EpicFehlReader
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. 

Some Small Magic by Billy Coffey
Some Small Magic - Billy Coffey

All Abel wants is a little bit of magic in his life. Enough money so his mom doesn’t cry at night. Healing for his broken body. And maybe a few answers about his past. When Abel discovers letters to him from the father he believed dead, he wonders if magic has come to the hills of Mattingly, Virginia, after all. But not everything is as it seems. With a lot of questions and a little bit of hope, Abel decides to run away to find the truth. But danger follows him from the moment he jumps his first boxcar, forcing Abel to rely on his simpleminded friend Willie—a man wanted for murder who knows more about truth than most—and a beautiful young woman they met on the train. From Appalachia to the Tennessee wilds and through the Carolina mountains, the name of a single small town beckons: Fairhope. That is where Abel believes his magic lays. But will it be the sort that will bring a broken boy healing? And is it the magic that will one day lead him home?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Our protagonist, young Abel (I believe he's possibly in his teens at the story's opening?) was born with a medical condition that causes his bones to remain very brittle and his spine crooked. This also leads him to have disfigured limbs that make movement difficult. Abel hates that his health problems cause his mother so much stress and financial strain. Both he and his mother try to live good, honest lives, Lisa (the mother) putting in long hours a local diner in their little town of Mattingly, Virginia, often working double shifts to just to barely make ends meet. Abel suffers through bullying at school but tries to make the best of it until one day he just reaches the end of his fuse and fights back in a rather unique way. Though it's well known who the main school bully is, Abel still seems to get the short end of the stick when the bulk of the disciplinary action falls on him.

 

"What if things could be better?" he asks.

"They can't, Abel."

"But what if they could? Would you be happy?"

"I'm happy now."

"Maybe you ain't. Maybe you been sad for so long, you think that's what being happy is."

Lisa cannot answer this. 

"Don't worry, Momma."

"About what?"

"About nothing."

 He gets up from the table and leans in close for what Lisa believes will be a kiss. Instead, he snatches a nickel from behind her ear and places it on the table. 

"What's this for?"

"For what I owe. I know it's not all of it, but I'll take care of the rest too."

 He walks inside, letting the screen door shut behind him. Lisa can only sit and drink her beer. She fingers the nickel and wonders how long Abel had been carrying that around, wonders what just happened, and whether it was Abel who just got punished, or her. 

 

 

One night, while he remains home alone while Lisa works through another late shift, Abel comes across a box of letters addressed to him that he's never seen before. He doesn't recognize the North Carolina address but when he opens one letter he finds the writer signs off as "Dad". Lisa had always told Abel that his father passed away when Abel was just a baby, but these letters seem rather recent. 

 

Make sure you laugh and love and stop to watch the sun fall. Keep your eyes on the things that matter and don't, and learn to know the difference. 

~an excerpt from one of the letters

 

Abel decides on a plan to jump the first train boxcar out of town, taking along his best friend, Willie Farmer. Willie, known to most of Mattingly as "Dumb Willie" (for being mentally challenged) is in his early 20s but has the mental development of a small child... and the physical strength of a superhero. Due to an unplanned scuffle with a local meanie, Willie is now possibly wanted for murder, so it's important Abel keep his friend by his side. Meanwhile, Abel is also hoping that the trip will lead him to meeting his father face to face and give him the answers to a better, more comfortable life for him and his mom. 

 

Once on the train, Abel & Willie meet an enigmatic young girl who doesn't readily give up her name, so Abel, inspired by his love of The Wizard of Oz, names her Dorothy. Dorothy has something mysterious & special about her, and her utterances here and there -- such as "It was a mistake, bringing them here." -- clue the reader in on the idea that her presence isn't entirely by chance. *If you've read Billy Coffey's work before, you likely remember that he likes to play with light themes of supernatural and even touches of magical realism, so you can likely make a good guess of where the story heads from this point.

 

Abel stares down at his cast, which has been left dented but whole. He stares and will not look away, because even now he can feel the girl's eyes upon him, those pretty blue ones set inside that pretty face. He feels that look as one that speaks not of friendship, but of options weighed and regrets counted. 

 

The perspective of the story shifts ever so slightly between our three key players -- Abel, Willie and "Dorothy". Coffey does an especially nice job of subtly bringing in Willie's voice. Without changing the rhythm of the writing in a jarring fashion, Coffey changes his writing just a touch -- making it more simple in style or writing words in a more phonetic way -- to quietly let readers know they've shifted from the thoughts of Abel to Willie (and back again, later). Coffey's way of laying all this out brought to mind John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. 

 

Willie is one of the most endearing characters here, drawing readers in with his boundless love and faith in good people, even when Abel lets you in on his friend's story. Willie's mental slowness? His parents claim it was caused by him falling off a wagon as a child, but Abel suspects the source is more along the lines of Willie's father beating and abusing him for years, Willie's parents treating him more like a burden / source of free labor than a beloved son. Abel's suspicions seem confirmed one day when Abel goes to Willie's house to find him chained up with just a small jug of water at his side, parents nowhere to be found. It breaks your heart and at the same time makes you think of Willie as the kind of soul too good for this world.

