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Review
3 Stars
Where Peacocks Cry by Maureen E. Wakefield
Where Peacocks Cry - Maureen E. Wakefield

To Jancey, seventeen and brought up in the isolated surroundings of the Fisherman's Rest, the storm which brought Dion Challen to the modest inn to seek shelter was a handmaiden of Fate, a messenger of Romance and a purveyor of dreams come true. So she eagerly accepted the marriage he offered, not realizing that Dion found in her less an ideal bride than the reincarnation of a beloved sister now dead.

~ from inside dust jacket

 

 

 

Jancey Grant is seventeen and working at her family's B & B, The Fisherman's Inn. One night, a violent storm drives Dion Challen and his cousin, Mark, to the door of The Fisherman's Inn, seeking shelter while on a road trip. While they hoped to be back on the road the next day, Mother Nature had other plans. With the roads blocked from the nearby river flooding, Dion and Mark hunker down and wait things out. It is during this waiting period that Dion and Jancey have a surprise whirlwind romance that leads up to Dion proposing marriage. Jancey, naive Jancey, assumes it couldn't anything but honest, passionate love that spurs Dion to do this, but the reader is let in on his creepier inspiration. It turns out Jancey strongly resembles Dion's deceased sister! 

 

Prior to the wedding, cousin Mark does try to dissuade the two from going through with it, as he knows Dion's motives are superficial and weird and Mark, though he doesn't know her all that well at this point, feels compelled to protect young Jancey. But his pleas fall on deaf ears all around and Jancey officially becomes the new mistress of Challen's End, the ancestral estate of Dion's family. 

 

While everything is bathed in a rosy newlywed glow for the first few weeks, it's not long before Dion's peccadilloes   -- lying, manipulating, drinking too much, "chasing skirts" -- start to rear up and make periodic appearances. At first, Jancey has all the excuses in the world to dismiss her husband's behavior but after awhile even she reaches her limit and turns to Mark (in friendship) for support. When they first met at the inn, Jancey, consumed with attraction to Dion, convinced herself that she mostly disliked Mark. After a year's time, she can't imagine what gave her that idea, as she realizes she actually feels more at ease around him than Dion! Jancey, now over a year wed, is floored at the realization that she swore undying love and fidelity to a man that had actually only managed to provide her with a few moments of peace and contentment! So where does she go from here? What does she do for the rest of her life in the pursuit of happiness?

 

I first discovered this book years ago at one of those Friends of the Library sales where you buy up discards for super cheap. Intrigued by the premise (and sold on the 10 cent price tag at the sale), I decided to give it a shot. I read it and for some reason, all these years I've had this memory of absolutely loving it so it's stayed on my shelves. Well, here recently I decided to pick it up again to see if it still held up in my mind and for the life of me I can't remember what about this story I was so in love with. 

 

Don't get me wrong. It's definitely not terrible, it's just SUPER safe. What I mean is that there is something here plot-wise that wants to scream REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier so badly ... and there's the slightest flavoring of that, but it just never quite gets there. Jancey is cringingly naive, and Dion ... bland as a rice cake, really, not sure what Jancey got so caught up in, other than maybe it was a result of being semi-isolated at the inn and little to no exposure to hot guys near her age means dang near anything starts to look promising after awhile? Mark is the obviously more attractive choice right from the get-go but for reasons not all that well illustrated, Jancey is just not feelin' him. 

 

It seemed like Wakefield tried to get a creepy vibe in with Dion making multiple references to Jancey's uncanny resemblance to his sister (maybe ol' Maureen had a little Poe on the brain, because for a minute there it seemed like she might go with a dash of House of Usher) ... but not much more is ever really done with that and the focus from then on stays on Dion being a weasel of a guy. The upside is Jancey does find her girl-power backbone in this whole process. 

 

That's why I say it's a cutesy, safe, almost-mystery. It was originally published in the 1970s and it definitely has the feel in the writing style. Fun for a re-visit but now ... nope, no longer on my keeper shelf. 

Review
3 Stars
Nickel & Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America - Barbara Ehrenreich

Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors. Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategies for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor, and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Ohhh, where to start with this one. It sure left me with mixed feelings on Ehrenreich's work here, since I live the life she "experiments" with ... and while some of her observations were thought-provoking, others were laughably off-base and, well... if I'm being honest... kinda offensive to us "regular workin' folk" class. 

 

The cringe factor starts on the very first page with Ehrenreich sharing how the idea for this book came about -- enjoying a "sumptuous $30 lunch" (no joke, that's where we start), she conversationally suggests the idea to her editor that someone (not necessarily her, but someone) should do "old fashioned journalism" (ie. getting out there in the trenches) on the very bottom of the working class... people trying to survive on minimum wage and / or welfare. When her editor proposes she herself take on such a project, at first she has a mountain of objections but then starts to like the idea of being in a scientist role again (she has a PhD in biology). Too bad she didn't take this whole thing more seriously because her idea had the potential to be quite the eye-opening expose! 

 

But how do we start Chapter 2 once she's agreed to take on this work? I quote, "Mostly out of laziness, I decide to start my low-wage life in the town nearest to where I actually live..." Not a great start, but I decided to hear her out. Ehrenreich lays out the plan: over the course of many months, she will travel to various towns across the U.S. and work undercover in a number of low-paying positions. These positions include a waitress job in Key West, FL; "nutritional aide" (aka dishwasher) at a nursing home, and a position on a home cleaning crew in Maine (where company policy, in the interest of time alloted for each job, emphasized the appearance of clean rather than the reality of it, with truly disinfected surfaces), the company a competitor of Merry Maids. She also tries out working at a Mennard's (she describes as a "Home Depot-like chain", if you don't have one in your area) in Minnesota. While working at this Mennard's, she's also hired on at a Walmart. In the final pages of this book, discussing this final job of the project (at Walmart), she relays how she found her inner Norma Rae. Here, Ehrenreich does offer some interesting work on the topic of "time theft" and the little footnote on the history of lawsuits with the company was jaw-dropping!

 

So I said I had mixed feelings.

 

Here's a rundown of what DID work for me:

 

* Having worked in retail myself for a number of years, I can commiserate with her stress over store layout changes and just the general, deep, full-body fatigue that comes with that work. 

 

* Having also worked in the hospitality industry, I got MAJOR nostalgia when she talks of housekeepers turning on the tvs while tearing through 19 turnovers (cleaning rooms). I so remember doing that!

 

* It was interesting to read that statistically, Minnesota seems to be kinder to the impoverished / those on welfare than many other states in the nation. 

 

* I also didn't realize that Walmart was the largest retailer in the WORLD and the largest private employer in the US! 

 

* Her thoughts during the Walmart job were especially thought-provoking, the experiences that should have us collectively saying "why are we doing this to ourselves?! why are we allowing others to suck our lives away like this?!"

 

What bugged me:

 

In short, the constant contradictions!

 

* In the last chapter of the book, she seems to knock the presence of modern day unions in the workforce -- "such fiends as these union organizers, such outright extortionists, are allowed to roam free in the land" --  yet in the first chapter of the book she throws out that her own husband is "an organizer for Teamsters".

 

* Outwardly, she seems strongly fixated on race but really doesn't go out of her way to actually get much perspective from any minority communities. And then admitting that she chose Maine as one of her locations for the projects because of "its whiteness." WHAAA?! And intentionally avoiding NYC and LA? Okay, just listen to this: "I ruled out places like NY and LA, for example, where the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird." For having a PhD and bringing up her intelligence as much as possible, I can't help but feel the point was missed on our author.

 

I, myself, am a college-educated white woman who speaks "unaccented English" (unless you count my slight Cali-Carolina tinge to my everyday speech) who has worked and lived in more than one ethnic neighborhood in my day. I have, at various times in my life, applied for these jobs that I guess, in her eyes, would make me look "desperate"... because I was! I had bills to pay and ego doesn't get you anywhere when you're looking down the barrel of near-homelessness. That's what it means to live every day in the class she is supposedly investigating. I feel like it would have brought a lot of staggering reality to the work to illustrate just how real the struggle is even in some of the most expensive cities in our country! One of her own statistics she rolls out proves my point: Across the nation, 67% of requests at food banks are from people with steady jobs (but just too-low income)!

 

* While some of what she discovers is interesting, I'm not sure why I understand the sky-high praise I've heard for this book over the years. Not only that, but it also reads a bit dated. I was a little confused at the sudden time warp when I read passages where she talks about getting off a shift, going home and crashing in front of episodes of Titus, 3rd Rock, or "the new sensation Survivor on CBS." Then I recalled that there was a line at the beginning of the book that mentions this project was first started in 1998, with the book itself being published in 2001. 

 

* I feel like she was a little dramatic regarding the laws about drug-testing for employment. Seems like her reasoning was reaching just a bit. Just go in the dang cup, it's not that big a deal. 

 

*She makes some fair points on democracy vs the sort of dictatorship environment of many workplaces, but this whole "I've never personally come across a slacker, thief or drug addict, so I argue their existence" idea near the end... can she really be that far under a rock? And I call BS that she's worked all these jobs and never met anyone that, at the very least, wasn't pulling their weight. So no, I can't agree that all these rules about "time theft", drug testing, etc are just "the man keepin' us down" and all that. 

 

For those interested in the exact breakdown of Ehrenreich's expenditures during this project, she has a whole closing chapter entitled "Evaluation" where she reveals just how much everything cost in each location. All in all, I closed this book with more than a little disappointment. She was on the road to something impressive a number of times but kept veering off back onto #FirstWorldProblems terrain of the privileged. Yes, she mentions coming from blue collar roots herself but I don't care what she writes here, there's plenty in her tone to tell me she gladly left that history in the dust once she achieved the cush life. This book's another for the list of had potential, had moments that momentarily delivered but largely missed the mark. It ends up feeling like she piggy-backed off the hardships of the lower classes to write a book and make more bank to make her already comfy life that much more plush. 

