfold. The numbers follow the cardinal directions and each direction has a different set of numbers that broadcasts your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I have two numbers in the north, a 6 and 1, code words, charisma, vision and determination, which makes me a person who wants to be in the public eye, an innovator in search of an audience, a person generally not satisfied with the status quo, and it certainly explains why I take personally a world that changes in glacial time. Clockwise in the east, 8 and 3 are the controlling numbers, code words, empathy and clarity of vision. These numbers indicate a great deal of people pleasing is going on, but also a great deal of people reading. Moving clockwise again to the south we have 7 and 2, code words, fire and passion, and like the heat of the south, these folks are fun-loving, vibrant, curious and passionate, and thrive when at the center of attention. Over in the west you’ll find the perfectionists, code words, skill and prudence. These are the ones who have plans and stick to them. Finally, in the center are the stable, patient, free-wheeling spirits who are able to draw off of any one of the four cardinal points to their advantage. Problematically, center people have wanderlust and homesickness at the same time so maybe unlimited options aren’t always the best thing.
Then there are the combinations of cardinal points and numbers and the advantages of certain number combinations, how to compensate for numbers that are missing — I have three of the cardinal points with the exception of east, but I live in the east, so apparently this works to balance me out — and how to use the book to enhance your life.
If you want to improve your understanding of your life, give yourself a reason to follow that dream you’ve been ignoring for a while, or just want to understand why you do what you do or live where you live, The Code is for you. That’s it. Go buy the book and solve all your issues.
Magnolia City, Duncan Alderson’s first novel reads like Gossip Girl for the South. Experience the glory days of Houston in the 1920’s, the days that gave the city its oomph, its architecture, and its arrogant charm, when oil barons ruled the roost, flapper fashion was on top, and alcohol was underground, but available if you knew where to get it. Glamour was every girl’s best friend and Esther “Hetty” Allen, a descendant of Houston’s founding fathers, had a steamer trunk full of it. On a fast track to marry the city’s most eligible bachelor, Lamar Rusk, heir to the Splendora oil fortune, Hetty had a spot at all the best tables and on everyone’s guest list, living in extreme comfort, the life of the super rich.
Hetty may have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth — her father was part of Houston’s founding fathers, himself oil cognoscenti — but there were an oil rig’s worth of secrets that needed to remain underground for her to stay there. How much family history, both fortune and genetics, could influence family fate was an open question that Hetty felt compelled to answer. Then there was Lamar. Hetty was the hands down favorite to marry him, but she’d have to bump her younger, social-climbing sister out of the way first. Yet, our gal Hetty was a little more complicated than that, and if a woman in the 1920’s can find a way to live life on the edge then Hetty’s the woman to do it.
When Garret MacBride, a wildcatter oil man walked into the hotel and Hetty’s life on the night of the No-Tsu-Oh ball — Houston’s most beguiling and trend-setting annual party — Hetty’s assured future starts to mutate into something even her precognitive dreams didn’t see coming. It’s love at first sight for both of them, but will Hetty give up her assured ascendancy to Houston’s highest throne or risk it all on a wild card named Garret?
For the history of Houston and the wildcatting days of big oil, Magnolia City is as good as any textbook, but as a story to spark your heart, Magnolia City is even better. Magnolia City is a feast for both the head and the heart. So pull up a chair and have a look. Flasks welcome.
Next up: An interview with my friend and mentor, Duncan Alderson.
Disclaimer: I have known Rosina Rucci for over 30 years and I’ve loved her like a sister for every one of them, even the ones where distance or circumstances or hurt feelings stood between us (so exactly like a sister). As a result, I cannot write an unbiased review of 6000 Days of Us, a fact that bothered me temporarily until I realized that nothing is unbiased. Even choosing your right over your left hand to hold your fork is a bias. So knowing that, you can either stop reading now, or continue on to my totally biased, deeply personal review of a totally biased, deeply personal book.