 

"Then you got ones like Dumb Willie. They're the special ones, Abel, and you know why? Because they ain't meant for this life at all. They're so tuned to the next world that it leaks into this one here, turning it all to a wonder they can't bear up against. You tell me Dumb Willie's pa is the one broke Dumb Willie's mind. I don't know about that. I think maybe it's more Dumb Willie's always been so full of heaven that he ain't got much use for earth. That's how it is for those few blessed enough that their souls point to other lands, but cursed such that they got to live in this one. Folk call them dumb. Call them crazy. But they ain't neither. All they are's closer to heaven than anybody else." ~Dorothy

 

This turned out to be my favorite of Coffey's books to date. The novel warmly touches upon the theme of family and friendship, the lengths we go to to creating (or at least contributing to) a fulfilling life for the ones we love. Some Small Magic also ends up being a nice illustration of just how far a little hope, a dash of that "faith of a mustard seed", can take a person in life. Key characters are living out hollow, painful, sad existences, punishing themselves for things largely beyond their control. Depressing as that sounds, Coffey turns it around, showing that no matter how far gone one's situation seems, there's always time to learn how to let go and live for joy again.

 

For the first time in a long while and perhaps even forever, laughter filled this small patch of forgotten wood in the midst of a bustling mountain town. The noise is full and whole and worthy of wonder. It is magic, this laughter, and one not so small as to slip through Abel's knowing. The feel of it lodges into the cracked places of his insides where not even his brittle bones dwell, telling him things will be all right now. Wherever that dark road leads, Dorothy and Dumb Willie will travel with him. And Abel's daddy will be at its end, and healing, and the world will be made right. Yes, that is how Abel knows it will be.. because most every road is a dark one. Especially the ones that hold a light at their end. 

 

For those interested in using this as a possible book club pick, a page of discussion questions are included at the back of the book.

 

 

 

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. 

 

Review
3 Stars
Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman
Challenger Deep - Neal Shusterman

A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today's most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep "a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary."

Amazon.com

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel does periodically bring up the topic of suicide. 

 

The outside world sees Caden Bosch as a regular high school student. In his own mind however, Caden sees himself as artist in residence aboard a submarine assigned to explore Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, the deepest section of ocean in the world. What most would consider his real life, that of a HS student, to him is more like a secondary dreamworld. Pay attention and you will see subtle, parallel characters and situations between life aboard the ship and Caden's time in school.

 

Forget solar energy -- if you could harness denial, it would power the world for generations.

 

There are others, fellow crew members on the ship, around Caden's age. Most of these teens come from broken or troubled homes. As for the ship's captain -- who has apparently has a preference for speaking like a pirate -- well, there is something dark and mysterious about him. 

 

Regardless of what world he was in, for me there was one constant about Caden: those elements within his personal story which insisted on keeping my heart just a little bit broken for him all the way through the story. When people try to reach out to him, Caden tends to verbally push them away but deep inside he mourns not having a good enough understanding of what's wrong well enough to let others help. He struggles with his parents' questionable behavior, to say the least. In one instance, they get drunk and pressure him to bungee jump. There was a part of the story, about at the halfway point of the book, where Caden's parents make a decision they think will help him and his inner struggles but for me, it felt that a little more explanation was needed, as far as where the dual realities come into play. 

 

Everything feels right in the world... and the sad thing is that I know it's a dream. I know it must soon end, and when it does I will be thrust awake into a place where either I'm broken, or the world is broken.

 

Over time, Caden develops near-crippling anxiety, but tries out for his HS track team in an attempt to stay connected with schoolmates. There are some laughs when it comes to Caden's therapy sessions... well, if you've been in therapy yourself, that is. It's relatable humor: "I tell him that everything sucks, and he apologizes for it, but does nothing to make things less suckful."

 

I also loved Shusterman's use of analogies. One of my favorites was a car one, and its likeness to therapy: "useless check engine light... but only, the people qualified to check under the hood can't get the damn thing open."

 

Caden does struggle with suicidal thoughts at times, but he says the existence of his little sister is a "fail safe" from actually going through with anything. Even so, he still ponders the subject near the end of the novel, so heads up if you are sensitive to that sort of theme / material. I'm happy to report that while much of the plot is heavy in tone, Shusterman does close things on positive, empowering thoughts. He also provides two pages of resources after the novel to help any reader struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, all of the above, etc. 

 

The artwork you'll find in this book was all done by Shusterman's son, Brendan, who suffers from chronic depression himself. Brendan's own story of struggle, along with his artwork, inspired the adventures and trials Caden of Challenger Deep experiences. 

