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Review
3 Stars
Falling In Love With Joseph Smith by Jane Barnes
Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: Finding God in the Unlikeliest of Places - Jane Barnes

When award-winning documentary film writer Jane Barnes was working on the PBS Frontline/American Experience special series The Mormons, she was surprised to find herself passionately drawn to Joseph Smith. The product of an Episcopalian, “WASPy” family, she couldn’t remember ever having met a Mormon before her work on the series—much less having dallied with the idea of converting to a religion shrouded in controversy. But so it was: She was smitten with a man who claimed to have translated the word of God by peering into the dark of his hat. In this brilliantly written book, Barnes describes her experiences working on the PBS series as she moved from secular curiosity to the brink of conversion to Mormonism. It all began when she came across Joseph Smith's early writings. She was delighted to discover how funny and utterly unique he was—and how widely divergent his wild yet profound visions of God were from the Church of Latter-day Saints as we know it today. Her fascination deepened when, much to her surprise, she learned that her eighth cousin Anna Barnes converted to Mormonism in 1833. Through Anna, Barnes follows her family’s close involvement with Smith and the crises caused by his controversial practice of polygamy. Barnes’ unlikely path helps her gain a newfound respect for the innovative American spirit that lies at the heart of Mormonism—and for a religion that is, in many ways, still coming into its own. An intimate portrait of the man behind one of America’s fastest growing religions, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith offers a surprising and provocative window into the Mormon experience.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

For years, I've been friends with a handful of people who believe in / practice Mormonism. Whenever we've gotten into talks of their religion, I find myself fascinated with their belief system and the unique culture that develops around this particular line of faith. I think my interest mainly came from a simple place of curiosity, since for so long I knew virtually nothing about the history of Mormonism beyond some dude a long time ago in the woods being sly with some golden tablets... something along those lines. And, of course, who can escape all the polygamy documentaries out there these days. Figuring there was a whole lot more to the story, when I came across this book in a bargain bin one day, I figured what the heck, let's see what we learn.

 

Quite a bit, as it turns out! Joseph Smith, Sr. (the father of the famous one), according to this book, was something of a drinker and a get-rich-quick-schemer. It seems Junior didn't fall too far from the tree, at least in the early years. He took a similar route to dad, having, by the age of 15, already picked up smoking, drinking and dabbling in the occult. At the age of 17 is when he claims to first start seeing angels in the woods who tell him of the whereabouts of sacred golden plates. These angels tell Joseph Smith (the one this book focuses on) that every September he is to visit the spot where they claim the plates are buried... but he won't FIND the plates until he is deemed worthy. It seems said seraphim gave him the stamp of approval around the age of 21. 

 

From there, Smith brings in friend Martin Harris to transcribe the messages on the plates. Harris' wife grows increasingly upset (jealous?) over her mister's obsession with the project, insisting he show her what he's been working so hard on. And then... a scandal is born! On the day that Emma, Joseph Smith's 1st wife, is giving birth to their first son (who sadly died the same day), Smith gets news that the 116 pages of transcribed text he and Harris had compiled so far ... had gone missing! Suspicion falls on Martin's wife. The friendship between Martin and Joseph takes a hit, Emma helps with some of the continuing transcription work until the new scribe, Oliver Cowdery, is brought in to take over.

 

I had thrown myself into the Book of Mormon many times, and it had thrown me right back out. First off, there was the problem of its style. Impatient outsiders always complain about it. But the style was a real  problem. There were a number of phrases that Smith repeated and repeated, though as Mark Twain observed, " 'It came to pass' was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet." ~~ Jane Barnes

 

It was funny to read of how Emma Smith sometimes had doubt over her husband's prophet gifts, as she knew him to be pretty much illiterate.

 

 

As Emma once said, "He could not pronounce the word Sariah," the name of a central Book of Mormon's patriarch's wife. Joseph was unsure of biblical history, yet wrote in detail of things and places he had never been. He once stopped the middle of translating to ask if Jerusalem had walls around it. When Emma, the better scholar, confirmed that had been the case, he breathed a sigh of relief. He'd already written the walls into the text. Could he have "been deceived"? Not according to his wife, who said, "Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon... It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible."

 

 

She also sometimes questioned the actual existence of the plates, since Smith was SUPER secretive over who he allowed to see them. Whoever was doing the transcribing work for him would listen to his words through a curtained area and just write down whatever he said. According to Barnes' research, eleven people signed testimony swearing that they HAD seen the plates for themselves, but oddly, these statement were retracted, then followed by them denying ever making the retracted statements... whaaa? Just weird behavior all around.

 

The part of all this that made me really feel for Emma Smith was the description of Joseph first bringing up polygamy to her. He stood before her and claimed that an angel had appeared to him multiple times between the years 1834-1842, holding a sword to Joseph, threatening death upon him if Joseph did not take up polygamy. The modern wife in me reading this immediately felt a BS induced eyeroll coming on ... but it was a different time for Emma. Perhaps it was more difficult for her to speak up. But let it be said here, Emma was not a fan. And whatever Joseph did or did not see, he definitely took advantage of the situation -- three marriages by 1841, eleven by 1842, SEVENTEEN by 1843!!

 

Emma's reluctance... and later, resistance... to the practice caused definite tensions between her and her husband. Emma would notice that Joseph would send men out on missions for the church... okay, business as usual... but then in certain circumstances, he would keep the men away so he could snatch up the wives and marry them to himself! Come sermon time, Joseph would preach to men to discuss the topic of polygamy with their first wives before engaging in any more, but he was never upfront with his own wife about his. The first few of his wives he already had on the books before he ever made mention of it to Emma! He'd just try to explain them off as "long term house guests" until it just got too hard to dismiss what was really going on. Still, in this book we see Emma really trying to stay true  and dedicated to her husband through it all, even though her heart must have been breaking.

