THOSE PEOPLE : a novel

My relationship with him? Mutual hatred, I would say. I recognized his type straightaway. Doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Uncivilized, basically. – Ralph Morgan, 7 Lowland Way

Lowland Way is a lovely tree-lined residential street filled with old Victorian homes. This award-winning community is known for self-monitored harmony and peace; a place where children can safely play in the streets on every Sunday. This upper class oasis turns a blind eye to the economically depressed area on the other side of their manicured hedges; this “Stepford” community pats itself on the back with haughty self-importance and perfect neighborly respect for rules and regulations. There is suspense hovering over the neighborhood. Who will inherit the home of the recently deceased neighborhood matron who lived at 1 Lowland Way?

The opening chapter reveals that the new owner, Darren Booth, having moved in eight weeks earlier, was not fondly received and that something tragic has happened at that address. The British Metropolitan Police are interviewing one of the residents, Frank Morgan from 7 Lowland Way.

Yes, we’re aware that someone’s been killed; of course we are. What a terrible way to die, absolutely horrific. . . Yeah, it all looked normal on the corner when I left. The usual scrap heap. Piles of rubble everywhere. . . A total disaster zone. . .

The neighborhood’s hopes that the heir to Jean’s home would be a respectable up-and-comer were dashed when Darren blew into town with massive sound system, fleet of rusting used cars, and a tool box filled with ear-splitting devices. This misplaced commoner began a 24-hour renovation of the house and staged a used-car business parking his broken down vehicles in the limited parking available on the street.

1 Lowland Way is a duplex; one of the only semidetached homes on the street. The residents of the other half of the house are introduced to Darren Booth in the dead of night when the adjoining wall in their baby’s bedroom came under assault from a power tool. The jack-hammering noise was overlaid with an accompanying dose of heavy metal music.

An elderly resident across the street from 1 Lowland Way suffers financial ruin as her B&B loses it’s ranking due to the situation at the Booth house. Guests were turned off by the noise, the rusty cars, and the haphazard scaffolding.

Day after day the noisy intrusion continues with no relief to be found. “Friendly and unfriendly” visits to the new home owner have been worthless.  The police and the community council feel they have no reason to step into the fray.

As the police investigate, what at first appears to be a tragic accident, the placid nature of the neighborhood begins to slowly disintegrate. Tempers rise and suppressed feelings surface that break apart friendships. A seismic shift begins in their group dynamics; everyone within range of 1 Lowland Way exposes their dark side.

When the repeated police interviews begin to reveal that a murder has been committed, everyone begins to take sides. Cue the finger-pointing and accusations.

The story unfolds slowly; excruciatingly slow, flipping from present day to events leading up to the tragedy. Although the story hones in on the lives of Darren Booth’s neighbors, we never get inside the heads of Darren or his girl friend, Jody. We are given just enough information to deduce that neither side of the neighborhood conflict is without fault. It is an interesting study of human behavior when individuals are put under uncontrollable pressure. Those People creates a scenario where both sides of the social strata make no attempt to find an amenable compromise. The ending, predictable, has a few surprises but overall leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed.

The book was an easy read but fails to match the success of the author’s first book, Our House.  Let’s hope the author steps up to the plate with her third book.

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FINDING DOROTHY

“Just because you can see a rainbow doesn’t mean you know how to get to the other side.” ― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Twenty years after the death of the “original Wizard”, Frank Baum, his seventy-seven year-old widow, Maud, headed to Hollywood. It’s 1938. MGM is making a movie based on Frank’s very popular book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She’s ready to step onto the yellow brick  to help Dorothy on her journey.

Frank, himself, had seen the potential of bringing Oz to life in film but he feared, without his oversight, the intended message would be lost. Someone must protect Dorothy! Frank turned to the love of his life, Maud Gage Baum, to stand in his stead.

The engaging historical novel parallels narratives alternating between Maud’s time in Hollywood and her life story beginning in Fayetteville, NY when she is ten years-old. Tucked nicely in each narrative are clues to the magic of Frank’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the source of Maud’s strength of character and inimitable spirit.

Much like our present day civil rights advocate, Tarana Burke and the Me, Too Movement, Maud was surrounded by strong willed 19th-century women’s suffragists. Her mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage and her “Aunt” Susan B. Anthony famous still today. She watched by the sidelines as her mother, a modern day Sisyphus pushed the large rock of gender discrimination up the steep hill toward equality.

Matilda was determined that Maud would get a world class education and was elated when she was accepted as one of the first women at Cornell University. Maud soon found that university life and studies were more her mother’s aspirations than her own. When she met her roommate’s cousin, Frank Baum, she knew where her destiny lay. She had met her soulmate.

Life was tough in the Baum household. Frank was a fabulous father, a dreamer, an actor, and a playwright. He lived with one foot in the real world and the other in his vivid imagination. A quick wit and a kind heart don’t go a long way to support a growing family. Maud was the backbone of the family and stood by her man through thick and thin as they moved from town to town following Frank’s latest vision.

Their destinies changed when Frank sat down and drew upon a lifetime of memories and wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The popularity of that first book led to many others and the family finances and security improved greatly.

Back in 1938 Hollywood, Maud knew the secrets of Frank’s books and our author has interjected some of them in the novel. Read carefully and you will spot some of them yourself.

It is true that Maud met Judy Garland and was on set during the filming. The author has chosen to expose the ugly underbelly of Hollywood and the tragic impact it had on Judy Garland’s personal life. It is doubtful that Maud had as much contact with Judy as the novel describes but it is engaging to think that Maud in some way did try to protect the innocence of a young actress.

“Magic isn’t things materializing out of nowhere, Magic is when a lot of people all believe in the same thing at the same time, and somehow we all escape ourselves a little bit and we meet up somewhere, and just for a moment, we taste the sublime”
― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Finding Dorothy draws together Maud’s story from all perspectives and makes a fascinating read.  Recommended reading.

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THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS QUOTE: Since its publication, the [Wonderful Wizard of Oz] has become America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale. The first totally American fantasy for children, it is one of the most popular children’s books. It has also inspired a long series of sequels, stage plays and musicals, movies and television shows, biographies of Baum, scholarly studies of the significance of the book and film, advertisements, toys, games and all sorts of Oz-related products.

You might ask what an old grandmother is doing reading and writing about a one-hundred-nineteen-year old book aimed at tweens? The plain and simple answer is that I never read it as a child. My knowledge of the story is from the iconic movie adaptation filmed in 1939 which seems will be appearing on television into infinity.

I am reading an advanced reader’s copy of a new historical fiction entitled Finding Dorothy (February  12, 2019).  Finding Dorothy utilizes known facts about Maud Baum, L. Frank Baum’s widow. Maud, a tough defendant of Frank’s message in the book, is concerned that the movie will not follow Frank’s vision of Dorothy. What was Frank’s vision and message to children everywhere?

I went to Project Gutenberg and downloaded a copy of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was a quick fun read and having seen the movie sixty millions times, I was helped along picturing the movie characters in my mind. As I read along I noticed that the dialogue seemed to speed up with longer sentences and more complex vocabulary at times. Then at times, the short sentences and simpler descriptors felt aimed at an elementary school age child.

Digging deeper into the history of the book, I discovered that it was immensely popular right from the beginning. The first copy sold like gangbusters and does so still today.

In the movie, Dorothy, is cast as a teenager. When her house drops on the wicked witch she inherits the ruby slippers. In the book, Dorothy is a much younger girl, probably 10-11 at best and the witch’s shoes are silver. As you might expect, the plot of the movie varies a lot from the book. The movie cherry picked scenes and enhanced them for a broader audience for entertainment rather than education and highlighting moral themes; Frank’s vision.

The prominent theme, good vs evil is found everywhere throughout the book. An example would be when the Flying Monkeys tell Dorothy that the power of good is stronger than evil. Dark skies vs bright sunshine. Gloomy and scary woods vs flowing meadows filled with bright color flowers.

The only negative reactions throughout the book were the violent scenes; nothing extremely graphic but the descriptions of the lion, scarecrow and tin man protecting Dorothy get a little heavy handed and might traumatize a young child. There’s no bloody scenes, no sex or foul language. And yes, the book and the movie both prove, no matter how humble. there’s no place like home.

Overall what did I think? Great book to be read with a child before watching the movie. Frank Baum filled the book with a myriad of life lessons and topics for discussion.

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NIGHT OF MIRACLES: Arthur Truluv #2

Thank you, Netgalley for the copy of The Story of Arthur Truluv and thank you to my local library for a copy of Night of Miracles.

Lucille Howard, the baking matriarch of idyllic Mason, Missouri, insists that the success of any baking endeavor requires assembling the ingredients in advance. Following Lucille’s lead, I recommend reading Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv to fully enjoy Night of Miracles. The Story of Arthur Truluv is the cake’s basic layer and Night of Miracles is the frosting. If you liked watching the Andy Griffith Show with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea, you will like both books.

The Story of Arthur Truluv is a tender story of love, loss, friendship, and acceptance. Arthur Moses, an elderly widower, mourns the loss of his wife, Nola and spends each day eating lunch at her grave-site. Tucked away from view in the same graveyard sits a young troubled teen, Maddy, spending her lonely lunch hours observing Arthur and his one-sided conversations with Nola. In time, they meet and form an enduring friendship. Lucille Howard, Arthur’s crotchety yet kind-hearted next door neighbor and friend, suffers the loss of her childhood true love, Frank, shortly after they are reunited in old age. Arthur’s kind heart draws the sorrowful and depressed Lucille into the circle of love he shares with Maddy. The trio becomes an unconventional family. Arthur, with one leg in the afterlife and the other seeded to the living world is the heart and soul of the book. Maddy, not without flaws, finds Arthur to be more than a surrogate grandfather. When she stumbles, she finds him to be a loyal and accepting friend. She calls him Truluv. Lucille finds a new purpose in life guided by Arthur and his eternal optimism and kindness. The ending is as it should be; Arthur gracefully slips into the next world and joins his beloved Nola.

Night of Miracles feels like a trip back to the old neighborhood. Life has moved things along. Maddy inherited Arthur’s house. When she and her daughter, Nola, (named for Arthur’s wife) left town to attend college, Lucille holds down the fort and continues to host her infamous baking classes to an ever growing number of students.

Maddy and Nola return to visit Grandma Lucille and you can feel the love and smell the fresh baked cookies in the cookie jar.

Our view of Mason, MO has widened and we meet more townsfolk and learn their personal stories. It seems that the good folks of Mason really like to eat. The story is primarily set in Lucille’s kitchen but a lot goes on at Polly’s Henhouse Diner.

Monika Mayhew, a waitress at the Henhouse has her eye on Tiny, a long-distance trucker and a giant of a man with heart of gold. Tiny is infatuated with Monika but extremely shy and fears rejection.

A new character, Iris escaping the aftereffects of her decision to divorce her husband, Ed, was heading for California from the East Coast and became charmed by a stop-over in Mason, MO. Her new neighbor is none other than Tiny. They enjoy each other’s company and soon become good friends. Tiny reveals his interest in Monika and Iris sets out to break the impasse between these two gun-shy lovers.

Meanwhile back in Lucille’s kitchen, Iris, in need of a job, and being more of a consumer than a baker, is hired to help with the odds and ends chores. Lucille, now 88, is well aware that her life’s journey will end soon. Lately her dreams have been filled with repetitive visits from a heavenly spirit wearing of all things, a flannel shirt. Despite his insistence that her time is up, Lucille banishes the thought and tells him to go away. She has more to do before she joins her friend, Arthur.

Our reading journey takes us through other homes where we experience sorrow, joy, love, fear, and hope. We cheer as Monika exhibits courage. We hug Tiny when his big heart is breaking. We share in Maddy’s joy at finding the man of her dreams. We are there to witness Lucille’s transition to the afterlife in a manner totally fitting her personality. The final chapter will make you laugh and cry and hope you get another chance to visit Mason, MO.

My one complaint? Why didn’t Lucille give us some of her recipes! I was constantly drooling. Maybe Elisabeth Berg will put out a cookbook of Lucille’s favorites!

Great books with a touch of spirituality, fantasy, and small town ambiance.

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MAID : Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive

My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.

Stephanie Land’s New York Times’ bestseller, Maid threw a flash-bang grenade into my mind unearthing memories from forty years ago. My husband and I were on a military move with everything in storage and traveling across country from California to eventually, Berlin, Germany. One morning my husband left to get the car washed. I never saw him again for eleven years. He disappeared with the location of our household items, financial records, military ID cards, checkbook and my personal identification. I tell you all this because my own experience colored my view of the book.

You might ask why I would select a book that pushed me back into my own black hole? I applaud anyone successfully reaching a place in life where food, housing, utility expenses, and child care aren’t luxuries. It is not an easy trip up from the bottom of the barrel.

The publisher’s summary indicated that Stephanie’s story was an uplifting memoir of a strong willed woman clawing her way from abject poverty through the kitchens and bathrooms of other people’s homes to become a successful author. Her experience as a household maid highlights what it was like for her to be trapped beneath the ledge of poverty struggling looking for that crack in the wall leading to a better life.

Evicted meets Nickel and Dimed in Stephanie Land’s memoir about working as a maid, a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America.”

Stephanie let a hook-up with unprotected sex force a course correction in her future plans. Unexpectedly pregnant, she had to make a choice – abortion, adoption, or acceptance. She knew, having grown up in a household that struggled to support a family, raising a child alone would be hard. She chose to keep her child and to love her unconditionally.

While Stephanie came to grips with her new situation she took advantage of many public assistance programs. She found that complying with their restrictions and conditions was extremely time consuming. The supplemental income came with a price. When you live paycheck to paycheck at a minimum wage job, she explains, risking your job security by taking time off and losing a day’s pay just to stand in line for hours is a big deal.

She describes the judgmental looks and outright verbal taunts she receives using her assistance cards when shopping. “Get a job.” “You can thank me.” After a while, she felt everyone was judging her; whether they were or not. Some of her negative experiences might have come from her choices of food items. Her preference to use only organic foods was certainly her right but having walked down poverty lane, I believe that she could have had more bang for her buck with lower cost healthy items.

Stephanie had an advantage unavailable to a lot of other single parents in her position; she received regular child support checks. She seemed miffed at the amount, but trust me, as someone who never got a dime, $250 dollars a month would seem like manna from heaven. Stephanie had an even better stroke of luck – the father and his family wanted a relationship with the baby. But from Stephanie’s point-of-view, the time spent with the father was used to destroy her relationship with her daughter. As Stephanie seems to find every relationship a confrontation and everything some one else’s fault, it is hard to accept that things are as bad as she tells us in the book.

You will notice that I haven’t touched on her work as a maid. That is because I really don’t think the story was about her work as a maid. She spent a lot of time describing the horrible conditions she found in each home, the long arduous hours, the costly unreimbursed travel expense and the poor pay. My question? Why stay with the agency when she herself stated she found her own clients that paid much more?

Let me be the first to say that making life decisions is hard when you are scared to give up any kind of paying job to try and grab that next rung up the ladder. Everyone makes stupid mistakes and poor judgement calls. There were a few times I wanted to reach through the page and throttle her. Grow a smile! Look ahead to a brighter life not look around and spend your valuable time in a perpetual pity-party. I know. (I moaned and groaned away my best friend before I stopped whining and took charge.)

Let me close out on a more positive note. Stephanie has revealed one of the biggest issues facing the poor. Childcare. Quality childcare. Reliable and affordable childcare. My greatest challenge was finding childcare for my son while I worked the night-shift. In many ways, finding somewhere to live is easier than finding someone to care for your child(ren).

Read the book? Absolutely. Fabulous book club book. Stephanie has exposed the underbelly of minimum wage workers and single parenthood issues.

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NEVER CAUGHT : the Washingtons’ relentless pursuit of their runaway slave Ona Judge



In January of 2018, a review of a new book featuring George Washington and his runaway slave named Ona “Oney” Judge caught my attention. I picked up a copy to review for Black History Month in 2019.

NEVER CAUGHT – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge is a narrative non-fiction. The book is heavily footnoted and supplemented with a lengthy bibliography and index. In a twist from most historical works on Washington that focus on his evolving beliefs about the concept of slavery, Never Caught flips the script. Erica Armstrong Dunbar examines what it means to be born a free person into a world where you are trapped in slavery.  A world where every effort is taken to strip you of your humanity and rights as a human being. In narrating the unearthed facts of Ona Judge Staines life, Dunbar exposes the raw facts of slavery -man’s inhumanity against man.

I met Ona Judge Staines in the archives. . . I was conducting research. . . about nineteenth-century black women in Philadelphia and I came across an advertisement about a runaway slave. . . called “Oney Judge”. She had escaped from the President’s House. . . How could it be that I never heard of this woman. (Erica Armstrong Dunbar)

Quick. Tell me the first ten things that come to mind about the first president of the United States of America. Bet they include: He was married to Martha. Lived in Mount Vernon, Virginia.  Had false teeth (ivory not wood). Was trained as a surveyor. Fought in the American Revolution.  Became our first President. Never lived in Washington D.C. because it didn’t exist in his lifetime.  Never told a lie (that is a lie).  Served two terms in office. We celebrate a national holiday on his birthday.

What? No mention that George at the tender age of eleven, following his father’s untimely death, inherited a 280-acre farm with ten slaves? By the time he married Martha, he personally owned over 100 slaves. Martha Parke Custis, widow of Daniel Park Custis, brought 84 dower slaves from the Custis estate to Mount Vernon upon her marriage. Dower slaves are part of an estate and can only be inherited by members of that estate. George and Martha controlled them but did not own them and could not set them free. Upon Martha’s death, the dower slaves would be passed along like fine china or an heirloom chair to living members of the Custis estate.

George Washington was reputed to be a “kinder” slave owner which meant he fed and provided for his slaves somewhat better than others. His hot-temper has been sanitized in history and ask the slaves that were housed in the smoke house in the new capital if they had five-star accommodations.

A favorite dower slave of Martha’s, known only as Mulatto Betty, gave birth in 1773 to a daughter named Ona Marie and fathered by Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant. Ona’s “carefree” childhood ended when she was nine years old. She was sent to work full-time in the mansion to become Martha Washington’s personal servant and to receive training as a seamstress from her mother. She excelled at both tasks earning her a “most favored slave” status.

As our first President-elect headed north to New York and the nation’s new capital, he knew slavery laws in the northern states were unraveling; the early smells of manumission and freedom floating in the air. He hand-picked slaves he thought he could trust not to run away if they learned that freedom was a possibility – Ona Judge, now in her teens, was high on that list.

Ona played her part carefully. She yearned for freedom. Yearned for a life where her safety and well being wasn’t subjected to the whims of a trigger tempered slave owner. For safeties sake she outwardly projected submission and affection for the Washington family; a family riddled with grief, misery, and poor health. Perhaps in some way she believed the Washington’s had special feelings for her; they did allow her more liberties to travel within the northern city unaccompanied. It is more likely allowing her to dress nicely was meant to reflect more on their social status than on her well-being.

She learned the truth about her place in their lives when the national capital moved to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania law “required emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months.”  The President, financially strapped back on the plantation feared the lost property value of freed slaves.  To protect his investments, Washington devised a shifty system of uprooting his Philadelphia slaves and rotating back to Mount Vernon before the six months deadline.

What the others thought about their repeatedly uprooted lives we do not know. We do know that Ona knew of the progress toward freedom around her. She guardedly watched for that one split second in time where she could chance leaving. When Ona learned that she would be given as a wedding present to Washington’s volatile granddaughter during the next rotation back to Virginia, she knew it was now or never. Taking her life in her hands, she reached out to the free blacks in Philadelphia for help and fled. Ona, now twenty-two-years old and illiterate, headed out into the scary world alone as a fugitive willing to face death or capture.

Her harrowing journey took her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She found menial labor and despite the back breaking work, enjoyed her veiled freedom. One can only imagine the horror she felt the day she was recognized on the street by a friend of Washington. Once notified she had been located, Washington put on a full court press, illegally using the power of his office, to have a local government official convince her to return of her own volition. After failing at that attempt, Washington repeatedly sought to locate and physically return her. His tiny slave outwitted him at every turn.

Ona fled to Greenland, New Hampshire and stayed out of the grasp of capture for over fifty years. She married, had children, kept a low profile and missed her biological family still back at Mount Vernon.

Shortly before her death February 25, 1848, Ona, nearly 80 years old and still a fugitive slave of the Custis estate, gave interviews with two abolitionists newspapers. Both interviews appear in the appendix. They are believed to be a unique opportunity to view life as a slave in the Washington presidency.

“When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is ‘No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means‘”.

Highly recommend reading for young adults and those interested in history. A chance to look behind the curtains of the first First Family. A chance to learn about a young black woman determined to be remembered – a human being and a child of God.

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THE LEISURE SEEKER: a novel

John and Ella Robina have shared a wonderful life for more than fifty years. Now in their eighties, Ella suffers from cancer and has chosen to stop treatment. John has Alzheimer’s. Yearning for one last adventure, the self-proclaimed “down-on-their-luck geezers” kidnap themselves from the adult children and doctors  who seem to run their lives to steal away from their home in suburban Detroit on a forbidden vacation of rediscovery.

“We are all tourists.
I have recently come to terms with this. . .
I guess we always knew. . .”, Ella Robina

Oh boy. Having to deal with the deaths of my own parents and struggling to accept their individual end-of-life choices, I sense that Ella and John’s story will strike a nerve with readers- some will understand and other’s will have reservations and a critical view of two old geezer’s reaching out to one last good time on their own terms. End-of-life discussion is the pinnacle hot-topic issue in most families.

John’s best friend had been warehoused in a nursing home, tethered to life support, terrified, and living the same events over and over in Groundhog Day style. After his friend’s death, John feared, he too, would follow in his friend’s footsteps. He made Ella vow that if the aperture in his own mind closed, she would not leave him staked out to die a lonely and prolonged death in a nursing home.

In time, John’s memory did begin to fade. At first it was gradual and Ella was able to provide home care. As his Alzheimer’s disease suddenly accelerated, Ella’s physical health collapsed. She was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing cancer. She endured the initial poking and prodding of family and the medical system with the goal to prolong her life. When the cancer became more aggressive, she was pressed to undergo more advanced medical interventions. She drew a line in the sand and refused to do anything more.

These are parents, having expressed their wishes and needs to end their lives without invasive medical intervention, finding themselves at odds with those who care for them. These are common, everyday folks, your neighbors -perhaps much like your own family.