 

 

 

My initial interest in picking this book up was spurred by rave reviews from so many friends and fellow reviewers saying "This is the most accurate depiction of mental illness I have ever read." I've lived with mental illness my entire life. My mother battled depression, my father agorophobia and bipolar disorder. Both my brother and I were diagnosed with chronic depression, anxiety and PTSD in our adulthoods. So I figured I was going into this on pretty firm ground. While on one hand I could see what Shusterman was trying to convey, the novel didn't always represent my own experiences. But at times it hit it spot on. Then, other times I was admittedly kinda bored outta my gourd. But that's the thing about mental illness, there's no one clear-cut way to have it. Everyone's battle is different. So I took that into consideration when weighing my end thoughts on my reading experience. 

 

While I would not put my vote in with the "best ever" crowd, I do vote that it has its merits when it comes to the subject of mental illness. 

Review
4 Stars
Animals Talking In All Caps by Justin Valmassoi
Animals Talking in All Caps: It's Just What It Sounds Like - Justin Valmassoi

A goat who wants to sell you some meth. 
A giraffe who might be violating his restraining order. 
An alpaca with a very dirty secret. 
A cat who’s really mad at you for cancelling Netflix instant. 
 
These are just a few of the hilariously human animals you’ll meet in Animals Talking in All Caps. Inspired by the wildly popular blog of the same name and including some of the site’s best-loved entries as well as gobs of never-before-seen material, these pages provide a brilliantly unhinged glimpse into the animal mind.

Amazon.com

 

 

This book is an extension of the humor originally found on author Justin Valmassoi's tumblr page (also called Animals Talking In All Caps). The subtitle on the cover is "It's Just What It Sounds Like" and that's the truth! It's just straight up humorous captions / conversations put to pictures of animals! The conversations touch upon not only pop culture references and relationship craziness but also some more crude or risque material.. but in such a dang cute way! 

 

The book also features a pretty adorable introductory essay :-) In it, Valmassoi writes: 

 

"My friend Stacey asked me to collect all the random caps-lock-captioned animal photos strewn across my many abandoned tumblrs into one convenient spot so she could giggle at them without having to search through years of bad jokes and turgid prose. Having nothing better to do, I obliged. After collecting them all under the highly creative title Animals Talking In Caps, I went on to write a few more. I wrote one or two a day, mostly to keep Stacey entertained. I didn't tell anyone about it because I'm in my thirties and "I made a dog talk about the perils of Western capitalism" is a really embarrassing way to answer the question "What did you do today?" (not that anyone was asking, but just in case). Nonetheless, because it was a website featuring animals, people found it. If it has an animal on it and it's on the internet, everyone will eventually see it because humans are biologically wired to seek out animal photos whenever they get near a computer."

 

I don't have a ton to say about the book other than to say I was endlessly entertained, it gave me a smile on a bad day, and I'm sure I'll be returning to it for a giggle numerous times for years to come. 

 

Some of my favorites from the collection:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review
4 Stars
Mr. Bean's Diary by Robin Driscoll & Rowan Atkinson
Mr Bean's Diary - Robin Driscoll, Rowan Atkinson

A hilarious diary presents a zany chronicle of a year in the life of Mr. Bean, from his New Year's resolutions to the trials and tribulations of romance, poetry class, and run-ins with the local police. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

*This review is based on my 1993 edition of this book. A second edition was released in 2010

 

 

First published in the UK in 1993, Mr. Bean's Diary is the result of teamwork between Robin Driscoll (British actor / writer for the Mr. Bean show) and Mr. Bean himself, Rowan Atkinson. Here, fans of the show will get a peek into Bean's daily scheduler, which offers hilarious insight into his wacky psyche (not to mention his wild inventions!). 

 

 

Sometimes there's some cutesy humor -- Bean having a brief flirtation with the idea of marriage, so he decides to stalk a librarian who catches his eye. Then there's a darker vein of humor, almost in the style of the Ace Ventura "LACES OUT!" bit. There's also some trouble with the police thrown in. One of my favorites was Bean's trip to a psychic medium, where he tries to connect with his mother to ask her where the plunger is so he can unclog the sink (funny, but in a way also rings a little sad). He also mentions posing a question to Charles Dickens regarding his novel Edwin Drood, to which the apparent reply was "Haven't made up my mind yet." :-P Longtime fans of the show will also see plenty of nods to classic content, such as Bean's love of Shirley Bassey and of course regularly avoiding interaction with the landlord Mrs. Wicket. 

 

 

The attention to detail on each individual page is quite impressive. It's fun to spot things such as tea stains, blood splatters, passport photos of the back of Bean's head LOL, pressed insects. There's even one page layout that features a pressed flower on one side with faint flower residue on the other! 

 

 

Some of my favorite entries:

 

* His telephone directory in the front: "God -- Everywhere (Literally, apparently)"

 

* Has a bad day, writes "Whiskey is lovely" in squiggly, run-off cursive. 