Review
3.5 Stars
Ask The Passengers by A.S. King
Ask the Passengers - A.S. King

Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them her most personal questions...like what it means that she's falling in love with a girl. As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can't share the truth with anyone except the people she imagines flying over her at thirty thousand feet, and they don't even know she's there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers' lives--and her own--for the better.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Teenager Astrid Jones is in quite an emotional pickle right at this moment in her life. The family had to be all uprooted and relocated to small town New England because Astrid's mother is struggling with some sort of intense depression that affects her ability to work in a traditional workplace setting -- social anxiety? depression? agorophobia? a specific trauma that broke her? To be honest, the mother's situation is not explained in very much depth so I'm not entirely sure, but it's definitely put a strain on the family as a whole.

 

Then there's stoner dad constantly getting baked when nobody's looking but then acting like that's totally not what he's doing... only Astrid's mother seems to accept the act. 

 

Astrid herself is struggling in the normal "who am I and what are all these emotions all of a sudden?" teenage sense but between these two parents who can she turn to? She's muddling through a period of confused sexuality as she navigates her first relationship with a female co-worker but a solid, non-judgmental support system seems to be quite the unicorn in small-town, gossip-y UNITY (seriously, that's the name of the town here, of all things! lol), Pennsylvania. 

 

As a way to cope and to channel her inner pain and confusion into something good, she develops a two part system. Her days are spent studying philosophy (even creating a sort of imaginary friend out of Socrates, naming him "Frank" and imagining him next to her during her toughest moments), then spends evenings laying in the backyard waiting for planes to fly over her house. Once she spots one, she sends loving thoughts or questions up to the passengers, not expecting a response of course... but every so often she swears she can feel something bounce back. It's then that the story cuts to a passenger on one of these flights. The perspective switches from Astrid's first person voice to that of the passenger and we see the thin filament of thought that links them to Astrid.

 

When joining these stories, King uses just the lightest touch of magical realism. Their stories, whether it's through their inner thoughts or conversations with others, hint at the possibility that maybe Astrid's kind thoughts and questions are, in fact, somehow subconsciously reaching them and affecting their lives in the most subtle of ways, influencing their personal narratives. 

 

It seems impossible these days to be a Booktuber and not hear the name A.S. King come up at least once in awhile and I feel like this one got especially hyped when it first came out. Finally trying out King's work for myself, I did end up enjoying this story but at the same time was a little underwhelmed. The plot itself had a slow start for me but it did pick up as I progressed, but the writing was a little on the bland side. Or maybe it was the plot that was not edgy enough but something about this book felt like there was an opportunity to really take these themes somewhere big but in the end we just stay in the safe zone. 

 

That said, I did enjoy the characters (I just wasn't gut-wrenchingly invested in them) and I applaud King for the themes that were addressed here -- the concept of turning pain into thoughts of love for others, the ridiculousness of homophobia and the damage it causes when people have to keep the truth of their soul locked up to feel safe in this world, the pain of experiencing friends who will throw you under the bus, as the saying goes, to keep their own secrets safe from seeing the light of day. I even liked how the interludes of the passenger stories illustrate the idea that we're all maybe just a little more connected to each other than we realize. All super important topics to incorporate into a novel, I just wish they would've been delved into even more. 

 

* For those who wish to use this book as a book club pick, a reading discussion guide is included in the back of the book. 

Review
4 Stars
The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
The Little Giant of Aberdeen County - Tiffany Baker

 The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the story of Truly - a girl grown massive due to a pituitary problem. Reviled and brought up in poverty, Truly finds her calling and a future that none expected.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

>> POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel discusses the themes of rape and assisted suicide.

 

Living in a small town in New England (begining in the 1950s), Truly Plaice has been treated like a freak show attraction all her life. Due to a faulty pituitary gland, Truly has spent her life battling gigantism.

 

"Well," Bob Morgan said, "you may be ugly as sin and heavy as an ox, but I guess your mama loved you truly." Wide-eyed, I suckled my fist and took in the doctor's words with a look of gravity, as if i knew that for the next three decades, it would be the only direct reference I would have to the word 'love'.

 

The townspeople continue to throw around the rumor that her size is what killed Truly's mother just moments after Truly's birth, never mind that it was medically confirmed that her mother had been fighting breast cancer prior to giving birth.

 

To make matters even more difficult on Truly, her sister, Serena Jane, is the epitome of physical perfection right from childhood -- perfect curls, stunning face, lovely manners -- and grows up to be the town's beloved beauty queen. After the death of their father, the sisters are split up and taken in by different families in town. While Serena Jane is set up in a cushy home in town with access to all the finer things of life, Truly is forced to scrimp and eek out a meager existence on the farm of failing horse rancher August Dyerson (Dyerson says of his horses, "They're winners in their own way, the math's just a little different, that's all"). All across town and in school, Serena Jane is fawned over while Truly's 1st day of school left her with the memory of her TEACHER calling her a giant in front of the class ... and the environment not really improving from then on. 

 

For Amelia, (Truly's mostly mute best friend), words were something to use sparingly. They were like bleach or vinegar. A tiny amount could clean up almost anything, but dump out more than that, and you could have one ungodly mess on your hands. 

 

Once Serena Jane is of age, she also becomes the object of desire for Robert Morgan IV, Truly's childhood bully but now grown and serving as the town doctor. He's not really all that much nicer to Truly but tolerates her as a way to get close to Serena Jane. By the time these three characters have reached adulthood, Truly has developed quite a thick skin against tormentors so she's relatively nonplussed by Robert's still somewhat salty nature. She's just trying to live her life the best she knows how.

 

I didn't know how to explain Robert Morgan's temper to Marcus. It wasn't the blustery, volatile kind that blew itself up like a thunderstorm, but more sinister and steady, the north wind trailing its ribbons of frost and ice. Once provoked, his rage might linger for days, chilling everything around him, dropping temperatures until it hurt to breathe. I'd seen him go after the patients who were late with payments, and he wasn't kidding. The north wind always meant business. 

 

 

After a few years, Serena Jane starts to feel stifled in her life and decides to bail on everything, just disappearing one day. She basically leaves it all on Truly to clean up the mess. But sisterly love drives Truly to drop everything and do just what her sister asks... a decision that causes Truly to unfairly end up in a similarly trapped existence to the one her sister fled from. Though it's not referenced directly, we even see evidence of Truly showing evidence of struggling with depression and binge eating disorder. 

 

One thing that helps though is Truly developing an interest in medicinal herbalogy after discovering the long lost work of Tabitha Dyerson (a witch that lived in town centuries before and an ancestor of Truly's adopted guardian, August Dyerson. Tabitha was married to the current Dr Morgan's ancestor, Robert Morgan I -- talk about a small town!). Truly's studies lead her to become a sort of secret witch doctor in town, a person people seek out in the dark when they have an issue they don't want Dr. Morgan knowing about. It also draws her into some morally questionable territory, dipping her metaphorical toe in the murky rights and wrongs of performing assisted suicides. Her work with these plants will challenge friendships and dangerously tread the line between legal & just ... and not. 

 

For the most part, Truly's heart is in the right place, I'd say. Though the incident with the neighbor's cat had me ready to give up on her... but I hung in there to see where this all went. But the cat though... why, Truly? 

 

I ended up giving this novel a higher rating simply for entertainment value. I never found myself bored with the story, and for me that's a rare feat in reading these days. As far as the actual writing though... I really do enjoy Baker's style but structurally the plot had some serious potholes throughout that bothered me. Such as:

 

* I'm not sure what to think about the relationship between Marcus and Truly... sometimes it was sweet, sometimes it felt underdeveloped, other times I was asking why it was even there?! And Marcus going to Vietnam and filling his letters home with words like "The fellows here" and talking about his "torch" (flashlight)... but these characters were from NEW England, not the Queen's England.. so why was he writing in the style of a WW1 British soldier?

 

* While incorporating the story of the witch Tabitha and Truly taking up Tabitha's medicinal work, I don't feel like this element of the plot was explored enough. It's hardly mentioned at all until the last 100 pages or so of the novel. 

 

* What is the real story with Bobbie? Is he gay? Trans? Pre trans? Gender fluid? What is his story? Again, not all that well developed and feels (to me) like it was mostly just roughly stuck in there to pander to LGBTQ+ market ... if you're gonna have it in there, do it right, otherwise it's more of a disservice than anything! 

 

* There are moments that annoyed me where Truly was describing things done or said by other characters that she wouldn't have been actually present for, she's spouting off these thoughts or dialogue as fact when in reality Truly would be across town / down the street / etc. from where it was occurring, so she wouldn't be privy to the knowledge she was presenting the reader. 

 

Faults aside, I found this to be a truly (ha! see what I did there :-P) fun story with some really cool plot elements and the potential to be even more than what we actually got here. As I said though, I did really enjoy Baker's writing style and would be interested to check out her future offerings. 

Review
3 Stars
Split by Swati Avasthi
Split - Swati Avasthi

Sixteen-Year-Old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father’s fist), $3.84, and a secret. He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind—his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.

At least so far.

Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. Award-winning novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split—how do you begin to live again?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

>> TRIGGER WARNING: This book describes graphic scenes of domestic violence.

 

 

After taking years of physical and emotional abuse from his father, teenager Jace decides to drive from Chicago, IL to Albuquerque, NM to meet up with his estranged older brother, Christian, whom he hasn't seen in years. Jace had hoped his mother would come along, but she urges him to go on ahead, simply pressing a paper with Christian's address into Jace's palm and promising to meet up with him in New Mexico for the Thanksgiving holiday.... the thing is, Christian doesn't know Jace is on his way. Jace arrives at Christian's door with a busted face (courtesy of their father), less than $5 to his name and no idea what to say. Christian takes Jace in, figuring questions would get worked out as they went along, and the bulk of the story from there focuses on Jace pretty much rebuilding his life in New Mexico -- starting school again, getting a job, and waiting to see if his mother will actually find the courage to finally leave her abusive husband. 

 

WHEW, this one gets into some tough topics! I found myself tearing up multiple times! Jace's experience with reuniting with Christian after so many years illustrates the challenges of being the younger child with a much older sibling, something I know quite well with my own older sibling. Jace points out to Christian: "Friends get years, but I get 20 minutes."

 

Another bit I related to was Jace's struggle was coming to terms with the reality that you physically resemble someone you come to strongly dislike ( as in, you physically resembling the parent you constantly butt heads with or the one with questionable life choices / moral compass). Along those lines, this story also points out the reality that abuse can go down in ANY kind of home. For example, Jace's father is a respected judge within the community but at home he's beating the stuffing out of his wife & kids.