While the children are only concerned for our well-being, it’s still really none of their business. Durable power of attorney doesn’t mean you get to run the whole show. . . Is this [trip] a good idea? Don’t be stupid. Of course it’s not a good idea.

They gassed up their old Winnebago “Leisure Seeker” and left without a word to anyone. Flight – no more fight. Ella knew they were headed from Michigan to California for one last road-trip and a thrill ride at Disneyland. Their slow journey cross country followed the old route of Route 66 across country replicating the path of past family vacations. John was along for the ride; not sure where he is going.  “Are we going home?” What could go wrong with an Alzheimer’s patient behind the wheel?

Ella had been planning this trip for sometime; back when she first knew that her death would end John’s home care. She knew what lay ahead for John after her death. His worst nightmare realized.

She had carefully packed John’s slide projector and boxes of family slides, gathered up road maps, stocked the RV’s pantry, stashed cash and plotted a route through familiar towns and past small town landmarks. At night, settled in some out-of-the-way campground, Ella would hoist a white sheet outside and the pair would reminisce as their children romped in the ocean or played in the yard. Simple pleasures that warmed the heart strings; often sharing the slides with transfixed strangers.

Let me step into Ella’s story for a word or two. This is not a maudlin tale; nor unloving parents isolating their children at life’s end. I had more than one belly laugh and a familiarity with the micro-bursts of emotions that occur between two long married partners. I’ll admit, in those moments when John is aware of his situation, the dialogue gets a bit crusty. He’s angry and scared. Ella is feisty and unwilling to kowtow to anyone – including John. Each has to have the last word. Yet, in a split second, Ella is left fuming and John’s anger switches off, argument lost in the ether. Their relationship exposes the pain and anguish Alzeheimer’s brings to the lost and the left behind. And fear not. . . there are plenty of very tender moments that reveal the deep affection and love these two have shared in over fifty years of marriage.

Not everyone will like Ella’s plan; but most will probably agree it was right for Ella and John. May I have courage to enter that long good night, a life well lived on my own terms, with humor and hopes for everlasting peace.

A good read. Might be too hot for some folks struggling with end-of-life issues.

Side note: The Leisure Seeker was made into a movie in 2018. The movie, renamed the main characters, and changed the story line to reflect more humor than time spent examining the intimate bonds between the couple.

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LEARNING TO SEE: a novel

“It takes a lot of practice to see things as they are,
not as you want them to be.’

A year or so ago I found a copy of Mary Coin, a novel by Marisa Silver, and recognized the cover picture as the iconic Depression era Dorothea Lange image entitled Migrant Mother.  After reading Mary Coin, a book I highly recommend and reviewed on my blog, I was left with a yen to know more about documentary photography and Dorothea Lange.

A new historical novel, Learning to See by Elise Hooper, imagines Dorothea Lange’s life story using known facts and references. I was lucky to win an advanced copy from Early Readers/Library Thing.

Chapter One. Opening scene. 1964, Berkley, California.  If this was a movie script, Dorothea Lange, now elderly and gravely ill, would be seen opening an envelope embossed with the image of the Museum of Modern Art  in New York City. The contents of that letter, we later learn, informs her of their plan for a retrospective exhibit of her life’s work.

The fictional Dorothea, returns the letter to her pocket and without sharing it’s news, turns to the reader to tell her life story in her own words and thoughts. Her flashbacks, narrated as though she is seated across the kitchen table from you; hands wrapped around a hot cup of coffee.

Listen carefully. Her story is complex; much like every person who puts a heavier hand on the scales of life for the greater good over the instinctive need to nurture and protect one’s own family. Dorothea limps over to her desk; she contracted poliomyelitis when she was seven-years-old leaving her with a withered leg, a deformed foot, a permanent limp, and a spitfire will to overcome any other hardship life was ready to throw her way. That strong will, that need to conquer any challenge, will cost her deeply.  She must choose between her burgeoning social justice activism and photojournalism career and her personal life.

I lean over to open a drawer and retrieve [my] files. California, 1936. New Mexico, 1935. Texas, 1938. Arkansas, 1938, Arizona, 1940. Black-and-white photographs spill out…Faces of men, women, and children… They gave a face to the masses struggling to make ends meet. They started conversations… And while I don’t regret my choices, I am saddened that I’ve hurt people dear to me.

 Dorothea achieved her childhood dream of becoming a photographer; a career choice diametrically opposed to the family ideal of academics and cultural interest in the arts. In 1918, a twenty-one-year old Dorothea took the bull by the horns, dropped her birth name of Nutzhorn in favor of her mother’s maiden name of Lange, and headed to San Francisco to be as far away from New Jersey as she could get. Once there, she set up a portrait studio and was highly successful for the next ten years; satisfied to create the images of what people wanted others to see of them; not necessarily reflective of their true nature or circumstance.

The Stock Market Crash in 1929 changed everyone’s future. Her clientele disappeared one-by-one as family portraits become a luxury few could afford. By this time, she had married her first husband, Maynard Dixon, a hot-tempered philandering landscape painter with traveling “genes”.  Dorothea, the mother of two boys, found herself between a rock and a hard place. With a floundering marriage and two dependent children, she needed to find work in a world where everyone needed a job. As she struggled to find new footing, Dorothea made the heartbreaking decision to foster-out her boys to give them a stable caring home. A decision made after seeing children left to fend for themselves in the streets.

I had reached a point where… portraits weren’t enough. It wasn’t just an issue of money… I needed to find…something to lose myself in. I needed work that would consume me, distract me from everything I had lost.

Dorothea’s efforts to see beyond her own pain led to a career learning to see beyond self. Taking a walk to clear her head she came upon a breadline of dispirited and lost souls stringing their way to a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. She feared she would disturb their private thoughts but was compelled to capture the moment. After taking the picture she realized no one had noticed her presence.

This first photo led to twenty years of documenting the lives of the downtrodden with the goal of raising the awareness of their plight to the unaffected. Some of her work proved too revealing. Her photos of the Japanese American relocation camps were confiscated by the government; a nation unwilling to expose its racism against its own citizenry.

Learning to See is so much more than a biography of a lone woman trying to immortalize the pain and struggles of the broken nation. It breaths life into the stolen moment a photograph shows us. The book makes us ask ourselves – could we better stewards? Do we all need to find our better angels? Can the past revealed in iconic pictures move a nation to heal racism, poverty, mismanagement of our God given resources? In the end, Dorothy wasn’t sure.

Recommended reading.

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DEATH OF A RAINMAKER

DEATH OF A RAINMAKER : A DUST BOWL MYSTERY

August 2, 1935
Jackson County, Oklahoma

As soon as [Chester] pulled open the outside door [of the theater] he heard a faint thrumming of wind that resembled the plucking of thick guitar strings… ‘A duster!, Maxine shouted… ‘Tall as a mountain! Oh my God! I’ve never seen one this big!’

Vermillion, Oklahoma in 1935. The Great Depression has strangled the economy of the area and now an unending dry season is destroying the greatest source – the land. The helpless residents face the perfect storm of poverty and an angry earth.

The population of the area is a mishmash of down-on-their-luck souls. Alongside the farms and ranches is a squatters camp down near the train tracks. A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work camp is nearby; a collection of young men from all over the country gathered near Vermillion for a chance at a job by the government. As in any community, there are the more fortunate families who live a different anxiety – fearful of the unfortunate. It is a jittery and suspicious time for all.

Everyone, rich or poor, has an individual life story that began somewhere else. Vermillion provided abundance and a good living for four generations. By 1935, no one finds Vermillon a haven. The Great Depression had knocked many to their knees. The eight months of drought that year, finished off those who depended on the earth for their livelihood.

Rain, at this point, is their only solution. Rain would keep the farmers and ranchers on their homesteads and bring commerce to town. Believing that desperate times do call for desperate measures, a small group of merchants cobble together the last of their savings and hire a charlatan who convinces them he knows how to make it rain.

Roland Coombs, their hired Rainmaker, struts into town like a conquering hero; a larger than life superhero to some and a distasteful miscreant to others who believe he is taking advantage of a desperate situation to line his pockets. Claiming he learned his technique in the military, he uses massive rounds of TNT blasted into the sky to make the atmosphere unstable. Only time will tell.

The skeptical and the hopeful join the boisterous and arrogant Rainmaker at the blasting site setting up camp on the ground with their picnic baskets and blankets. The crowd watch in awe as the night sky explodes over and over, louder and more illuminating than the Fourth of July.

Everyone leaves in the dark of night hopeful and wakes to find the next day like every other; dry and gritty. Disappointed farmers stared at their barren fields and discouraged merchants stare at their front doors hoping for business.

In the dire circumstances, folks looked for whatever small pleasures could ease their pain. One popular source of relief came at the local movie theater run by the blind owner, Chester. The other is drinking away the misery at the local bar.

The day after the Rainmaker blasted the sky, Chester readies things for that day’s movie, hoping to sell enough tickets to pay the rent. Maxine, Chester’s teenage ticket taker refills the candy shelves and opens the ticket booth for the matinee.

Sheriff Temple Jennings’ day begins alongside his new deputy, a former CCC worker with a healthy dose of work ethic. Today, Mr. Hodges, visibly upset, complains nothing is being done about the continuing visits of a peeping Tom at his house. The Sheriff learns of a fight the previous night between the Rainmaker Coombs and one of the CCC boys at the local bar. These things will have to wait. He has to perform his least favorite job – keeping the peace at the auction of a foreclosed farm.

Out of sight, an enormous dust storm has formed on the town’s outskirts and is barreling their way. The catastrophic storm catches everyone unprepared and people are forced to take shelter best they can. In the hours after the storm blows through, the clean-up begins. Chester, feeling his way through the storm’s aftermath, begins to remove the sand blocking the emergency exit of his theater. He discovers the body of a man and presumes he died of suffocation. Sheriff Jennings determines it is the Rainmaker, Roland Coombs, and he was bludgeoned to death during the storm. The town jumps to the immediate conclusion that the young CCC worker was the murderer.

As the sheriff and his deputy conduct their investigation, personal secrets are exposed and a political campaign takes a malignant turn threatening the Sheriff’s job. The characters remind us that we often judge a person through the lens of preconceived notion. Some people overcome their worst instincts and find themselves better for it. Others dig in and reject the truth staring them in the face.

As the investigation proceeds, Sheriff Jennings believes in the young man’s guilt and the CCC worker is arrested. His wife is not so sure that the murderer has been found. As she begins her own investigation, their marriage is tested. She befriends the prisoner and listens to his story with an open mind. Another part of her recognizes that she is transferring her feelings as she has mourned the death of her own son.

Someone in town during the storm murdered the Rainmaker. The mystery, when solved, will surprise you. Along the way you will fall in love with some of the people and reject the false friendships of others. In the end, you will find a piece of happily ever after.

An excellent story revealing that ordinary life continues amid a larger national tragedy.

Enjoyed the read and look forward to more by this author.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING: a novel

What d’ya mean, where the crawdads sing? Ma used to say that”, [said Kya]… Tate said, “Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.

Behold a story set along North Carolina’s marshy coastline in the 1950s and 1960s that will hold you captive to the very end. Listen closely to human silence and hear the sounds of the crawdads singing as waves lap against the skiff.  Smell the living marsh or feel repelled by the recycling odors of the swamp; a place void of gas fumes, fried foods and the detritus of sanctimonious humans void of compassion and racial superiority. Become one with the lonesomeness and isolation of an abandoned child striving to be alive in all its manifestations – body, mind, and soul.

Kya was six years-old when Ma, wearing her favorite fake alligator skin shoes, left the marsh displaying the fresh bruises Pa had pounded into her. Pa shifted focus and foisted his anger and violence down the food chain onto his five children. One by one Kya watched her much older siblings take Ma’s freedom walk. When she was ten years-old, Pa,too, and never returned.

Being alone in the Marsh didn’t frighten Kya. She had grown used to escaping for long periods into the wilds when Pa would be on a rampage. What did bother her was why none of her siblings or Ma took her with them when they made their escape. Was she disposable? Worthless? Invisible?

Kya, crudely referred to as “The Marsh Girl” by the residents of Barkley Cove, repelled by her own kind, turned to the natural world of the wetlands for emotional and physical survival. The wildlife and waterways raised her. She learned about group dynamics, gender roles, survival techniques, marshland justice, and the natural order of life up and down the food chain. Her best friends are seagulls. Her source of meager income for town dependent supplies – selling mussels to a warm-hearted old African American man, himself stifled by the stench of racism.

The sun, warm as a blanket,
wrapped Kya’s shoulders… whenever she stumbled,
it was the land that caught her…
Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth,
and the marsh became her mother.

One day, a few years after she was abandoned, she unexpectedly finds a boy fishing in her marsh. Although he seems to not see her, she finds gifts of rare feathers appearing in a stump near her house. The careful contact between them leads to a comfortable friendship. The kind-hearted Tate recognizes Kya as smart and intellectually curious and teaches her to read. When Tate graduates high school he breaks Kya’s heart as he leaves for college and a life away from the coast. He vows to return but becomes ensnared in the outside world and reneges on his promise. And the lonely years begin again for Kya.

Occasionally she spots people on her beach, usually a cluster of entitled teenagers she has seen in town. A quickly maturing Kya feeling the need for human contact, spots the teens and watches from a stealth position. She yearns to belong, to share in their enjoyment of each other. The alpha male, Chase Andrews, spots the beautiful and mysterious Marsh girl observing the group. Intrigued, he begins to court her and she falls in love. On his first visit to her house, he had assumed she was an uneducated wild creature and was surprised to find her intelligent, self-educated, and self-sufficient. Over time he promises to bring her to the town, introduce her to his parents with the goal of marrying her. She begins to lower her guard and allows herself to believe she will finally be recognized and accepted.

The world turns upside down when Chase’s body is found near an abandoned fire tower in the marsh. Who killed him? Why? Instinctively, without cause, the town blames the mysterious Marsh Girl leading to an excruciating trial for Kya. Will she find herself imprisoned, alienated from both town and her marsh? A trapped animal?

No more clues. Just remember that Kya is sensitive, extraordinary, curious, intelligent and adaptive. There is a lot more to see here. The final chapters are heartwarming as she finally finds peace and love. The ending will blow your mind.

Outstanding fiction at its best. Good book club selection.

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THE LAST WOMEN IN THE FOREST: a novel

It’s a terrible thing to have loved someone and not know the extent to which you have been deceived… – Marian Engström

Marian Engström scanned the seasonal conservation job listings for her next position. Her latest job had taken her to South Padre Island, Texas to rescue sea turtles but the contract ended and time to move along.

As a dog lover, she was pleased to find a position with Conservation Canines through the University of Washington. The study would be in the bitter sub-zero cold of the snowy mountains near Alberta where oil exploration in oil sands was taking place. The team of dog handlers and trip orienteers would be based out of Whitefish, Montana in a place the group called “The Den”.  Marian, and the other orienteers, would assist the dog handlers setting up trip navigation in designated zones locating wolf, caribou and moose scat, bagging each detected specimen, and charting the waypoints. The purpose of the study is to examine the effects of the oil drilling on the wildlife in the area. This aspect of the novel is well researched and reads a little bit clinical but very interesting.

The book opens with the vividly described murder of a trusting young woman charmed by someone she perceived to be a good Samaritan. Labeling the murdered girl, (Stillwater) Victim #1, alerts the reader to watch for clues. One of the primary or secondary characters is a serial killer!

We meet Marian six months after she has moved to the Whitefish base camp. She is wading into Bull Creek sprinkling the ashes of her boyfriend and dog handler, Tate, and watching them flow downstream. The accident that caused his death unknown to the reader.

It was a beautiful spot…Tate had chosen this location…had pressed the river rock against her palm and asked her to remember.

Marian stands in the cold stream reflecting on their brief relationship with its sweet and sour tones. Heading back to camp, she’s left with an edgy feeling that something was off.  Did he really loved her as much as she loved him? Where to begin to unravel her contradictory feelings?

Tate would share life stories with her making her cry in sympathy for him. One tear-jerker described a stray dog he adopted as a child that died after falling into a swift stream.  Another time, out of the blue, he tells her he found the body of one of the four Stillwater murders. She decides to confirm the accuracy of this story to ease her mind.

She contacts Nick Shepard, a retired forensic profiler, known to be intimately involved in the Stillwater murder investigations. Although he is dying of cancer, a fact he tries to keep from her, he agrees to help confirm or dispel the facts of Tate’s story.

With Marian and Nick narrating, the story gymnastically flips back and forth in time beginning when Tate picked her up at the airport and ultimately reaches present day where we learn about Tate’s fate. Juxtaposed between Marian and Nick’s chapters are vivid tales of the other three unsolved Stillwater murders that may be a bit disturbing to some people. The final chapters pull together loose threads leading to a dramatic conclusion.

The isolation and loneliness of the job were palpable. As one person said, “It a way of life – not a job”; someone comfortable with themselves alone or someone running from life and reaching the end of the line. It’s do or die time. Survival is not so much the result of luck as it is of skill and training. The overarching themes of observation and situational awareness crisscrossed Marian’s job as well as her personal life.

The job was never a problem for Marian. She was well-suited for the conditions and the work. The issue was emotional and her insecurity with humans. Was she as gullible as it seemed or was she out maneuvered by a mastermind of evil? Surrounded by macho mountain men with personalities like Jeremiah Johnson, was it easy for a young woman to be drawn to a man seemingly devoted to her? Did Nick find peace for the families of the murdered girls?

A good solid book worthy of a read. There’s something for everyone -love, friendship, trust and distrust, murder, dogs, freezing cold and stark wilderness settings.

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EDUCATED


Tara Westover was born sometime in September of 1986, the youngest of seven children. She’s not exactly sure of the date as she was born at home in a remote mountainous area of Idaho; an area popular with other off-the-grid folks living in the western US area known as the Mormon Corridor. There is no formal record of her birth; no birth certificate was issued until she was nine years old. Like most of their remote neighbors, the Westover family were, in name, Mormons.

Now in her early 30s, Tara shares her moving story. She begins with her apocalyptic childhood leading to her adult life off the Idaho mountain and alienated from most of her family. Her journey is harsh and painful but offered to the world openly and honestly. She exposes a side of life most people have no idea exists and tells us how difficult it is to question your parent’s authority and concern for your well-being. She expresses the contradictions she finds herself facing; rebel against her parent’s way of life thus alienating herself from those she loves and freeing herself to discover the past, present and future available to her through education.

I have floundered with this review. I really enjoyed the book but find it hard to tag it. It’s not the usual “woe is me” memoir. Tara openly expresses love and affection for her family; something I am not sure I would feel under the circumstances. It is my opinion that the author had more than the general public in mind when she wrote the book; she wanted to educate the world about the fundamentalist culture, the bizarre and dangerous life she faced with eccentric parents and she needed to justify leaving her loved ones behind to allow herself the freedom to control her own life as she saw fit.

By the time she was born, her mother, overwhelmed with the number of children and the hard work of a subsistence lifestyle had given up on home schooling. She felt her job was done if she taught the children to read. To be fair, there was never a restriction on the children’s reading interests, but any child with an itch to read did so discretely after a full day’s chores. Tara had access to her older siblings aged text books and rabidly self-educated herself.

Tara Westover was not raised in a traditional Mormon family. Her father demanded total obedience in all matters and maintained control over his family’s daily routine. The slightest action could turn him into a demonic authority pontificating his own version of Mormon fundamentals. In this markedly patriarchal environment, male siblings held power over the girls; one particular brother was a cruel bully. Another brother was helpful in encouraging Tara to find her true north.

Imagine a world where your parents told you that everything outside their front door was corrupt. That something called the Deep State had eliminated personal freedoms and the “Medical Establishment” could not be trusted. The family would avoid hospitals and doctors regardless of the severity of the illness or injury.

Her father consumed with an “End of the World” theory, built massive supplies of food, weaponry, and ammunition to protect his family from renegades unprepared for survival in an apocalyptic world. He worked his children like indentured servants in a dangerous junkyard to pay for the supplies. Horrific physical injuries befall several family members; treatment restricted to mother’s self-created herbal medicines. If a sick or injured person failed to survive on their own at home, it was just God’s will.

Over time, Tara’s older siblings peeled away from the family home, escaping their father’s control leaving a very young Tara to fill their shoes in the junkyard. By the time she was fifteen-years-old, she began planning her own escape. She found odd jobs in a nearby town, made friendships outside the survivalist culture and devoured any and all sources of literature to prepare to take the college ACT test. At seventeen-years-old she enrolled at Brigham Young University, and discovered how much of life she knew nothing about.

One of first lectures, I raised my hand and asked
what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it.

Encouraged by “outsiders” who recognized her potential, Tara Westover has achieved a first-class education. It was a struggle at first to fill in the blank slate but she graduated from Brigham Young University with honors in 2008. Following graduation she was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned a Masters in Philosophy from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. In 2010 she became a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge University where she was award a PhD in history in 2014.

Well done, Tara.

Recommended reading. An excellent book club selection.

An in-depth interview with the author can be found on NPR.

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THE DEAL OF A LIFETIME

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE

The last several years, my husband and I have hunkered down in our log cabin and let Christmas pass rather uneventfully. Our kids are far away and have their own lives. But something triggered my need for Christmas spirit this year.

Maybe it was the current political distemper infecting our lives, the loss of several good friends, and the rapidly declining health of my siblings. What ever. I found myself reflecting on my blessings to have a warm roof over my head, plenty to eat, wonderful friends, and reasonably good health for a woman of 70.

My husband, paddling around the discount book sites came across The Deal of A Lifetime by Fredrik Backman.

Isn’t this author one of your favorites? Have you read this book? No, I replied. It is a novella. Actually more a short story so I have passed on buying it.

Not long after, while poking around for something Christmas themed to read and considering revisiting Ebenezer Scrooge and The Christmas Carol, I bumped into The Deal of A Lifetime once more – and bought the discounted Kindle version.

I was moved by the author’s emotional preface. Christmas is nigh, his family is asleep nearby while he sits, poised with pen in hand, to work out the kinks in his mind. In my opinion, the underlying emotions revealed in the preface are reflected in themes of the story. It is not hard to see that he is contemplating the possibility that if he had taken a different direction at one of life’s intersections things might have been better for his family. He comes to the conclusion that “we discover we need someone one to sweep us off our feet to realize what time really is.”

The story opens with a shocking letter from a famously successful and wealthy father to his son. It is intended to shock the reader into attention. As we will learn, the estranged father has made contact with his son, now an adult. He realizes he doesn’t know anything about him.