* Jan. 19th: "12:15 Lunch in park. 12:25 Left park (too much poo)"

* Feb 15-23 blank entries, Feb 24th "FOUND DIARY!"

* July 27th: "Scream ---> Pull Self Together"

* "Christmas Day, 1992: "3pm -- The Queen"

 

Also be sure to check out the bonus flip book in the upper right hand corner featuring Bean's car!

 

 

Review
3 Stars
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow

A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy? When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave--"Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams"--wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

"The Last Lecture" idea is one that a number of universities host in which a highly regarded professor is asked to imagine they were just given the news that they were to die soon, then tailor a unique lecture incorporating what advice they would offer or life lessons they've experienced that they'd want to share with others.  Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University as well as a professor of technology at the University of Virginia, was given such a task but in his case he truly was nearing death at the time he offered his lecture. Shortly before giving this lecture, Pausch had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, his doctors notifying him he had mere months of life left. But Pausch points out early on that once he agreed to do the lecture, he didn't want the focus to be on his impending death but instead on how he managed to fulfill his dreams with the time he had been given. 

 

In addition to being a college professor, Pausch was also an award-winning researcher for tech companies such as Adobe, Google, EA (Electronic Arts gaming company) and Walt Disney Imagineers, so he had plenty of life experience to pull from to craft his message! Pausch came from a family that strongly endorsed educating yourself -- go to the library, crack open some reference books, find the answers yourself, go for walks and think on a subject, that sort of thing. His parents also taught him to be tenacious. He writes of first getting established in his technology career during the 1960s-70s and being reminded of Captain Kirk's line in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan"I don't believe in a no-win situation." Pausch's parents' lessons on building a tenacious spirit served him well, spurring him in later years to pay it forward, in a way, when he imparts his own version of the idea to his students: "Brick walls are there not to keep you out, but to teach you how badly you want to get to the other side."

 

The most formidable wall I ever came upon in my life was just five feet, six inches tall, and was absolutely beautiful. But it reduced me to tears, made me reevaluate my entire life and led me to call my father, in a helpless fit, to ask for guidance on how to scale it. 

 

That brick wall was Jai.

 

~ Randy Pausch on first meeting his wife, Jai.

 

Pausch tells of an early experience of trying to get a job with Disney. He desperately wanted a spot on the Imagineers team and had to spend years using that well-worn tenacity before he even got an interview with anyone. As he puts it, they regularly sent him "the nicest go to hell letters ever ". He eventually went on to take a job as a professor at the University of Virginia because, y'know, dreams are great but bills still gotta stay paid! In 1995, while he was working at this university, Pausch heard news of a team of Imagineers struggling with a project to create low-cost virtual reality technology for Disney's Aladdin park attraction. Once again, Pausch found himself regularly contacting Disney offering his knowledge. FINALLY, his efforts payed off and he was patched through to one of the leaders of the Aladdin project. But his work wasn't done. It took Pausch more schmoozing, getting the guy to agree to meet with him over lunch and hear his ideas, before Pausch truly got a foot in the door. 

 

Pausch also admits that it's beneficial to have at least a few "tough love" friends in your life who will give it to you straight, even if the truth hurts. He tells of some of his close friends who would sit him down and tell him at various times when he was being arrogant, brash, tactless, always correcting people yet being stubborn and contrary if he himself was ever corrected. Essentially, they would let him know whenever his sometimes hypocritical nature was driving people away. So Pausch recommends that its important for flaws to be "social rather than moral". 

 

The Last Lecture, as presented here, is a book translation of Pausch's original speech at his college. Pausch's ideas were molded into book form with the help of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, who was present in the audience at the original lecture. Pausch's words got such rave reviews, people immediately clamored for a book form they could gift to friends, family, co-workers, etc. 

 

This book has gotten a flood of rave reviews pretty much since its day of publication. Pausch does offer some nice morsels of inspiration such as:

 

  • *Give yourself permission to dream
  • * Stay humble. "No job is beneath you."
  • * "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you want."

 

All nice, warm sentiments but IMO Pausch didn't always consume what he was selling others. There were a number of passages here that came off pretty self-congratulatory. To some extent, one can cut the guy some slack, he was nearing death. Still, in my mind, even death shouldn't allow one to go out on too smug a note. There were some things about this guy that just REALLY bugged me. Choosing to do a speaking engagement over being at home for your wife's birthday when you both know you won't get another chance to celebrate? Nope, sorry, not cool. And the whole ranking system he did with his students where everyone was publicly given a rating from worst to greatest and him claiming he was "doing them a favor." Whaa?! I know this book is well loved by many but there were just some things here that screamed "jerk" to me. 