 

One scene of defiance that had me cheering though --- Barnes describes a moment where Emma and Joseph are arguing again about her resistance to obey his polygamy wishes. Joseph writes on a piece of paper that a decree has come straight from God that she IS to obey. Emma picks up the piece of paper with a pair of fireplace tongs and swiftly drops the paper into the glowing fireplace. Yes, girl! Maybe that's as close as she ever got to a middle finger response, but at some point EVERY woman has her limits!

 

By no means did this book strike me as an objective look at the history of Mormonism. Oh no, there is most definitely a bias to the writing, but for someone who doesn't practice this faith myself and had virtually no knowledge of the history going in, at the very least it was an interesting --- and if I'm being 100 here, sometimes laughable -- depiction of the origins of Mormonism. I'm not here to knock anyone's belief system, it's just that some of the stuff Joseph Smith seemed to get away with... I can't help be feel like REAALLY? NO ONE called this guy out, AND he's still considered a prophet?! It's just hard for me to wrap my sense of logic around.

 

Through researching the history of this book, author Jane Barnes comes to discover her own genetic ties to Anna Barnes, the wife of Joseph Smith's bodyguard as well as Harriet Barney, Brigham Young's 49th wife. 49TH. Y'ALL.

 

Review
3 Stars
House by Frank Peretti & Ted Dekker
House - Ted Dekker, Frank Peretti

Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker—two of the most acclaimed writers of supernatural thrillers—have joined forces for the first time to craft a story unlike any you've ever read. Enter House—where you'll find yourself thrown into a killer's deadly game in which the only way to win is to lose . . . and the only way out is in. The stakes of the game become clear when a tin can is tossed into the house with rules scrawled on it. Rules that only a madman—or worse—could have written. Rules that make no sense yet must be followed.One game. Seven players. Three rules. Game ends at dawn.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Jack, a writer, and Stephanie, a singer, find themselves having car trouble on a back road in the middle of nowhere. The car engine is dead and, no surprise, they can't seem to get cell service. The two decide to hoof it on foot and eventually come upon signs of civilization. To be more precise, a literal sign advertising THE WAYSIDE INN. Naturally, they figure they might be someone there who can help them. Shortly after entering the building, they come upon another couple -- Leslie, a psychiatrist, or a psychology professor? both? I was a little confused on that point, and Randy, a hotel CEO --  with a car trouble story eerily similar to their own. 

 

The two couples soon meet inn owners Betty & Stewart and their son Pete. It doesn't take long for both parties to agree that they're all solidly creeped out by this family. There's also something odd going on with the house itself. There is a true threat lurking on the property but it's not where these folks think it is!

 

The prologue of this novel is only about 1 1/2 pages long but it quickly introduces the reader to Barsidious White, and all we really establish about him is that he seems to have done something very bad. 

 

The whole story spans roughly about 1 day, beginning at around 5:17pm. Many (but not all) of the chapters are headed with a timestamp so you can get an estimate of time passing from scene to scene. *Around 4:30am, things get REAL weird.* The early pages (much of Chapter 2, notably) plays off of Alabama redneck / country cop stereotypes. 

 

For what's clearly supposed to be a thriller / mild horror kind of novel, the action takes awhile to get going. Tensions really escalate around pages 45-50 and from there the action keeps a pretty consistent hold. This one is definitely geared toward fans of hillbilly style horror, maybe even fans of the Saw movie franchise. It doesn't get quite that dark here, just kinda has that overall vibe to it, as well as a similar "how far would you go" challenge posed to the story's characters. 

 

The horror / thriller aspect ... even the paranormal elements... that was all pretty mild IMO. Entertaining, easy read with a fair amount of creep factor but if you're after hardcore chills, this particular book might be a bit of a letdown. White has some edge to him, psychologically speaking, in that he has something Manson-esque about him in the way he tricks others into doing his dirty work for him. If anything, I found this one fun in the way that I like to watch low-budget horror / slasher movies in the fall as part of the whole Halloween season festivities. Being able to laugh at the cheezy lines and the ridiculously poor decision making is what makes the experience worthwhile! Like the giggle I got with the cop in this story at one point pronouncing, "I don't mind pointing out that I might not make it"... because think about it, are cops not some of the first to go in horror movies?! Stephanie though, her frequent exclamations of "Oh my God! Oh my God!" ... seriously, just ALL the time. Ugh, OMG Stephanie please shut it. 

 

Though this is co-written by two power players in the Christian Fiction genre, the religious influence here is actually pretty minimal, until you get near the end and there's a mention of "look to the son of God". I actually kinda liked the symbolism within the story though, illustrating the importance of not letting the evil inside you control you.  

 

A decently fun autumn read for religious and secular readers alike, so long as you're not looking for anything monumental. This is definitely one of those "just enjoy it for what it is" kind of experiences.

Review
2 Stars
Tease by Amanda Maciel
By Amanda Maciel Tease - Amanda Maciel

Emma Putnam is dead, and it's all Sara Wharton's fault. At least, that's what everyone seems to think. Sara, along with her best friend and three other classmates, has been criminally charged for the bullying and harassment that led to Emma's shocking suicide. Now Sara is the one who's ostracized, already guilty according to her peers, the community, and the media. In the summer before her senior year, in between meetings with lawyers and a court-recommended therapist, Sara is forced to reflect on the events that brought her to this moment—and ultimately consider her own role in an undeniable tragedy.

And she'll have to find a way to move forward, even when it feels like her own life is over.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Teenager Emma Putnam is found dead and now Sara Wharton and three of her friends are being charged with bullying / harrassment, believed to have played a key role in Emma's decision to take her own life. In the time prior to the case going to trial, more and more Sara finds herself being socially ostracize.

 

The reader learns Emma's history: a redhead who struggled to develop friendships with the other girls in her school (set up as Emma was just SO pretty it would send other girls into deep, unchecked jealousy). Emma is labeled a slut / boyfriend stealer. In addition, Sara and her best friend Brielle set up a fake FB account where they can publicly shame Emma. Word of the profile page gets around school and Sara & Brielle find themselves in the principal's office getting a lecture on the school's bullying policy... which only incites them to find even more ways to throw hate Emma's way. 