 

Similarly, Jace has his own experience with losing his temper with a girlfriend. This part of the story was a tough spot for me. Up til this portion of Jace's story, I was liking the kid. But I have insanely low.... non-existent, really... tolerance for a guy smacking around a woman for any reason.. the exception being if SHE is physically threatening the guy's life, then by all means he has the right to defend himself as a human. But in Jace's case, it was just a flare up of jealousy and his actions end up scaring the bejeebus out of his girlfriend. While my opinion of him certainly dropped in that moment, he does show redemptive behavior later on in the story. I was really impressed when he comes forward and tells the girl that he's so disappointed in himself he WANTS her to press charges against him, he deserves it. Can you imagine the world if the assaulters across the world suddenly, collectively manned-up like that?! Cue Louis Armstrong! 

 

Jace's experiences teach him to develop what he calls "Fightology" -- lessons to tell himself to get through the worst times. For example, Fightology #8: If you relax your body when a hit is coming, it will hurt less (what's weird is that something about that almost seems logical AND counter-intuitive at the same time) or Fightology #9: Sometimes even the rules won't protect you. It gives the story an extra layer of sadness that he's had to develop such rules to survive his life but over time he finds ways to step away from the hardness and embrace the zen, changing his system to "Calmology": #1 Run every day. #2 Speak up if you have something to say #3 Fix what you can, accept what you can't (a nod to Serenity Prayer), etc. 

 

Like I said, it's a tough story to stomach. Definitely wouldn't recommend it for readers younger than the "older teen" crowd. That said, it brings important truths to light, not only about surviving abuse, but also regarding difficult nuances within sibling and parental relationships.

____________

 

EXTRAS:

 

>>  In her acknowledgements section, author Swati Avasthi mentions that this novel (less than 300 pages) took her three years to write. 

Review
3.5 Stars
The Fall by James Preller
The Fall - James Preller

The summer before school starts, Sam's friend and classmate Morgan Mallen kills herself. Morgan had been bullied. Maybe she kissed the wrong boy. Or said the wrong thing. What about that selfie that made the rounds? Morgan was this, and Morgan was that. But who really knows what happened? As Sam explores the events leading up to the tragedy in journal format, he must face a difficult and life-changing question: Why did he keep his friendship with Morgan a secret? And could he have done something-anything-to prevent her final actions? From James Preller, the author of Bystander, another unflinching book about bullying and its fallout.

Amazon.com

 

 

* Read for the 2017 Anti-Bully Readathon week: November 13th-19th

 

>> TRIGGER WARNING: Topic of suicide addressed in this story. One character commits suicide while others contemplate going through with it.

 

Morgan Mallen is something of a social pariah in her high school. Athena Luikin, your stereotypical popular HS girl (perfect body, lips, face, flawless skin... and, no surprise, blonde), has a secret game with her clique. Every so often, without warning, someone within the clique gets a laminated "tag" card slipped into their locker. If you get the card you know it's your turn to go online and anonymously post mean, troll-ish comments on Morgan's social media. There's an understanding within the group that either you do it or risk being the group's next target.

 

 

One member within the group is Sam Proctor. While he agrees to play the game and post comments, his turn up at bat happens to come at right about the same time as life puts him and Morgan together in real life in a situation that forces them to truly get to know one another. And whaddya know, Sam discovers he kinda likes the girl! Awkwardly, Sam tries to play both sides of the HS social scene, still participating in online bullying with his friends, while also having conversations with Morgan about how despicable internet trolls are. 

 

Members within the clique get competitive about how creative they can get with their online insults. To them, it's just a game of one-upmanship. That is, until the day Morgan decides to throw herself off the town's water tower. Having just barely developed a friendship with Morgan, Sam is understandably shaken. A social worker contracted with the high school suggests to Sam to journal his thoughts and emotions through the grieving process, which is the format (journal style, that is) that the entire novel is presented to the reader.

 

 

Don't get the idea this journal will be some kind of complete document where you learn "her story" or even "my story". There are holes in this leaky ship. We could all drown together. 

 

 

Written sometimes in standard diary entries, sometimes in verse form, Sam shares some pretty honest, revealing observations about not only getting to know Morgan but also the topic of bullying and poser behavior in high school in general. When he thinks back on the first few times he saw Morgan, his initial memory was that she wasn't super pretty and maybe even a little on the heavy side, but the more he remembers the more he realizes his eyes were always drawn to her, how he was always intrigued by her in various ways... and what a waste it was that he wasn't a better friend to someone so special. When he compares a girl like Morgan to the likes of popular girl Athena, he comes away with the realization, "maybe everyone gives 'pretty' too much credit."

 

 

...And that was it. The last time we talked. It's amazing how little we ever said, as if we didn't know the same language. She was a bird up in a tree, singing a mournful song. And I was just a dog, barking at the clouds. 

 

Sam also notes how sickened he is by what he sees as fake grief going around the school. Crowds of people who either never gave Morgan the time of day or made her life hell with bullying, yet now that she's gone everyone is falling all over each other in puddles of tears like a family member just got murdered. I also enjoyed the chapter "Slogans on Shirts" which shines a spotlight on the hypocrisy that can sometimes be found behind these school campaigns -- the very people that cheer the loudest at anti-bullying campaigns / rallies can sometimes be the same people who are the worst problems!

 

Not only is Preller's writing style itself incredibly engaging, but he addresses this theme in an honest, unvarnished way. No after-school high gloss on this story, but also not unnecessarily vulgar. He manages to do it just right. The students all had an appreciable realness to them and Sam asks himself plenty of the right questions for emotional growth. 

 

I'm all for checking out more of Preller's work in the future!

 

 

 

 

* Book includes supplemental materials at the back of the book which include author interview, a list of discussion questions, and prompts for writing exercises. 

Review
3.5 Stars
Lummox by Fannie Hurst
Lummox - Fannie Hurst

Tells the story of Bertha, a young immigrant woman who cleans the homes of the rich, and is largely ignored by them, except for a young poet who considers her a muse. Lummox, Fannie Hurst's second novel, was written from the perspective of one of society's throwaways — a hardscrabble servant named Bertha, whose labor keeps her employers well-housed and well-fed although she earns only condescension, humiliation, sexual assault, and a bare-bones wage.

Goodreads.com

 

 

This novel introduces readers to Bertha, a domestic servant working for wealthy New York families right around the turn of the 20th century. Bertha is a large woman, 5'10 and stocky in build, plain in the looks department. Hefty "washerwoman" type. Her no-frills, blue-collar look and quiet nature lead many of her employers over the years to deem her a "lummox", a term once used to describe someone who seems stupid, dim-witted. One family matriarch who employs Bertha describes her as "a great serene peasant girl with that slow kind of strength that makes an invaluable servant".

 

 

Her ethnicity is questioned by many -- is she Slavic? Scandanavian? Dutch? Polish? No one around to clear up the matter. Orphaned at a young age, Bertha is raised by Annie, crass, sour-natured landlady of an NYC lodging house for sailors and the only person to witness Bertha's birth.

 

Hurst's novel follows Bertha over the course of her life as she finds work cooking for several upper-class families around the Manhattan area of NYC, the first being the Farleys. During this first job, Bertha develops a bit of a crush on her employer's 25 year old poet son, Rollo Farley. Close to him in age, Bertha is taken with Rollo's creative spirit, the air of mystery and seriousness he carries around him. Rollo is also quite fond of alcohol as well though, and one night, after strongly imbibing, takes certain liberties with kind-hearted, naive Bertha. A situation develops that forces Bertha to leave her position with the Farleys, but not before she discovers that her experience with Rollo might have been inspiration for the epic poem he writes that later proves to be his literary legacy. 

 

We follow Bertha over the years as she moves from one elite household to another, repeatedly being dismissed for various reasons, each time finding she has to return to the home of Annie for a bit while waiting for the next job to turn up. Annie always grudgingly takes her in but not without a bit of nagging and slut-shaming. Eventually Bertha attempts to hold down her own place with a roommate but again, Bertha's innocent nature leads her into dangerous territory, unknowingly putting her in the path of a woman-batterer. NOTE: For those who are triggered by scenes of violence, be warned there are some difficult scenes in this novel in which Bertha has hands slammed in windows, her face burned with a fire iron, and a man who emotionally tortures her, standing over her while she sleeps waiting for her to wake up just so he can terrify her for laughs. 

 

Bertha's story of being worked hard and taken advantage of is the quiet, insidious kind. The abuse is not always blatantly evident, but as the story progresses, the reader begins to see evidence of the trauma in Bertha's day to day health and actions. It's heartbreaking to see her, this woman full of kind intent and honest work ethic be treated like such a doormat. Her employers (or just the people around her in general) either don't feel the need to take her feelings / personal needs into consideration OR they tease her for having a bit of a dreamer spirit. She was just their simple worker bee. In moments of solitary, silent reflection Bertha reveals to the reader that she is not so simple as people assume, that she actually feels quite deeply but is sometimes consumed with this sense of being trapped, consumed by feelings of uncertainty in herself, her talents, or how to better her overall life conditions. Just surviving day to day seems to overrule any aspirational flights of fancy. 

 

The mystery of the will to live. Not a morning but what Bertha knew the terrible reluctance of awakening to reality. She came up out of sleep with a struggle, fighting off another day; turning her back to it and lying there sick with its imminence as the muslin portieres began to lighten. To come out of sleep so enamored of it that to feel the lids lift back from the eyes was torture. To die a little every night and yet fear the beauty of death more than the starkness of life. Sometimes when Bertha came out of sleep, fighting and sobbing against the awakening and grimacing face of Willy hung over her terrible with reality, the impulse to throttle herself back to sleep seemed too strong to withstand. And yet that wink of dawn against the muslin. The tiny vibratory messages of life that were waiting to run across the floor when her bare feet would swing down to it. Ah, that will to live.

 

Hard as female readers will likely find it to read of this woman being walked all over for simply living an honest life, there is something to admire in Bertha. Maybe her sheer tenacity and devotion to helping where she can, as best she can. Impressively, author Fannie Hurst leaves the reader pondering who the story's  true "lummox" is after all!