“Hi. It’s your dad. You’ll be waking up soon, it’s Christmas Eve morning in Helsingborg, and I’ve killed a person. That’s not how fairy tales usually begin, I know. But I took a life. Does it make a difference if you know whose it was?”

Without revealing too much of the story, a self-righteous man bumps up against life’s final hurdle – death. Much like Scrooge, this unnamed man finds himself wealthy beyond measure and lonely. His greedy nature had shielded his heart from his humanity.

While hospitalized for chemotherapy, he over hears a little girl telling her stuffed rabbit that she is going to die soon but she hopes it isn’t going to be tomorrow. He is startled when she runs away suddenly after spotting someone in the hallway. He is surprised to see the same someone he has meet before throughout his life when he had been in a life-threatening situation.

A woman in a thick, grey, knitted jumper… She carries a folder. She has all our names written inside.

Without revealing names or spending time in character development, The Deal of a Lifetime, in 65 pages, exposes our human weaknesses and our ability to atone for callous behaviors that had stifled or alienated us from those we love. It is a story offering the chance at redemption – with a twist ending I didn’t see coming. As an added bonus, the simple illustrations are charming.

Pick up a copy at the book store or check-out a copy from your local library.

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TRAVELING CAT CHRONICLES

★★★★★

Did you know that cats possess the widest range of vocalizations of any domestic pet? Hiro Arikawa’s wildly popular Japanese novel adds a twist by giving a human voice to a sassy stray cat that let’s us know he has kept himself alive for one full year, without a name and human help, thank you very much. 

The simple story has a deep meaning that becomes clearer and clearer before tenderly breaking your heart in the last forty pages. The two main characters, the sassy cat and his master, Satoru Miyawaki, a gentle man with a quiet nature, remain with me long after I finished this fictional gem.  

The hood of that silver van was my favorite place to sleep. Why there? Because no one would ever shoo me away. Even in winter, the sun made it all warm and toasty, the perfect spot for a daytime nap. One day I suddenly sensed a warm, intense gaze upon me…A tall, lanky young man, staring down at me…

And so began the perfect life from the cat’s point of view. The man would place a little food under the van and the cat would allow the man to stroke him in exchange. This worked right up until the day the cat had a run-in with a hit-and-run driver. 

Satoru rescued the injured cat and the two soon developed a deeply satisfying five-year relationship. Their conversations are charming and will warm your heart. It reminded me of the old tv show, The Odd Couple and the snappy repartee between Oscar and Felix. Satoru, named him Nana, as his tail resembled the Japanese character for the number seven. 

Now wait just a second, Isn’t Nana a girl’s name? I’m a fully fledged, hot-blooded male. In what universe does that make sense?

In a move that surprises the readers as much as Nana, Satoru, now about 30 years-old, tells him they are going to take a road trip together –  to find Nana a new home. 

“Nana, I’m sorry. I ‘m really sorry it’s come to this. I never intended to let you go.”

No need to explain. I’m quick on the uptake… so don’t look so glum, chum.

As they travel from one childhood friend’s home to the next along their journey, Satoru’s earlier story unfolds like an onion; an apt metaphor. Each layer revealing another sad chapter, that somehow, Satoru overcomes keeping his remarkably upbeat attitude. The odd duo crisscross Japan in the hopes of finding a new home for Nana. Each old friend seems willing to accept Nana, often with conditions and a promise to feed but not pamper. At each stop along the way, Satoru manages to avoid revealing the reason he needs to leave Nana. Just when it looks like Nana will have a new home, the cat, fiercely loyal to his master, sabotages the transfer.

In the end, Satoru realizes he just can’t part with Nana. The lonely man and the loyal sidekick take a long tour of the highs and lows of Japan together; traveling from Mount Fuji to the beautiful sandy beaches. Along the miles, the reader begins to understand Satoru’s secrets. As the sun sets on their journey, Satoru will find peace and the reader will have a good cry. 

Highly recommended reading for everyone; not just cat lovers.

 

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LITTLE: a novel

Fictionalized Life
little and quote

What comes to mind when you hear the name – Madame Tussaud? The answer most likely will be wax museum. How did a tiny six-year-old orphan, born in the turbulent atmosphere of 18th century France, become so renowned that we know of her accomplishments today?

Truth be known, even the author found contemporaneous clues hard to find; but it wasn’t for the lack of trying to piece it together. He spent fifteen years searching, including actually working in France at Madame Tussaud’s museum, where he gazed at will upon her original wax works that included the wax heads of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette molded from their freshly guillotined heads. The one original wax work that inspired him the most was the self-portrait Madame Tussaud made of herself in wax.

Madame Tussaud was born Anna Maria “Marie” Grosholtz in 1761. She became Madame Tussaud when she married a scumbag named Francois Tussaud and bore him two sons. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Marie Grosholtz became a servant at the tender age of six-years-old. That meant she didn’t have a life of her own; she was subject to the whims and orders of her employer. She was, in some ways, better off than the starving peasants living outside the towns who suffered indescribable living conditions. She remained controlled by her Master until she was incarcerated and sentenced to death during the revolt. She received a reprieve at the last minute and lived to the ripe old age of 89 years-old.

Marie Grosholtz was abnormally small at birth and unfortunately inherited her mother’s out-sized proboscis and her father’s cup hook chin. By adulthood, she was four feet and smidge tall. This small woman looked like a child with a “Punch and Judy” face.

Marie’s father died from a war injury when she was very young. Her mother, a destitute widow with a tiny child, became a reluctant housekeeper for an eccentric and reclusive doctor whose specialty was crafting anatomically accurate wax models from body parts for medical students. Marie’s mother, grieving and morbidly depressed by circumstances, committed suicide leaving six-year-old Marie, nicknamed Little, in the care of the unorthodox Doctor Philippe Curtius. Curtius would never have won “parent of the year”, but in his own way, he set up Marie for success in the future by training her in the art plaster casting and wax modeling. Together they expanded his trade from body parts to wax face masks, and later, full-head “portraits”.

Benjamin Franklin

The pair moved to Paris where Doctor Curtius hoped to fill his collection with the powerful and famous. Curtius rented space in the home of a seamstress, the Widow Picot, a repugnant character interested only in her own well- being. She was so repelled by the sight of Marie that she forced her to live in a barely habitable part of the kitchen. Not once in the ensuing years did the cowardly Curtius take his tiny protege’s side. The weak-kneed simp, played for a fool by Picot, was kowtowed into giving her control over his collection of disembodied wax heads. Undaunted, the curious and inquisitive, Little, managed to keep an upbeat attitude and found ways to stay useful and involved in the wax business and to be near Curtius.

The crafty Picot, seizing the opportunity to use her ingenuity, brought the wax models to life with clothing and staging them in an appropriate setting. The public lined up in droves to view the death masks of murderers and the provocative faces of  the famous. The income poured in enriching everyone… except Marie.

Marie’s life changed when Princess Elizabeth, sister of King Louis XVI, made an appearance in the museum. The spoiled princess, herself an ugly duckling, took a shine to Marie and invited her to Versailles. Widow Picot and Doctor Curtius were not in a position to refuse the Princess. Once at the palace, Marie was showered with endearments and soon found herself sharing secrets and private time with the Princess. When it is learned that Marie was skilled in the new technique of plaster casting and wax modeling, she had a steady line of the famous and rich interested in creating a likeness of themselves. Sadly, over the years, Marie made the mistake of interpreting attention for affection; she was still a servant, the change, just geography.

The years passed. As the atmosphere outside the palace became more heated, the Monarchy sensed their subjects were ready to revolt and feared for their lives. Marie was abruptly returned to Widow Picot’s home, where things there had changed as well. The Royals weren’t the only people fearful for their lives. The angry crowds were targeting anyone better off or successful.

The world in Paris turned bloody and brutal. Bodies lined the streets. Eager crowds gathered round the guillotine to watch the daily beheadings. The jails were filled with the guilty and innocent alike; Widow Picot and Marie among them. It was truly hell on earth. Imprisoned in a tower, Marie found the strength of character to look beyond her own needs to provide care and compassion for the sickly Widow; throwing aside any bad history between them. I found myself sad when the bewildered and failing Widow Picot’s name appeared on the list to be executed.

Marie was freed from jail through intersession of an old friend in exchange for the grisly task of making death  wax models of the newly executed that included people that she knew intimately from Versailles.

During this turbulent time, a dying Doctor Curtius, found his way home to unexpectedly find Marie there. She cared for him to his death, re-establishing the bond they had long before moving to Paris.

My master’s lawyer was the person who told me that there was a will, and the details written therein. “Everything to one person”, he said, “to you.”  

And with that news, Marie, once again, stoically, picked up the pieces and started over, becoming Madame Tussaud. This time she achieved her freedom and thrived. Raising that mighty chin, she was never to be under anyone’s control again.

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Finding GOBI

Exerpt from ESPN interview By Ericka N. Goodman-Hughey | Mar 23, 2017

 I was at the base of the Tian Shan mountain range in northwest China [on a] seven-day 155-mile [ultra-marathon] race in June of 2016. I looked down for one last check of my shoes, and there was a scruffy puppy with the most adorable big brown eyes starting right back at me. . . [A]s soon as the gun went off, the dog ran with me, right at my heels.

First things first. What is an ultra-marathon? Technically, it is any foot race that exceeds the standard marathon length of 26.219 miles. After reading Finding Gobi, I learned that there are people in this world who want to run  50 to 100 miles in a day and then do it again the next day and the day after that! I think that running a simple marathon is nuts; but each to his own. What can I say. I have walked 2000+ miles on the Appalachian Trail and people think I am crazy.

The Gobi March, one of the most difficult ultra-marathon courses, is an annual race crossing the Gobi Desert. In 2016, it was held in the Xinjiang Province of China. Self-supported runners, carrying everything they will need for the entire race, run a marathon a day for four days. The 155-mile course is no road race. The Gobi March traverses grassland, mountains, river beds, rocky terrains, river crossings, and, of course, the Gobi Desert. The terrain is complemented with daily temperature extremes ranging from freezing to extreme heat.

Standing at the starting line on that June day in 2016, Dion Leonard’s only thoughts were the race day, his competitors and his backpack filled with his water, food, and anything else he would need in the next seven days to combat the heat and cold.

In those closing seconds before the starting gun sounded, Leonard wasn’t expecting to look down and see a dog standing there looking up at him. When the race began, Leonard was even more astonished that the little dog took off with him and would eventually ran nearly 90 miles right along side him.

In the year, 2016, the news of the world was filled with the Brexit Referendum, the US Presidential Election, the deadly Zika Virus, and the Syrian Refuge Crisis; lighthearted and heart-warming stories were few and far between.  Therefore, it was not surprising that the story of a Chinese scruffy self-sufficient stray dog and a marathon runner crossing the Gobi Desert would brighten heavy hearts around the world. Even these many years later. My girlfriend, a dog lover, had followed the story in real time and when I told her that I had just finished reading a book about an amazing Chinese dog that fell in love with a marathon runner, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Gobi!

Day after day, the mysterious stray would be at the starting line with eyes only for Dion Leonard. The littlest competitor ran circles around the super athletes on the course and livened their down-time flitting from one person to the next with charming attention extracting a free meal. Everyone knew there was something special happening.

When the race was over, Leonard faced an even bigger challenge. He had become so smitten with the little dog, he named Gobi, that he wanted to bring her home to the United Kingdom. The road from China to his UK home would be paved with many legal hurdles, heart-breaking tribulations, and was massively expensive in time, manpower, and of course, money.

Gobi, a native of the mountains, would be required to stay quarantined for a month in the care of total strangers in an area foreign to her, a city. Leonard returned home to prepare the complicatedly slow process of repatriating her. During that time, Gobi escaped, and her caretakers hid the fact, thus complicating the eventual search for her. She could be anywhere. With the help of strangers worldwide, Gobi was eventually found. Every lamppost and store front had a lost dog poster. When found, she was discovered to have suffered some painful injuries along the way. If the story of her recovery doesn’t affect you, you must have a heart of stone. It is at times emotionally painful but like any good “Cinderella” story, there is a happy ending.

I had a hard time rating the book and I struggled with the reason. I came to the conclusion that I really didn’t like the runner but loved the dog. Leonard had, in his words, a difficult childhood, and his perpetual need to bash his mother and blame his life-long acting-out misbehavior on her was a turn-off.

There was also something odd that this man would be, self-admittedly, driven by the need to better any challenger while disliking what ever the challenge was that would achieve this victory. This lifelong trait was abrasive as he told us time and again how much he really disliked running but found his need to simply be better than someone else at what ever he was doing the ultimate reward.

I will be the first to admit that there is hope for Dion Leonard and the key to his future more positive and healthy outlook on life was Gobi. Gobi must have seen how much Leonard needed a paradigm shift in his life. Through Gobi, the author learned to trust people, possibly for the first time. In the end, he found the world willing to help a stranger without strings or conditions.

Good read.

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Thanksgiving At Grandma’s House

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grandma house

GRANDMA’S HOUSE

Grandma and Grandpa Delorm lived in a hamlet in the North Country of New York about fifty miles from Montreal, Canada; a blistering cold spot around Thanksgiving time. The small white farm house was positioned at the intersection of Mason and Main Streets near the bridge over the Saranac River.

happy thanksgiving heartThe front porch and sitting-room’s bay window were situated across the street from the local undertaker and funeral home; perfectly located to observe the goings-on of her neighbors and bereaved families. The little house was very special to my Grandmother. She was born there and returned as an adult with her husband and her only child, my father, to care for her invalid mother. She died in that house, in the room where she was born. She is the little girl near the fence in the picture.

Every Sunday morning of my childhood, my parents would pile the family into the car to drive to the village for church services that always ended at Grandma’s house. My siblings and I would barrel out of the car to see who could get to Grandma’s cookie jar first. My mother wasn’t fond of the visits and her voice followed us up the back steps, “Don’t get too settled, we aren’t staying long.” She had worked hard all week in our “Mom and Pop” grocery store and those Sunday visits cramped her day off. Mom didn’t want to hear about what degenerate returned to town for his mother’s funeral or what “town tramp” was pregnant again.

As a child, Grandma Delorm seemed perfect to me. She gave each of us a hug and a kiss and made us feel so loved. She had soft fluffy white hair that felt like a cloud and seemed to glow with angelic light. Her smile warmed my heart.

thanksgiving poemAfter Grandpa Delorm died, Christmas arrived in our driveway at some unknown pre-dawn hour where Grandma sat quietly in her warm souped-up Chevy with the glasspack mufflers and a giant sound system in the trunk – she told the used car salesman she wanted a car with a little zip. We had the only Granny that laid rubber at every intersection. As far as we knew she never turned on the radio.

We were not to let Grandma know we knew she was out there waiting for Christmas to start until my mother had her first cup of coffee “in the peace and quiet.”  Hard to miss Grandma with that race car rumbling in the driveway. When Mom turned on the kitchen light, we would rush the car, often stumbling through deep snow, to help Grandma carry her huge wicker laundry basket filled with gifts.

Easter was great. Lots of candy in the baskets. But nothing matched Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house for me. It was obvious that not everyone in my family was as enthusiastic as I was about it.

We, Grandma’s grandchildren, rarely used her front door. The back door, as mentioned before, led to the cookie jar. We were usually pretty amped-up on Thanksgiving. I could smell the dressing and roasting turkey before we pulled in the yard; leftover memories from the previous Thanksgiving.

turkeyWe would blast into the kitchen with all the excitement of childhood, ignoring my mother’s plaintive attempts to keep our fingers off the cookie jar. The air was rich with the roasted vegetables, turkey, and dressing. Some of us would head into the sitting-room because we knew we would find bowls of mints and nuts. But first, I had to stop in the formal dining room. Oh! It was a glorious sight! A room set aside just for eating! My childhood home was very small and we ate on bar stools in front of the kitchen counter.

The old oak table, spread wide with every extra leaf, filled the tiny room and was wearing its bright white tablecloth. Grandma’s best dishes encircled the perimeter and shiny silverware sat royally on real cloth napkins. The light from the little chandelier made the crystal water glasses sparkle. In the center of the table sat the empty turkey platter, fresh dinner rolls with their yeasty breath, and every size and shape of empty serving dish. There on the sideboard were the three pies- apple, pumpkin and mincemeat along with wine glasses and Daddy’s new bottle of Mogen David wine.

cranberry sauceSatisfied that everything was in its right place, I would join the crowd of Grandma and Grandpa’s relatives overflowing the sitting room. Grandpa’s side sparse with his lone brother and wife sandwiched in with my Grandmother’s siblings, spouses and my father’s cousins. It wouldn’t be long before my brother, Tommy, and I fought over control of the nutcracker and the large bowl of shelled nuts. My younger sister, Debbie, too little to trust with the nut picks and my youngest sister, Laurie, not yet a twinkle in my father’s eye. The chatter and mayhem would come to a dead stop with the announcement that dinner was on the table.

Returning to the dining room, the table had turned in a colorful magical kingdom. The bright orange sweet potato casserole sat next to Grandma’s proverbial green Jello salad usually with walnuts and fruit cocktail. The empty turkey platter was now overflowing with sliced turkey, the legs reaching out for the giant bowl of gravy. Fragrant dressing had been hiding in the carcass but now sat exposed in two bowls, one at each end of the table. Molded cranberry sauce lay like toppled dominoes on a plate.

Grandma said grace and Daddy offered wine and a lively toast. Soon the serving dishes flew in a clockwise circle around the table.  

As wonderful as the dinner itself was, the real thanks in Thanksgiving existed in the family stories that flowed over the table. It was my chance to learn the history of my French-Canadian ancestry. To my family, I have always been an oddball; more interested in old things and old people. But years later, while researching my genealogy, those precious conversations would provide clues leading me up the Saint Lawrence River all the way to France.

Over the years, the elders have gone on to their reward. Grandma’s house is gone; replaced by a parking lot. My siblings and I have our own families and moved in separate directions. Long gone are the extended family gatherings and conversations. In a world where I can pick up a phone and instantly talk with my son in Europe or scan Facebook for pictures, we rarely gather with each other due to distance and expense.

Now as an old woman myself, I am so thankful for my Grandmother and her gifts of family and love. Those precious Thanksgiving memories have warmed me over and over. The smell of roast turkey and dressing sends me back to a sweet time where life was slower and simpler. Back to a small town where everyone knew your name and what you were doing; whether you wanted them to know it or not. Let me add, that I have a better perspective on my mother’s need for peace and quiet.

I hope you have a special memory in your life that continues to bring joy. 

I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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OPERATION COLUMBA

operation columba debaillie family graphic

The Belgian farmer could see there was something odd in his field… It was early on a July morning in 1941, just over a year after Nazi tanks had swept through the country… [It] was a small container with a length of white material attached… a parachute. Inside he could see a pair of eyes..and the unmistakable sound of a pigeon cooing… Attached to the side of the container was a message – a request for help.

World War II and history buffs! Gordon Corera’s newest book takes you into the skies over England and Belgium – attached to the leg of a carrier pigeon! This is a well-researched story of Nazi aggression, Britain’s military and intelligence services, Belgium’s brave hometown resistance fighters and the thousands of trained homing pigeons battling bullets and bad weather.

operation columba graphicHoming pigeons have been popular for hundreds of years, in peacetime, with civilians (nicknamed “pigeon fanciers”) and proved to be an invaluable asset in wartime communication. In 1941, the coastline of Europe is controlled by the Nazi war machine leaving England as a sitting duck for invasion. England was desperate to learn the status of the Nazi preparations to mount an invasion, and later, intelligence was needed for planning their own invasion of Europe allied by the United States.

ARC Edelweiss and LibraryThingAgents positioned behind lines in Nazi-controlled Europe had a dangerous, limited and unreliable method of transmitting intelligence in a timely manner via radio. Delivering intelligence information via hand-offs to countries outside Nazi control took months, risked lives, and was months old and practically useless. Desperate times called for desperate measures; hence the development of Project Columba.

Corera sifted through World War II military and intelligence records, letters and correspondence preserved by families of the brave resistance fighters. The result brings those perilous wartime years to life into the homes and lives of the average citizenry of Belgium, into the thickets and fortifications on the beaches, behind bars in the horrors of the Nazi camps, and into the secret enclaves of the British government agencies – often revealing the humanness and warts of those involved on all sides.

Quoting General William Tecumseh Sherman, “War is hell”.

The book is written in an easy to read style. Using the sparse facts available, creates a compelling story of heroism, self-sacrifice, and patriotism of individuals willing to look beyond self for the sake of country.

Fabulous read. Sure to please history buffs.

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LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP

This is a story about a floating barge converted to a book store named the Literary Apothecary. Well, maybe not so much about the barge and more about Jean Perdu, the barge owner, who has withdrawn emotionally for over 20 years following an unexplained romantic breakup by his lover, Manon.

Jean Perdu has an uncanny ability and a liability. He instinctively knows just the book to help solve problems for perfect strangers but he hasn’t been able to help his own stunted life. For over 20 years he has a room in his apartment that he has never entered. Behind that door lies the life he once shared with his love, Manon.

A new neighbor, Caroline, a victim of an adulterous marriage and divorce, moves into his apartment building. He reluctantly enters his inviolate “Manon space” to retrieve a table for her. Caroline finds an unopened letter in the table and returns it to him. The sight of that unsealed letter triggers deep memories. When he finally reads the 20 year-old letter, Perdu begins the travel to the bottom of his heart and then slowly begins to make his way up to a fulfilled life.

There is deep symbolism as Perdu takes refuge on his floating barge and releases the boat from its mooring. The journey begins as an escape to sea but as more and more eccentric characters take refuge with him on the barge, he begins to feel again. At first without understanding what he is doing and finally with purpose, Perdu seeks to find out what happened to Manon.

Before Perdu leaves Paris, he and Caroline had begun to sense a strong bond. He strives to keep the embers of this new relationship alive through letters as he seeks to put out the flames from his old life.

The storyline floats through the lens of fiction and non-fiction works shelved on the barge. As Jean and others bring these works to life through discussion, the remarkably crafted quotes tickle a reaction in the reader as well as the characters.

It has taken me a few weeks to mull over my overall feelings for the book. I only rated the book in the end as a three star because I just never really felt pulled into the book. I disliked Manon and finally decided that Jean needed a good slap in the head to have wiled away 20 years of precious life over a lost love. There were some great moments but in the end things just took sooooo long to resolve. Remember, this is just my opinion. I suggest that everyone read the book and come to your own conclusions.

Thank you, Netgalley and Blogging for Books, for the opportunity to read this book and give my honest review.