 

I'd say by now the topic of bullying has been solidly covered in YA fiction, as it should be... but this particular novel doesn't really bring anything new to the table. I found no one to really root for (even Emma, when you get to know her story, had her unlikeable qualities), very few redeeming qualities in any of the characters and no one stepping up to take responsibility for their actions. More like everyone comes forward with their versions of "I don't see how I did anything wrong!" If anything, Sara played victim, at one point even saying, "my family gives me strength to get through this"... girl, what? We're all here BECAUSE of you! She rips one into Carmichael but then follows with "Maybe you could take me out for dinner"... Oh, but then she tries with the half-hearted apology for her actions slipped into the second to last chapter? Nah. Nope. Definitely didn't buy that. 

 

What I will give this book credit for though is the resources page at the very back, three pages of books, websites and organizations you can explore if you are feeling depressed or suicidal, a most important tool for teens in these times. For educators, I would also perhaps recommend a viewing of the films Bully and Mean Creek, gritty stories that depict just how dangerously far bullying can go. 

Review
4 Stars
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman
Falling Out of Time (Vintage International) - David Grossman

In Falling Out of Time, David Grossman has created a genre-defying drama––part play, part prose, pure poetry––to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children. It begins in a small village, in a kitchen, where a man announces to his wife that he is leaving, embarking on a journey in search of their dead son. The man––called simply Walking Man––paces in ever-widening circles around the town. One after another, all manner of townsfolk fall into step with him (the Net-Mender, the Midwife, the Elderly Math Teacher, even the Duke), each enduring his or her own loss. The walkers raise questions of grief and bereavement: Can death be overcome by an intensity of speech or memory? Is it possible, even for a fleeting moment, to call to the dead and free them from their death? Grossman’s answer to such questions is a hymn to these characters, who ultimately find solace and hope in their communal act of breaching death’s hermetic separateness. For the reader, the solace is in their clamorous vitality, and in the gift of Grossman’s storytelling––a realm where loss is not merely an absence but a life force of its own.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Translated from the original Hebrew, Israeli author David Grossman's unique novel explores various aspects of the grieving process through a combination of prose, poetry, even presenting a bit of the story in play format. At its core, it is described as a "fable of parental grief".

 

Our main character, simply named "Walking Man", working through the grief of having recently lost a child, paces around the courtyard area in front of his home in ever-widening concentric circles. This pattern has him gradually moving throughout the village, talking with other townspeople on matters they are struggling with in their own lives. Others in town choose to fall in step with him, so through this, the reader comes to know Net Mender (mute himself, he lost a six year old child); Midwife (married to Town Cobbler, they also lost a child -- a son less than 2 years old); Math Teacher; and The Duke, each working through the stories of their individual losses or struggles. Over the course of the book, we come to see that this process carries on for about five years. Occasionally, a question on the themes of grief or death is posed, something for readers themselves to think on. 

 

There are additional characters with a little extra something interesting to their own stories, such as Town Chronicler and Town Centaur. The chronicler serves as an almost Shakespearean sort of narrator to the rest of the story, but he also has a place as character in the plot (such as it is) himself. Having lost a daughter himself, the chronicler -- as you may have guessed -- chronicles the town's activities -- especially this new fad of walking in circles everyone seems to have taken up -- in his journal, findings to be shared later with The Duke. The Duke has decreed that villagers are to share & explain their various grief stories to the Chronicler as truthfully as possible. Each person in town is asks, how would you describe the grief in your mind?

 

Then there's the Centaur, who is the story's placeholder for representing people that choose to try to heal or cover up emotional hurt through rabid consumerism, sometimes leading to compulsive hoarding. Centaur -- who lost a nearly 12 year old son -- most definitely uses his "collecting" as a coping mechanism, and he also seems the most vocal and cross or is it just brutal honesty? regarding the behaviors of his neighbors. Some could read it as him simply deflecting away from his own problems. As he cries out at one point, "Even the Inquisition's tax accessors didn't torture people like this!" (regarding the Chronicler's line of questioning). Near the end, Centaur actually takes over the narration of the book. 

 

Presented in an allegorical-like style similar to that of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the primary theme of this story does reflect on mourning the death of a child. One character's story even looks at losing a child to suicide. However, other emotional trials are explored as well. The way Grossman chooses to bring forth the story draws the reader toward their own quiet ponderings on the various stages of mourning -- you know: mourning, sadness, denial, anger, bartering, acceptance -- as well as the ways a grieving mind will tend to look for signs of faith or hope in nearly anything. 

 

So, yes, undeniably some heavy themes going on in this little book (less than 200 pages total) but the combination of the unique format presentation (which makes it an even quicker reader), the thoughts it provokes, and just the sheer word choice still make this a pleasure to read. I haven't read any of Grossman's other books but some of the lines in this one just stunned me in the stark, simple beauty of the phrasing. Lines like "we unspoke that night", "Why did you become dead? How could you be incautious?" or this image of a married couple trying to come back from nearly breaking apart: "I stood up. I wrapped you in a blanket, you gripped my hand, looked straight into my eyes: the man and woman we had been nodded farewell."

 

 

All universal ideas he incorporates here, but never before have I experienced them presented in quite this way. Just think on that one line:  "Why did you become dead? How could you be incautious?". It sounds odd at first, but when you pause and consider it, does it not just capture that early anger you sometimes feel at having lost someone too early in life... that sense of how DARE they leave me? Again, that choice of wording! Amazing! 

Review
3.5 Stars
A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeline L'Engle by Sarah Arthur
A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeline L'Engle - Sarah Arthur

Bestselling and beloved author Madeleine L'Engle, Newbery winner for A Wrinkle in Time, was known the world round for her imaginative spirit and stories. She was also known to spark controversy - too Christian for some, too unorthodox for others. Somewhere in the middle was a complex woman whose embrace of paradox has much to say to a new generation of readers today. A Light So Lovely paints a vivid portrait of this enigmatic icon's spiritual legacy, starting with her inner world and expanding into fresh reflections of her writing for readers today. Listen in on intimate interviews with L'Engle's literary contemporaries such as Philip Yancey and Luci Shaw, L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, and influential fans such as Makoto Fujimura, Nikki Grimes, and Sarah Bessey, as they reveal new layers to the woman behind the stories we know and love. A vibrant, imaginative read, this book pulls back the curtain to illuminate L'Engle's creative journey, her persevering faith, and the inspiring, often unexpected ways these two forces converged.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Wow, this little spiritual bio on L'Engle covers so much about her life in general it is hard to know where to start with a review, but I'll give it a go. 