 

A couple things about the format of the book that I found worth mentioning: 1) there are no standard designated chapter breaks, only a little galleon-looking ship icon to divide scene changes. 2) There are a few points in the story where the POV oddly turns from third person to second person whenever the reader is let in on Bertha's inner dialogue. Not sure why Hurst did this, I personally found it jarring and unnecessary but thought I would note it as a heads up for future readers. 

 

---------------

 

EXTRAS:

 

>> Though Fannie Hurst's works have largely fallen into obscurity now, in the 1920s she was considered one of the highest paid authors in the nation! In interviews she sometimes revealed that Lummox was her personal favorite of her 17 novels. 

 

author Fannie Hurst

 

 

>> In 1930, Lummox got the Hollywood treatment with a screen adaptation that required leading lady Winifred Westover to pack on weights to simulate Bertha's stocky look -- in addition to having 35 lbs of weight just in costume add-ons, she also put on 40 lbs of body fat to complete the look for the role! 

 

 

Review
4 Stars
Call Me Hope by Gretchen Olson
Call Me Hope - Gretchen Olson

Hope Elliot is struggling to live under the pressures of her verbally abusive mother. But instead of running away, precocious Hope chooses resilience instead, and creates survival strategies for herself. Her strategies include: a support team that includes the employees of a used clothing store, the smartest kid in the sixth grade, her older brother; and a point system to help deal with her mom. Will Hope find a way to confront her mother and help things change for the better?

Amazon.com

 

 

* Read for the 2017 Anti-Bully Readathon week: November 13th-19th

 

 

As of late, Eleven year old Hope Elliot has seriously been feeling the strain of living with a verbally abusive mother. Just for example, we learn that Hope's middle name is Marie, named after "a famous opera singer" (I'm assuming Maria Callas?) but her mother says it was a silly choice since Hope is actually pretty "hopeless" and can't carry a tune in a bucket. Oh, and Mommy Dearest here also spits out that Hope's father left them because Hope cried too much as a baby. Seriously. Hope also shares that her mother treats her as if she were a constant inconvenience, "like a 7-Eleven that closed at ten." This is on the more mild side of what Hope endures. Hope has her own theory that much of her mother's venomous talk is mostly just bitterness at never achieving her dreams to become a famous actress. 

 

Hope starts developing physical pain from the stress of her home life, mainly in the form of severe headaches and jaw discomfort. A visit to the dentist reveals that her teeth show hardcore evidence of nighttime teeth grinding. Keep in mind, this girl is ONLY 11! When the dentist talks with Hope's mother and says it's often a result of stress, mom's response is basically That's ridiculous, stress isn't even a thing for someone her age. Well, this reader begs to differ! 

 

To combat her mother's daily barrage of insults and put-downs, Hope initially finds comfort in numbers -- literally! She especially likes even ones. She shares with the reader that 6 is her favorite number of all, the way it spirals around for awhile and then spins out. Hope takes this as something to aspire to in life: you may spin around for awhile but hang in there and hopefully life will spit you out in a direction towards something wonderful! 

 

Additionally, Hope goes on to find inspiration for healing from an unexpected source: a unit her class is doing on the Holocaust. After viewing the movie Life Is Beautiful in class, Hope gets the idea to create a point system where she awards herself points for every pain she endures without complaint. Tragic that a child has to bring herself to this but it does get her through her days! (BTW, if you haven't seen the film, just a heads up there are spoilers for that movie in this book). In addition to that, Hope also finds comfort and commonality in reading The Diary of Anne Frank

 

Outside of school, our protagonist finds strong female figures in Anita and Ruthie, the owners of Next To New, the local consignment shop where Hope is working part-time in order to buy some boots on display there that she feels she needs for an upcoming outdoor school experience. Hope is also given a lesson in "I Statements" (when someone hurts you, you are supposed to address it by saying 'When you do ______, it makes me feel ____" or "I am ____ when you say ___"... that kind of thing).

 

I looked at everyone and suddenly felt confidence in my words. "I've tried to be good," I began again, wiping my eyes on the back of my hand, "but nothing I do ever works. I can't say the right things or do the right things. I live in my bedroom trying to stay out of your way, Mom. I sneak around, trying not to disturb you. I don't ask for anything or go anywhere. But maybe that's not enough. Maybe you want me out of here for good. Maybe I should go away."

 

This one is most definitely a tough read to get through if you've at all experienced some of the things mentioned here. Author Gretchen Olson does an impressive job conveying the stress of the environment without going TOO dark for young readers. The abuse from the mother is kept to the verbal variety, but the strain of Hope's life is no less evident. It's crushing to read of such a young character ALREADY at a point in her life where she is fighting to cling onto even the smallest bits of joy within a day. Still, the book lives up to its title and readers can be rest easy, knowing they will be on a journey with one inspiring protagonist!

 

I thought it was a pretty cute touch that on the back cover featuring the author blurb, Gretchen Olson chose to use a photo of herself at Hope's age! :-)

 

NOTE TO PARENTS: Because this book deals with the topic of verbal abuse, there are moments of profanity featured in this book. If you're particular about how much your child is exposed to before their teen years, you may want to give this one a pre-read through. 

 

TEACHERS / HOMESCHOOL PARENTS: A reading guide is included at the back of the book, should you want to use this story during a unit on bullying. This reading guide includes a list of discussion questions as well as "Hope Notes", tips on how to cope for children who are going through a similar experience to Hope's.

Review
3 Stars
The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu
The Truth About Alice - Jennifer Mathieu

Everyone knows Alice slept with two guys at one party. When Healy High star quarterback Brandon Fitzsimmons dies in a car crash, it was because he was sexting with Alice. Ask anybody. Rumor has it Alice Franklin is a slut. It's written all over the "slut stall" in the girls' bathroom: "Alice had sex in exchange for math test answers" and "Alice got an abortion last semester." After Brandon dies, the rumors start to spiral out of control. In this remarkable debut novel, four Healy High students tell all they "know" about Alice-and in doing so reveal their own secrets and motivations, painting a raw look at the realities of teen life. But in this novel from Jennifer Mathieu, exactly what is the truth about Alice? In the end there's only one person to ask: Alice herself.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

* Read for the 2017 Anti-Bully Readathon week: November 13th-19th

 

 

 

High schooler Alice Franklin is being targeted & blamed for the death of fellow student and star quarterback Brandon Fitzsimmons. Through the technique of alternating POVs, author Jennifer Mathieu gives the reader multiple perspectives of that one fateful night when Fitzsimmons was killed in a car crash after leaving a party at the house of popular girl Elaine O'Shea.

 

Four important characters step forward and tell their version of events: Elaine O'Shea, party host; Josh Waverly, in the car with Brandon when it crashed; Kurt Morelli, Brandon's next door neighbor who's just a little bit infatuated with Alice; Kelsie Sanders, former best friend of Alice who has recently ditched her (basically) to try to win a place in the clique of popular peoples. Then there's Alice herself who has some choice words for her rebuttal. 

 

  • >> Elaine: Still ticked at Alice over guy drama from forever ago, enraged all over again when Elaine's on / off guy Brandon starts paying attention to Alice. Immediately after Brandon's death, has no problem feeding into the slut-shaming of Alice, spreading it around. Also, Elaine claims "Alice sounds like a total grandma name" anyway... Okay, I see you, ELAINE
  • >> Kelsie: Admits to generally being a follower rather than an original kind of person, so she pretty much throws her friend under the bus to gain points with the cool kids, also fueled by old beef with Alice! Uses drama of Alice to hide her own secrets she doesn't want surfacing. 
  • >> Josh: Claims that Alice was blowing up Brandon's phone while Brandon & Josh were in the car and that's what ended up causing the crash... also, Josh may have some confusing homoerotic feelings about Brandon he doesn't want others to pick up on?
  • >> Kurt: genius level nerd, orphaned, living with grandmother next door to Brandon's house... just a bit in love with Alice but too shy to admit it... being one who understands what it feels like to be socially ostracized, Kurt turns out to be the ONE person who gives Alice the benefit of a doubt and still treats her like a human. Brains and Heart in this guy! 

 

"Oh Kurt, I love it. But I didn't get you anything. You're helping me. I should have bought you something. You gave me a first edition of The Outsiders and all I gave you was one of my mom's shitty beers." (Alice)

 

"It's okay.. This beer isn't so shitty."     :-)

 

So, in this small town of Healy, Texas you can imagine how it doesn't take long for the rumors -- starting with the one about Alice having a three way at Elaine's party, one of the rumored participants being the Healy's beloved football star, Brandon -- to quickly spiral out of control. The adults themselves, who you'd think ought to know better, get in on the dirt flinging on this poor girl's rep!

 

Now, when I say "poor girl", Alice doesn't have a snowy white record to begin with... she'll tell you herself what all she actually had a hand in... and some of it is solidly poor choices that end up hurting people... but deserving of the mess she's eventually swirled up in herself? Not so sure it's a fair distribution of karma here. Former bestie Kelsie, the one time she decides to be a leader, uses her new found boldness to write defamatory remarks about Alice on bathroom stalls, which encourages other girls to jump in and get competitive with just how viciously they can talk about a girl they barely know. 

 

I was not at all impressed with Kelsie in the beginning, my reader mind pretty quickly deeming her the petty weakling who needed to find her backbone already. While that opinion stayed with me in some form til the story's close, I did end up cutting her a TINY bit of slack after she reveals some of the darker portions of her backstory and her motives for turning on Alice. While her actions are still disappointing, to say the least, she at least finds a point where she has the classic "I'm becoming what I hate" realization. As she puts it, "All this just to sit at the good table in cafeteria." I know, right?! 

 

While the plot itself was not the most riveting for me (I personally prefer The S Word by Chelsea Pitcher), I do applaud Mathieu for at least illustrating the high school experience in a relatively realistic way. So often I come across YA books that sound absolutely nothing like my HS days, leaving me to wonder, "Seriously? Is this what it's like now? I remember a little melodrama but daaaang." At least here I found characters that did remind me of people I grew up with -- I knew girls like Kelsie, and certainly Elaine, and I most definitely recall the jocks talking smack over cans of Natty Light like Josh & Brandon do here! I also liked how the characters, in their own time, little by little, come to the realization that their anger towards Alice, their bullying of her, is likely just a projection of pain elsewhere in their lives. Pretty profound for teens to realize that, as I come across adults daily who aren't on that level of awareness yet, and I'm glad to see it written in this novel so that YA readers everywhere can ponder on that idea themselves. 