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VIRGIL WANDER: a novel

VIRGIL WANDER

Leif Enger

If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself- that is, when my seeing of it began to shift – it would be the day a stranger named Rune ble

fire hydrant kite

w into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom.”

The imaginary town of Greenstone, Minnesota lies somewhere along a remote section of shoreline on Lake Superior. A town that lost its luster and raison d’être after reaching the tail-end of a mining and shipping boom. Long-time residents of Greenstone weren’t surprised when the mines closed and the cargo ships sailed away for the last time. Bad luck has always been around the corner; this was just more of the same.

Greenstone folks are remarkable people. They don’t sit around wringing their hands waiting for the other shoe to drop on them. They just hitch up and help out the person currently caught sideways by the town’s curse. Oh, there are the gossipers, the skeptics, the suspicious, the troublemakers, the confused – but overall decent folks that somehow manage to find purpose enough to stay in the dying town but lack the courage to leave.

icy headlightSo when Virgil Wander, their  part-time town clerk and full- time owner of their decaying local movie theater, skidded off that icy cliff into Lake Superior and his airbag temporarily scrambled his brain, the town sighed, and added his woes to their infinite list of bad luck stories.

This is Virgil’s story to tell. It’s a story about rebirth and second chances. A story of love lost and love found. A story of hope, sadness, compassion, humor, and friendship that forever bonds a town together. There’s a bit of mystery, danger, and intrigue. This is a story told in that stereotypical simplicity of the mid-West; little said but much meant.  It’s a complicated but comfortable story filled with many lovable (and some not so lovable) characters.

It begins the day Virgil wakes up in the hospital after his accident.  He discovers his “storehouse of English had been pillaged” and his cranial gyroscope off tilt. He was most distressed to lose his adjectives but happy to find a few nouns and the essential verbs still there.

His first day back home at the Empress leaves Virgil conflicted. He knows it is his home but everything is off. Struggling to understand his new perspective of himself and the town in general, Virgil absentmindedly takes a walk through town ending up at the abandoned waterfront pier.

Standing on the far edge of the pier is “a threadbare stranger [with] eight-day whiskers and fisherman hands, a pipe in his mouth like a mariner in a fable, and a question in his eyes”. A brightly colored kite is tucked under his arm. The sad old man recently learned that years ago, while on a brief visit to the United States from Norway, he had fathered a child; a son. Returning now, he hoped to meet his son only to learn that he disappeared years ago and is presumed dead.

The two men, each lost in their own thoughts, chatted amicably. Out of the blue, Rune says, “Perhaps you knew my son? He lived here.” Shortly after that, the wind rustled the water and the kite left Rune’s arms to rise high into the sky; as time after time, Rune’s kites will lift the spirits of the town folk during his quest to bring his son alive in memory.

Virgil will fare much better than Humpty Dumpty; he will be able to put most of his pieces back together again. The new Virgil has a bright future and grateful for that second chance.

As for town itself, no worries. The folks learned to face their “hard luck” head on and make lemonade out of lemons. As you flip those final pages and wave goodbye, you will do so with a smile.

Recommended reading for those days when you need a lift into imagination and magic.

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THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE


Years ago, when I was a young girl, my family vacationed in a big city; an environment totally out of my element. On a walk with one of the older city children, we happened upon a spooky looking house. The boy whispered to me that the house was haunted and told me that we had to be careful not to get captured by ghosts and drawn inside. With that he turned and ran away, leaving me alone. To this day, I don’t know what triggered my fight or flight, fear of the house or fear of being alone and abandoned. I remember my world spinning out of control filled with overwhelming fear and terror; as fresh today as it was sixty years ago. Ironically, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House that same year I was frightened to death; 1959.

Synopsis

Dr. Montague, an anthropologist by trade and an investigator of supernatural events as an addictive sideline, has signed a three-month contract to rent the infamously haunted Hill House. His purpose is to definitively document the existence of paranormal activity. He feels his best chance of stirring up the mysteries of the house would occur if other people having had brushes with abnormal events in the past were with him.

He locates twelve persons and issues cleverly crafted invitations specifically avoiding the word “haunted” to spend “all or part of a summer at a comfortable house… the purpose to observe and explore the various unsavory stories about the house…”. Three curious people respond and agree to meet him there:

Eleanor Vance, a friendless, angry, and depressed thirty-two-year-old woman looking  for “freedom, adventure, friendship and love” after years of caring for a mentally abusive invalid mother. Her life post-mother with her evil sister remains loveless and unfulfilling. Theodora, a free-spirit artist, arrives needing to spend time away from her roommate following a spat and hoping for a great adventure. Luke Sanderson, young heir to the house and a liar and thief, sent by his Aunt to represent the family’s interests and to get him out of her hair for awhile. Jackson tosses in a scary pair of caretakers, the Doctor’s haughty wife, and Hill House itself to the cast of characters.

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more… [S]ilence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The first character to arrive is Eleanor. Unlike the others, we are with her as she makes her first bold move away from her horrible life, steals her sister’s car, and heads on on her first road trip, alone. Along the way, she begins to see life in a new way. She enjoys collecting trivia and creates imaginary life scenes in appealing places along the journey. The newly freed Eleanor will continue to be the book’s narrator.

The first sign of danger in this strange opportunity hits her when she arrives at Hill House in the twilight hours of the first night.

She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile; … get away from here at once.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition…turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake… It was a house without kindness…

Things don’t seem as ominous to her when the others arrive and find the house ugly but fairly harmless. For the first time in her life she begins to relax around people. She begins to imagine a new life with these people that extends beyond this brief visit to Hill House; finally friends and people who care about her. She lies to the group to project an image of herself that is appealing and interesting.

Other than doors that shut by themselves and meeting the humorless housekeeper and her robotic mealtime directives, nothing happens that first night. Eleanor falls asleep thinking… this is home. It will be home for the group for the next week.

The group takes a tour of the house and they hear the house’s sad and malevolent history from Luke. They find the house’s atmosphere, dark, morbidly decorated, rooms and hallways oddly laid out with crooked corners, and as confusing as a corn maze. When they reach the library doorway in the eerie stone tower, the reputed scene of a tragic suicide, Eleanor recoils in fear. The reader is left with the sense that heartbeat of house is contained in the tower’s walls.

The story moves at a snail’s pace for the first 100 pages. It enables the reader to feel the creaks in the floor, the shifty lighting, the unsettling feeling of being swallowed by the house, becoming lost in its bizarre layout. We observe a transition happening within Eleanor as she experiences, often in the company of others, increasingly terrorizing nightly sounds that accelerate by the day. The story turns darker as Eleanor begins to fall apart. At the same time, the others ride out the house’s attempts to scare them without negative effects; no one, other than Eleanor, feels any real danger from the house.

Eleanor, rocking to the pounding, which seemed inside her head as much as in the hall, holding tight to Theodora, said,”They know where we are,” and the others, assuming she meant Arthur and Mrs. Montague, nodded and listened.

We slip into Eleanor’s stream of consciousness and feel the mental meltdown as it is happening. She sees, in her mind, that Theo and Luke are conspiring against her and feels they mock her at every turn. She sees them treating her just like her mother and sister. Outwardly she projects an affinity to the group while internally developing rage, hated and mistrust of Theo and Luke. The group, unaware of Eleanor’s degenerating mental condition, finds humor in her unease and proclivity to spout quaint quotes, most often cited, is a line from from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Journeys end in lover’s meeting…

The reader, collecting clues from those tedious first 100 pages, realizes that there are parallels between the original homeowner’s tragic story and Eleanor’s life, real and imagined.

Near the end of that first week, Dr. Montague becomes aware of the effect the atmosphere of the house is having on Eleanor and repeatedly tries to make her leave. But she is adamant she will not be forced to leave leading to a highly dramatic conclusion. Hill House, with that evil grin, wins. Journeys end in lover’s meeting…

Reviewer’s Thoughts

I found it difficult to rate the book. I settled on a solid three star rating. Those first 100 pages seemed to drag with no action. In a 230+ paged book, I found it hard to imagine anything happening that would match the more contemporary horror genre. I was determined to stick with it and thought I would start over with the audio version and it made all the difference. Once I grasp the fact that is was really a psychological thriller, I started watching the dialogue more closely and was sucked inside Hill House.

Returning to my own haunted house experience, I could better understand Eleanor’s inability to extract herself from the creeping insanity. Who knows how permanently scarred I would be if I had wandered into my spooky house as a ten-year-old and spent the night listening to the old house groan against history and neglect. Has anyone else be scared witless? I’d love to hear from you.

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

when breath becomes air graphic poem

blue quotation-marksAt age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land… I could see a nice catamaran on the [Mediterranean Sea]. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be…

I flipped through [my] CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious… The future I imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving evaporated.Paul Kalanithi

Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi grew up in Kingman, Arizona. After graduating  from Stanford University in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology, he found himself caught between the worlds of literature and science; neither a perfect fit for him in his quest to discover the answer to the overwhelming question – what makes life worth living?  What is a meaningful life?

After deliberation, he set a goal to attend medical school, but not before he explored more fully the nature of thought and consciousness; how man makes decisions, defines consciousness, and rationalizes his existence. After attending the University of Cambridge where he earned a Masters of Philosophy in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, he turned to Yale University of Medicine where he graduated cum laude in 2007. Armed with years of theoretical education, he now focused on practical experience and hands-on patient care.  He returned to Stanford University to begin his residency training and ultimately fine-tuning his focus onto the field of neurology. In his sixth-year of a seven-year training program to become neurosurgeon, Paul learns he has stage-four lung cancer.

Now cresting at the top of his field, having struggled with the long duty hours, strains on his personal life, he feels he has a good grip on his personal identity. He will soon become a doctor, counselor and adviser to his patients. He has stumbled and made mistakes along the way to understanding that he must fully understand his patients as a whole to offer the best care.

And now he stands facing his own mortality. He knows he will never have that long sought after career as a neurosurgeon. He has become the patient. His world has come to a full-stop. “Who am I now?”, he asks.

In the end, he became the writer; an early life goal. A man determined to leave a lasting legacy. A man opening his whole life to the world in hopes that in revealing himself, others will learn to face their own mortality and fears; to live life fully, unafraid and ready when the end arrives. Paul, according to his wife, wrote feverishly, determined to lay bare his faults and strengths, his terrors and joys, and finally his acceptance and willingness to face death straight on in his own terms.

It is a hard book to read. The squeamish might want to skip through his cadaver training. And he is strongest when he openly discusses his weaknesses, his lack of empathy for his patients, and the moment he realizes what he has become and makes the change for the better. At times I felt like a voyeur as he shared painful moments in his marital life with his wife, Lucy. Paul’s terminal diagnosis impacted his family’s present and future.

Sadly, Paul never got to finish his book. Some reviewers have found the book rather cold and at times impersonal. It must be remembered that the book was compiled from his copious notes and essays. He undoubtedly would have edited the material had he the chance to do so making it sound less like a doctor’s chart dictation and more fully exposing the full range of his personality.

Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue is riveting and more fully exposes the “whole” Paul. Lucy’s sharing of Paul’s final hours had me in tears.

Readers personally struggling with terminal illness and looking for ways to make decisions about their own care or caregivers seeking inspiration and help on behalf of a loved one are encouraged to view Paul’s videos and interviews online. In the end, you will never forget Paul; he did make a difference. He let us view the meaning of life as he lived it.

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DEAR MRS. BIRD: a novel

DEAR MRS.BIRD

 A. J. Pierce

On 7 September 1940, the [German] Luftwaffe unleashed a merciless bombing campaign against London and Britain’s major cities. Instead of breaking morale, however,  the raids only galvanized the will of the British people for the rest of the war.”

War-time London is the back drop for this coming-of-age story of young adults trying to grow up in a fractured world. There’s something tender in watching Emmy Lake evolve from a day-dreamer to a “grown-up” with a clear eye to the feelings and needs of others. Figuring out the breach from childhood to adulthood is hard enough but facing your own mortality at the same time is something else altogether.

This  quirky story about pipe-dreams and friendships is nestled among the craters in the road and the blackout curtains of war-time London. When we first meet twenty-two year-old Emmeline “Emmy”, she has a steady job as a legal secretary and serves in London’s Auxiliary Fire Service  as a part-time night-shift telephone operator. She loves the looks she gets when she wears her “smart Navy blue uniform with gleaming buttons, stout black shoes, and [is] proud as punch in [her] cap with its AFS badge”.

corona 1926 typewriterEmmy differs somewhat from her closest friends. The others have jobs that take them up-close and personal to war. One working in the war office and the other involved in a fire brigade that spends dangerous hours putting out fires and searching for survivors and victims. Emmy, glides through the mayhem with a smile and a stiff upper lip. Her deepest wish is to become a smartly dressed lady war correspondent calmly describing how well the Brits are doing to defeat Hitler.

A chance glance at the classified ads of the London Evening Chronicle one day, revealed a job opportunity she thinks was tailor made for her. Believing the ad is looking for a junior newspaper reporter at the Chronicle, she doesn’t realize until after being hired, that she will work for Women’s Friend, a failing women’s magazine, housed in the same building as the Chronicle. It takes several attempts by the office manager to convince her that she is now a part-time typist for The Problem’s Page and working for Mrs. Henrietta Bird, a woman outfitted with a myopic view of life, a foghorn voice and the disposition of an irate howler monkey.

Emmy squares her shoulders and takes on the challenge but it isn’t long before she just can’t help herself from interfering in Mrs. Bird’s business. Just as she involves herself in the lives of her friends, with the best of intentions of course, not always appreciated, she secretly answers letters Mrs. Bird has rejected, forging Mrs. Bird’s signature and violating her Confidentiality Agreement.

As she fights her conscience over her deception and the fear of discovery over her letters at her day job, she receives a telegram about her fiance, and fearing the worst, is shocked to learn he is alive, but married to a stranger he met overseas. Adding to her personal stress is finding herself facing the war head-on at night in the Fire Service. The war is happening right over her head now, literally. The Germans have amplified their bombing runs and the Blitz crushes London.

Returning to her home after a long hard night at the Fire Service, she witnesses her best friend’s boyfriend return to a collapsing building to rescue a doll for a little girl he had just saved. Emmy, unable to control herself, demands he stop putting himself in danger for the sake of Bunty. Emmy and Bunty’s lifelong friendship fractures after Emmy’s continued efforts to stop William from doing his job leads to a terrible tragedy.

ARC EdelweissBut dear reader, not all is lost. Emmy pulls herself out the ashes, finds new love, and sees the world through a broader lens. She learns that life is not just all about you. Emmy and England will recover.

Thoughts

Dear Mrs. Bird is a tribute to the strengths of women in wartime. The letters rejected from Mrs. Bird and answered by Emmy are thought-provoking. The sacrifice of self-interest for a great good during wartime deserves respect and admiration. I was a bit leery in the beginning as stories about sappy goofy young women tripping over giddy visions of themselves turns me off. I grew to respect Emmy and the rest of her friends. I don’t know how I would respond under the same circumstances, but I would like to think I would have done as well to serve my country and my friends and family.

Good read.

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COLOR of LIGHTNING: a novel

VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

 

North Texas was a good place to be a black man; slave or free, they were all expected to carry arms… a person could pretty well do what he liked and he could be whatever he took a mind to as long as he had a strong back and a good aim.

 

Color of Lightning, published seven years before the bestseller, News of the World,  illuminates the untamed frontier with its Indian raids, legions of wagon trains determined to settle the land, and the heavy presence of military forts to enforce taibo or “white man’s” laws on the indigenous peoples. 

This is not a made-for-TV setting with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in face-paint and feathers. It is a graphically violent story of two cultures; one struggling to maintain centuries old traditions and the other determined to expand and subjugate the earth and native populations. The book is heavy with emotion and should be read with an eye to each side’s perspective.

In the real-world of 1860’s west Texas lived a newly freed slave, Britton “Britt” Johnson and his wife, Mary. The Johnsons built a home in a settlement along Elm Creek, not far from the Brazos River, and about 10 miles from Fort Belknap. It was a peaceful place with nice neighbors and a promise of new life. The smart and enterprising, Britt, soon established a successful freight wagon business serving the civilian and military communities.

October 13, 1864, Britt Johnson was away buying supplies when over six-hundred Kiowa and Comanche Indians made a murderous raid along Elm Creek. Britt’s wife, Mary and two of their children, Rube and Cherry were among those captured. Britt’s oldest son, Jim, was murdered. The specific details of Mary, Rube and Cherry’s rescue by Britt do vary but his valiant efforts and success are without question.

Through the author’s imagination, Britt is brought to life; a man’s man- proud, brave, courageous, fearless- strong in will, dangerous to his enemies and tender in heart to those in need of compassion and understanding- and capable of mistakes.

We ride alongside Britt as he sets out to rescue his family, making an unlikely friend along the way with a temporary outcast Comanche named Tissoyo. We feel the freedom of riding alone in the unfettered  land and smell the danger that lies in every shadow and thicket.

Our hearts break as we follow behind Mary Johnson and Elizabeth Fitzgerald as they are force marched to faraway Indian villages, suffering unprovoked violence, starvation, and inhumane living conditions. We yearn to offer support as they fight to survive; working long painful hours in the daily rigors of subsistence life with rudimentary tools and ingenuity. We feel each mother’s pain as their children are adopted by tribal families; enchanted by the simple lifestyle, the loving attention and for Britt’s son, Jube, the sense of belonging and power as a warrior. 

Meanwhile, Samuel Hammond, the newly appointed Indian agent, arrives in Texas, armed with good intentions and deep spiritual convictions. The newly redesigned Indian Bureau has turned over management of the frontier to various religious denominations. The Quakers have been given control of  Comanche and Kiowa-Apache territory. Sure of his God and sure of his mission, Samuel forbids armed guards to be present when distributing monthly rations of food and supplies fulfilling the agreement of a recent peace treaty. The efforts to force the tribes into submission with garden tools, calico and Bibles fail; the natives determined to maintain their territory, independence, and freedoms to their last breath. Samuel becomes entangled in the orders from his religious leaders to avoid violence and the reality that religious conversion will not happen, that war is inevitable, and that force is the only way to destroy the will of the tribes.

Samuel looked all about himself on the bare plains and thought what a miracle of endurance it was to live like this solely on God’s bounty, on whatever came to hand, in this sere country… People of great courage and fortitude, born with an unsatisfied wanderlust… And he must bring this to an end. That was his job. That was why he was here.

The Comanche and Kiowa leaders and warriors -unduly cruel, seemingly heartless, devoid of civilized morality, and terrifying to behold – are justifiably distrustful of the “Americans” and their threadbare peace treaties and broken promises.The tribes are caught between worlds; one world, that of the past, with no borders or boundaries, free to follow the seasons and the new world with its imaginary borders, fenced in properties, and self-centered landholders. The new people have brought deadly illnesses like smallpox that have decimated their ranks. The majestic buffalo, a vital resource, are being hunted to near extinction. What choice do they have but to rail against an enemy intruder?

Tissoyo said they were near the estado of Colorado… What is an estado?
The name of a place.
There is supposed to be a line nobody can see.
That’s right.
How do you make a line if it can’t be seen?
It’s only on paper.
You never know what the taibo will think of.

THOUGHTS

The book struggles a bit in the beginning but once the characters reach the panorama of Texas it takes off.

Samuel’s story is the weakest link. His character is naive and it is no surprise the tribes have no respect for him.

The unvarnished descriptions of the gang rapes, unwarranted brutality, and dehumanizing murders, necessary to authenticity, led me to the Rolaids bottle more than once.

I was most affected by the inability of some captives to return to their old life, forced by circumstance to be forever stuck between worlds.

And ending on the beauty of the author’s writing and the peace that solitude on the plains can bring, I leave you with an early morning view from horseback.

There are no mornings anywhere like mornings in Texas, before the heat of the day, the world suspended as if it were early morning in paradise and fading stars like night watchman walking the periphery of darkness and call out that all is well.

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The Alzheimer’s Medical Advisor: a caregiver’s guide

Do you know who I am?

A girl?

Yes, I was your first baby.

You were my #1? 

My mother was a cut-up, an RN, an ambulance squad leader, a mother of four and the last living senior member of my family. When she died, I popped to the top of the old age squad.

alzheimer's medical advisor coverBefore she died, she lost her marbles. All of them. But she never lost her humor or her love of ice cream and her hatred of bananas.

In spite of having 2 RNs and a certified EMT as children, my mother was able to hide her failing memory for a long time. She developed tricks of the trade so to speak. She was always sneaky with her memory so she knew the ropes.

mom and ice cream infoWe faced her fading memory and faltering physical health as best we could right up to the end. Alzheimer’s and good old standard full-blown dementia never come with a manual.

The Alzheimer’s Medical Advisor: a caregiver’s guide comes about as close as a layman can get to a manual. I have had this book for a couple of years; negligent in my responsibility to Sunrise River Press and LibraryThing to provide a review in exchange for this advanced reader’s copy.

Now that my brother faces a severe form of early onset fronto-temporal dementia, I find myself reaching for the book for answers to so many questions. And in doing so, I remembered I owed a review, so here it is.

dementia table of contentsThis book is a gold mine of information. You won’t be smothered in fifty-cent size medical lingo that makes you feel overwhelmed.

The initial chapters cover dementia, general care information, setting goals and stresses the importance of taking care of yourself.

The heart of the book discusses 54 common issues encountered in the care of the patient. Each issue is covered in a two-page spread beginning with basic facts and highlights signs of a possible emergency, lists other important things to observe, identifies ways to handle the issue at home and when to contact medical health professionals.

sampleOne concluding chapter deals with general health issues and gives tips to accomplish the tasks, like taking the temperature or pulse of a confused and scared person, and when monitoring vitals can be helpful.

Another chapter tackles the tricky subject of medical safety and management and does so in great detail.

Quoting the book, “Throughout the course of illness, persons with dementia often require services from multiple types of health care providers in many different settings.” Each level of care is covered from selecting a primary care provider through emergency and general hospitalization all the way to full-time residential care.

The hardest chapter deals with end of life decisions. Everyone and every family must explore their own feelings about the end of life wishes of a person no longer able to make their own decisions. These pages are more of an outline of topics helpful in developing a course of action working with the person while still capable of decisions and understanding the course of their disease or in the case that incapacity precludes that discussion.

The final pages are worksheets that can be reproduced and deal with gathering information necessary before consult with a health care professional. Filling out the personal information and preferences in advance makes a stressful time easier.

I hope this review is helpful. I encourage anyone with ANY long-term illness, not just dementia, to look at this invaluable resource.