Review
3 Stars
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead #1)
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson

Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

In the town of Gilead, Iowa, 76 year old Congregationalist minister John Ames senses he is nearing death and is trying to prepare his family for his imminent passing. Author Marilynne Robinson lays out the entire novel in the form of one long letter Ames is writing to his nearly 7 year old son (obviously a son he fathered late in life). This letter is largely full of Ames' musings on his long life, seasoned with long stories,  meaningful anecdotes, lessons learned, etc..."As I write I am aware that my memory has made much of very little."

 

 

 

 

He also tries to impart final lessons to his son on the value in being financially humble yet rich in familial bonds, and the hardships & merits that come from living a life of service.

 

 

"I can't believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we have lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life. For example, at this very moment I feel a kind of loving grief for you as you read this, because I do not know you, and because you have grown up fatherless, you poor child, lying on your belly now in the sun with Soapy asleep on the small of your back. You are drawing those terrible pictures that you will bring me to admire, and which I will admire because I have not the heart to say one word that you might remember against me....I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful."

 

I was moved at Ames' protective thoughts regarding one Jack Boughton, a man Ames fears may pose a threat to his family after Ames' death. Minster or no, you gotta respect that father gene kicking in:

 

"How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it? You have already asked after him twice this morning. Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I'm afraid theology would fail me."

 

It may come as no surprise to some but I'll go ahead and let the general reader know that this one turns pretty heavily religious. Our main character is a minister so it naturally comes with the territory, but even with that in mind it still felt like overkill at times. Long, looong bits on preaching, a lot of actual Scripture woven into the novel's text.  Also, Ames swings his thoughts back to the topic of his grandfather SO MUCH, to the point of distraction for me.

 

 

With the narrator coming from a long line of preachers, there's a healthy amount of biblical overtones & parallels. Some of the sermons were totally lost on me, but I did enjoy the theme of creating a life of love and strong family bonds. Ames' description of his relationship with his second wife (the mother of the son he is writing to) has its memorably heartwarming bits. Together a relatively brief time, only 10 years married by the start of the novel (he 67, she in her mid-30s at their wedding) , Ames shares with his son that he takes comfort in leaving the world knowing he was able to provide his wife the stable life she craved, though he hints that she "settled". The way the proposal went down was pretty cute, the deadpan way she just says "You should marry me", his equally straight-faced "You're right, I think I shall", her "Well then, I'll see you tomorrow." and Ames admitting to his son that it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in his life LOL

 

If you're the kind of reader who heavily relies on plot, you'll likely be disappointed with this one. In that respect, this novel is pretty dull. Its strength mainly lies in the thought-provoking subjects Ames presents in his letter. For that, it may make for a good book club pick. Mostly my take away was the warmth and love Ames tries to imprint upon his son and wife through his final words. 

 

Review
3.5 Stars
The Whispering of the Willows by Tonya Jewel Blessing
The Whispering of the Willows - Tonya Jewel Blessing

A work of historical fiction, The Whispering of the Willows is set in the late 1920s in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. Eighth grader Emerald is about to learn some hard lessons when a deeply disturbed man is thrust into her life by her abusive father and enabling mother. Author Tonya Jewel Blessing tells a story about a young woman's struggles and redemption. The blossoming young woman is accompanied by her friends and her foes on the journey towards hope and healing. Love weaves through gut-wrenching circumstances and dismal poverty. There, Emerald Ashby grows strong despite grievous wrongs committed against her. 

~from back cover

 

 

 

Emerald "Emie" Ashby is a young girl from a dirt poor family, just starting her teen years, coming of age in the small Appalachian town of Big Creek, West Virginia during the 1920s. With her 8th grade year of schooling coming to a close, Emie's father decides "she ain't a boy that can carry his weight", so he decides to arrange to have her married off to a local boy... a decision he makes without so much as a word to Emie herself. 

 

It's the choice of the groom that gets everyone's hackles up. Young Charlie, still working through his teens himself, has already gotten himself a reputation for being short-tempered, mean-spirited, possibly even abusive towards women. Just like his father. Emie's mother, Alma, though used to acquiescing to her husband's wishes, fears that if this marriage goes through, her daughter will be unfairly condemned to a life of endless work and abuse from both husband and father-in-law, leaving her with little more than an utterly broken spirit. When Emie's father, Ahab, continues to insist that the match is a good one, Emie's older brother, Ernest, begins to have suspicions of ulterior motives. Sure enough, some digging on Ernest's part turns up the truth: Emie's marriage to this boy is so important to Ahab because of its ties to a business deal he needs to see succeed. Unfortunately, Ernest's involvement in the family drama leads him to find young Emie one night, propped against the support rail of a bridge, still alive but with her body battered & broken following a sexual assault. 

 

From there the story becomes one of Emie's physical and emotional healing, working through the emotions that come with having one's childhood unexpectedly truncated, and the need to make sure such horror doesn't befall her younger sisters. Emie gets a fresh start under the protective wing of "Auntie Ada", not a biological aunt but one Emie calls a "love aunt", a longtime friend of Alma. It's in Ada's home that Emie experiences the kind of environment every young person should be privy to: one of love, kindness, tolerance and compassion for all.