 

 

Review
4 Stars
The Status Seekers by Vance Packard
The Status Seekers - Packard Vance Oakley

An exploration of class behavior in America and the hidden barriers that affect you, your community, your future.

"IS AMERICA A CLASSLESS SOCIETY? NO! says best-selling author Vance Packard in this scorching investigation of the status and class structure of our society. The car you drive, the church you attend, where you went to school, the house you live in -- even your choice of words -- are brandings of your place in society. This is your status -- and you may be stuck with it, like it or not. The author minces no words in letting the reader know exactly who he is, how he measures up, where he is likely to go -- and where, because of society's harsh rules, he is NOT likely to go."

~ from back cover (1963 Cardinal Books paperback edition)

 

 

 

First published in 1959, The Status Seekers is a nonfiction work that looks at the various distinctions and divisions that crop up among social classes. As a starting point for his investigation, Packard poses the question, "Are we, as a society, classless?". Though this book will understandably read dated in some parts, there's still quite a bit here that will ring relevant in today's world!

 

Packard notes how people, in general, seem to constantly be measuring up their current position in society: assessing, judging, critiquing, approving, dismissing. People find themselves tempted to buy status symbols, hoping it will gain them the good favor of their peers, neighbors, co-workers, etc. We strive to have an abundance of leisure time because having a wealth of downtime, in a way, is a symbol of high status. Even when it comes to employment, people sometimes even take lower paying positions if it happens to be with a company that has more social respectability (ie. taking a sales job over factory work even if the factory pays better). Even children show signs of picking up on class distinctions.

 

But Packard asks, what do you do if those people you wish to impress don't approve of your "lower class" acquaintances? How far do you take your need to get in with the "in crowd"? Where is the limit, the cut-off where you put your foot down and refuse to change...do you have one, even? It gives the reader something to consider, for sure. 

 

Packard also looks at class distinctions when it comes to various ethnic groups. To gather data for this book, he based himself in New York City, studying people from various minority communities, coming to the conclusion that class division seems to get more complex when social barriers run up against ethnic barriers. While observing the different communities in NYC, he was stunned to find that while there are barriers between minorities and Caucasian communities, there also seems to be ethic ranking between minorities groups -- he describes witnessing, on numerous occassions, people from Irish, Italian, and African American communities all turning / looking down on people from the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. 

 

Within this text, Packard divides his research up into five units. Here's a general breakdown:

 

Pt. 1: Looks at how status, generally speaking, tends to be achieved and looks at the likely reasons people feel so driven to achieve high social status.

 

Pt. 2: Looks at the markers of status -- home, neighborhood, job, school, etc. Chapter 5 in this section is especially interesting, as it looks at "snob appeal" -- being part of an elite social club (paid membership or invite only) -- how far does that get you?; striving for that idyllic, Pleasantville kind of "home sweet home", the constant one-upping. He looks at the historical development of status symbols: once cars became more affordable, people seemed to make the home the major symbol of their good fortune in life. He also mentions the old trend of real estate agents writing up home listing partly in French to try to entice high bidders because French was considered "the language of snobs" LOL.

 

 

Part 2 also looks at the determining factors behind how much prestige a particular job might garner a person. One has to take into account how high up in the company the position gets you, the amount of authority and / or responsibility you have in that position, the type of clothes you wear for work, how much intelligence / experience is required to obtain that position, the dignity that comes with the title, financial rewards, even the very address of your office! 

 

Even if your line of work is farming, Packard points out that you can be judged on the amount of acreage you have, what kinds of crops you work with, etc. People can lump a farmer into "limited success bracket" range unless he's working with huge acreage. 

 

Packard even gets into the hierarchy that has historically existed within the field of prostitution! 

 

Lastly, he looks at barriers and adjustment periods that tend to develop for people coming from different social classes or races, especially the effect on interracial relationships. 

 

Pt. 3: Considers the "Strains of Status": what long-term price does one ultimately pay for aspiring to levels of presumed social success and respectability? Packard gets into the various mental illnesses that one might potentially develop from the strain of trying to measure up -- anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, ulcers, hypertension, allergies, other physical or psychosomatic problems. 

 

Pt. 4: "Trends" of Status Seeking --- Packard's guess on where it looks like (or what it looked like in the 1950s-1960s, that is) this compulsion to steadily socially elevate oneself might be headed, the patterns / evidence in history that give us clues. This was one area where even readers of today can look at his thoughts and see, even now, he was not too far off on some of his estimations!

 

Pt. 5: looks at implications for the future... what does this drive for status mean for the future prosperity of the human race as a whole? 

 

 

Though Packard does try to focus on facts and research for this book (as he should, of course), I also quite enjoyed when he would interject some of his own commentary on topics here and there. He offers asides here and there such as "class boundaries are contrary to the American Dream"; noting that discussion of class distinction, he found, generally make people uncomfortable but he did notice wives, as a whole, seemed to be more conscious of status than their husbands; at one point he even remarks, "Californians are the least status-conscious people in the nation." SAY WHAT?! Being a native Southern Californian myself, I laughed out loud reading this as that is anything but the truth these days! :-P Even if I didn't always agree with the guy, lines like these certain kept me turning pages to see what else he threw out there! 

 

For an economics based book, I found Status Seekers (surprisingly) highly entertaining! Packard gets into a lot of engrossing, thought-provoking subject matter, not to mention that this one is likely to be kind of a fun read (even if just to browse through) for history buffs. It's neat to have works like this where readers of today can get a sort of first-hand look back at what economics and society looked like a few generations back and compare it to how far (and maybe how not that far at all sometimes, lol) we've come today! 

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman
Survival Lessons - Alice Hoffman

One of America's most beloved writers shares her suggestions for finding beauty in the world even during the toughest times. Survival Lessons provides a road map of how to reclaim your life from this day forward, with ways to re-envision everything―from relationships with friends and family to the way you see yourself. As Alice Hoffman says, “In many ways I wrote Survival Lessons to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss. I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts of sorrow and joy, and that it is impossible to have one without the other. I wrote to remind myself that despite everything that was happening to me, there were still choices I could make.” Wise, gentle, and wry, Alice Hoffman teaches all of us how to choose what matters most.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this nonfiction work, novelist Alice Hoffman thinks on some of the most challenging periods of her life and puts together lessons she's learned once coming out on the other side of those trying times. In her preface, she starts with the year of her cancer diagnosis, right when professionally she was feeling extraordinarily blessed and busy. Her novel Here On Earth had recently been chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick, while another of her works, Practical Magic, had a film adaptation in production starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. As she flat out says, "I didn't have time to be ill." But cancer doesn't care what you have going on, so... ill she was. The experience led her to not only get in some "what does it all mean?" kind of deep thinking during this process of trying to get well, but also other moments in her life that brought her to a similar state of mind. Hoffman thought it might be beneficially to put it all down and create an inspiring little booklet for dark times. So Survival Lessons was born. 

 

 

Just some of the soul-strengthening ideas Hoffman offers:

 

* Find a hero figure, someone who exudes an inner strength and love of life you admire

* CHOOSE to enjoy yourself and your life. Sure, you're bound to have responsibilities that you need to address, but every so often set time aside to have a (guilt-free btw!) you-day! Yes, take care of your loved ones but also make sure you sometimes give into your OWN wants! Be unapologetically you :-)

* CHOOSE to forgive.

* Friends & Family: Choose your friends wisely, surround yourself with people who exude positive energy. Keep supportive, nurturing people close and turn away selfish, manipulative, soul-sucking people. Carefully consider the source before choosing to take advice of someone. Also, even in the midst of challenging schedules, be sure to make time for your friends.

* It's good to live in the moment but also not a bad idea to also make at least a few plans for the future! Give yourself goals to keep you mentally stimulated and motivated!

* Accept that there will be inevitable times of sorrow but choose to live in the light and allow yourself to dream of beautiful things / moments to come.

* Take risks and try new things. Make beautiful things.

* Tell your own story, in your own way, in your own time. Claim your past: Embrace, acknowledge and come to terms with your experiences. Don't be afraid to share your life story sometimes, never know who it could help -- talk with strangers, join support groups, volunteer at non-profit organizations. 

* For those emotionally struggling and in a relationship: don't block out your partner / spouse. Choose love and remember that while they might not know exactly what you're feeling, they ARE there going through it with you in their own way. They're trying to figure all this out too! 

 

If you're a member of the crafty crowd, Hoffman also includes a knitting pattern for a knit hat designed by her cousin, Lisa Hoffman. For bakers, she includes a recipe for the perfect boiled egg that she learned from Julia Child as well as the brownie recipe (requires a double boiler) of a close friend.

 

Here's a warning: Maclin's brownies will not appear perfect. They will sink in the middle. The top will crack. You'll want to throw them out. Don't. They will be everything they should be and more. They are perfect inside, which is even better than merely looking good.

 

Hoffman also includes some lovely blue-toned photographs and art images that nicely add to the calming vibe of this entire book. 

 

 

I don't think Julia {Child} would mind me giving out her secret. She was a survivor. When we worked together raising funds at the hospital where we had both been treated, I instantly wished she was my best friend. Her warmth and compassion were legend. She didn't want to talk about herself and was deeply interested in other people. She knew who she was, but she didn't know who you were, and she wanted to. Frankly, she was more alive than people half her age. Everything was beautiful to her: an egg, a stranger's life story, a battered cooking pot. 

 

This made it onto my list of favorite books I've read in 2017. It was one of those ones that seemed to find me at just the right time. In addition to sharing her cancer story, Hoffman discusses the experience of having to essentially be a parent to her mother (been there myself!). I also found myself feeling a bond over both of us having discovered the works of Ray Bradbury when we were both twelve years old. Though I've been aware of Alice Hoffman as a writer for many years, it's only been in the last couple years that I started cracking open her books for myself. She's since become a favorite of mine. It was just the cherry on top to discover we had such similarities in our life stories. Having lost my mother earlier this year, this inspiring work gave me just the heart lift I needed to work my way back to healing. Survival Lessons will forever have a place on my shelves and will likely be a book I gift out for many years to come! 