 

Author Sarah Arthur became deeply invested in L'Engle's works thanks to the recommendation of a college roommate. Arthur even got a chance to get to know L'Engle in person after the author gave speeches at Arthur's alma mater, Wheaton College. Years later, we readers now have this exploration of L'Engle's spiritual legacy, aided by personal commentary from various notable authors, scientists, theologians and friends and family who share their memorable interactions with the famed author of A Wrinkle In Time, one of dozens of books she authored over her lifetime. 

 

The cluster of messages that all of Madeleine's books transmit include: you are loved, you matter, your questions are important, your joy fulfills a promise, fear not.

 

Though not the only topic covered, the bulk of this book focuses on L'Engle's lifelong spiritual journey: how it evolved, how it was worked into her writings, and how she was, at times, vilified by some of her audience for being, as they saw it, a hypocritical Christian. They questioned how she could consider herself a person of honest faith, a true follower, if she continued to publish books that incorporated elements of magic and science fiction. L'Engle was never apologetic for her beliefs or her methods of practicing them and this book illustrates how she would hold her stance against critics. 

 

In its essence, L'Engle's belief system can be boiled down to "sacred can be found in the secular". She insists that faith is a personal experience, so it should be a given that there's no one way to do it. Yet the world is full of so-called believers who will, in fact, happily line up to point at others and say yes, they ARE definitely doing it (religion) wrong. A Light So Lovely rolls out testimonial after testimonial, all these generations of readers who have had their own faith journey strengthened/ renewed / restored by L'Engle's influence, often without her knowledge... usually simply through the readings of her wonderfully whimsical and inspiring stories... that yes, at times, do incorporate subtle Christian imagery, much like C.S. Lewis (who is compared to her quite a bit in this book). Many interviewed for this book explain that her stories helped them feel it was okay to have questions about doctrines or experience feelings of skepticism or confusion. All she ever asked of her readers was to strive to never lose their childhood sense of wonder about the world. 

 

Truth sneaks in through the back door of the imagination, while our defenses are down, when it has a greater chance of changing us from the inside out... Madeline asserted, "...stories are preparation for living in the real world with courage and expectancy.... possibly as a defense against the troubled, everyday world of my childhood, for nourishment I learned to rely more and more on the private world that I discovered in books."

 

The story regarding the development of A Wrinkle In Time I found pretty interesting. L'Engle and her husband had been living in Connecticut with their family up until 1959, when they chose to move the homestead to New York. But before starting the move, they decided to take the family on a cross-country roadtrip, camping and visiting major US landmarks from coast to coast. On this trip, L'Engle toted around a box full of books by scientists and philosophers which she delved into each night after the rest of the crew went to bed. The reading of these books got her thinking which led to the germination of a loose outline of what would become A Wrinkle In Time. When she got settled back into a home, she had a first rough draft knocked out in three months!  When the first book came out, her focus wasn't so much on the accuracy of the science presented in the novel but scientists then (and even to this day) sure weighed in. Once she had a plot idea for the sequel, she realized it would involve cellular biology and so dived into an in-depth study of the actual science behind her ideas months before any writing of the novel even began. 

 

Arthur also gets into a discussion of the writing process itself as well as a look into the dynamics of the creative life in general, comparing L'Engle's process to her own. Much of this portion is to be found in the chapter "Fact and Fiction", the chapter I struggled the most with... mainly because it proved the most thought-provoking for me, being a writer myself. Arthur points out the perhaps controversial choice L'Engle made to partially fictionalize her memoir series, The Crosswick Journals. Investigating this story, Arthur poses the question of how in the right L'Engle was to do this and still publish these books as nonfiction. L'Engle excuses herself by saying its not so much lying, but more like embellishing (part of me argues that her reasoning tiptoes into semantics) but Arthur asks then how far does the writer's duty extend? One should be accountable for their thoughts, beliefs, word choice, etc.. but where does the duty end? Or does it? How far is an author responsible for the potentially damaging reaction a reader might have if their personal truth or belief does not echo the author's?

 

Arthur uses L'Engle's own family as an example: though L'Engle stood by the validity of her journals, her own children repeatedly came forward and said things just did not go down as she said. Likewise, L'Engle would dispute their versions, the children would argue that the journals presented a too idyllic version of their home life, back and forth, back and forth. Surprisingly, a couple of her kids actually pointed to the novels in her Austin Family Chronicles series as more true to their reality, even saying it hit TOO close to home at times. In fact, adopted daughter Maria flat out said she HATED the Austin Family books! It makes one wonder, after reading that L'Engle's youngest child, Bion, died of liver failure induced by alcoholism at the age of 47.

 

With a foreword by Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L'Engle's granddaughter, A Light So Lovely sums up L'Engle's life full of complicated, confusing, sometimes even saddening ideas, thought processes or choices with one basic idea: when it comes to life, just show up and be present no matter what. Don't expect to always have the answers or to even be happy every day. Life is a collection of highs and lows, so ride out the lows so you can be here for the highs.

 

I was really enjoying the first half of this book, even maybe thinking it might make it on my favorite reads of the year list, but there were some slow bits that changed my mind. There's a portion in the middle where the focus goes off the life of L'Engle and just turns more into a sermon on theology itself, to the point where I was starting to tune out a bit, if I may be honest. This trend continues on and off (though less so) for the rest of the book, so consider yourself warned if heavy-handed theology is not your thing. Even so, there's still plenty of fascinating L'Engle focused material here that has inspired me to getting digging into her bibliography again, revisiting old favorites as well as finally getting to those I've not yet tried. 