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LIES: a novel


It’s a Mummy car. Look, Daddy!
Good spot, matey… It does look like Mummy’s car.
I squinted, trying to make out the
[license plate].

It was her car.
The VW turned into a Premier Inn.
Can we see Mummy?
Can we, can we, can we?

I made a spur-of-the-moment decision
that would change my life.

Let’s go surprise, Mummy.

What’s cuter than a dad and a four-year-old playing car bingo? A kid with his first School Superstar “cerstiff-a kit”. Little Wills spots his mother’s car in traffic and his intense need to share his pride with his mother melts his father’s heart. They track her car into an underground hotel parking garage and bolt upstairs to greet her. Joe comes to a skidding stop when he spots Mel (Mellisa) in the hotel lobby in a heated argument with Ben Delaney, a neighbor. Ben was screaming at her. Joe quickly frog-marches Wills back to the car to wait for Mel.

lies graphicMel swiftly exits the elevator and never sees them before leaving quickly in her car. Once more the elevator door opens and Ben walks out.  When Joe begins to ask about Mel, Ben becomes violent. Refusing to fight the smaller man, Joe gives him a little shove to put space between them, causing Ben to trip over his briefcase and landing on his head on the concrete floor unresponsive with blood trickling out of his ear.

The stress induces a Richter scale asthma attack in Wills. The spare inhaler is not in the car and Wills is in trouble. The two crises force Joe to make a decision – get help for Ben or get help for Wills. Wills wins but Joe does return to find Ben and his car gone along with Joe’s cellphone that he had dropped in the altercation.

With Ben gone, Joe is left to puzzle out the conversation that flipped out Ben. Joe had been pressing Ben about Mel when suddenly Ben shouted, “Just leave it! You have no idea! You’re so f***ing dense that you haven’t seen it, have you?” Just before he fell.

As Joe seeks answers, his warm and fuzzy world begins to fall apart. Ben is nowhere to be found but Joe knows he is alive; he gets regularly cell phone and Facebook messages from him.

Beth, Mel’s best friend and Ben’s wife files a missing person report. The search for Ben gets darker and darker as evidence points to foul play and seems to implicate Joe. On the other side of the equation, Ben’s messages to Joe get more and more taunting and sinister. I am going to destroy you! Mel finally admits she had an affair. All efforts to verify Joe’s claims that Ben has been in contact him are traced back to Joe’s online accounts.

Joe realizes his only way out of this miasma is to find Ben. Against the advice of his newly hired attorney, Joe begins his own private search to clear his name and to save his family.  What he finds confirms what Ben had told him – You had no idea. You never saw it, did you?

Thoughts

I love debut authors and I don’t expect them to rage out of the gate with a blockbuster bestseller. It happens. Not this time. Lies is a easy read, somewhat predicable, and contains elements of mystery and surprise at the end. I found it entertaining and kept my interest. Joe was patently naive and gullible; I think the author was striving for devoted and loyal. Mel, from the beginning, was more worldly and adventurous dusted with a sly and devious capacity to snow Joe. Little Wills was adorable.

Good read for a slow day or long car ride; guaranteed not to make you homicidal.

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JELLO GIRLS

Where to begin. As the book, ostensibly, is billed as a memoir, I’ll begin with the author’s lineage.

In the beginning, Benjamin Hartwell “begat” two lovely daughters, Clara and Edith.  Clara would grow up to become our author, Allie Rowbottom’s great-grandmother. Edith would become the heiress of a huge Jello fortune after marrying into the Woodward family and surviving her husband, Ernest.

Ernest’s story begins with his father, a man with a fancy name of Orator F. Woodward. who spawned six children and supported his family as a manufacturer and selling of a variety of items that included composition balls used by marksmen in target practice. The family lived in the small town of LeRoy, New York where in 1897, a local carpenter somehow discovered a way to make horses hoofs and bones into a tasty fruit flavored dessert labeled Jello. Lacking the wherewithal to market his product, he sold it in 1899 to Orator Woodward who successfully marketed the product into a household name and, in turn, made the Woodwards another newly minted American “nouveau riche” family. The Woodward clan did great things for the town. Their fingers were in every pie from schools, churches to library trust funds, restaurants to factory work.

Clara’s granddaughter, Mary Edith Fussell had a rough childhood; not because of poverty, access to money not a problem. Her mother, Midge, was not a warm and nurturing mother; unsettled and uncomfortable as a woman stifled in world controlled by powerful men. A woman who would have preferred to be a writer to birthing children. Midge dies of breast cancer when Mary Edith was fourteen-years-old leaving her fearful of living under the same cloud as her mother; doomed to a life dictated by “the family curse”, just as her mother had predicted. A curse with as many negative spells as Medusa has snakes. She felt she had seen the curse take her mother when she was a young girl, feared for her own life and feared for the future of her daughter, Allie. She tried to outrun the curse through drugs, drink, sex, and obsession with witchcraft. Always searching for the elusive need to feel loved and wanted in a patriarchal society. Swallowing emotions, repressing and silencing her womanly voice bringing on illness of mind and body.

The curse…It was used to explain all manner of familial misfortune. Death, alcoholism, wealth and the existential boredom it brought with it.  It was, she was told, confined to men and therefore nothing for to worry [her pretty little head about]. Later she would understand…the curse wasn’t confined to men; it came from them, from a social structure predicated on their power. The curse was the silence impressed upon her…and countless women before…

Mary’s story was very much overshadowed by several other themes -the history of Jello and its impact financially and socially on the township of Le Roy. The sweet wiggly product was examined intensely for its marketing and ad campaigns that Rowbottom feels strengthened the patriarchal power and depicted what should be the aspirational goal of every women hoping to please her man at the same time attempting to stay relevant through wars and changing societal norms.

If the intense coverage of Jello didn’t smother Mary Edith’s life, Rowbottom tosses in a mysterious “Tourette Syndrome” like illness that befells LeRoy teen girls in 2011, plays a recurring part; the impression left that these girls, like girls before them, are caught in the tangled web cast by a patriarchal society. Some thin thread alludes to Mary and Allie’s affiliation with the girl’s problems.

In the end, I felt like I was searching through a thick stew to see Mary Edith. There was one scene that physically made me sit back and say…What the? One of Mary’s heartbreaking issues had affected me emotionally. At the chapter’s end I flipped the page to an abrupt change of subject discussing the redesign of the Jello box.

There was no joy, happiness or sense that anything other than doom and gloom follows the inheritors of the great Jello fortune. I never really connected to Mary, Midge or Allie or their assertion that money was at the heart of their problems. Their curse.

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BENEATH A SCARLET SKY: a novel

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE
February 2006

At a dinner party in Bozeman, Montana…I heard the snippets of an extraordinary, untold tale of World War II with a seventeen-year-old Italian boy as its hero. My first reaction was that the story of Pino Lella’s life could not possibly be true… I [later] learned that Pino was alive some six decades later. The story you are about to read is not a work of narrative non-fiction , but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945. – Author, Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan, true to his word, gives us the harrowing story of a World War II teenage “Forrest Gump” – a child whose courage would have challenged the most stalwart adult. The story was not an easy one to obtain from him; he had buried it very deep in his memory. Pino was mentally crippled for the rest of his life by the spit-second decision he had to make late in the war – a choice to live or die for the one you love.

Giuseppe “Pino” Lella was ten-years-old when Nazi Germany and Italy’s fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, formed an alliance in 1936. By early 1943, Pino was now a pimple-faced seventeen-year-old focused on girls, food, and music; he and his brother Mimo’s attention still centered on themselves and growing up.

Mussolini’s power was waning and Nazi Germany was flooding Italy with troops and supplies to slow the Allies advance from Sicily. The rising scent of war permeated Italy, Pino’s home, and his family’s businesses in the fashion district of Milan. The boys were familiar with and comfortable around the friendly high-ranking Nazis that drove through the city and frequented local shops and restaurants. The evilness and cruelty that lie ahead still dormant in the Italian psyche.

Pino and his younger brother, Mimo, had been fortunate to have been raised in wealth. With foreign born nannies, each had become fluent in English, French, and Italian. Each summer and a month each winter were spend frolicking high up in the Alps at Father Luigi Re’s Casa Alpina, a Catholic boys school. The boys loved their time there skiing and climbing the steep mountain trails.

The trajectory of their carefree lives changed the day Pino “fell instantly in love” with a stranger on the street and asked her for a date. Hoping to meet her at the movies that night, Pino and Mimo headed to the theater (she reneged on a promise to meet him) placing the two boys at the epicenter of the Allies first bombing run of Milan. Both were able to escape major injury but their childhood ended that night.

The boys were sent into the mountains for safety to Father Re. Mimo first, then Pino later when the family home in Milan was destroyed. Pino was soon to learn that the deadly war had reached even the solitude and treacherous slopes of the Alps. At Father Re’s direction, Pino, only seventeen-years-old, spent eight months guiding a multitude of Jewish refuges and downed Allied pilots to safety in Switzerland. Every trip was fraught with danger from the mountains themselves, Nazis, and the murderous partisans preying on the travelers. It is a wonder that the unprepared and inexperienced refugees made it to safety, but they did with the extraordinary help from Pino and other guides that he trained.

Weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Pino’s father ordered him home for a family meeting. At eighteen-years-old, he would be drafted into Italian military service and undoubtedly sent to the Russian front as cannon fodder. Pino’s father and Uncle Albert had, what they considered a better option, albeit one that would require Pino to endure the wrath of the community – enlist in the German Army. With his Uncle Albert’s deep connections, Pino would spend the war in a non-combat Nazi unit.

On July 27, 1944, Pino, aghast at his predicament, donned his uniform of the German Army in the Organization Todt. Everything I have told you about Pino to this point – his courage, his strength of character, his patriotism – pales in comparison to his unexpected role as a prominent spy for  the Allies throughout the remainder of the war in Italy.

It all began at a serendipitous meeting with Major General Hans Leyers, one of the most powerful Germans in Italy overseeing Armaments and War Production and the General’s disabled staff car outside his Uncle Albert’s store. Pino arrived home wearing his Organization Todt uniform on a ten-day convalescence leave for a war injury. The General’s driver stared helplessly at the engine. Pino, grabbed a screwdriver with his good hand, adjusted the carburetor, the vehicle started, and the rest is history.  The General fired his driver and put Pino in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the war.

Uncle Albert, a member of the Italian Resistance as a secret Freedom Fighter, saw the potential of Pino’s close proximity to everything Nazi:

“You’ll go where Leyers goes. See what he sees. Hear what he hears. You’ll be our spy inside the German High Command.”

So began Pino’s life as an Allied spy. Code name: Observer

It is remarkable that this young man could witness the murders, the mutilations, the despair and hopelessness of enslaved captives and pillage of his own country and still retain his composure to relay valuable information that helped lead to the end of the Nazi presence in Italy. He found true love, faced numerous dangers, saw horrors that would scar him for life, yet, Pino held true and served his country well.

It is not an easy read. Many times I felt my stomach get queasy. But read on I did, I owed it to all the Pinos out there that place country over self.

Recommended reading.

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MY ABANDONMENT: a novel

 

The Spokesman-Review

Fri., May 21, 2004
Father, girl reside in Portland park
Portland, Oregon


“Author, Peter Rock, a professor of creative writing at Portland’s Reed College had earned a literary reputation for his skill in bringing to the forefront marginal characters who might easily go unnoticed. As Rock, and most of Portland, followed with fascination the story of the mysterious father and daughter, the writer’s mind filled with questions, characters, and ideas. Eventually he put them all together to create his 2009 award-winning novel, My Abandonment. [In 2018, My Abandonment, was adapted for film and released as Leave No Trace.]

Peter Rock’s work, My Abandonment, is pure fiction loosely based on known facts about Frank and Ruth up to their disappearance. The time after their disappearance, a product of the author’s wild imagination. Frank and Ruth have become Father and Caroline.

We have to be so careful these days.
Why? No one knows where we are, says Caroline
If you think that way, that’s when you get caught. Overconfident.
No one’s ever caught us. No one could.That doesn’t mean anything. You know better than to look to the past, Caroline.

Father is strict. He has to be strict. That doesn’t mean he knows everything I do or think. 

It’s been four years since Father arrived at her foster home in Idaho to reunite with Caroline. We learn about their life together with Caroline narrating through a teenager’s lens as it appears in her daily journal. From this vantage, we never see into Father’s past or into his mind and are left to speculate about his actions and decisions.

As we meet Father, a 52-year-old Marine and Vietnam veteran, and Caroline, they are scouring a salvage yard in the dead of night to steal rebar to strengthen their primitive shelter. If we took a bird’s eye view of their home, we would find  signs of a normal life adjusted for the hardship of living in the wild; his insistence on a ship-shape life probably reflective of his military training. In an effort to remain anonymous and undetected, both have become masters of stealth and skilled at camouflage, denizens of Forest Park.

Father, college educated, insists on daily homeschooling for Caroline; guided by a set of thrift store encyclopedias and a Bible. Father has a deep knowledge of classical authors and uses relative quotes from them as punctuation points in his conversations with her.

The pair do expose themselves to the world, traveling to town when necessary to resupply, dressed to blend in with the town folks. Father, a victim of post-war PTSD, receives a monthly disability check delivered to a post office box in town. The small amount of money provides enough income for food and sparse necessities.

But it is not long before things feel weird. Caroline tells us that Father’s paranoid insistence on caution overshadows their lives 24/7.  Even in sleep, danger seems to haunt him with nightmares about hovering helicopters. Caroline would know, they sleep together in one sleeping bag. Randy, Caroline’s comfort toy, a plastic horse given to her by Father, goes everywhere with her; never leaves her side. Plastic Randy, whose stomach holds a slip of paper with her secret secret – something she must guard and never lose, something Father must never find.

There are other homeless folks in the forest, all with baggage from the past. Father barters with one group of slimy characters; until one of them begins to take too much interest in Caroline.

One day, by dumb luck, a stranger stumbles upon their front door while Father is away from camp and surprising Caroline who’s resting in her hideout in a treetop. Her little yip and her sweaty shirt drying on a branch gives them away. She keeps the intrusion secret from Father. But the stranger leads the police to them and the gig is up.

Helpful authorities find them a home with an elderly farmer. Caroline loves the farm, their little “real” home, and the promise of attending a real school. Maybe it was the open sky and constant contact with the outside world or perhaps loss of control over his own life but Father begins to dissemble, marking the beginning of what will become many faulty decisions. Without warning, he tells Caroline to pack a bag; they are leaving. This move, absent all their supplies confiscated by the police, threatens their survival.

Father never recovers from the removal from Forest Park leading the pair through one dangerous situation after another. Throughout their trek to find a new home, Father remains devoted to Caroline, exercising his control over her life by keeping his thoughts and plans to himself. She has no other option but to follow. As Father stumbles, Caroline becomes stronger and more independent thinking. One final flawed decision by Father ends their lives together leaving Caroline to restart her life in whatever fashion she desires. And we learn Caroline’s secret secret.

Book Themes and Thoughts

Anonymity and Use of Nicknames: The importance of discretion and use of false names a central theme. Do names identity us or dictate who we are?

Violence: Several scenes are gruesome and could be regarded as Triggers for adolescent readers.

Social Norms: This slender novel gives ample reason to question what is “normal”. Do “normals” have the right to interfere with alternative living options? At what point should someone interfere?

Relationships: There is a creepy edge to Father’s relationship with Caroline. His constant use of endearments, overprotective need to control her day, and questionable privacy issues lends itself to child abuse and criminal behavior.

The ending was somewhat disappointing but I found the book overall very interesting. Using a teenager narrator keeps things simple and points out that we never really know anyone’s whole story. I have found myself reflecting about their story days after I finished the book.

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LOLA: a novel

I am a country girl where the biggest fight I saw growing up was between the neighbor’s dog and a skunk. Therefore, my review of LOLA should be taken with that knowledge in mind. I know as much about city gangs, illegal drug sales, and ghetto living as they do about milking cows. Hard to assess what you know nothing about.
Huntington Park is a ghetto suburb of Los Angeles, home to the Crenshaw Six, a small-time drug-running gang. Within that community, Garcia is known as the gang leader and strong man but in reality he hides behind, Lola, the anonymous Mexican-American “Khaleesi”.

Lola is more than happy to be seen as Garcia’s girlfriend; it’s the perfect set-up for now. Lola is hungry for more power and territory but she must wait for the right time and place to make her move – always trying to stay in the background – using her dismissive and meek womanly demeanor to disarm and misdirect.

Her chance arrives when El Coleccioista, The Collector for the Los Liones cartel, interrupts Garcia’s community barbecue. Lola, playing the meek and mild woman, dares to enter the room where Garcia and The Collector are talking to offer refreshments as an excuse to learn what’s going on. She gets away with it because, she, a mere woman, is about as important to The Collector as a floor mat.

Several months earlier, the Los Liones cartel’s largest drug middleman, Darrell King, had his warehouse targeted for a LAPD drug raid. Darrell, alerted in time, was able to empty the warehouse but he was too hot to continue business. Los Liones had turned to the small-time Crensaw Six to pickup up some of Darrell’s territory to keep their drugs flowing to their customers. Now The Collector was back with another “request”. Darrell King is back in business. The problem? He  found himself another drug supplier. Los Liones spies have learned the time and place where Darrell’s courier will be for the first drop with this new supplier. The Crensaw Six must stop it and capture the couriers.

“There will be  two million in product, a corresponding two million in cash. We want your organization to make sure Darrell King never gets his product… and that his new supplier never gets his money.
‘That it?’ Garcia asks?
“We would like you to use whatever means at your disposal to uncover the identity of Mr. King’s new supplier. You will be wondering about compensation. Succeed, you will receive ten percent of the product and Mr. King’s territory. You fail, We take Lola, we will open up her stomach, and we will pull out her guts until she dies.

The Crensaw Six fails to intercept the money and drugs thanks to Lola’s brother’s screw up. When Lola metes out gang justice to her brother by viciously cutting off his trigger finger, Huntington Park now knows who is really the gang leader.

El Liones gives Lola a brief extension on her death sentence to make things right. You would think that Lola would buckle under pressure but Lola thrives. She faces a gauntlet of problems that pop up like whack-a-mole.

Her immature brother, continues to defy her leadership seeing her more as his substitute mother growing up. Her inability to administer the painful death gang justice demands for her brother, threatens her role in the Crenshaw Six. Her drug addicted mother is kidnapped.  Her boyfriend begins to whimper, uncertain of his place in her new world and loss of his stature in the community. Amid all that, she takes time to battle a drug addictive mother with a pedophile boyfriend for custody of her five year old girl.

What did I learn? Everyone has potty mouth. The life of a drug addict is no picnic. Gang members have a very short life span and have developed horrifying forms of torture.  It was a rough book to read. I have great respect for anyone able to find their way out of the line of gang warfare and illegal drug culture.

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VOX: a novel

vox populi, vox Dei
(the voice of the people is the voice of God)


In 2017, author, Christina Dalcher, an expert on theoretical linguistics, submitted, Wernicke 27X, a 750-word piece of flash fiction to a doomsday themed contest. The story introduced the concept of destroying people’s memory of language, hence the ability to communicate, by damaging the Wernicke’s Area of the brain through contact with a chemical in food, Wernicke 27X.

Expanding elements from Wernicke 27X, VOX asks the question:VOX graphic

“What if we, as a society, took a giant step backwards, relegating women to traditional roles as mothers, wives, and homemakers? . . . The [Pure Movement] idea was to go back to Biblical roles, to separate men and women. Females are expected to conform in four ways – piety, purity, submission and domesticity.” – Author, Christina Dalcher

VOX achieves this goal by placing the chief proponent of the “Pure Movement”, the Reverend Carl Corbin, in the White House alongside the President. Stage One: All females of any age must be silenced; a period of retraining necessary. The intent, to reset women’s roles in future generations.  Think Stepford wives without language.

Setting
Washington, DC in the near future.

Scenario
One morning dawned like every other over America. Mothers roused sleepy children to begin their ordinary day. Parents headed to work; the children to school. Unaware that in the blink of an eye, Big Brother would strike and the world as they knew it, stops for every female in the United States.

In an implausible scenario, women and young girls are rounded up and fitted with electronic bracelets that limit speech to 100 words per day. The penalty of exceeding 100 words? A painful charge that will lay the offender out flat, its severity increasing with every additional word.

Edicts are enforced. Women are no long allowed to work outside the home or have access to a formal education. These drastic restrictions include access to all printed materials – cookbooks to newspapers – as well as paper and pens, a potential method of communication, are verboten. All household documents, finance accounts, reading materials must but be locked up and available only to husbands and sons.

Behind the scenes in the schools, a redesigned school curriculum advances their real agenda – instill in the young the importance of dividing the roles of the sexes.

The Patrick and Jean McClellan family, in many ways, is atypical of the rest of America. Patrick works in the White House serving as science adviser to the President; an oxymoron in an administration that derides science. Jean is a scientist specializing in cognitive linguistics. They have four children; three boys and one daughter.

brain and languageThere had been rumblings and warnings that religious extremism was spreading like wildfire and women were losing ground rapidly. Dr. Jean McClellan was too busy with her medical research to worry. Known internationally for her work on Wernicke’s Aphasia, a traumatic collapse of a person’s ability to understand or express language, Jean is close to developing a serum that will repair the brain. And just like snapping your fingers, Jean McClellen learned she was no longer a working professional.

As time passes, Jean is struggling to understand what is happening and feels helpless. Her eldest son has become dismissive and surly, her daughter is severely traumatized, and her husband complicit with the new norms. As the effects of the movement advances through society, rebels attempt to break through but are “dispatched’.

All feels hopeless, until the President’s brother has an injury to his Wernicke’s Area of the brain. And just like that, Jean barters freedom for her daughter’s silence against helping restore the brother’s memory of language. She enlists the help of a close (really close, if you get my drift) male colleague and together they learn the true extent of Reverent Carl and the President’s insidious motives. Rating this book was a hard decision and in the end I gave in to my inner voice and gave it 4/5 stars. There were some parts of the story that just jarred against the reality of this scenario ever occurring. But before anyone dismisses VOX and its premise as a pipe-dream of a few radical religious extremists; Google the “Cult of Domesticity” an early 20th century movement in America. If you are a feminist and want to set your hair on fire, look into the True Woman Movement, part of a larger religious campaign active in the US today called Revive Our Hearts or click here to review their True Woman Manifesto.

I’m not saying religion is harmful or frightening! As Christina Dalcher says, “This is a call to [women] to pay attention NOT a call-to-arms.”