“So, fear — fear what?“
Rosina Rucci, 6000 Days of Us
To me, opening a book, especially one I’ve been anticipating is like opening a gift from a friend, and when the book was written by a friend and explains in detail years of old mysteries, things the friend never had the time or nerve or stamina to explain, then that’s 6000 Days of Us, by Rosina Rucci. Compelling in ways that only the most personal, gut-wrenching stories can be, 6000 Days of Us is told with such heart and determination that you forgive the way it jumps around, forgive that it’s over before you’re ready, forgive that the author takes no pains to prepare you for the inevitable; she simply places it in your lap, leaving you to look with wide eyes and think, “wait, did that just happen?”
Even as you walk alongside Rucci, reliving the most memorable in tandem with the most horrific years of her life, you get the feeling that she doesn’t need you, but you would be wrong. Your presence is contributing to the catharsis, both hers and yours, and by the simple act of reading you and she can help each other along the path to letting go of all the secrets and anguish that mark everyone’s developmental years. It’s just that not everyone can say that they were the longtime girlfriend of Salvatore Testa, the Crowned Prince of the Philadelphia Mob, the heir and only son of Phillip Testa, longtime racketeer and associate of one of the most embedded mob families in Philadelphia. Phil Testa, or “Mr. T”, as Rucci refers to him, became head of the Philadelphia mob after his longtime boss, Angelo Bruno was brutally murdered. Mr. T faired no better and died a year later when a nail bomb exploded at his home. But all that happened after — after the first look, the first date, the first kiss.
Rucci met Testa when they were both 13. They lived two doors down from each other on a street where everyone knew everyone else’s business, in a community where Community mattered. 6000 Days of Us is as much about South Philadelphia, a place where people don’t hold grudges for years, but lifetimes, as it is about Rucci’s life, and it’s written as only a South Philadelphian insider can. What constitutes right and wrong have different meanings here. It wasn’t love at first sight, but they became fast friends and that friendship blossomed, but as often happens with young love, a difference of opinion and direction drove them apart. They may have had time to figure it out if “Mr. T” hadn’t been murdered, forcing Testa to take his father’s place in his early 20’s, years before that frontal lobe which is the bane of every young adult was fully developed. Had he really known what he was getting into, perhaps things would have been different, but when he showed no signs of leaving the life that she knew would eventually kill him, she began the long and tortured process of unravelling herself — from all of it. It ended badly, but probably not as you’ve guessed because this is a love that transcends lifetimes.
If you’re looking for elegant prose and elevated metaphor, you won’t find it in 6000 Days of Us. What you will find is a story so compelling in all its raw open-heartedness that you’ll read it in one sitting. Want a love story that survives everything, even death? Then read 6000 Days of Us.
Up next: an interview with Rosina Rucci.
When Rachel Carson penned Silent Spring, first published in 1962, she probably had no idea that it would be one of the most influential books of the modern environmental movement. A smart, savvy scientist, Carson wrote the seminal book on what not to do in caring for the planet and in the process was the impetus for the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Before the EPA, before the Kyoto Protocol, before the U.N. Millennium Goals, there was Rachel Carson, a shy, research-oriented scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (which would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) who had started seeing patterns where none existed before, patterns of increased incidences of cancer, infertility, mutations and blight. The common denominator, according to Carson was pesticides. Upon publication in 1962, Silent Spring started a s*%t storm of unprecedented proportions by bringing the notion of unsafe pesticides home to the American public, a public who for years had stalwartly believed that such chemicals were safe because that’s what the chemical companies had told them. The central theme of the book is that pesticides, chemical substances used to kill insects that though their very existence reduce agriculture production, were more correctly labeled as biocides. A biocide is a poisonous substance that destroys life. Carson found evidence everywhere that the insect killing chemicals were also poisoning other things like the soil, the water, the air, and the fish and fowl that lived in them as evidenced by massive bird kill-offs in various areas that pesticides had been sprayed.