Review
4 Stars
The Waiting Place: Learning To Appreciate Life's Little Delays by Eileen Button
The Waiting Place: Learning to Appreciate Life's Little Delays - Eileen Button

Some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else.
We all spend precious time just waiting. We wait in traffic, grocery store lines, and carpool circles. We wait to grow up, for true love, and for our children to be born. We even wait to die. But while we work hard at this business of living, life can sometimes feel like one long, boring meeting. Even today, with instant gratification at our techno-laced fingertips, we can’t escape the waiting place. Somehow, in between our texting and tweeting and living and dying, we end up there again and again. In the voice of an old friend or a wise-cracking sister, Eileen Button takes us back to the days of curling irons and camping trips, first loves and final goodbyes, big dreams and bigger reality checks. With heart-breaking candor she calls us to celebrate the tension between what we hope for tomorrow and what we live with today. Chock-full of humor and poignant insights, these stories will make you laugh and cry. They’ll challenge you to enjoy―or at least endure―the now. As Eileen has learned, “To wait is human. To find life in the waiting place, divine.”

Amazon.com

 

 

In this collection of essays, the title inspired by a portion from Dr. Seuss' The Places You Will Go, newspaper columnist Eileen Button takes us into the daily routine of her hectic life and shows up where she found the beauty in the chaos. It took work and dedication, moments of forcing herself to stop and be still, but over time she came to learn how to work past her daily life gripes and see the gifts in the small moments. 

 

"The Waiting Place is for people like me who get stuck in their precious, mundane, gorgeous, absurd lives. It is for those who work hard at the "business of living" only to find that they seem to be caught in one long, boring meeting...It's for those who wake up one day and find themselves repeatedly sighing and thinking 'This is so not the life I dreamed of living.' It's also for those who wonder what is worse: to remain in the day-in, day-out lives they have created or to risk it all and make a change, even if that change results in falling on their faces. The waiting place is never cozy. In fact, when we find ourselves there, most of us try like heck to escape...The following essays breathe life into common (and not so common) waiting places. I hope you find yourself in these pages and conclude, as I have, that some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else." ~ from Chapter 1

 

Her essays cover pivotal moments throughout her life where epiphanies slipped in under the mundane. Sometimes it wasn't right in the moment, but years later as she reflected on cherished memories. Some of the highlights: reminiscing about fishing trips as a little girl with her father; comical wedding mishaps (that were likely not so comical in the moment lol); recalling the beauty in her grandmother's hands , seeing all the life lived that showed there during family Scrabble games; revisiting her childhood home as an adult and the emotions that stirred up, turning that glass doorknob and taking in the hush of the place. Eileen also recalls lectures her grandmother would give her about her nail-biting habit, something my own grandmother rides me about to this day!

 

Eileen also discusses the struggle that comes with sometimes being defined by your spouse's occupation, in her case being the wife of a Methodist pastor.  She defines various doubts and fears that unexpectedly came along with the position of a pastor's wife as well as the he pressures and expectations that your congregation can put on you. Button reveals that she often feels she has a "dysfunctional, co-dependent" relationship with the church.

 

Additionally, there's the strain of trying to figure out what to do, how to make things work when the household income barely covers the monthly bills (Button recalls the day she swallowed her pride and applied for WIC).

 

"I reach for my daily stack of mail. Today's includes a Rite-Aid weekly flyer, the water bill, and a credit card offer that features three crosses and the message "Jesus Loves You" on the card. The credit card company writes, "Express your faith with every purchase!" There is something deeply wrong with a world in which you can own a credit card with a full color picture of Christ's object of torture printed on it."

 

 

She describes added emotional fatigue worrying over her youngest son, who was born with a condition where the upper and lower portions of the esophagus didn't connect. Speaking of her children, one thing I noticed that I found a little disappointing is how she seems to take pride in fixing meals over playing with her children. I mean, yes, it is definitely admirable that she takes the time to make nourishing meals for them, I was just a little surprised when one essay illustrates how one day her kids genuinely seemed shocked when she finally, grudgingly agrees to fly a kite with them. But it is in this moment that she has one of her revelations which she can now share with readers -- why honest presence is so important to her children! 

 

This collection also touches upon the topic of depression. Button shares moments where she deeply hurt for loved ones who had fallen into immense emotional darkness and her inner aggravation at feeling helpless to save them. Here again, she shares the calming takeaways she eventually came to realize are born in life's harder moments. For readers reaching for this book at a time when they find themselves saying, "This is not the life I signed up for," she offers this to marinate on: "To live is to wait. It's how we wait that makes all the difference." Hang in there long enough, you'll find your way to the brass ring. 

 

As a whole, these essays are so enjoyable largely because Button writes in the tone of a good friend who speaks in soft tones but still makes it clear she's been through the wringer in her day and, at least on some level, knows of what she speaks.  It's also a kick to see her East Coast upbringing infused into her wording:  "wicked dark' "wicked ugly". Her humor balances the heavier bits and I give her bonus points for working in a "Come On Eileen", a nod to my favorite 80s song :-D

Review
4 Stars
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment In Relishing The Season by Alexandra Kuykendall
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment in Relishing the Season - Alexandra Kuykendall

The Christmas season is a particularly difficult time for women to slow down and relish what's right in front of them. An annual marker for many, it is a holiday that can often remind us how life is not going as we'd planned. Our family relationships remain strained, our finances stretched, and our schedules stuffed with too much to do in too little time. Following the formula of her successful Loving My Actual Life, Alexandra Kuykendall shares with readers her own personal experiment to be completely present in her life as it is during the holiday season. Addressing the themes of Advent and Christmas, she reflects on hope, love, joy, peace, and relishing the season, with practical pullouts on common Christmas stressors, such as finances, schedules, and extended family. Kuykendall's signature candor helps women go easy on themselves, remember what truly matters, and find joy in their imperfect Christmases.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

It all started with Alexandra Kuykendall's previous release, Loving My Actual Life, in which for an entire year she challenged herself to slow down a bit and take in the actual life she was living rather than the one she was obsessively trying to achieve through insane schedules, a go-go-go lifestyle and maybe a touch of subconsciously trying to compete with friends and neighbors for a mythical "best life" award. Using the format of that experiment, Kuykendall challenges herself once again, this time tackling the seemingly inevitable stress that comes with each year's impending holiday season -- the days packed with endless holiday festivities, the decorating, the blown out holiday budget that depresses her come January. She explains that her inspiration this time around was the realization that she did not want her daughters to grow up and have their dominant holiday memories be of stressed out, edgy and resentful parents. Instead, she wanted to put the need for perfection aside and just try to be present and authentically capture the true magic of Christmas for her girls. This year, Kuykendall wants to put the focus back on true family togetherness, charity, kindness, all those warm fuzzy emotions we ALL desperately need a good dose of right about now. 

 

Can I do this? Create an experiment where I'm able to savor the season in front of me without ending up overwhelmed and bitter? Where I avoid needing a detox from the fa-la-la-la and the mistletoe? It is worth the try. Because hope, peace, joy, and love are certainly words I want to associate with this time of year. Rather than overspending, overeating, undersleeping and underrejoicing, I want to notice the goodness God has offered in the here and now. In this year. This Christmas. Regardless of the circumstances. Because I don't want to resent this actual Christmas. I want to love it. 

 

 

It's a tough year for Kuykendall, as it's the year her stepfather passed away, a man she had come to rely on as a loving, reliable male figure in her life (for more on the difficult relationship Kuykendall has with her birth father, check out her memoir, The Artist's Daughter). Hard as it will be to tackle a season of family gatherings without this important man there for her, Kuykendall works hard not to let the sadness tarnish the warm memories she wants to cultivate for her family. 

 

In Loving My Actual Christmas, Kuykendall admits from the very beginning that this round will be slightly different because she is not working within the luxury of an entire year. We are talking about a season. So she gets the ball rolling in November, jumping right into family gatherings and activities around Thanksgiving, Christmas right around the corner. After moving passed Christmas, the book closes out a few days past the New Year (this past January 2017, as she notes that she started writing this book during 2016 holiday season).

 

Though she may not have a full year to work through, to give herself some sense of structure to this experiment, Kuykendall plots out the time frame of the experiment using the window of Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas Day) as well as Christmastide (more commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas), carrying through to just after New Year's celebrations. This book has the same diary-like layout as Loving My Actual Life. From day one, Kuykendall makes entries for every day of every week, giving readers a rundown of what the day's activities looked like, what she hopes to accomplish with that day, what she comes away with (lesson-wise) at day's end, and what Scripture she used that day to ponder on as she worked through each day's schedule. The entries are divided by Advent week and for each week she gives herself an overall theme to focus on: 

 

  • Week 1 = HOPE
  • Week 2 = LOVE
  • Week 3 = JOY
  • Week 4 = PEACE
  • * and then a section that does an overview on her Christmastide experience

 

Each chapter closes on "Questions for Reflection", questions that help guide readers on their own journey of better appreciating the season. She also offers relevant scripture, so this book (as well as her previous experiment book) have potential to be used as devotional supplements. Kuykendall is quick to address that a lot of the issues / stressors she tackles in this book will likely come of as #firstworldproblems, but as she points out -- the experiments are called MY ACTUAL LIFE and MY ACTUAL CHRISTMAS... it might seem first world, but it is the life SHE is personally living, so we gotta let her do her thing. 

 

What I love about these experiments of hers is that Kuykendall gives it to her readers honestly, warts and all. She fully admits to being human, starting with the best intentions and then getting in the moment and seriously wanting to throw in the towel instead. Immediately from Day 1 of her Christmas experiment she hits a wall. Not a good start, but a humorous and relatable one! She talks of facing the living room mantel, realizing she has to take down all the "harvest" decor to set up the Nativity scene... and she's honestly just not feelin' it, y'all! Who hasn't been there!

 

Also on this day she's hit with the first wave of holiday family travel plans (orchestrating all that) as well as trying to find time to sit down to do the obligatory Christmas cards. Those Christmas cards haunt her through many of the days, leading her to tell a story of when she just decided to NOT do cards one year, and guess what? There was a little guilt involved on her part, but no one died and no one disowned her. This spoke to my soul as it's exactly where I was last Christmas, and frankly I don't know that I'm feeling much for the cards this year, so it was nice to get a sense of camaraderie from that. Kuykendall encourages readers to still do cards, but do them for the right reason. Do it because you honestly love and miss these people and WANT to connect, don't just make it a chore to scratch off because you don't want things to get awkward later. 