 

*Something to note: since this book covers the span of L'Engle's life, keep in mind that there will be some spoilers for her books in here, primarily the Time Quartet and the Austin Family Chronicles. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Handlebar Marketing and Zondervan Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
4 Stars
Lydia Cassatt Reading The Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Chessman, Harriet Scott (2001) Hardcover - Harriet Scott Chessman

 

This richly imagined fiction entices us into the world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. The story is told by Mary’s sister Lydia, as she poses for five of her sister’s most unusual paintings, which are reproduced in, and form the focal point of each chapter. Ill with Bright’s disease and conscious of her approaching death, Lydia contemplates her world with courageous openness, and asks important questions about love and art’s capacity to remember. 

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

Lydia Cassatt, the forty-one year old sister and muse of 19th century Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, is dying of Bright's Disease, a form of kidney disease, the same illness that took poet Emily Dickinson. While the American sisters are living in Paris, France, Mary (whom Lydia calls "May") asks her sister to sit for five paintings, each chapter of this novella dedicating itself to one of the five featured works. The story, told in Lydia's voice, imagines the conversations during those sittings, what inspired the paintings themselves, and also Lydia's own internal thoughts on such subjects as mortality, lost love, missed opportunities, and the idea of lasting legacies. Lydia finds herself quite moved by the paintings because they capture a healthier vision of her. It pleases her that this will be the way her life will be remembered for future generations, but this novella hints that in some of the paintings, Mary Cassatt may have actually snuck in some harder truths of the real Lydia's struggles, such as with "Woman and Child Driving" and "Lydia Crocheting In The Garden" (my personal favorite of the five featured).

 

I see this painting, suddenly, as a message from May to me. I know you're on a journey, the painting says, to another, darker place. And even though you betray me by leaving, I grant you companions -- a child; a groom -- to accompany you when I cannot follow. I cannot make your journey joyous, but I promise to at least record your passage.

 

 

Lydia thinks on specific moments or experiences that the average person takes for granted in the course of one's life that she sees as missed opportunities for herself because of Bright's Disease. She also reminisces about a once almost-lover lost to the Civil War, and shares with the reader her suspicions regarding the friendship between her sister Mary and Mary's friend / mentor, fellow established artist Edgar Degas, who, in this novel, is just starting to experiment with the ballet paintings that would later become one of the signature themes of his works. Degas is actually featured as one of the primary characters in author Harriet Chessman's scenes, and she illustrates him in a way that may surprise many readers.

 

This little book includes full color glossy inserts of each of the five paintings, reminding me of that "pretty, but something off" feeling I get whenever I see Cassatt's work. Then I ran across a line that maybe finally put into words the sensation I was struggling to pinpoint: a scene where Phillipe Bunty is commenting on Cassatt's painting style as "aspiring to the partially completed image". Okay, maybe a bit harsh with that wording, but truthfully, I think that was pretty much what my own impressions were leaning toward... that "something off" quality I seemed to feel being more along the lines of "something unfinished". 

 

But that isn't really the focus of this particular story. No, this is all about Lydia and her journey of pondering on her life, reaching for peace and closure as she reluctantly approaches the end of it. Poetically served up, this is a lovely if bittersweet glimpse into the humanity that inspires the art. Lydia, as Cressman imagines her, touches upon thoughts that I dare to say will prove pretty universal and moving among most readers. Definitely recommended for classic art lovers or those who just enjoy a nice, quiet, contemplative novel on a slow, soft kind of day.

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Midnight In Austenland (Austenland #2) by Shannon Hale
Midnight in Austenland - Shannon Hale

When Charlotte Kinder treats herself to a two-week vacation at Austenland, she happily leaves behind her ex-husband and his delightful new wife, her ever-grateful children, and all the rest of her real life in America. She dons a bonnet and stays at a country manor house that provides an immersive Austen experience, complete with gentleman actors who cater to the guests' Austen fantasies. Everyone at Pembrook Park is playing a role, but increasingly, Charlotte isn't sure where roles end and reality begins. And as the parlor games turn a little bit menacing, she finds she needs more than a good corset to keep herself safe. Is the brooding Mr. Mallery as sinister as he seems? What is Miss Gardenside's mysterious ailment? Was that an actual dead body in the secret attic room? And-perhaps of the most lasting importance-could the stirrings in Charlotte's heart be a sign of real-life love? The follow-up to reader favorite Austenland provides the same perfectly plotted pleasures, with a feisty new heroine, plenty of fresh and frightening twists, and the possibility of a romance that might just go beyond the proper bounds of Austen's world. How could it not turn out right in the end?

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Charlotte Kinder's life seems to be fraying at the seams. First her marriage breaks up after her husband's infidelity, now her daughter is flirting with a questionable male of her own. When Charlotte tries to start up a conversation about the boy, her daughter gives her an "ugh, don't you remember what it was like to be young?!" moment. Spurred by the hurt of such a comment, Charlotte gets all nostalgic and starts digging through photos and old papers, where she finds a journal with an entry marked "Things To Do Before I'm 30"... a list that includes reading all of Austen's works and, at some point, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Charlotte admits to herself that Kilimanjaro might not be quite the thing to tackle at this particular moment of unrest in her life, but maybe the Austen idea is still doable.

 

While she doesn't delve into the Austen novels themselves, Charlotte does decide to take a vacation to the exclusive Austen-themed resort, Austenland. Maybe there, she can find the old Charlotte, the one that was a bit more than the bland, simple "nice" everyone seems to label her. She doesn't want to be just good ol' reliable Charlotte, she wants some edge! But, you know, old habits die hard. 

 

This Austenland 2 revisits Pembrook Park and brings back a few characters, mainly Mrs. Wattlesworth and Miss Charming, but also offers a whole new cast of characters as well. And this cast brings the edge Charlotte thinks she's missing... but maybe more than she bargained for! Also returning is resident lush Mr. Wattlesworth. 