 

 

"Even in darkness, there was always a measure of light."

 

This is illustrated firsthand when Ada hears of a black man, ironically named Justice, who is falsely accused and arrested for Emie's assault. Everyone in town knows who's likely responsible, but because of the person's position in town, it's hushed up and a fall guy is produced. Well, Ada won't stand for it. Once Justice's release is arranged, she not only takes in him but his entire family to keep them safe from those who'd wish him harm. Not only does Ada offer the family food, shelter and friendship, but she also works her magic to arrange for educational opportunities for Justice's young children. 

 

"Around my table, we are all equal like the good Lord intended." ~ Ada

 

It's through the nurturing environment of Ada's homestead that Emie learns the true meaning of respect, love, and healthy family bonds. Through witnessing Ada tackling social injustices head on, Emie is provided a firm example of what it means to stand by one's word and protect the innocent. 

 

"God listens to all prayers, darlin', even the ones too painful to be sayin' out loud." ~Ada to Emie

 

I couldn't quite put my finger on what was creating the sensation, but there was something to the writing here that made this novel feel much more dense and complex than one might expect for being less than 400 pages. The plot somehow manages to simultaneously be complex yet easily imaginable, scary as that sounds. The characterization of Emie's father alone made much of the text hard to stomach, imagining a father that would repeatedly put his daughter in the path of danger with little more than a shoulder shrug and a hope for solid monetary gain for his decisions. And then there's Alma. The yin and yang of dysfunctional relationships -- if there's an abusive husband, there naturally has to be the doormat wife to say "he has his reasons for being difficult." In this case, Alma reasons away her husband's abuse by saying he wasn't the same man she married when he came back from World War 1, but the horrors he saw make him lash out....it's not really him doing it... etc. Just picturing this couple -- the father easily condoning the sexual assault of a minor so he can make a few extra bucks here and there, and his wife dismissing herself out of responsibility with a curt "mind your father" ... it made for a maddening reading experience! But it's a testament to author Tonya Jewel Blessing's writing that she can make a reader feel SO strongly towards her characters! 

 

One way Blessing lightens the heaviness of some of the darker bits of the plot is by incorporating nods to Appalachian folklore as well as a sweet love story for Emie that quietly, gently unfolds under the whispering of willow trees by the river, teaching her to trust again and believe that a good man won't mind waiting for a great gal (and that these men do exist, if one only has faith!) The folklore that heads every chapter was entertaining, a number of them being not too far off from what many of us would deem "old wives' tales". Some of them are oddly specific, such as to keep evil away, find the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit.. or flower that bloom out of season are evil. I got a kick out of some of the things that create bad luck, according to these Appalachian beliefs: bathing on your wedding day, watching a person leave until they are out of sight, dreaming of muddy water... just to name a few. 

 

While the subject matter can be tough to stomach at times, Blessing's writing here has a true down-home way about it. Her way of describing the emotions and environments of these characters has a certain flow, a kind of lyricism to it that offers the reader a true sense of mountain life of the 1920s. There were times during the first half of the novel where portions of the writing came off a little too direct for this girl's liking, leaving little room for mystery or opportunities for the reader to have some fun with guessing / inference. However, the suspenseful plot twists (particularly the major tragedy explored in the final chapters) Blessing stashes away on the back end of the story more than made up for this! It's also admirable that Blessing uses a couple of her characters to address the struggle & hardships of interracial relationships within a largely racist community. It's sad to say that though this novel is set in the 1920s, what the reader sees this couple go through won't seem too unfathomable in today's world.

 

* FYI: or those interested in this book as a possible book club pick, a list of discussion questions is included at the back of the book. 

 

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

 

________

 

EXTRAS:

 

* This novel is inspired by the stories of author Tonya Blessing's own mother, who grew up in the real Big Creek, WV -- an area used for the setting of the film October Sky. 

 

* Author Tonya Jewel Blessing and her husband are co-directors of Strong Cross Ministries, a non-profit dedicating to offering assistance to churches in impoverished communities around the world carry out humanitarian projects meant to better provide for struggling communities. ALL proceeds of this novel will be funded back into Strong Cross Ministries of South Africa. 

 

 

Review
4 Stars
Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James
Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel - Katherine James

Follow a year in the small town of Trinity where tragedy and humility reveal true motivation and desire. This raw and unsentimental story exposes the complicated ways that interwoven lives affect each other for good and for bad. There is the suicidal painter, Margie, who teaches her evangelical neighbor, Etta, how to paint nudes; Margie's husband, the town therapist, who suspects his work helps no one, and their college age daughter, Noel, whose roommate, Pixie, joins them at home for a winter holiday, only to fall into Trinity's freezing river. 