 

No big surprise, but one of Kuykendall's big takeaways from this project is that the best gift is really just giving someone time / attention / respect / love. If you love the act of bestowing physical gifts, just make sure that the gifts show you LISTEN TO THEM. Don't get caught up in getting what everyone else seems to be buying -- unless, I guess, your people have expressed that's truly what they want with all their hearts. But in general, it's nice to give gifts that give a nod to something said in passing that shows you were listening even when they thought you weren't! ;-)

 

Other main points:

 

* Decide on a holiday budget and STICK TO IT. Also, it might help to make an inventory of all expected costs for the season -- what you anticipate to spend on holiday meals, outings, travel, holiday clothing, etc. Factor that into the overall "holiday budget" at the beginning of the season and you probably won't have quite as much sticker shock come January. 

 

* As Kuykendall's husband kept telling her throughout this process: "No bad-mouthing Christmas!" Your season might still have an element of stress no matter what you do but don't blame the season, just find your zen again and remember the real "reason for the season".

 

As I carried out the experiment, I was reminded that this holiday becomes a circus because we are operating out of our longings. We long for memories and fun and happiness. We long for meaning and purpose. We know it must be hidden somewhere among the decorations and the fuss. And when I stopped and paid attention, this is what stood out to me about why we do all of this Christmas making in the first place. 

 

* Learn to say "no" sometimes and be okay with it. Much of the stress of the season comes from us allowing ourselves to be roped into doing every little thing to ensure everyone else has the perfect season. Once in awhile, stop and say no. And then go let yourself have some you time so YOU can enjoy the season. 

 

At the back of the book, Kuykendall also offers supplemental guides such as "Practical Tips and Strategies" where she outlines just how exactly she pulled off this experiment and how you can try it yourself. Within the guides she also encourages readers to engage in some moments of contemplation: evaluate family holiday traditions, WHY you still do them and should you continue with them or are you merely doing it out of habit? (Think: are the kids too old for it? Are there enough people that still enjoy the tradition or are you just forcing them through?). She gives you a really handy guide on ways to be more economical during the season as well as a pep talk on the power of "no thank you".

She closes with the plea to readers that while they go through this process (should they choose to, that is), in all things always strive to continually be kind, gracious and compassionate. 

 

Near the end of the experiment, Kuykendall points out that throughout this process it is important to keep in mind that you can't (or at the very least, shouldn't) gloss over the hurts and struggles of the year with a simple dusting of tinsel, a few rounds of carols and a nice mug of eggnog (if eggnog is your thing). Kuykendall advises readers to remember the Nativity story: all the struggles that were going on in that time in history, how so many people craved a positive change for peace... and what happened? A star suddenly appeared in the night sky shining a light so bright as to leave any observer awe-struck, so bright as to be able to guide three wise men to a random manger. A light in the darkness. The darkness doesn't go away for good, but having your heart in the right place helps keeps the hardships at bay. That's the idea here. Acknowledge the struggles but embrace the joy and grace found behind them. We will likely always be trying to fight off one evil or another in the world, but Kuykendall encourages you, when faced with dark times, to allow yourself to still be in awe of the marvels & beauties in the world, because if you keep yourself open enough, they will remind you that they are still out there. As she says, "This is a year to celebrate the good news within the context of our actual lives."

 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  Baker Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

Review
2 Stars
The Four Doors by Richard Paul Evans
The Four Doors - Richard Paul Evans

The Four Doors is Evans’s message to those who seek inspiration in their lives. It began as a talk he gave on the spur of the moment, and over the course of ten years, it has evolved into a message he has shared with successful business people, students, and even addicts and prisoners. It includes stories his readers have told him, stories about great achievers who overcame hardships, and stories about his own struggle growing up in a large family with financial difficulties and a suicidal mother, and about his diagnosis of Tourette’s Syndrome later in life. These inspiring stories are woven through his identification and careful explanation of the four doors to a more fulfilling life:

BELIEVE THERE’ S A REASON YOU WERE BORN

FREE YOURSELF FROM LIMITATION

MAGNIFY YOUR LIFE

DEVELOP A LOVE-CENTERED MAP

Evans believes that we all want to know the meaning of our lives. In The Four Doors, he shows how even the most quiet life can be full of purpose and joy, if we choose to take that first step over the threshold.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In his foreword, literally entitled "Why I Wrote This Book", author Richard Paul Evans explains that the idea for this came from a sort of off-the-cuff talk he gave to a room full of high schoolers. It was then honed into a speech he presented, at various times and in varying venues, to business people, criminals and drug addicts. A decade later, he expanded on the ideas he first presented and fashioned them into book form so that his blueprint for a more fulfilling life might reach the masses in general. 

 

Boiled down to their essential form, the four "doors" or basic principles Evans works off of are:

 

BELIEVE THERE’ S A REASON YOU WERE BORN

FREE YOURSELF FROM LIMITATION

MAGNIFY YOUR LIFE

DEVELOP A LOVE-CENTERED MAP

 

 

From there, he delves deeper into topics such as self will, spiritual evolution, and the classic, "the only constant is change". 

 

The gist of what he covers here:

 

SELF WILL: Nothing happens without you propelling yourself either into or out of a situation. Even the act of relinquishing freedom is a choice. Basically, anything that has you throwing even a thought at it is a choice on some level. Evans encourages readers to learn the power of discernment and to find the courage to filter out some of the garbage out there that people will sometimes feed you that could pull you away from your true path. 

 

SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION: Nothing happens by chance or accident. Your life definitely has a purpose. Your life on Earth is meant to be a schooling for your soul to spiritually evolve.

 

But Evans also reminds readers to keep in mind that true greatness in a person will not always equate to fame. 

 

THE TRUE MEASURE OF GREATNESS

I have found that some people, in searching for a meaningful life, have confused greatness with fame. In spite of our culture's obsession with celebrity, a successful life does not have to include fame and, in most cases, shouldn't. Fame and greatness are not the same thing. There are great people in this world -- people of great accomplishment and service to humanity -- who are not famous. There are scores of famous people who are not great. In most cases, true greatness is a silent and lonely affair, unaccompanied by the trumpeted fanfare of acclaim. More important than being known is being of value. The great impact of a loving parent may shake nations. One can only wonder how different the world would be had Adolf Hitler been raised by two kind, happy, and loving parents. Likewise, the spark lit (or extinguished) by a caring and wise teacher may have saved the world more than once. 

To be of value to others is a far greater ambition than the vain hope for the world's fleeting applause and fickle admiration. In the end, it is better to be loved by one person who knows your soul than a million people who don't even know your phone number. 

 

ONLY CONSTANT IS CHANGE: Both our spiritual and physical states are in constant flux. The change is necessary because remaining stationary would mean we would inevitable start to diminish. 

 

There are moments here where Evans gives readers some solid food for thought. A few of the topics I found interesting:

 

* Thinking about how all big inventions, marvels of architecture, world religions, democracy, all that.. started as a seed of an idea in one person's mind.. something to keep in mind when we feel too insignificant to create change or develop great art or inventions! 

 

* During times of hardship, don't give into victimhood. Don't give the power of your life and well-being to someone (or something) else. We can't learn and mature without facing adversity from time to time. 

 

* The mention of a survey once done at UCLA where over 1000 people were asked, "If you could be given a pill that would take away all disability from the body, but it would mean you would lose all the experience and wisdom you learned from living with the disability, would you take the pill?" Honestly, that would be a tough call for me. I appreciate life experience but chronic pain is a witch to live with. 

 

Inspiring as this book is meant to be, Evans doesn't really cover new ground all that much. There were also a few things about the guy himself that just bugged me. I find it off-putting when authors heavily quote themselves in their own books. To me it just reeks of "look how genius I am! and humble too!" I really cringed at one point in this book when Evans says "I think every home in America should have this quote" and of course it was one of his own. UGH. 

 

His story about the book signing also bothered me. He presented it as an example of him going for his dreams, tackling a goal he wanted... but in this instance, he describes taking the seat at an author book signing of an author who was apparently either late or a no-show. Evans presented himself as the author, got staff at the venue to wait on him as if he were the scheduled celebrity and then presented himself to an audience as an established author. This moment apparently helped launch his professional career. He was clearly proud of himself but I kinda saw it as him coming to his fame by somewhat dishonest means. Not classy. Granted, it's impressive to see him with such a success story professionally after having a lifelong struggle with Tourette's Syndrome as well as having a suicidal mother ... but still, for someone writing a motivational / self-help style work, closing on that book signing story was a disappointment for me. 

 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises
Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises: Straightforward Solutions to Life's Puzzling Problems - Mother Angelica

From the founder of EWTN Global Catholic Network comes this profoundly practical, humorous, and common-sense approach to answering life's most vexing questions. Mother Angelica gently confronts your real-life struggles, lifting your heart to God and leading your soul to heaven as she provides answers from a life dedicated to God not the promises of a world entrenched in vice. Mother Angelica will become your trusted companion in the battle for virtue as you read through her advice and answer her call to grow closer to Christ. She'll help you conquer your most deeply rooted sins, and she'll lead you to overcome the fear of death, the pain of guilt, and the seemingly benign attachments you have to the things of this world. She'll also lead you to a more profound understanding of the spiritual life, explaining why it's so hard to be good, why suffering must happen to even the best of us, and why God doesn't answer all your prayers.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Mother Angelica became a Franciscan nun at the age of 21. After becoming a cloistered nun based in Birmingham, Alabama, she went on to become one of the founders of EWTN (Eternal World Television Network), a television channel dedicated to broadcasting Catholic-themed programming. EWTN's home base was initially set up right on the grounds of Mother Angelica's convent and the non-profit channel was run solely on donations. Programming reached viewers worldwide, leading Mother Angelica to get mountains of letters each week, letters that asked for requests and posed deep life questions. In this book, she takes some of the most common topics / concerns people seemed to consistently lay at her feet and answers them to the best of her ability. 