 

"Attempted murder is becoming so mundane."  ~ Charlotte

 

Taking inspiration from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Midnight In Austenland toys with the same themes Austen did in her novel, namely our main character getting caught up in a possible murder mystery, leaving her not knowing who to trust. But is there an actual threat or is it Charlotte's runaway imagination? So as you might notice, the plot here is a bit darker in tone than its predecessor. Once again, author Shannon Hale has her characters struggling with the question of what is or isn't real in this recreated Regency world.

 

Instead of ex-boyfriend recaps at the start of each chapter (as seen in Austenland), Midnight in Austenland prefaces each chapter with flashbacks of moments from Charlotte's childhood or marriage, memories she thinks back on that might hold clues to how / where / why her life took a turn for the worse. 

 

 

 

I read Midnight In Austenland shortly after watching the film adaptation of Austenland starring Keri Russell. Though the film naturally pulls largely from the first book, after reading a few chapters into this second book, I suspected that some minor details were taken from this book as well and incorporated into the film (on which author Shannon Hale was an associate producer)... lines from the film like Mr Nobley uttering "you make me nervous" or him being related to Mrs. Wattlesworth... those details actually appear in this second book, not the first (although it is character Mr. Mallery who is related to the proprietor, not Nobley, as presented in the film). Also, there is a speech Charlotte makes near the end of this second book that incorporates details that make up part of the ending of the film. All that said, these two novels, though linked by the setting of Pembrook Park, can easily be read as stand-alone novels. 

 

 

Though much of the inspiration for this story comes from Austen's Northanger Abbey, a heads up to readers: there are a few spoilers here for Austen's Mansfield Park as well. 

Review
3.5 Stars
Austenland (Austenland #1) by Shannon Hale
Austenland - Shannon Hale

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined. Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen―or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It's all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

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Jane Hayes is a graphic designer for a NYC lifestyle magazine. Obsessed with all things Jane Austen, and especially Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries adaptation, Hayes feels she's been ruined for any real chance at love with REAL men. A conversation one night with her great-aunt Carolyn, where Carolyn, in so many words, tries to convey the idea that living life to the fullest is the truest fantasy life, leaves Jane wondering if she is maybe missing out on something.

 

Not one to leave the girl wondering forever, when Carolyn passes away she leaves Jane something special in her will: an all expenses paid trip the uber-exclusive, eye-poppingly expensive Austenland, a theme park (of sorts) catering to those who wish to fully immerse themselves in Austen's era. 

 

Upon arrival, Jane is immediately greeted by the park's proprietor, Mrs. Wattlesbrook. There is a bit of a snubbing on Jane right off the bat. Since her trip was pre-paid for, Wattlesbrook underhandedly treats Jane a bit like the child attending an exclusive boarding school on scholarship. Wattlesbrook proves to be a stickler for historical accuracy and loathes deviations from her rules. Still, there are a few modern conveniences allowed in Pembrook Park, the estate that makes up much of the "theme park" {in all honesty, the characters never veer very far from the front door other than strolls around the gardens.... kind of a lame theme park IMO, but moving on... }: flame shaped bulbs in the lamps versus more historically accurate kerosene ... because modern people are clumsy and Regency folk never had to worry about liability insurance on businesses lol ... and indoor plumbing, for the sake of the housekeeping staff. 

 

On her first full day at Pembrook, Jane meets Martin, aka "Theodore" the estate's cute gardener, and at dinner, Mr. Nobley, who serves as the resident quietly salty Mr. Darcy. Jane develops what she thinks is a taboo friendship with Martin, as he provides elements of the 21st century right when she needs it the most. Nobley tries to warn Jane that there might be a side to Martin she should be wary of, but she laughs off his words as just a speech he makes in character. As the story progresses, both men become important to Jane in different ways and she finds herself struggling to make out what is real and what is scripted... leaving her to wonder if this cookie tin lid kind of world is really what she wants after all. 

 

Pembrook Park had done its job -- it allowed her to live through her romantic purgatory. She believed now in earnest that fantasy is not practice for what is real --- fantasy is the opiate of women. 

 

Each chapter in Austenland starts with a profile of one of Jane's "exes" as she thinks of them, though the reader will note that most of these men would hardly qualify as any sort of meaningful relationship in most peoples' book. Even so, the men are presented in chronological order from Jane's earliest experiences in childhood on through, noting what went wrong in each situation that possibly left a little chink in her self-esteem to the point of obsessing over seemingly perfect, chivalrous, Regency era men. 

 

 

There is quite good humor in this novel, a lighthearted wit which only gets more pronounced as the story progresses. The ending might strike some as a little syrupy sweet, but in this instance, with these particular characters, there was something about it that was just... kinda perfect. 

 

If you've ever seen the reality series Regency House Party, this story very much reminded me of that setup, especially the whole "what is real, what isn't" experience cast members went through on that show. So if you were / are a fan of that program, this is one I would recommend for you.

Review
3 Stars
Falling In Love With English Boys by Melissa Jensen
Falling in Love with English Boys - Melissa Jensen

Sixteen-year-old Catherine Vernon has been stranded in London for the summer-no friends, no ex-boyfriend Adam the Scum (good riddance!), and absolutely nothing to do but blog about her misery to her friends back home. Desperate for something-anything-to do in London while her (s)mother's off researching boring historical things, Cat starts reading the 1815 diary of Katherine Percival her mom gives her-and finds the similarities between their lives to be oddly close. But where Katherine has the whirls of the society, the parties and the gossip over who is engaged to who, Cat's only got some really excellent English chocolate. Then she meets William Percival-the uber-hot descendant of Katherine-and things start looking up . . .

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This epistolary novel spans two centuries (through alternating chapters, all of Cat's chapters headed with song titles), combining the stories of two young women, Cat and Katherine. Cat, who shares her adventures with the reader via a blog format, is a modern day American teen who travels with her mom to the UK so that her mom may study the life of Mary Percival, whom Cat describes as "some woman who did absolutely nothing of import and has been dead for two hundred years."