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OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

Come all ye young sailors and listen to me,
I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow,
We’re bound to the south’ard,  So steady she goes.
[old shanty song] ” Fish of the Sea”, verse 1

HISTORICAL BACKSTORY
Canada’s 500 year old cod-fishing industry ground to a halt in 1992 when decades of over-fishing of the Northern cod had reduced the species to dangerous levels. In an attempt to allow the cod stocks to rebuild, Canada placed a cod fishing moratorium along its east coast. Overnight, families living on the coastlines of Newfoundland faced unemployment and the end of generations of family fishing heritage. Most took part in a mass migration to the mainland provinces of Canada to support their families.

When the first fisherman settled Newfoundland, they brought a rich tradition of music with them.

“They sang shanties as they worked and shared ballads and tunes at the end of the day. Over time, the settlers and their descendants reworked the old music and created new songs to tell their own stories. Newfoundland music spoke of work, politics, humour, fear, hope, tragedy and the ebb and flow of day-to-day existence. . .” – (Newfoundland Heritage)

FICTION
Our Homesick Songs, set on the east coast of Newfoundland in a small fishing village of Big Running, features the Aiden and Martha Connors family. It’s 1993. A year ago, the last Northern cod was pulled from their bay. Their fishing boat, like that of their neighbors, sits idle at dock. The government sends welfare checks, but these people are proud and productive. One by one, families abandon their homes and head for the Canadian mainland for work in the oil and gas fields. They leave with a suitcase and their musical instruments leaving behind their identity, their music and their dreams.

As we meet the Connors family, Aiden and Martha are sharing a heartbreaking decision with their children, ten-year old, Finn, and fourteen-year old, Cora. It’s time to go where there is work. They aren’t ready to uproot their lives so they will share a job; one parent will leave for a month and one will stay with the children. Every thirty days, they will switch places.

As difficult as it is for the parents, the decision is harder on the children. Alone, the last family, Cora and Finn must use their imagination to fill their days. Finn, with sea water in his veins, dreams of ways to restore fishing to the village and Cora establishes her own world creating artwork in the abandoned houses that take her around the world. When all the houses have been turned into countries, she runs away from home with a plan.

“Finn, I want to show you something. [Inside the Ryan house] everything was bright yellow and pink and blue and green and red. . . There were pieces of green card cut into cactus shapes up the sides of the sofa and fireplace. . . It’s Mexico, said Cora!”

As we track that first year of the family split across Canada, the story shifts back and forth with the tide to the 1970’s. Back when the cod were plentiful and Aiden Connors spent long nights fishing on his boat singing shanties. Back when the orphaned Martha Murphy sat alone on the shore for years, after her sisters had gone to sleep, crafting fishing net and listening to the mermaid sing far out on the dark sea.

“Mermaids need to sing. Sad songs. homesick songs. And the only one that who could hear it was a lonely orphaned girl. But tying knots and listening to the mermaid sing made her feel better.” Until the day she discovers that the mermaid singing is Aidan and she marries him.

Sometimes, aged Mrs. Callaghan (my favorite character), Finn’s accordion teacher and the community’s matriarch, takes the story even further back with  song lyrics crafted by ancient mariners and fables of old Ireland.

The novel itself, moves very slowly, with gaps and pauses in the sometimes long dialogues. It’s as though the sea winds blow away any unnecessary words. During that first year apart, the lonely separation is hard on Aiden and Martha and they each stumble against their marriage vows.  Cora sets out to see the world with a secret plan to help the family. Finn, bless his little heart, is convinced that pulling the community together in song and music will bring back the fish and bring back the boats.

The ending is sweet if not long in coming.

Good reading on a rainy day.

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SOLD ON A MONDAY

2 children for sale sign

SOLD ON A MONDAY

by KRISTINA MCMORRIS

depression era childrengreen quote markSometimes we have to make sacrifices for the ones we love…

sold on a monday cover[The detective pulled a chair over to me in the hospital.] I heard, “Can you tell me how it all started?” The reporter in my head blended with the detective before me. I wasn’t entirely sure which of them had asked…
1930s cameraI nodded at him slowly, remembering as I replied.
“It started with a picture.”

Sold on a Monday, like many popular works of historical fiction set in the 1930’s Great Depression is based on an iconic photograph. My favorite being, Mary Coin by Marissa Silver based on Dorothy Lange’s photograph entitled, Migrant Mother. four children for saleSold on a Monday was inspired by a photograph (later questioned as authentic) of a mother and four children on a porch. A sign near them reads – 4 children for sale, inquire within.

sold on a monday graphic.pngAuthor, Kristina McMorris, nudged by the writer’s innate question…what if… has created a world where a dramatic photograph, taken for personal use by a newspaper reporter on his own time, is found drying in the darkroom by the editor’s secretary, Lily Palmer. The moving picture shows two children near a sign reading – “2 children for sale. Recognizing the work of Ellis Reed, Lily shows the photo to the editor.

1930s reporter.jpgThe editor, recognizing the dramatic impact the picture will have on newspaper readers, instructs Ellis to write a story about it. Sniffing a chance to advance himself, perhaps leading to his own column, Ellis obliges. Puffed up proud, Ellis is brought down quickly when he is told that the negative and photo have been damaged and he must replace it immediately. Returning to the house, he finds the sign leaning against the porch and the family gone. (We never learn what happened to the original family; something that nagged at me long after I finished the book.)

ARC NetGalleyIn that instant he panics. He spots 2 children playing nearby at another house. Grabbing the “children for sale” sign, and with their mother’s reluctant permission along with a handful of money, Ellis stages a new photo. Thus begins a spiral of disquiet that follows Ellis into his new career at a larger newspaper; a success launched by this story. As he rises in notoriety, he is constantly aware it is based on a lie. Lily, also observes, he has lost that special something that reaches the common man.

Lily Palmer, harboring a deep secret of her own, is reminded time and again of the deception when letters and gifts continually arrive at her newspaper for the exposed children. The gifts and letters are placed on the porch in the dead of night, the deliverers unable to face the family. The innocent children were never for sale.

After a time, and independently, Ellis and Lily seek to find out what consequences their individual actions have had on that misused family. They are both rocked to learn that the mother has been confined to a sanitarium and has died. The children were placed in an orphanage. The now infamous photograph led to the sale of the two children to a wealthy family.

Using his newspaper network, Ellis finds the family and scouts the new home. Peering through a window, he spots the young girl, Ruby, neatly dressed, and sitting near a smiling woman. He believes he hears a young a boy giggling in another room.

He tells Lily that all seems wonderful at first glance. But further efforts reveal that appearances don’t necessarily define reality. Ellis and Lily set out to right their consciences and dredge up darkness they never dreamed possible. Their lives and the lives of the children are in danger.

Sold on a Monday is a fabulous 1930’s era “Agatha Christie” mystery with some really sharp edges. The suspense moves slowly at first, careers sputter, personal relationships simmer, and all along we are aware that this is the Great Depression. Desperate times where desperation can lead a person to the “Dark Side.”  The novel does come to a spectacular moment that then settles down to a “happily-ever-after” finish.

Good read for a rainy day!

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ADRIFT

ADRIFT:
a true story of tragedy in the icy Atlantic – and the one who live to tell about it

Author Brian Murphy

Adrift coverOn January 16, 1856, the American ship, John Rutledge, left for New York from Liverpool, with 16 crew men and 120 migrant passengers packed into steerage. On February 19, the ship knocked against an iceberg, causing catastrophic damage.
As the ship foundered, passengers and crew raced to the lifeboats – not everyone reached the safety of the 5 lifeboats.

Those souls finding a place in a lifeboat found them ” the simplest of craft. [E]ach lifeboat was about twenty-five feet long and without any kind of cabin or nook for shelter.” There was no mast to hoist a sail, only oars. There were no provisions (only a handful of hard tack and a small container of water). There was no way to flag the boat to standout against the vastness of the sea. There was no way to communicate with the other lifeboats or to send a signal of their location to rescuers; these were the days before transatlantic communication, satellite phones or weather planes. 

ADRIFT graphicAs the five lifeboats pulled away from the stricken ship, the question in everyone’s mind had to be – Have I just delayed my death? Am I really better off than those doomed and unable to reach the lifeboats?

Feb 29, 1856, day nine after the loss of the Rutledge, one of the lifeboats was spotted in the rough icy waters. Seaman Thomas W. Nye, frozen and nearly incoherent, was pulled from the sea by the packet ship, Germania. He proved to be the sole survivor from the Rutledge. After a desperate search for the other four lifeboats from the Rutledge; none were ever found.

Here’s the rub that keeps the book a three star in my view. Well, actually the first part is a two star and Nye’s story is a four star so I decided on the middle ranking.

Thomas W. Nye’s story is remarkable. Interviews with him reveal a harrowing and horrifying nine days spent drifting in the dead of winter with twelve other people; one by one the others die from exposure and starvation. Most died painfully quick after ignoring Nye’s pleas to avoid drinking seawater. I’ll admit I never really understood what it was the seawater did to the body and how it killed in such a short period of time. It is heartbreaking.

The demise of the Rutledge and its passengers was but one of hundreds of big and small ships and nearly 1000 souls lost to rough seas and extreme ice flows during the three winter months of 1856.  The author’s research of that time in world history and coverage of that devastating winter of 1856 is admirable; and he felt the need to share every tidbit and trace. Intermingled with the horrors of Nye’s story are the history of maritime commerce, ship designs, history and ownership of specific vessels, biographies of sea captains and their families, and the mass migration from famine starved countries in the mid 1800’s.

The choice to research the “mundane” John Rutledge and its crew and passengers highlights the disparity of books that cover renowned disasters like the Hindenburg, Titanic  or the Lusitania. The Rutledge was a significant ship in international commercial trade at the time, but insignificant to the world-at-large when placed against the great passenger ships ferrying the rich and famous back and forth across the Atlantic. The foundering of several of these high-class ships was covered much more extensively and of much more interest to the general public than a small transport filled with destitute immigrants.

To his credit, the author, in selecting the Rutledge, shows the humanity of the average seaman and the steerage passengers; those now lost souls with ambitions and hopes every bit as important as the high society victims on the opulent passenger liners.

The interjection of lengthy footnotes and history lessons felt like the interruptions in the flow of a good suspense movie by commercials. I understand that Murphy needed to add perspective and background, but in my opinion, a little less coverage would have been sufficient. Perhaps, if the footnotes were placed in a separate addendum, the story would have flowed more smoothly.

ARC NetGalleyI will say this, I learned a lot. Judging from the wide range of reviews on this book, there is something for everyone to like and I would say if you are interested in sea disasters, you will find it an interesting read.

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I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER: a novel

I love a book that makes you sit up straight in your chair with a shocking start. What could be better than an opening paragraph with fifteen-year-old Julia Reyes staring into her dead sister’s face. Olga Reyes, the “good daughter”, distracted by her cell phone, had stepped off a bus into the path of a semi and died at the tender age of twenty-two.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Julia’s parents illegally entered the United States in 1993 fleeing a violent life in Mexico with hopes of a better life. They settled in Chicago and maintained the necessary low-profile. Their Latinx culture and extended family contacts tethered by a phone line back to Mexico. With the birth of her daughters, Amà, strives to do her duty to pass along her culture and family traditions to her girls. Olga proved pliant but Julie fights her hoof and nail.

“Perfect daughters” would be obedient, respect elders, and place needs of the family before needs of the self. They would marry a Latino, raise a family and eschew a life away from their parents and ethnic community. Olga was Amá’s pride and joy. But beneath Olga’s quiet nature lies a deep secret. Julia breaks into her dead sister’s sealed bedroom and discovers something strange. In time she learns her sister’s secret and she must decide whether to reveal it to her parents. What good would it do to destroy their lives?

“Here [Olga] was, a grown-ass woman, and all she did was go to work, sit at home with our parents, and take one class each semester at the local community college. What kind of life is that? Didn’t she want more? Didn’t she ever want to go out and grab the world by the balls?

Julia is the polar opposite of Olga. While Olga spent her days cleaning and cooking, Julia escapes (literally) the house to visit art museums and the library. She dreams of college and a career. Her descriptions of her favorite books and pieces of art work will drive you to Google to find out what she sees for yourself. (She identifies with Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin.)

She feels she is holding her breath until she can become  a writer and move to New York – or anywhere that wasn’t Chicago.  She and her mother had been at loggerheads forever but after Olga’s death, Amá was on Julia’s back like white on rice. Amá determined to control Julia’s future and Julia determined to be free from her suffocating mother.

When I tell her I need privacy… she tells me I’ve become too Americanized. ‘You kids here think you can do whatever you want.'”

It is hard to like Julia; she’s every parent’s nightmare. A teenage girl. She is foul-mouthed, abrasive, outspoken, and angry all the time. She lashes out and confronts everyone about everything. Her favorite “power word” is f***.  It is evident that the anger is a defense mechanism to mask her severe depression and anxiety disorder. The softer side of Julia reveals a deeply caring person desperate to be loved and feeling unloved. The book’s powerful discussion of depression and Julia’s suicidal attempt might be a trigger for those teens experiencing the same feelings. Julia’s therapy sessions should offer hope to those same troubled kids.

In and among the cornucopia of stressor topics that derail Julia are strong characters that see beneath her bluster and guide her toward adulthood and peace within herself and among her family. She learns she doesn’t need to cast off her culture to achieve her dreams.

“I have so many choices they’ve never had. And I feel like I can do so much with what I’ve been given. What a waste their journey would be if I just settled for a dull mediocre life.”

Recommended reading.

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STATION ELEVEN: a novel

 

The bitter tragedy
of human life
is that it is all too fragile,
our lives are written
not in the rock forever,
but upon the all too fragile
and transitory parchment
and of human flesh.

[Sermon after World Trade Center attack]

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic world that follows a pandemic of the Georgian Flu. Georgia, the Eurasian country, not the state. This latest assault on humanity arrived in North America on a plane from Russia.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, set in a burned-out shell of the United States, is a physically altered natural world, where the sun never shines and survival is cruel and heartless. This is the usual standard of dystopian fiction. A haunting story of a father desperate to retain his humanity and save his son.

Station Eleven, however, is a more sanitized apocalyptic story, picking up twenty years after the pandemic, and is set along what had been the Canadian and American borders. It is more a mystery than a descriptive survival story with cannibalistic humans and parched earth; it lightly touches on how they stay alive physically but concentrates more on the mental aspects of their new lives.

This now sparsely populated and undefined land, freed of political boundaries, is an unfettered world where nature reclaims everything man has tamed. The survivors of the nearly extinct human race, in a blink of an eye, must face the total loss of everyone and everything. The question becomes – now what?

“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?” 

This multifaceted and multi-voiced story takes highly evolved mankind with its technology and global reach and reduces him to nomadic life. Unlike our early ancestors, these newest nomads have evidence of a past history: rusted cars strung like beads on a broken necklace, crestfallen houses and darken light poles. The further the world travels into the future, the fewer people understand the old world and the old ways.

SYNOPSIS

In the last days of the old world, in a Toronto theater, a Shakespearean play is ongoing featuring the world famous actor, Arthur Leander, playing King Lear. Arthur, in what appears to the audience as a highly dramatic moment, collapses and dies of a heart attack on stage. Unknown to the theater crowd, death has been twining among their seats and in a matter of three weeks, most of them, as well as most of the world, will be dead.

Arthur had just received two copies of a comic book series, entitled “Station Eleven”, designed by his ex-wife, Miranda. Before stepping on stage, he gifted one set to a charming eight-year-old actress, Kirsten Raymonde.

Kirsten and her brother survive and join the millions of people on the run. She carries with her a few comfort items that include these comics. The struggles of the first year on their own mutes her past; the last thing she remembers clearly is the play, the comics, and Arthur.

Twenty years after the pandemic, most survivors have settled into small communities. Outliers remain nomads caravanning along crumbly roads, as predators, traders and in Kirsten’s case, a caravan of musicians and actors calling known as The Traveling Symphony.

Sometimes the Traveling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.

Kirsten, now 28, while scrounging for supplies and food in abandoned houses, obsessively searches for Arthur in old newspapers and magazines. When she finds a picture or a story, we are transported backward into his life. Arthur’s parallel story line merges seamlessly and is not a distraction. Other survivors who knew Arthur including his best friend, Clark and one of his three ex-wives, Elizabeth tie the two stories together. The stories come closer and closer together finally merging at the end of the book.

Where’s the mystery you might ask? It begins with The Traveling Symphony’s stop in the community of St. Deborah By The Water; a community much like Jonestown with a similar cult prophet. The Symphony had stopped there a couple of years earlier, prior to the prophet’s arrival, and a pregnant Symphony member and her husband stayed there to have the child. This newest Symphony stop was to retrieve them and to entertain the community with a Shakespearean play.

Things seemed a little off; their friends were not there. When they found three grave markers with their friend’s names on them, they bolted town, only to discover a teenage girl hiding in one of the caravan wagons. A teenage girl expected to be the prophet’s next wife.

How far will the prophet go to recover his “bride”? Rumor had it that their friends were still alive and heading for another community known as Museum of Civilization. What really happened to their friends? What is the fate of the cast members that disappear on the way to the new community? How does Arthur’s story fit into the picture?

This isn’t a book that will make your hair stand on end like a Stephen King novel. Nonetheless I found myself curious and entertained throughout. Somehow, despite the tragedy of the pandemic, the survivors have a beautiful world in which to begin again. The sun rises and falls. The earth stands ready to help man get back up on his feet.

Recommended reading. A nice read on a long road-trip.

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WARLIGHT : a novel


by Michael Ondaatje

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals… I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen…

The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war… [Our guardian was] “The Moth”, a name we invented. Ours was a  family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. [I was called “Stitch” and my sister, Rachel known as “Wren”].

It’s 1945. The WWII armistice has been reached but the war still rages behind the scenes. A piece of paper and a handshake doesn’t cut it for renegades bent on revenge.  Behind the screen labeled peace, a shadow war continues. Warlight is the coming-of-age story of two abandoned children, living in their family home, under the care of a “guardian” appointed by their mother. The guardian, she insists, is someone they met years earlier.

The narrator is Nathaniel, now an adult. Part 1 covers the time immediately after their parents left in 1945. Part 2 begins in 1959 and chronicles his career in British Intelligence where he is able to surreptitiously scour archives to search for his mother’s deepest secrets. His sister, Rachel, appears in both parts, more as a jack-in-the-box, popping up now and again to be a counterbalance to Nathaniel’s devil-may-care personality.

As I read along, I felt like I was in a Twilight Light Zone episode. The dialogue filtered just enough to obscure the depth of its meaning. Each encounter or observation creating a jigsaw puzzle piece the reader must gather to form the final picture.

Part 1 begins with Nathaniel and Rachel seeing their father off at the airport headed to Singapore for a year on a new job. Their mother, Rose, plans to join him soon. Sometime after Rose left, the children discover her carefully packed trunk hidden in the basement.  If Rose didn’t go to Singapore, where is she and what has been she doing?

The years pass with never a word from either parent. It has been a crazy time with strangers wandering in-and-out of their house at all hours. Who were these people? “The Moth” calls them colleagues, not friends. How does their mother know all these people? Or does she? How do they know this house? Nathaniel is always scavenging clues about his mother whereabouts from these people but never getting at the truth. Rachel grows more and more angry and elusive over the years, exuding an awareness of their mother’s secret but never confiding in Nathaniel or the reader.

ghostly men

Their “orphaned” lives are filled with intrigue and adventure. The two children wander the dark-side of London in the company of “The Moth” and another frequent visitor, “The Pimlico Darter”, named for his penchant for illegal greyhound racing. When Rachel drifts away, her place in the midnight runs up London’s canals is filled with Nathaniel’s girlfriend, “Agnes”.

pearl graphic

“Agnes”

Agnes and Nathaniel complement each other. They seek privacy in each other’s company in abandoned building. They believe their escapades are unobserved. Yet. There is always the feeling of being watched. Maybe that was what The Moth meant when he repeatedly told them to be aware… prepare for “schwer”, moments when things get difficult..  prepare for the unknown.  “It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

The Moth, himself, was unprepared for schwer when it arrived.

kidnappedThe Moth had parked in an alley alongside the theater when a man got into the front seat beside him, put a hand behind his head and swung it forward, banging it against the steering wheel then against the door [killing him]..someone else slid in next to Rachel and covered her face with a cloth…. [He] put the same cloth over my face…“The schwer, I’d have thought if I had been conscious.”

A hand touched me in the darkness to pull me awake. “Hello Stitch.”
I recognized my mother’s voice. [Heard her ask someone.] “How did they get so close to my children?”

Before they knew what happened to them, the children were whisked away from their current lives for their safety. They simply disappeared along with their mother. Rose took her children to her childhood home. It is obvious she cared for her children, but she never warmed to the role of “mother”. Rose Williams, known in the dark underworld as “Viola”, hung up her spurs, but not her vigilance. She knew that revenge has no time limits. She knew she faced a day of reckoning. And one day, it arrived.

Nathaniel, jumping his story to 1959, sits down in the secretive intelligence archives. He hopes to learn why his mother chose a life of peril and intrigue over her family.  He works each newly discovered puzzle piece into a jigsaw puzzle of Rose’s life. The final picture shows there are missing pieces that died with Rose; not enough is revealed to give Nathaniel the closure I think he deserved. Schwer.

If you enjoy a book with code names and buried secrets, this book is for you.

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OUR HOUSE : a novel

She must be mistaken, but it looks exactly as if someone is moving into her house.

The van is parked halfway down Trinity Avenue, its square mouth agape, a large piece of furniture sliding down the ribbed metal tongue.

Fi watches … as the object is carried through the gate and down the path.

My gate. My path.
Whose things are these?

No one expects to return home from a weekend trip to find themselves homeless, their spouse missing and all of their belongings gone. Fi knew that Bram had issues, but she never saw this one coming!

This clever and dark suspense will have you up all night reading!

Fiona (Fi) and Bram Lawson were separated after she found her husband shagging a neighbor in the kid’s new backyard playhouse. (His second transgression in their twelve-year marriage.) But the martial breakup was based on much more. It always is. Booze, lying, fits of anger, and speeding tickets in Bram’s case.

Anna and Bram reveal the story in alternating viewpoints. Anna, seeking to make sense of what happened, tells her story in a lengthy podcast on a site dedicated to victims; aptly named The Victim. Bram’s detailed story, written while in self-exile out-of-country, is a confessional Word document that begins with a simple bout of road rage that is compounded by one bad decision after another, speeding toward an ending you never saw coming.