The book was met with ridicule by the chemical companies themselves which means that there was great truth in the research, and from the agriculture industry which had gotten used to spraying the heck out of everything as a way to reduce pests and increase profits which, by the way, only works in the short term. Eventually, the pests come back with a vengeance. Probably the single greatest triumph of Silent Spring was its success in getting the pesticide DDT banned, a chemical so toxic and pervasive in the environment that its effects still persist today. Carson didn’t advocate banning all pesticides, but wanted them to be fully researched before use, and even then advocated using them sparingly, only when necessary and with good judgment. At 53 years old, Silent Spring is not going to teach you something you don’t already know about chemicals in the environment — that is, if you’ve been paying attention — but it will help you refocus the argument and decide what is important: lower cost, lower quality food, or a pesticide free meal.
Rachel Carson (1907 -1964), marine biologist, conservationist, poet, avid bird watcher and literary genius prompted the “Age of Ecology” with her book, Silent Spring. Even while dying of cancer, the shy Ms. Carson pressed on, finishing the book and as a result, left behind a legacy of environmental stewardship that even the most zealous have failed to match. Carson was born in my state, Pennsylvania.
Reading Seth Godin is like a slow steady rain after a long drought. Your brain soaks up the wisdom like microbes in the soil soak up the water’s essence. It’s an ecstatic, revelatory moment, gaining insight into a mind so evolved and willing to take you along with him. What To Do When It’s Your Turn is for everyone who wants to grow: as a person, a parent, a boss, a businessman, a student, a seeker, and on and on the list goes, whether you’re seeking courage or to change your career, this book will give you grace, fortitude, a sidelines cheerleader, and a good swift kick in the butt, just to drive the point home.
Beautifully illustrated, What To Do When It’s Your Turn will make you laugh and cry at intervals, energize your emotional Qi in ways you can’t believe, and help you prepare for your next step in whatever form “next” may take. The book is built around the premise that almost everyone waits for something to happen, but not you and not this time. You can be one of the group of people that makes something happen. Godin tells this story and returns to its central premise periodically: two very obviously important people, judging by their appearance, are on an escalator when the conveyance suddenly stops. What do they do? Well, one obsessively checks his watch and sighs with irritability while the other stands there screaming for help. I know, right? It’s pretty funny until you realize Godin’s serious and that people do this every day. Maybe not in a situation as obvious as a stalled escalator, but in other situations that are equally ridiculous yet not as apparent, especially when you are the one standing in the middle of the melee.
We live in a reactive society. Something happens. We react. Something else happens. We react, and sometimes badly. Worse, our preconceived ideas about how something is or should or could work leaves us stuck, albeit to our minds, stranded on the escalator, screaming for help with no one listening. Stepping out of the safety zone isn’t all that hard because there is no safety zone. The 20-year job that suddenly comes to an end was once safe; choosing one career over another because you will make more money as opposed to being happy seems safe (it’s called settling); “if I do this, I will certainly get that, and I’ll never have to think too hard about this or that again,” appears safe, but it is all flawed decision-making. There is no such thing as safe because the world is not static and you are not the only one choosing. Inevitably, other people’s decisions will affect you. The safety zone is an illusion. When you come to that conclusion, it’s can be quite exhilarating, according to Godin, allowing you the freedom to move in whatever direction you want. There are simply too many variables to prepare for every contingency so you may as well follow what has meaning for you rather than what is safe, and for Godsakes, take your turn.
One of my favorite pieces in the book is a picture of a group of people, all movers and shakers of various races, genders, and ages all, doing, being, organizing, and catalyzing, on a variety of projects, and they are all wearing the same t-shirt with a picture of Humpty Dumpty before he fell along with these words: “This Might Not Work.” Every one of the people in that picture stepped outside their comfort zone and took their turn. It wasn’t a sure thing, there were likely tons of nail-biting moments, and maybe some didn’t make it the first time or even the second, but they all moved forward, not always with confidence, but with the knowledge that it might not work, a small price to pay in exchange for the potential of achieving your goals.
What To Do When It’s Your Turn will give you the push you need to start your project, your longterm desire, you newly acquired passion, your lifelong dream. Forget the life coach. Buy the book, read it a few times and see if your perceptions don’t shift. What To Do When It’s Your Turn is like a mineral bath for your Soul. So go ahead; immerse yourself.