 

~ from back cover

 

 

 

 

TRIGGER WARNING: This novel, from the very first sentence onward, addresses themes of suicide and self-harm. 

 

 

There's one interesting mix of folks living in the small town of Trinity! The focus of this novel is mainly on Margie, an artist who has been struggling with various forms of physical and mental illness for much of her life. Most recently, her doctor has dropped a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Struggling to get a grip on her dark moods, Margie introduces herself to the reader in the opening scene of Can You See Anything Now? via a suicide attempt. Though she's nearly successful in her attempt, due to some unexpected details of the moment, Margie is given a second chance at life. 

 

Within these opening chapters, there was something that struck me as very Sylvia Plath about Margie, what with the struggles with the emotionally distant husband and all. Perhaps that is what author Katherine James meant to convey, as the likeness between Margie and Sylvia Plath IS actually brought up as the reader nears the final chapters of the book. Margie mentions to a friend that her husband treats her like Sylvia Plath, a moment where, had I been there in person, I would've likely pointed and yelled a "haha! I knew it!" The rice box scene was particularly telling:

 

She struggled with the box of rice. "The side of the box says to push and pull up to open but it's not working." She scratched at what looked like a perforated part of the cardboard.

 

Nick said, "I don't read the directions, I just open the box."

 

"You force things."

 

He took the box from her and pressed the perforated tab in with his thumb  and handed it back to her. 

 

She turned back to the stove. "You force things and then they break."

 

Though still deeply depressed much of the time, Margie makes an honest effort to find the good in each day. Quite the feat, as the reader comes to learn that Margie is married to a therapist disillusioned with his work and quietly grumbly over how his life has turned out, though he outwardly tries to put a good face on things for show. Margie gives the impression that she and her husband, Nick, were quite happy and in love for many years but over time something ever so subtly shifted. Though there is still love there, the kind that comes with having been with someone for a good chunk of one's lifetime, perhaps these two are not IN love these days? Because there is a noticeable difference, one that is more easily defined after many years of life together, between having a general, overall autopilot kind of love for someone versus still having the hearts aflutter IN LOVE quality to one's union. Margie's source of happiness and strength these days seems to largely stem from her bond with daughter Noel... but even there Margie fears a loosening of the child-mother ties.

 

Hurting in her own heart, living with a dissatisfied spouse, these two empty-nesters struggling to stay emotionally connected with their now college-age daughter, Noel... your heart just breaks for this woman silently but fervently grasping for a lifeline of light and joy. But the important thing is she's trying. A common theme that runs through the stories of all the characters actually, that determination to make a daily effort to try, even when the path seems obscured, even impossible to traverse. Margie tries to keep things exciting and positive within her marriage, she tries to build a friendship with neighbor Etta, even if it feels awkward at first, she tries to talk with her daughter, even if she's not sure she's saying the things Noel needs to hear. 

 

There was an equation for everything. The scattered physical pain and the pall of her mind that were constantly tugging her out of alignment could sometimes feel like proof that she was responsible. Certain illnesses reek of a sovereign retribution, even though she wasn't even sure she believed in God.

 

Margie's neighbor, Etta, is another character who gets a good chunk of the novel's focus. Etta is also an artist, albeit one who has developed a following largely through her paintings of tomatoes. Just tomatoes. But Etta wants to branch out, maybe start doing some paintings of rooftops. She feels there's something magical about the way light touches rooftops that she'd like to capture. Connecting with Margie, one artist to another, Etta is pushed to explore her artistic side in ways she's never considered before. While Etta has her own struggles with depression and general dissatisfaction, her method of coping is to just push aside any and all negative thought. Instead, she challenges herself to be the very best wife, friend, bible study group member.... whatever life asks of her, she will give her all. Etta powers through the darker days with relentless optimism: visiting with the sad or lonely, cheering a down in the dumps neighbor with her homemade baked goods, whatever will turn the world's frowns upside down. 

 

This novel is definitely one that begs to be taken slow and honestly contemplated. Thinking over my reading experience after that last page, the book in its entirety was not solid gold for me, but man, it was close. There were some points where certain conversations felt a bit filler-ish. There were also multiple points within the last 100 pages or so where I thought to myself "oh, this would make for a great dramatic close right here," but the story would continue on.. and on... perhaps to its detriment.

 

But given time to think on the novel's topics days after completing the book, there's so much good here...  good in the "hard truths" sense, a kind of tough love way of storytelling ... that can really benefit those brave enough to face it. This is not a book for the reader who always and only ever wants the happy ending with rainbows and gumdrops. This is for the reader who has been run through the gauntlets of life and wants literary representation for it. The characters of the town of Trinity illustrate the person who cries out for the desire to truly be seen, the need and hope one has for loved ones to somehow innately sense your silent struggle and TRULY understand your pain when you can't find the words to ask for help yourself... impossible as that can be at times, you can't help but want it anyway. 