The drama is revealed like a cat’s cradle, weaving in misdirection and building intrigue. British writer, John Ruskin, aptly wrote: the essence of lying is in deception, not in words.

Anna, at times, comes across a little too goody two-shoes naive. But there is no doubt that she is caught in a vortex of evil not of her doing. Bram, unable to curb his base instincts, finds himself trapped between a rock and a hard place, spiraling out-of-control.

Other characters latch on to Anna and Bram like leeches pushing them to the edge; some with souls dark as the devil. How do you define a friend? How do you know friend from foe? How far would friendship go if betrayed?

Somewhere in all this miasma, love lives, despite divorce, albeit now reduced to a level of caring and compassion one would have for an old pet. Humming just beneath the surface are age-old moral codes serving as a balance beam between right and wrong. Who will find a way to stay on the beam; and who will fall victim to the “dark side”?

How would you handle a world turned upside down? Internalize it like Bram; suffocating under the weight of deception? Or project it outward like Anna; broadcasting her pain in attempt to find her way out of the black hole where her life disappeared?

Look for the book in August, 2018.  A good read.

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ONE IN A MILLION BOY : a novel

 

Monica Wood
Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt | 2017
Review source : Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory… certain others … move in and make themselves at home…

Ona Vitkus, 104 years old. The One-In-A-Million Boy

The eleven-year-old boy scout, never named, is dropped at 104 year-old Ona Vitkus’ door by his scoutmaster for the purpose of “doing a good turn” for a couple of months. Other scouts have been here before; each sent packing on day one after failing to meet Miss Vitkus’ idea of what Sir Baden-Powell intended in his first boy-scout directive  – provide assistance to the elderly. Ona took a look at this boy and sensed he needed her as much as she needed him.

Saturday after Saturday, the boy arrived without fail, to fill the bird feeders, mow the lawn, and empty the trash. Something about the boy enchanted Ona; perhaps it was his sincerity, his enthusiasm and his precocious observation skills. The boy’s mind was a sponge for facts and compiling lists of everything; always in groups of 10. Unable to make friends and bullied in school, he found a friend in Ona.

On one of his visits, he asked Ona to help him with a homework assignment. He needed to gather information from an older person about their life. At first, Ona flinched. She had never discussed her past with anyone, including her husband, and 104 years has a lot of suppressed memories. But she soon agreed to be taped, of course, in 10 separate parts.

This is Miss Ona Vitkus. This is her life story on tape. By the time they reached the ninth Saturday, the pair had plotted a way to enter Miss Vitkus in the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest licensed driver, taped ten sessions of her life history, identified birds, and shared more in those nine weeks than words – they found they had become the most unlikely of friends. You will fall in love with these two as they look beyond age and see inside each other.

On the tenth week, the boy never showed up. And the week after. He had dropped dead, from an undetected heart problem, while riding his bicycle at 5 am, waiting for sunrise, and listening for the morning chorus.

The twelveth week, his father arrived to complete the boy’s contract with Ona; goaded to do so by his ex-wife for his failures as an absentee father. He didn’t explain his punctual boy’s absence to a puzzled Ona but it doesn’t take a wizard to know when someone is grieving.

When Ona calls him on his silence about the boy, Quinn Porter begins a journey to examine his relationship with his son and the loss of his marriages and two divorces to the boy’s mother, Belle. As the family heals, new love blooms, futures look bright for Quinn in his life as a professional musician, and Ona faces her past head-on with their help. The boy’s presence seems to live at Ona’s house; drawing all these imperfect people together as if his spirit is directing things.

The stories of the boy’s parents and their struggles to deal with the death of the boy is alternated with the boy’s visits to Ona prior to his death. The boy’s story is never told from his viewpoint but reflected in his interactions with others; the exception is the ending of the book. An ending that will have you love the boy even more.

Don’t think it is a sad story. There is sadness but there are so many more smiles than tears. The message I took away? You don’t have to be born into a family, to form one. You don’t have to accept that you can’t improve your life. And people are remembered by the tracks they leave in life. One of my top 10 books this year.

My absolute favorite sections of the book are Ona’s taping sessions with the boy; his voice depicted by an ellipsis. His absent voice as clear as if the text was there on the page. Reminiscence of the parents’ absent voices in the Peanuts cartoons.

If you want a real treat, listen to the book. Ona’s voice and mannerisms reminded me of Estelle Getty’s feisty character, Sophia “Ma” Petrillo, on Golden Girls.

Highly recommended.

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THE WOMAN IN WHITE : a novel

Sir Percival Glyde produced a parchment paper folded many times over lengthwise and placed it on the table. Unfolding only the last fold, he dipped a pen in ink and handed it to his wife. “Sign your name there,” he said, pointing to the place…
“What is it I am to sign?” she asked quietly.
“I have no time to explain… Besides, you wouldn’t understand.
“I ought surely to know what I am signing…”
“Nonsense. What have women to do with business? I am your husband and NOT obligated [to explain].

As a major fan of historical fiction, I decided to reach back in history and read a book actually written in the past; not a book reconstructed from research. Some time ago I was introduced to Wilkie Collins’ popular 1860 work, The Woman in White, and is it has been languishing on my to-be-read shelf. This week, I dusted it off and read it (while listening to the audio version, I might add. Really enjoyed the novel read in British accent.)

The Woman in White appeared first as a serial in forty parts in Charles Dickens’ newspaper, All The Year Round, in 1859-1860; a publication for the masses not just the elite. As the story originally was printed in those forty parts, it was necessary to create a crisis with enough suspense and tension to keep the masses anticipating the next part of the story. Woman in White, when published in book form in both the UK and US in 1860, locks all the forty segment endings into one work, appliqueing the increasing intrigue layer upon layer to the drama already established. It has never been out of print. Woman in White has been adapted for film and TV including a new 2018 BBC series.

After finishing the book, I believe that it could be been edited to reduce redundancy but overall worthy of its continued popularity. I did my best to summarize the plot below; it is an intricate story that doesn’t lend itself to summary very well. If you decide at this point in my lengthy review to move on, let me say – just read the book. Many women’s issues in 1859 are just as screwed up today.

My husband upon reading my review replied, “Good God. You actually read this book?” Don’t be turned off. Give it a chance.

Women’s Rights in 1850s Victorian England were very restrictive. Marriage essentially transferred all control from a woman’s father to her husband. Under the law, the husband controlled all property, earnings and economic decisions. Additionally, women themselves became the property of their husbands with no recourse if assaulted or mentally abused. It wasn’t a shock to readers in 1859 that Sir Percival needs Laura’s money and has every right to it.

The Woman in White was the key book in establishing what became known as ‘sensation fiction’: breathless and deviously plotted novels that [features] virtuous women menaced by dastardly cads, and the thirst for gruesome and spectacular crimes…  British Library, Author Roger Luckhurst

SETTINGS AND CHARACTERS

LIMMERIDGE HOUSE
Home to the wealthy reclusive invalid landowner, Frederick Fairlie, and his two nieces, the reluctantly betrothed fair maiden, Laurie Fairlie and her strong-willed norm breaking half-sister and best friend, Marian Halcombe.

BLACKWATER PARK
Home to the dastardly and cunning Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet, the man betrothed to gentle and naive Laura Fairlie.
Other residents include the humorless and obedient Countess Fosco (and Laura’s aunt) and her morbidly obese Italian husband, Count Fosco; a man with a conniving nature masked behind a bombastic and charming personality.

LONDON
Home to Walter Hartright, a young handsome art teacher, on contract at Limmeridge House to teach Laura Fairlie and Walter’s best friend, the effusive Italian Professor Pesco.

WOMAN IN WHITE
Anne Catherick, a mentally challenged is a victim of forced incarceration in a private metal asylum by her mother, Jane Catherick, and their overlord, Sir Percival Glyde. Her escape and discovery by Walter Hartright reveals her to be a doppleganger for Laura Fairlie. The search for the missing Anne Catherick is a pivotal plot thread.

Themes and Plot
Woman in White is the complicated story of Sir Percival Glyde and his conspiracy to settle his deep financial debts by marriage to the wealthy young Laura Fairlie; a marriage betrothal established between Sir Percival and Laura’s father before his death.

Shortly before her marriage, arrangements were to provide drawing lessons for Laura Fairlie. A young handsome London art master, Walter Hartright was contracted. During Hartright’s journey to Limmeridge House he stumbles upon an agitated and unchaperoned young lady, dressed all in white, seeking directions. Arriving at Limmeridge house he learns the woman in white is known to the household as Anne Catherick, the mentally challenged daughter of a former nurse to Laura’s now dead mother. Upon meeting, Laura, Hartright, notes to himself, that Anne Katherick is her doppelganger.

As expected, romance blooms between the art student and the art master. Laura’s older half-sister, Marian Halcomb, aware that Laura has no recourse but to marry Sir Percival, does her best to break up this budding romance by secretly arranging employment for Walter out of the country.

With Hartright out of the picture, the marriage takes place, and Laura becomes Lady Glyde. The newlyweds take up residence at Sir Percival’s estate, the dark and gloomy, Blackwater Park. At Laura’s insistence and to her invalid uncle and guardian, Franklin Farlie’s relief, Marian Halcomb moves into Blackwater Park as well. Lady Glyde is surprised to find her subdued and subservient aunt, Countess Fosco, and her flamboyant Italian husband, Count Fosco, friends of Sir Percival, also living at Blackwater Park.

In his own home, Sir Percival’s true nature reverts to his dastardly conniving self, a personality change anticipated by the girls. Laura had received a mysterious letter just before the wedding warning her that Sir Percival has a deep and dangerous secret that he would kill to protect. In time, it is discovered that the mystery author is the missing Anne Catherick.

Moving rapidly ahead with his plan, Sir Percival orders Laura to his library to sign a legal document. He has cleverly disguised the contents transferring all Laura’s inheritance to him. Laura, in a moment of obstinacy, refuses to sign it until she is told what the document contains. Sir Percival, in the presence of witnesses, informs her that as her husband he doesn’t have to tell her anything.

Percival, furious at his wife’s continuing refusal to sign over her inheritance and terrified of his debt holders ability to destroy his life, turns to his cunning friend, Count Fosco, to work toward an unsavory solution.

The plot thickens. Marian Halcomb’s constant influence over Laura becomes a thorn in the men’s side and Laura, cowed by circumstance, is reduced to a simpering shell.  The hunt is on for Anne Catherick by everyone; the ladies, to learn Sir Percival’s secret, and the men to keep Anne from sharing Percival’s dark secret.

As Percival begins to disintegrate, Count Fosco steps up his role in locating Anne Catherick  by tracking Anne and Marian’s every move. He is convinced she will find Laura and tell her the truth about Percival. When his theory proves true, Anne is discovered talking to Laura, he too, notes that Anne Catherick is Lady Laura’s doppelganger and there is a change in plans!

About this time, Walter Hartright reenters the picture having returned from his overseas assignment. Upon learning about Laura’s cruel marriage, steps up to protect Marian and Laura.

Count and Countess Fosco execute their cruel grand scheme by telling Laura she would be joining her sister, Marian, at Count Fosco’s home in London. Instead, Laura is drugged and taken to the mental asylum dressed as Anne Catherick. Meanwhile, Marian is still at Blackwater Park recovering from typhus; hidden in a secluded part of the estate.

A sickly Anne Catherick is taken to London dressed as Lady Glyde. A forgery passes along the inheritance to Percival but things begin to disintegrate when Anne suddenly dies. She is buried as Lady Laura Glyde back in Laura’s childhood home of Limmeridge House.

Marian, recovered, goes to the mental asylum to ask Anne what she knew about Laura’s death and is startled to recognize a drugged Laura. Marian is thwarted at every turn to restore Laura back to life but eventually is successful.

Meanwhile, Sir Percival, now in command of the inheritance, has bigger problems when proof of his dark secret is discovered by Walter Hartright. Percival rages throughout the countryside trying to destroy evidence; in the end he is struck down by karma.

Count Fosco, buoyed by successfully completing his mission to help Percival, sails off to ports unknown, where he too is struck down by unforeseen justice.

And as you expect, Walter, Laura and Marian live happily ever.

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THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

 

Jane enters the frame – but walking slowly, strangely.
Staggering. A dark patch of crimson has stained the top of her blouse;
even as I watch, it spreads to her stomach.
Her hands scrabble at her chest.

Something slender and silver has lodged there,

like a hilt. It is a hilt.

Anna Fox has been landlocked in her upscale Manhattan apartment by agoraphobia for nearly a year. The novel opens on a Sunday and covers a two-week period in her life.

You might think that it’s not a real hardship to be stuck in an opulent 5-story home, but sometimes the biggest prison is in our minds. Her social life is obviously constrained to visitors and online friendships. Her daily routine includes visits to Agora, a safety net website for others with agoraphobia. She uses her background as a child psychologist as a crutch to help herself as she helps others. Her online handle is appropriately, thedoctorisin. Nice background info about that issue.

Anna has very little contact with anyone in the neighborhood; most are unfamiliar with agoraphobia. She’s thought to be weird, strange, crazy and a drunk … you name it. She does have a physical therapist and a psychiatrist who treat her at home, and an obsessively private tenant renting the basement; but drop-in visitors? Not so much.

Anna is separated from her husband, Ed and their daughter, Olivia. She’s not completely out of their lives; she talks to them every day, usually in the evening – but not before she has fortified herself with several bottles of wine. While speaking to them recently and staring out the window, she observes a family moving into a vacant apartment across the street.

A short time after they moved in, Anna was surprised by visits, one by one, from all three members of the Russell family, the new neighbors in apartment 207. She notes, always in her inebriated mind, all is not right with these people! Ethan, the teenage son, seems depressed, Jane has a secret side, and Alistair is controlling.

One evening, properly stewed on booze and drugs, Anna sees Jane in the window slowly stagger backwards with what appears to be a knife in her chest. She falls out of sight as a dark patch of crimson has stained the top of her blouse. Frantically, Anna calls authorities to report a murder!

The police come to interview her. They have already responded once to an assumed problem at the Russell’s reported by Anna that turned out to be nothing. Furious that no one believes her, Anna begins a campaign to find the truth.

Here’s where the story bursts alive on more than one front…. her personal issues with her husband and the battle to prove Jane’s murder will have you holding your breath.

I hesitated to give the book 4 stars. At times the constant lengthy discussion of her addictions took away from the heart pounding part of the plot. Anna seemed to me to be a very weak character often coming across as whimpering. But in the end I did because there were times that I actually found myself nearly hyperventilating to keep up with the drama. Another plus was Anna’s obsession with classic silent films; you might want to view these yourselves.

Finally, the ending will throw you for a loop.

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LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES: a novel

LOVE AND
OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES

by JAMIE FORD

In 1909, Seattle hosted a world’s fair known as the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, The long forgotten extravaganza was featured in a 2009 DVD celebrating the fair’s 100 year anniversary. The narrator, Tom Skerritt, while discussing human oddities featured at the fair, mentioned that a one-month-old baby boy, named Ernest, was donated by the Washington Children’s Home Society, to be a prize at the world fair’s highly publicized raffle. The ticket was drawn, but no one claimed the baby.

Gobsmacked by a society willing to use an orphan as a contest prize, Jamie Ford draws the winning numbers and does what didn’t happen in reality – he hands over Ernest, as a 12 year-old, to the prize winning ticket holder.

The story unfolds in Seattle in 1962 as Ernest Young’s daughter, Juju, a reporter, discovers a family secret about her father while researching the history of the 1909 world’s fair, a past her father is very reluctant to share. Ernest begins to remember events and people he had submerged years ago. As his past comes flooding back, he realizes that sharing his secret would hurt his wife, Gracie, now sidelined with memory issues. Juju is relentless and the battle with her father to spill the beans is a backdrop to an extraordinary life filled with both pain and happiness in the most unusual of circumstances.

Ernest’s memories take us back and forth from 1962 to 1909; his earlier years described so vividly they feel in technicolor compared to the muted colors of his older years.

Ernest Young, known then as Yung Kun-ai’, was born in China around 1900. Yung Kun-ai’s father, a white missionary, was murdered and his mother, near death from starvation, offered her son a chance to live selling him to smugglers. As a bi-racial child of a white missionary and a Chinese mother, Yung Kun-ai had no future in China; no matter how unpleasant his future would be in America, he would be alive.

His journey to America was fraught with peril dodging death along the way. After a very rough start, a wealth patron, Mrs. Irvine, sponsors Ernest, sending him to an expensive boarding school where he is discriminated against by staff and students. Ernest remains silent about his treatment but tells Mrs. Irvine he is ready for a change. She obliges. She surprises him with tickets to the world’s fair to celebrate his twelfth birthday; traveling to the fair she tells him three things:

 . . .that he would finally be given a good home, . . he would see the President of the United States and that his legal name was now Ernest Young.

Mrs. Irvine, ignoring his pleas to stop and look at the exhibits, walks him to the area where highly popular daily raffles are held. She whispers to him, they are all here for you! They’ve all come to see you and find out who has the special ticket. . . As she steps away from him she says gleefully, someone is taking you home with them. Ernest then realizes – he is today’s prize.

Mrs. Irvine nearly dies of apoplexy when she discovers the winning ticket is held by Florence Nettleton, recognized in Seattle’s prosperous brothel trade, as Madame Flora. The winner never in doubt, as Flora rigged the raffle; she wanted a house boy.

As Miss Maisie May, Madame Flora’s little sister, welcomes him to the Tenderloin, Ernest stands in the doorway stunned; all his senses were on high alert. Whatever my life holds for me now, he thinks, it is not going to be like anything I have ever experienced. That felt like hope; an emotion foreign to him in the past. He asks himself, what goes on here?

The building’s entrance was magnificent, with a glittering voltaic chandelier, the foyer accented with finely polished mill work. . . Everywhere he looked there were tapestries, lace-covered walls, plush French furniture in crimson and gold . . . There was a black man in blue tuxedo playing a piano. He smelled perfume, flowers and savory spices roasting in some unseen kitchen.

Fast friends are made, first kisses shared, and a true family develops supporting everyone when the moral crusaders and powerful community leaders reveal their hypocrisies and lust. Tears are shed and tragedy strikes, but Flora’s family of misfits and outcasts endure together.

It would seem odd to describe a novel where teenage girls are auctioned off for their virginity or succumb to dangers of the trade as heart-warming but Jamie Ford pulls it off. Much like his previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, he scratches the surface and reveals their humanity and emotional needs. His descriptions of Seattle and its culture in the early 20th century- both good and bad – seem real and draw the reader into the novel.

You will not forget Ernest, Fahn, Maisie, and others.

Recommended reading.

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SILVER SPARROW: a novel

ALGONQUIN BOOKS | 2012
340 pages
FICTION : AFRICAN-AMERICAN | COMING-OF-AGE
REVIEW SOURCE: PERSONAL COPY

★★★☆☆

James Witherspoon is an “accidental” bigamist. He didn’t  plan on his mistress becoming pregnant. But she did. (As a matter of fact, he didn’t intend for his wife to become pregnant at age 14 either, but she did.) And now he does his best to provide time and money to both families; just not equally, and the disadvantaged family knows it.

His wife, Laverne, operates a hair salon in their home and the place becomes a daily hub of neighborhood gossip and commentary. But one thing that Laverne, and her daughter, Chaurisse, never discuss with their customers is James’ second family. They are oblivious to his duplicitous life and he wants to keep it that way at all cost.

James supports both families with his successful limousine company assisted by his life-long friend and business partner, Raleigh.  “Uncle” Raleigh slips in and out of both families suggesting normalcy but under the circumstances, nothing is normal. The only other person to know of James’ secret life is Willie Mae, Gwen’s best friend and a weekly visitor to Laverne’s beauty salon.

Gwen lives with the hope that James will leave Laverne, but while she waits, she resents his “real family” and makes darn sure that Dana doesn’t feel second best – but of course she does. With Willie Mae’s help, Gwen is able to follow the goings-on in the Witherspoon family to make sure that Dana never is short-shrifted in favor of the “first daughter”.

Over the ensuing years, Gwen becomes more and more bitter about sharing James and tires of hearing about Laverne. She and Dana begin to take devious side trips to spy on the “first family”. Dana wonders what it is like to have her father 24 hours a day. Why would a father have two families at the same time? Which family – which daughter  – does he love the most? She feels like a sparrow whose survival relies on sharing crumbs that fall from the nest of the favored.

Dana’s narrates the first part of the book and is the stronger voice.  The second half is narrated by Chaurisse. It is an interesting contrast in points of view. This bifurcated life works well for 17 years but the wheels start coming off the bus when Dana and Chaurisse accidentally meet at a science fair. Inspired by Gwen’s jealousy, Dana sets out to revenge her mother by befriending Chaurisse. Slowly over time, the two girls become real friends. Dana is careful to stage their contacts to avoid her father and not to arouse Chaurisse’s suspicions.

James Witherspoon’s life explodes the  same night Chaurisse’s car has a flat tire on the way to a party. Chaurisse does what any daughter would do – she calls her father to come help her.  The problem? Dana is riding shotgun. The gig is up.

The two worlds collide and the fallout warps each player as they find their place on the new chessboard. In the end, James and Laverne reconcile and plan a recommitment ceremony. Gwen never gets over the loss of James’ affection and remains a sour and bitter woman the rest of her life.

With her mother all but lost to her, Dana is left wondering if she has lost her father as well and confronts him:

Don’t you love me?

It’s not about loving people, he said. You have to go home now, I have made my choice, just like you made your choice when you went bothering Chaurisse. You almost took my whole life away from me.

What did you think was going to happen? Did he think that I could live my entire life tucked away a dirty photograph? I’m your daughter.

Everyone knows that now, James said. That’s what you wanted. You got it.

But don’t give up on either the young girls, they are stronger than you think. Wait until you meet their grandmother, Bunny. And the romp through 1980s Atlanta is a delight. In the end, you aren’t sure who should have been the grown-up in the story – James, Laverne, Raleigh, Gwen . . .

A good read.

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THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:

THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:
the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives,
but they are tangled over giant boulders with dead-fall everywhere
like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. . ..

[A]t dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves.
He shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools,
and sets out from camp.

Opening Paragraph : Stranger in the Woods.

 

Michael Finkel
Alfred A. Knopf | 2017
227 pages
Non-Fiction | Biography | Maine
Review Source : Personal Copy
★★★★☆

 

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight walked off his job (installing security alarm systems) for no apparent reason. With little preparation, he got in his new Subaru Brat and drove aimlessly south; away from his home state of Maine. When he never came home, his family matter-of-factly assumed he was off finding himself somewhere. In 27 years, they never contacted the authorities to report their son missing.