 

*In the story, this Mary Percival character died before the age of 45, like Jane Austen. The reader will pretty quickly notice that this novel is heavily influenced / inspired by Austen's work.*

 

Katherine is a teen in 1815 England, whose story is provided through journal entries. While reading the excerpts from the journals of both Katherine and Mary Percival, Austen fans will likely notice that those journal scenes are basically remixes of plot points from Austen's Sense & Sensibility as well as Pride & Prejudice, but with some changes to make it Jensen's own unique imaginings. For one, a character in Katherine's era drinks too much at a party and suffers a sexual assault... which helps make even this fluff piece a bit of timely reading material.

 

While it may be easy to dismiss this as an easy breezy read, there are some respectable moments of character growth to be had here as well as some important, and as I said earlier, timely, topics to think on. Cat outwardly comes off as spoiled and obnoxious, but as the reader gets to know her a bit better, we learn that there's actually a fair amount of emotional hurt in her that she's struggling to address. But I did enjoy her sense of humor.

 

For example, visiting the Tower of London and the National Portrait Gallery and coming back with the hilariously simplified "King Henry (VIII) was rather hard on his wives... and I gotta say, after Anne Boleyn, they all look a bit anxious."

 

Continuing on in the NPG: "Winston Churchill didn't always look like a bulldog... Queen Victoria kinda did..."

 

Meanwhile, Katherine in her own time is struggling to maintain her sense of self when it's expected that she should just go along with her father's plan for her. I grew to really like Katherine's mother, who did her best to keep her daughter distanced from the gross choice of a suitor Katherine's father had picked out for her.

 

Mama curled in her favorite cushiony chair, feet tucked beneath her. In the moment, with the fire behind her and her face softened by shadow, she was familiar, like a mirror.

 

"Promise me something, Katherine," she said in a quiet moment.

 

"If I can."

 

"Oh, you can. Promise me that you will think, in every moment possible, what you want for yourself. And you will stand for yourself, especially in the times when no one seems interested in standing for you."

 

I did not understand, not really, but I promised nonetheless.

 

One moment in the story also illustrates a good point regarding double standards to think on: If we can acknowledge that some women may be fine pursuing fat, ugly or socially odious men simply for monetary gain, why is it so baffling to think men might likewise pursue plain women for THEIR wealth?

 

If you only get through the first few chapters of this, it'll be easy to dismiss it as forgettable froth, but there is a layer of depth here I found impressive and entertaining. Admittedly, I did prefer Katherine's portions of the book, but I'm a history junkie, not to mention I just found her story, that of a young woman so desperately trying to show others she has plenty of worth as an individual, not dependent on nabbing a husband, much more interesting than Cat's humorous but somewhat privileged ramblings around London... but Cat, though maybe a little irritating at first... she grew on me :-)

 

 

Review
3 Stars
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

Philip Ashley's older cousin Ambrose, who raised the orphaned Philip as his own son, has died in Rome. Philip, the heir to Ambrose's beautiful English estate, is crushed that the man he loved died far from home. He is also suspicious. While in Italy, Ambrose fell in love with Rachel, a beautiful English and Italian woman. But the final, brief letters Ambrose wrote hint that his love had turned to paranoia and fear. Now Rachel has arrived at Philip's newly inherited estate. Could this exquisite woman, who seems to genuinely share Philip's grief at Ambrose's death, really be as cruel as Philip imagined? Or is she the kind, passionate woman with whom Ambrose fell in love? Philip struggles to answer this question, knowing Ambrose's estate, and his own future, will be destroyed if his answer is wrong.

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Orphaned at a mere 18 months of age, Phillip Ashley is taken in and raised by his much older cousin, Ambrose. Over the years, Ambrose grooms young Phillip to one day take over as heir to Ambrose's Cornish estate. Then the time come when Ambrose embarks on one of his frequent trips to Florence (where he spends the winters so as not to aggravate his health problems). This year though, Ambrose writes to Phillip to say he has become quite enamored by a woman by the name of Rachel, a distant cousin. The letters continue to come, illustrating the rapid development of the relationship. Before long Ambrose sends word that he and Rachel have married.

 

Ambrose extends his stay in Florence, renting a home there. Ten months away from England, his letters turn from that of a blissed out newlywed to being saturated in melancholy.  The letters get alarmingly more frantic, showing a mental breakdown. A year and a half passes and Ambrose's letters begin arriving in near illegible script and a distinctly paranoid tone. Then one last cryptic letter comes urging Phillip to come quick to Italy, writing "she watches me... Rachel, my torment."  Unfortunately, Ambrose dies before Phillip's arrival, so explanations regarding Ambrose's state of mind at the end remain elusive. 

 

Phillip returns to England to take up his position as the new heir to Ambrose's estate. Shortly after settling into this new role, he gets word that Ambrose's widow is due to arrive any minute and wishes to spend some time on the land that meant so much to her husband. 

 

The novel is narrated by Phillip. Through him, we get a first hand account of his initial impressions of Rachel, even how he imagined her from Ambrose's letters. He gives her a pretty hilarious ripping (describing what he imagines pre-introduction) but in person he finds her quite beautiful and beguiling. Still, he can't entirely shake suspicions that she may have had something to do with Ambrose's unexpected passing. They have a bit of a rocky start, but later Phillip chocks it up (at least in part) to Rachel having difficulty with his physical likeness to Ambrose. 

 

 

Also in the mix is Phillip's longtime friend, Louise --- honestly, my favorite character in the whole story. Her quietly slipped in snark! When Rachel first arrives, Louise later remarks, "Mourning certainly does not appear drab on her." Reading that brought to my mind the scene in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind when Scarlett goes to that first dance / social event after being widowed. But it irked me how annoying and almost bratty Phillip was around Louise. His poor behavior left me feeling like he certainly didn't deserve a friend of Louise's caliber. 