 

Through their individual life paths, each character within this novel, in their own way and time, discovers the incredible release that comes with a good ugly cry when you've been trying to be strong for so long, as well as the lesson that oftentimes the best way to heal or at least diminish the pain in your own heart is to help others work through their moments of suffering.

 

"Wisdom was knowing how stupid you are."

 

Though this novel technically falls under Christian Fiction, purists of the genre may struggle with the grittier themes of this story. Can You See Anything Now? touches upon mature content themes such as cursing, premarital sex, drug abuse, suicide, and self harm.  While possibly hard to stomach, these elements do play an important role in the emotional struggle and overall development of the characters. Still, readers should be aware of what they are getting into, particularly if the reader is highly sensitive to such themes. One scene involving the character who struggles with self harm is rather memorably graphic as it describes the actual process and damage on the body of the character. 

 

That being said, if you are a big fan of the topic of love languages, that topic as well has a recurring role within the characters' conversations. 

 

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

 

____________

 

EXTRA:

 

* The song "Brave" by Riley Pearce kept running through my mind as I read this novel. Just offering that if you like extra musical sensory experiences with your reading :-)

Review
3 Stars
The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti by Annie Vanderbilt
The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti - Annie Vanderbilt

Lily has come to southern France in search of a new perspective, hoping that the sun's soft rays and the fragrant sea breezes will provide a relaxing respite from the demands of her lively daughter and her family's Idaho cattle ranch. Two years after her husband's sudden death, in the house that's been in his family for generations, she finally finds some stolen weeks to make sense of the past. To Madame Olivetti, her cranky old manual typewriter, Lily entrusts all her secrets, pounding out the story of the men she loved, the betrayals she endured, the losses she still regrets. And with the companionship of Yves, the seductive handyman who comes by to make repairs, Lily comes closer to understanding her exhilarating past and to discovering she has a new story to tell, one about the delights of starting over.

Amazon.com

 

 

Needing a break from the demands of family and her cattle ranch business, Idaho widow Lily Crisp decides to take a vacation in the South of France. While settling in at La Pierre Rouge, the home she inherited after her husband's passing, Lily journals her French-inspired / influenced thoughts and experiences using an old typewriter she's dubbed "Madame Olivetti". It's through the "Madame Olivetti papers" that the reader also learns the story of not only Lily's relationship with her late husband (how they met, how their romance developed, struggles in later years, etc) but also her more recent bedroom escapades with a certain French hottie handyman by the name of Yves Lebrun. Yves arrives one day to start work on repairing the roof of La Pierre Rouge, but over time his down-to-earth perspective on things (once Lily deciphers it through his limited English) helps our girl unravel twisted up mysteries within her heart and mind... by way of her lower regions ;-)

 

While much of this novel comes off very fluffy and surface level, there is something to be said for the topics it quietly addresses: the struggles of rebuilding a life after a spouse of decades passes away, the tricky navigation of dating after the age of 40, the side eye a woman might get for being so bold as to date an obviously younger man (Lily writes of her annoyance at the looks she gets for being in the Over 50 crowd but still happily living as a woman a good 20 years younger). There's something here that could easily appeal to those who've had late in life romances themselves.  Though I'm years away from those years myself, I still found a portion of Lily's story relatable when she speaks of younger years, having had her heart shattered over a failed romance but how that pain eventually led her to discovering how to open her heart again, which in turn led her to meeting her then-future husband, Paul. My romance with my own husband unfolded in a  similar way, in that respect. I even found myself nodding in understanding to Lily writing of her first time sleeping with Paul: "a sexual exorcism of one ex-wife and an ex-lover." That sense of joy and even relief, when you get that inkling in your mind that maybe, just maybe, you got things right this time! 

 

"I think she fell in love with my love for her. I was pretty well gone and I made her feel like an infinitely fascinating woman -- which of course I thought she was."

~Paul

 

The slow build of Lily and Paul's relationship made for sweet reading. Author Annie Vanderbilt also writes in a layer of realism to Lily and Paul's later years that I could appreciate. Vanderbilt illustrates that sure, over years of being together, doldrums can set in, things can get predictable, which can sometimes lead people to make poor choices in their fervent attempts to shake things up in their lives. Even the most outwardly perfect couplings take dedicated work behind the scenes to hold that foundation together.

 

He kissed her lightly on the cheek , then turned and walked down the alleyway toward his car. It's over, she thought, it can get no worse. 

 

Blessedly, the future is all delusion. Only the past is known, and even then we tamper, we distort. But that moment she saw clearly: the heart's great pulse of desire, undiluted. Nothing more. So she watched him leave, and when he had left, she closed and latched the blue door behind her. 

 

All in all, some nice observances about long term (I'm talking decades here) relationships. The writing has a nice, easy flow and the contents within these "secret papers" will likely resonate, even if just a small bit, with a good many female readers... at least those past their freshman college years! 

I review for BookLook Bloggers




Entertainment Earth