Much like Forrest Gump on his infamous walk to nowhere-in-particular, Christopher grew tired of aimlessly wandering and headed back to Maine. Reaching his hometown, Knight drove right past his parent’s house without stopping and kept on driving until the dirt road he chose ended. Tossing the keys on the dashboard, he walked into the woods and was not seen for 27 years. But his presence was felt. 

For 27 years, the circle of cabins surrounding North Pond endured strange burglaries. Mattresses disappeared; others lost clothing, food, batteries, radios, books, grills, propane tanks et all. . . For some homeowners, the home invasions were a mere inconvenience. For others, having been burglarized over 50 times, their vacation homes were a source of anxiety and insecurity.

Law enforcement authorities, for over 25 years, tried every trick in their arsenal to identify the burglar and failed. Finally, employing a highly technical bug devised by Homeland Security, Game Warden Terry Hughes hit pay-dirt. April 4, 2013, alerted by an alarm in the middle of the night from Pine Tree Camp, a day camp for the disabled, Christopher Knight was found “shopping” in the camp kitchen.

As his story unfolded during interrogation, authorities questioned the veracity of this bizarre man in the clunky old-fashioned glasses. They were to change their opinion as Knight led them through a tangled wilderness to his well camouflaged camp.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County
Sheriff’s deputies hike
into Christopher Knight’s camp site.

 

As he languished in prison awaiting his day in court, everyone in the “civilized” world wanted to know how he survived the harsh Maine winters, what he did to fill each day, and why he chose to isolate himself from humanity. But Christopher Knight was not a man to share his inner thoughts and actions. After receiving over 500 requests from journalists for an interview, he responded to only one. Something in Michael Finkel’s handwritten letter spoke to Knight. Asked why he thought Knight was willing to meet with him, Finkel replied:

I believe that Knight realized he might be endlessly hounded to tell his story, and that if he told it once, and allowed it to be made public, he might be able to have more privacy going forward.

And what a story he revealed, piece by reluctantly chewed piece. Never revealing more than the bare facts; keeping his inner thoughts to himself. Desperate to feed the curious just enough to release him to a life of seclusion once more; if not in the deep woods, at least in the privacy of his family.

Knight doesn’t consider himself a hermit. He hated the word. He still needed the instruments of civilization to sustain him and to achieve his perfect world void of germs, people, and the great cacophony of society in general. He was known as a child to be a “genius”, a voracious reader, honest and someone who preferred his own company. Probably the hardest part of his solitary life was the requirement to break his own moral code. He must steal to survive. He never tries to hide the fact that he was a thief.

I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt not to sully what they admire in me. Take the whole package, good and bad. Judge me on that. Don’t cherry pick.

To the arm-chair adventurers, Knight’s ability to survive 27 harsh Maine winters without once lighting a fire seemed mystical. To those more concerned about his felonious talents, he represented less a hero and more a mild Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski bringing distress to the local community and costing years of tax dollars in the effort to capture him.

When Christopher had shared all he was going to share with Finkel, he told him is was time to leave him alone. And he did.

At times, Finkel strays away from Knight to expound on reasons for solitary isolation. He questions why some human beings choose to exclude themselves from the “pack”. In our current technology oriented world of Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, there is an effort to avoid isolation and self-reflection. There’s a monstrous market in self-help books, each flaunting the idea that they can help find what’s missing in your life. It is no wonder that people are attracted to someone who wholeheartedly rejects their world.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight’s journey was to seek it. But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing. It’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”

I found myself, a person who treasures her quiet life on a small Georgia mountain, thinking, at what length would I go if I wanted to isolate myself from the rest of the world, never even hearing my own voice. My answer, not very far.

I need friends, smiles, conversation, a campfire and a hot bath.

You are going to either love the book or hate it. Either way, you should read it.

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TO THE WHITE SEA: a novel

 

★★★☆☆

 

MARCH 18, 1945
TOKYO, JAPAN

We are going to bring it to him, the Colonel said with satisfaction.
Fire. This is what you’ve got to look forward to.
This is what he’s got to look forward to.
Tokyo is going to remember us.

black quotation-mark.jpgWe were close to the bomb line… there was that tension you always feel…when the time comes close to drop. Major Sorbo circles us…and I could see two fires [below us]…where we had hit the city.

The next thing was not fire, though later I realized…had fire in it…The inside of the plane had exploded…Then the nose went down, and I knew we were completely gone; everyone on the flight deck was probably dead. The first thing [I felt] was the cold. There’d been a loud pop, a crack like a rifle, and I was sure I had been hit…the chute was open. [As I floated closer to the ground], the smoke came past me. [I landed and thought], I am now in the land of my enemy.     (Sergeant Muldrow, B-29 Tailgunner)

Like every good bibliophile, I cannot pass a stack of books at a garage sale without stopping. I was surprised and intrigued to find To The White Sea by James Dickey. I knew about Deliverance but I didn’t realize that he wrote other novels; he usually hung out in the library in the 20th Century American poetry section.

The book is a one-man show. Sergeant Muldrow’s story in the opening chapters felt a little stilted as we were given his “Naked and Afraid” background in specific detail. The man has survived on his wits and skills since early childhood with only his “Jeremiah Johnson” father for company in the harsh Brooks Range of Alaska. He operated under one theory – trust no one -ever. Expect the worst to happen any second and always be prepared.

High above Japan, the puffy clouds reminded Muldrow of arctic mountains in Alaska where everything is a sea of white. To survive in that environment requires camouflage; like the snowshoe rabbit, you must become invisible. As he escapes the burning plane and parachutes toward a fiery hell on the ground he faces certain death if captured, he has become the prey. Like the rabbit, he must adapt.

His first days on the ground were pure hell as he blended into the city’s fiery devastation; being a part of the exodus yet always aware of his status – the enemy. He takes account of the Army issued survival kit and finds a silk topo layout of Japan leading north to Hokkaido – cold, mountains, snow. He knows where he must go.

The middle chapters take Muldrow further and further away from Tokyo into the poverty stricken farmlands. As he gains confidence, he is transitioning into a solo predator. Like any beast of prey, he glides seamlessly through the countryside, always on the lookout, always prepared to kill to meet his immediate needs – clothing, food, shelter – always changing his outward appearance to match the locals. Never concerned, never giving a thought to the hapless souls lying dead in his wake.

To The White Sea is a dark story filled with graphic violence. As Muldrow enters isolated and wild land areas, he encounters kindred souls seeking solitude and a reclusive lifestyle. He spent time with them, learning new skills like sewing winter clothing from skins. But in the end, when their usefulness was exhausted, he dispassionately murdered them and moved on.

In the final pages, Muldrow, for the very first time, expresses the slightest bit of humanity and regret. He has made it to the white sea and made a friend of an old man. Together they live in a ramshackle shack hunting daily with the old man’s trained eagles. Life is good. . .until. The day he has expected all his life has arrived. The sounds outside confirm the hunt is over.

It was my time now. I laid my knife in the snow and stood up straight. They fired . . .and the whole ridge sparked and crackled. A bullet went through me but didn’t touch me. It was happening.. . .I made it to where I wanted to be. . . The snow came back .  . .and I will be everywhere in it from now on.

Was this suicide by soldier? Did he mean for death to find him under his own terms?

To The White Sea never garnered the support of Dickey’s first book, Deliverance. Overall, I found it impossible to connect to a man completely hollow of morality. His life is a devolution from civilized man to beast of prey; a dispassionate killer.

The intense descriptions of war and the depth of Muldrow’s inhumanity left me feeling ill. On the other hand, the beauty and silence of winter filled me with peace.

Read it if you are into the dark part of a man’s soul.

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MARY COIN: a novel

 

MARY COIN : a novel

Author: Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press | 2013
322 pages
Fiction|Great Depression|Migrant Farmers
Personal copy
Rated: ★★★★★

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In 1936, Dorothea Lange,  a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration, threaded her way through a crude “Pea-Pickers Camp” in Nipomo, California. She noted an unfortunate overnight freeze had destroyed the pea crop leaving hundreds of migrant families without work. The forlorn workers faced yet another bleak turn in their lives. Suddenly in the midst of this tragic scene, Lange spotted Frances Owens Thompson surrounded by her children and nursing her youngest child. Her series of six photos of the Thompson mother and her young family, that included the now world-famous image entitled, “Migrant Mother” was the capstone of her Depression Era work and did more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression.

Marisa Silver crafted Mary Coin based on this iconic photograph (shown on the book’s cover) useing many of the authentic facts of Frances Owens Thompson and Dorothea Lange’s lives. In this personalized piece of speculative fiction, Frances becomes Mary Coin and our photographer is known as Vera Dare. Our third main character, Walker Dodge, is a modern day inquisitive professor, who finds a copy of Migrant Mother tucked away secretively in his deceased father’s things. Silver tweaked the known facts and inserts Walker Dodge’s quest to discover his father’s secret in just the right way to create a triad of characters that slowly lead toward an answer.

We learn that no matter how powerful a photograph can be, it is nothing more than a split second of a person’s life freeze-framed for posterity. A single photograph does not reveal a person’s life; only a moment stolen from a full life.

By choosing to focus on each individual’s strengths and weakness amid the deplorable times. we see that, regardless of social status, filthy rich or dirt poor, everyone suffered and survived as best they could.

This is not a maudlin story; it is a tribute to the internal strengths we as humans possess. Mary would be the first to tell you that you just pick yourself up and move on when life slaps you down. Life is not fair and never will be. The past is gone and the future is ahead. A single moment, trapped on film, does not tell anything about a person who lives through the flood of seconds comprising one’s whole life.

Shortly before her death as an old woman. Mary enters a museum and sees herself in the famous photograph. Standing there, she hears someone say, “You can see it all in her face.”

What all? What do you see?

She was a ghost in the room. [Like all] the other ghosts in the photographs lining the walls. . .None of them had known that one day they would be hanging in this museum, a single moment of their lives frozen into an indelible past like an insult you can never take back.

Mary turned again to face the picture and saw her reflection in the glass… Two women named Mary Coin.

Highly recommended reading.

 

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WHITE HOUSES: a novel

On a recent trip to Germany, I took two books with me for the long flights to and fro: White Houses by Amy Bloom and Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Loved them both.

My reviews usually begin with a quote and I had one all picked out for White Houses, when serendipity intervened. While preparing my review of Silver Sparrow, I discovered a recent interview by the New York Times with Tayari Jones in which she was asked:

[What was the last book to make you cry?]

“White Houses,” by Amy Bloom. At the center of this great American novel is the great American love story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Eleanor is the name everyone knows, but after this book Lorena will be a name you will never forget. Love is always hard and always worth it.

That sums up the big picture nicely.

WHITE HOUSES

by AMY BLOOM

RANDOM HOUSE | FEB 2018
241 pages
FICTION : PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
ADVANCED READER COPY FROM NETGALLEY

★★★★☆

I am willing to bet that today’s young adults know very little about our longest serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt served 4 terms in office (1933-1945).

Eleanor’s funeral in 1962, when I was 14 years old, honored a woman who could be known as the original Super Woman”. As First Lady, she fought tirelessly for labor and civil rights reform and was at the forefront of the women’s movement. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she rose to the challenge of comforting the nation through action and words; never sitting still, always on the move, ever present where ever needed. Her flamboyant husband’s  larger than life personality was balanced by this engaged strong woman capable of challenging the world to seek its better angels.

In 1978, while commissioned to write a biography about Mrs. Roosevelt, Doris Faber (Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World and Life of Lorena Hickok, E. R.’s Friend) unearthed over 3000 letters written by Eleanor to her friend, Lorena Hickok. These letters, donated to the FDR library by Hickok, revealed a previously unknown and deeply intimate relationship between the two women. An unlikely bond; one born to abject poverty and the other to wealth and privilege. The surprising correspondence led to a deeper look at Lorena Hickok’s life story and to this surprising side to the First Lady.

Amy Bloom’s White Houses, is a fiction that turns, what was known about the FDR White House, in-side-out. The story is narrated by Lorena Hickok.

Using historical records and the Hickock letters, Bloom reveals the dichotomy of the official and the personal lives of the inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the Roosevelt years. With a wink and a nod, Franklin enjoyed close relationships with other women but no one gave a thought about two old women sharing time in each other’s company. Their lesbian relationship, housed in the most public of all homes, was fraught with danger of detection. Their discovery could disastrous in so many ways.

The book opens on April 27, 1945 in New York City. The radio blares, sharing news from the European war-front. It has been two weeks since President Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Lorena Hickok is expecting company; a friend that sent her away 8 years before and two weeks ago summoned her. Lorena wonders what to expect after the long absence? She has missed her friend and has longed for her company over the years. Has her friend missed her?

She flits about apprehensively checking every detail – the vases of flowers, the music, the food- will remind her guest of favored times together. The door bell rings and an ashen faced new widow and displaced First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt enters the room. Speechlessly she stumbles through the front door ignoring Lorena’s greetings and  heads toward the bedroom shedding hairpins and clothing as she goes. She calls out, “Oh, Hick. If you don’t hold me, I’ll die. Lorena thinks, here is the elephant in the room. Is she just being dramatic or does she really need me?

The atmosphere between the two women is different. Eleanor is not her usual self. Her grief hangs over her like a shroud. They will spend the next three days together, safe from prying eyes, safe to share their secret life. Over the next three days, Lorena does what she has always done: listen, encourage, and allow Eleanor to be free to let down her guard.

The setting stays in New York City, but almost without realizing it we travel seamlessly back and forth through time in Lorena’s memory. We cry with her when she is raped by her father. We marvel at her time in the circus (a fantasy addition to an otherwise accurate story). But without a doubt, the most endearing and yet heartbreaking memories are of her long-term relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

As a fly on the wall, we listen to the two women enjoy each other’s company. The first four years are passionate that slowly, over the years, becomes a slow burn that never dies.  As the glitter of Roosevelt life gilds Lorena’s life, she is always aware that she is a shadow in Eleanor’s life. When she is sent away, she tries to forge a new life, make new friends, but she never found her own identity and purpose; she never stopped obsessing over her one true love.

As this all sounds like doom and gloom, I can not end without assuring the reader that this book is full of life. Without a doubt, Lorena’s smartyalecky demeanor is refreshing staged against pomp and circumstance.

When Franklin was governor of New York, Lorena, then a prominent reporter, interviewed Eleanor.

I sat right next to her . . . in the old-fashioned drawing room. . .and looked at her cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes and thought, Who in the name of Christ dressed you.?

I loved the book. Recommended reading. Would make a great book club read.

Addendum:

Excerpt from 2016  New York Post article entitled: Eleanor Roosevelt’s “mistress” died heartbroken and alone

After Eleanor’s death in 1962, Hick lived for 5½ more years, worn down by blindness, arthritis and loneliness. She finally died of complications from diabetes at the age of 75.

With great ceremony, Eleanor was buried alongside Franklin at the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park estate in upstate New York; in addition to the ambassador to the United Nations and two former presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, President John Kennedy attended her funeral, where she was remembered as “the First Lady of the World.”

In her anonymity, Hick was cremated. Her ashes sat on a shelf of a funeral home for 20 years before being interred in an unmarked grave at a cemetery in Rhinebeck.

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ITZEY’S TAKING A SPRING BREAK

Enjoy the Spring Flowers

It’s that time of year when the spring flowers are poking their heads through the weeds and dead growth  I ignored all winter. Time to get outside and freshen up the yard.

Something about digging in the dirt and tidying up the yard helps tidy up my winter stalled mind as well.

I love the sound of rain on my tin roof but I don’t need to hear it every day. It has rained, and I don’t mean drizzled, all winter.  The leak on our back porch has blossomed from plop plop drops to a permanent spillway.

So it is time to put down my books for awhile, pick up my garden tools, badger my husband to deal with household repairs, and take a vacation.

I will return online in May and look forward to checking out what everyone else has been doing.  The cabin will have a pretty new pressure wash and fresh staining, the back porch with have a new roof, and my mind will be freshly fluffed and ready to read.

Here are some titles I have lined up to read when in the near future.

Brass, A Novel by Xhenet Aliu

Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of  Discovery by Scott Kelly

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Tumbling Sisters by  Juliette Fay

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FOLLOWING ATTICUS

A friend of mine who is not into mountains or nature or the simple blissful feeling that comes from wind in your face once asked me, ” What’s the big deal? You get to a mountaintop and you see the same view you did from the last mountaintop. I don’t get it.”

While I was looking out on . . . the forty-eight [mountains] we’d encountered. . . I had my answer. How many times can you look upon the face of God?    Tom Ryan, Following Atticus

FOLLOWING ATTICUS

FORTY-EIGHT HIGH PEAKS, ONE LITTLE DOG,
AND AN EXTRAORDINARY FRIENDSHIP

Much like a good country western song packs as many red-neck images as possible in the lyrics, Tom Ryan in Following Atticus reveals a full life packed with heart-wrenching drama complemented by the discovery of the healing nature of the natural world and the power of friendship.

This memoir of an out-of-shape newspaper reporter and his dog, Atticus, is a love story. A love story that opens as Tom Ryan, eleven-years into a one-man community newspaper operation, has grown weary of gathering gossip and political dander in his adopted small town. He struggles with a fractious relationship with his father and yearns to find a source of peace and harmony within himself to counterbalance all the stress in his life.

The story begins when Tom is asked to help find someone willing to adopt an elderly dog no longer wanted by its family. After failing to find anyone else, he reluctantly agrees to adopt the dog himself.

For days we stared at one another thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Although Max was with Tom for a short time, it was time enough for Tom and Max to bond; to share a friendship and to experience love. Tom was ready to take the leap into the next chapter of his life.

Maxwell Garrison Gillis had opened a door,
and Atticus Maxwell Finch was about to walk through it.

ATTICUS TILTED

Together, Atticus and Tom would take the world by storm. The tiny Miniature Schnauzer with an independent streak and the dispirited out-of-shape human became bonded by respect and an intuitive language known and understood only to them.atticus perched.png

A serendipitous opportunity to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire opened a new window in the lives of this oddly paired couple. Day after day, year after year, this unlikely duo forged ahead climbing unimaginably difficult summits in the most extreme winter weather. Their adventures are accurately and vividly described. I’ve been there.

MN and SS on washington[A friend asked me if the winter climbs were actually as arduous as depicted – I assured her they were. See me on Mount Washington with my husband, grasping the summit sign to avoid being blown over.]

Tom found he had deep personal reserves both mentally and physically. He learned he was capable of achieving the nearly impossible.  It never got physically easy for him. But he never quit. Plagued by life’s sorrows and unfair burdens, Tom found the strength to overcome emotional defeat while alone with his thoughts in the isolation. His lifelong fear of the dark traveled with him in the stark dark of night surrounded by things that go bump in the night. He survived these terrors because he wasn’t alone – he had Atticus for company and comfort.

For Atticus, his role changed in the mountains. In town, he played by civilization’s rules; he allowed Tom to be his guide. Surrounded by the natural world, Atticus took charge, roles reversed. Puffed-up proud, the “Little Giant” strode ever onward, stepping instinctively toward each summit, seemly oblivious to the possibility of failure. With one eye on Tom and the other on the way ahead he led Tom ever on and ever upward in more ways than one.

Off the mountain, the emotional rifts and causalities continue in Tom’s life.  Life is a line graph and not every point on the grid is an uptick. There are some seriously Debbie-downer moments; this is true life not fiction. You can’t write away reality. Have tissues nearby.

I was awed by the compassion and affection of strangers when life hands the “guys” a life-altering blow. I was gripped with a sense of Déjà vu over Tom’s dysfunctional childhood. And I share the need to become one with the universe; to be part of a bigger picture.

In conclusion, I  found this book fabulous for so many reasons. There’s something for everyone – small community dynamics, dealing with aging parents, child abuse, puppy farms, mountain climbing, geography, weather . . . et al.

Highly recommended.

Thank you, Tom and Atticus.

 

 

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THE CHALK MAN

CROWN PUBLISHING | 2018
288 pages
FICTION : PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE/COMING-OF-AGE
ARC FROM PUBLISHER AND NEGALLEY

★★★★☆

When you get old and start falling apart, there are changes in your reading habits. When you are young, you have the stamina to stay up all night and read a good book then go to work. I am now at the age where I don’t have to do that! Instead, I spend the lost hours sitting in a doctor’s waiting room reading.  I’ve been saving The Chalk Man for just this kind of moment; and I wasn’t disappointed in my decision when the opportunity showed itself this week.

PROLOGUE 

The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves. Her almond eyes stared up at the canopy of sycamore, beech and oak, but they didn’t see. . . A short distance away, a pale hand stretched out from its own small shroud of leaves, as if searching for help, or reassurance that it as not alone. . .

The Chalk Man will disappoint readers that are looking for a hair-raising blood curdling serial murder read.  The story reminded me more of  Stand By Me or Lord of the Flies. There are mysterious deaths that seem linked, and a myriad number of unexplained and aberrant events between the children, town bullies and adults with serious personality defects. Twists, squirms, and turns more than sordid and graphic murder scenes.

The story is told by Edward “Eddie Munster” as an adult in 2016 and flashes back and forth to 1986. Hence, the lives of the town’s residents and Eddie’s friends are slanted by his view and opinions. We learn more about Eddie simply because he shares more about himself than he does the others. Through him, we experience the hormonal throes of early adolescence and budding sexuality, observe his proclivity for shoplifting and collecting souvenirs and oddball items, and sense the anguish of a child/man slightly out of tune with world.

The relevance of the  title, Chalk Man begins with Mr. Halloran, an albino teacher who attends “Fat Gav’s” birthday party and gifts him with a box of chalk sticks. Learning that Mr. Halloran used chalk messages to secretly communicate with others, the children devise their own secret code – until one day – someone outside their group discovers their code.

I am reluctant to discuss the story in deeper detail; it will spoil the read. But I will toss in a few thoughts and prose that have stayed with me.

If you see something, say something. If you know something and keep it to yourself, you will be haunted by the outcome of your cowardice. Every action has a consequence; for good or for bad. No one is who they seem. No one is perfect. Everyone has character flaws. Life is not fair.

Eddie’s father, dying early of Alzheimer’s, left him with an important thought and I will share it with you. You will need to take this tidbit of wisdom with you into the read:

Never assume, my dad once told me. To assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

Recommended reading for those that like a murder mystery without stomach churning violence. There’s just enough tough stuff to wince but keep going.

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