 

For starters, Mother Angelica breaks down the different types of suffering a person can experience  -- we're talking about Catholicism so you know we gotta hit upon suffering lol -- and offers possible positive take-aways in each situation:

 

Preventative Suffering = God blocking you from a bad choice because something better is in the works for you. You won't necessarily be protected from experiencing pain, but the experience will likely teach you courage during times of adversity, and possibly how to find peace and acceptance later on down the road. It's during this section that she also gets into Permitting Will vs Ordaining Will and what she calls Supernatural Hope:

 

"Supernatural Hope is the balance between expecting a miracle and accepting God's Will even if it results in pain or death. There is a certain serenity that comes from Supernatural Hope... hope tells us to move along, that it's all right... Hope gives us joy in sorrow and peace amidst the turmoil of daily life. In certain ways, I think it is the virtue we need most of all."

 

Mother Angelica also mentions Supernatural Love -- kind of along the same lines as Supernatural Hope, but with the love variety she says:

 

The person who posesses Supernatural Love is able to keep loving when reason says it's time to give up. It's what makes us able to forgive, and to keep forgiving, when what we really want to do is throw in the towel and be forever angry at the person who keeps hurting us....Supernatural Love is what enables you to keep loving your spouse or your children or your best friend when at the moment you are hard pressed to find anything lovable about them. It allows you to keep in mind that everyday annoyances that can drive you crazy are small items in the overall scope of things. How? By making you aware that love is a decision, not just a feeling, and that you can decide to love as God loves -- freely and endlessly. Supernatural Love is the kind of love that keeps marriages vibrant, families solid, friendships strong... Supernatural Love doesn't judge or ask questions. It simply gives. 

 

Can I just interject here and say that as beautiful and inspiring as I found this passage, Lord forgive me but I could help but hear the song "Electric Love" from Bob's Burgers in my head right after. X-D I know! I'M SORRY. (but kinda not really)

 

Corrective Suffering = The damage from the problem has already been done, but you're meant to go through it because the experience of the suffering is put forth to correct something undesirable within your soul, help you see the error of going further down that path, etc (think maybe losing people / jobs because of anger issues, drug / alcohol addiction, something like that). 

 

Repentant Suffering = basically, a painful experience that is meant to humble you if you're "getting too big for yer' britches" as the country folk in my family say ;-)

 

She also touches upon the idea of "false martyrdom". As she says, "Suffering in itself doesn't make you holy."

 

 

I picked up this book as a secondhand books shopping find shortly after my mother's passing. Naturally, I had her on my mind and seeing this book made it even more so as I come from a largely Irish Catholic family and my mom often spoke of how she seriously considered joining a convent and living the nun life prior to meeting my father. I'd never heard of this nun before and had only vaguely remembered seeing EWTN on my cable menu listing, but I was curious to see if she had anything to offer my mind during my time of mourning. 

 

To be honest, I brushed over a lot of it. There was a bunch here that was similar to ideas I was already raised with, other ideas I didn't entirely agree with. Some of her opinions definitely didn't mesh with my beliefs at all. While I appreciated her sassy, fun delivery, I was bothered by the way she knocks the gay community as well as couples who choose to live together and engage in pre-marital sex. Again, Catholic nun, shouldn't really be all that surprised that she disagrees with these practices, it was just her tone on these topics that I didn't particularly like. She had this way of dismissing people making grown decisions for themselves that feel right for them and their lives: "Feelings are not evil, but they are not reliable either." Maybe not, but you gotta let people live for themselves. She also slams the idea of positive thinking, but the examples she uses to illustrate where it's at fault tells me she doesn't entirely understand the concept. 

 

Also, I gotta say, Mother Angelica's vision of heaven sounds just AWFUL to me! An eternity of nonstop praying, no pets, and being satisfied with just being with God and letting his presence complete you?! Sorry girl, but you lost me at NO PETS.  

 

Some good bits here and there but not a keeper collection for me. It was worth a try! 

 

Review
3 Stars
Ascension of Larks by Rachel Linden
Ascension of Larks - Rachel Linden

When globetrotting photographer Magdalena Henry loses the only man she’s ever loved, she risks her stellar career to care for his widow and young children on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Free-spirited and fiercely independent, Maggie adores her life of travel and adventure. But she has a secret. She can’t let go of her first and only love, renowned architect Marco Firelli, now married to her best friend Lena.

When Marco drowns in a kayaking accident, Maggie rushes to the Firelli family’s summer home on San Juan Island. Once there she discovers that Marco was hiding something that could destroy his family. As fragile, perfectionistic Lena slowly falls apart, Maggie tries to provide stability for Marco and Lena’s three young children. When Maggie is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious photography competition, she thinks she’s found the answer to their problems. Then Lena makes a choice with unexpected and devastating consequences, forcing Maggie to grapple with an agonizing decision. Does she sacrifice the golden opportunity of her career or abandon the Firellis just when they need her the most? Gradually the island begins to work its magic. A century-old ritual to beckon loved ones home offers hope in the midst of sorrow. And a guilt-ridden yet compelling stranger hiding on the island may offer Maggie a second chance at love, but only if she can relinquish the past and move forward to find joy in unexpected places.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

For years, globetrotting photographer Magdalena "Maggie" Henry has been in love with her first love, architect Marco Firelli, whom she met in college. Problem is, Marco is married to Maggie's best friend (and college roommate) Lena. Or at least he was, that is...Maggie just got news that Marco has been killed in a kayaking accident. Now Maggie must rush to Lena's side to offer emotional support to the fragile widow as well as help with the Firelli children. 

 

While helping Lena through this difficult time, Maggie can't help but revisit old emotions she thought she had overcome. Memories of early days with Marco come swirling back, the possessiveness she felt over him, having known him first before introducing Lena to him. Lena had tearily confessed that she was struggling to make friends at school. Thinking she was doing a good friend a favor, Maggie introduces Lena to Marco, having no idea that the two would hit it off quite so well, quietly slipping under her radar and falling in love. Though she loves (in different ways) both of them, she can't help but feel a combination of jealousy and annoyance at the turn of events. 

 

So as you can guess, it was largely an unrequited love for Maggie. Marco expresses interest, even a love of sorts, but confesses being drawn to Lena because he and Maggie are too alike in their intense, all-consuming artistic temperaments while Lena was more level-headed and easy-going in nature, more suitable for building a life & family with him. Taking into account Maggie's behavior up to the moment of this confession of Marco's --- her desperately reading into every passing glance from the guy, speaking of them as "kindred spirits", "twin souls" etc --, she likely found this revealing speech quite romantic. To me, however, it came off more as "let her down easy" spin.

 

But rather than go the crazy "he's MINE!" route, Maggie bows out of the running with a fair amount of grace, serving as main witness at Lena & Marco's wedding and then promptly starting up her work as globetrotting picture-taker extraordinaire.  Over the years, the trio is able to put the college drama behind them and become the close-knit crew they were before. Maggie even becomes "Aunt Maggie" to the Firelli children as they grow up. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Maggie doesn't hesitate to be at Lena's side. But only too late does she realize the timing could not be worse. 

 

While staying with Lena and the kids, Maggie's agent calls to notify her that she has been offered an opportunity to submit some of her work to one of the most prestigious photography competitions in the world. But how is she to find the time to prepare a presentation for submission in the mix of everything else going on? Will she have to decide between helping a friend and need and jumping at the chance of a lifetime (professionally), or will the fates allow her to have a solution to both?

 

There is also the mystery of this Daniel guy who spends most of the book hanging out creeper-style in Lena's bushes, observing the family from afar, always hesitating to reveal himself. What is his connection to Marco's death and what does he feel so guilty about? 

 

One of my favorite aspects of Ascension of Larks was the exceptional environment building author Rachel Linden offers. Whether on location with Maggie in Nicaragua, moving through her memories to past international travels, or at the Firelli summer home in the Pacific Northwest (where the bulk of the novel is set), the reader is fantastically immersed in the textures of all the various landscapes. Just as an example, check out this little snippet where Maggie recalls a distinct memory of her Puerto Rican mother:

 

The kitchen was always warm, redolent with the smell of cilantro and oregano, and in the background, playing on the crackly cassette player on the fridge, was the music of her mother's youth -- folk singers like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, songs of peace and protest from the sixties. Ana had especially favored Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt because of their Hispanic heritage. She would let Maggie rifle through the shoe box of cassettes and choose one tape after another. In those moments, in the tiny kitchen with a pot bubbling on the stove and the calls for peace and love ringing out with the strains of guitar and tambourine, it felt as though nothing could touch them, as though if they could stay there in the kitchen forever, nothing bad would ever happen.

 

That being said, the plot itself had its share of tiring moments for me. I enjoyed the secondary characters such as Daniel and the charming motorcycle riding Pastor Griffin (the way Linden writes his character reminded me a bit of John Corbin's portrayal of the DJ Chris on the 90s tv show Northern Exposure). But storyline-wise, it veered on the soapy, most noticeably when it came to Lena's accident. When Lena acts all weird at breakfast that day, I immediately guessed (correctly) where Linden was headed with the plot. And that is where a good chunk of my investment in the plot checked out! 

 

Still, this novel offers up another, unexpected but important side story that serves almost as a moral lesson to readers with children -- the importance of having your final wishes regarding dependents, godparents, etc all clearly outlined on paper! What Linden illustrates here, the power of the state to come in and completely tear up a home because they don't agree with the living arrangements (regardless of how happy and well-taken care of the children seem) is seriously terrifying! I don't even have kids and I was disturbed at the thought! So, people, get your final wishes on paper! 

 

The children's lives were suddenly being decided by people who understood the letter of the law but knew nothing about them, not who they were and certainly not what was truly in their best interest. They didn't know Gabby would fall asleep only if Bun Bun's head was tucked under her chin, or that you had to keep sweet snacks hidden behind the bins of beans and flour in the cupboard so Luca couldn't sneak them. And Jonah... she winced when she thought of Jonah, those dark, somber eyes and the downward slope of his young shoulders. He was a little boy carrying a misplaced guilt so heavy it was slowly crushing him. 

 

While maybe the plot fell short for me here, as I mentioned earlier I did quite enjoy Linden's writing style in general and would be interested to check out more of her work in the future. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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