 

A historical note in the edition I read from mentioned that du Maurier may have based Cousin Rachel off of Ellen Doubleday (wife of Nelson Doubleday of Doubleday Publishing), whom it was speculated Daphne had "confused" (as the historical note worded it) feelings for. Going into a du Maurier novel, it's often a given to expect a certain level of mystery to the plot. With this one, there were bits of mystery / intrigue here and there, but overall I didn't find as much suspense as I would normally expect from her work. Rachel was painted a bit like a Borgia in the beginning, but the element of suspense fizzed out a bit as the story progresses. While Rachel is undoubtedly an intriguing character, du Maurier doesn't quite land the full punch in terms of the character's level of sly dastardly-ness.

 

 

 

 

 

But true to her reputation, even here du Maurier does leave questions for the reader to work out. Was there a deeper motive behind the birthday plan? I was perplexed by Phillip's decision!

 

Even so, I appreciated the subtle wit sprinkled throughout passages of dialogue. It's what held my interest during the bits where not much else was going on! 

 

So how does the recent film adaptation hold up? Honestly, I preferred the film! One of the troubles I had with the book is the feeling that sense that du Maurier was not sufficiently answering all the questions or conflicts she posed in the book. But the film expands on what du Maurier offers and gives readers some nice closure on some of those topics, particularly with the film's ending. Some scenes in the film were so beautifully shot they reminded me of Impressionist paintings... it was hard not to be instantly captivated! 

 

 

 

Some changes that caught my attention though:

 

* The whole scene Rachel has in front of the Arno River seems to be cut from the film. The thoughts she had in that book scene, in the film she speaks them to Rinaildi.

 

* Rachel Weisz, cast as Cousin Rachel, plays the conversation regarding Italian lessons in a rather weepy tone, which threw me. The way the scene is laid out in the book, I imagined the lines delivered with much more of a dark humor with a side of steely glint in the eye vibe.... but the 2nd fight later on was shot just about how I pictured it!

 

* The candles! So many candles SO close to canopy bed drapes! Made me wonder about fires on set lol

 

* It might just be me on this one, but I felt like some scenes had some odd close-ups, strange angle choices, and sometimes even just straight up out of focus. 

 

Overall, the film adaptation is pretty faithful to the book. A good chunk of the dialogue in the film is actually pulled verbatim from the book text. Not surprisingly though, the film does blaze through a number of plot points in the interest of time. One of the major reveals near the novel's end actually shows up smack in the middle of the film!

 

I would definitely recommend reading the book first to experience all these little nuances yourself, but either way there's a pretty good story to be had here... the film brings out what the book dropped off! But as Roger Michell, the film's director, put it: "Of course, the best version of all, perfectly cast, impeccably lit and designed, with the greatest soundscape, most dizzying score, infinite budget and cast of thousands, will always be the one projected into the keen reader's imagination as she or he turns the pages that follow."

 

 

Review
2 Stars
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
The Westing Game - Ellen Raskin

A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing’s will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger—and a possible murderer—to inherit his vast fortune, on things for sure: Sam Westing may be dead…but that won’t stop him from playing one last game!

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Sixteen people are invited to the reading of the will of Samuel Westing. This will stipulates that all the potential beneficiaries must play a game. The victor wins Westing's fortune, an estimated 200 million dollars. This game, a gauntlet of sorts, will put the players through bombings, blizzards, burglaries and mental puzzles. 

 

I heard about this book through some of my Booktube acquaintances. Apparently this is a common one for kids to get assigned in school these days? It never came up on my school reading lists but I heard so many rave reviews for this story that I was curious to see what I was missing. 

 

Well, now that I've tried it for myself ... this one is going on my list of "Did everyone else read a different book than me?" because I honestly don't get the hype here. The plot had a few entertaining moments but largely felt like a mess and was often pretty slow to boot, and most of the characters were BORING. To make matters worse for this reader, the ending struck me as aggravatingly pointless.

 

This novel won the Newberry Medal in 1978... but WHY? In the book's intro, Ann Durrell (Raskin's friend and editor) writes that when Raskin was crafting the puzzles for this story, nothing was pre-plotted... she just made things up as she went along! Initially, that sounds impressive... but I don't know, man. Sometimes there's something to be said for taking the time to craft an outline!

 

Personally, I found my curiosity struck more by the person Ellen Raskin rather than her writings, learning the little bio tidbits about her: 

 

*The Westing Game was her last book before she succumbed to a connective tissue disease in 1984 at the age of 56

 

* In addition to being an author, she was also an accomplished graphic artist, designing over one thousand book covers over the course of her career, one notable one being the first edition cover of Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time 

 

WrinkleInTimePBA1.jpg

 

 

* In 1960, she married Dennis Flannagan, founding editor of the modern day layout of Scientific American magazine. This was her 2nd marriage.

 

*Raskin was a diehard Schubert fan. "Death and the Maiden" was played at her funeral. 

 

 

What's your take on The Westing Game? Was it a favorite of yours as a child?

 

 

Review
2 Stars
Disclaimer by Renee Knight
Disclaimer: A Novel - Renée Knight

Finding a mysterious novel at her bedside plunges documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft into a living nightmare. Though ostensibly fiction, The Perfect Stranger recreates in vivid, unmistakable detail the terrible day she became hostage to a dark secret, a secret that only one other person knew—and that person is dead.

Now that the past is catching up with her, Catherine’s world is falling apart. Her only hope is to confront what really happened on that awful day . . . even if the shocking truth might destroy her.

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A woman finds a mysterious book on her nightstand, nobody knows where it came from. When she starts to read, she discovers the book is about her and one of the most painful days of her life. She thought only one other person knew about that day and he's been dead for years. As she digs into investigating who is now after her, she finds her family torn apart and her life gradually & systematically destroyed bit by bit. Her son is also targeted.

 

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of documentary filmmaker Catherine (book recipient) and Stephen, an elderly widower whose voice gets mysteriously more and more angry and vengeful as the story progresses. What is he so upset about?

Pretty cool premise right? Well, I started this thing 2-3 times because it was having a bit of a slow start for me, ended up having a pretty good middle bit, but then Knight did something weird with one of the key players that basically changed their whole characterization for me in a nonsensical way. I don't think she wrote that character with enough depth to do that kind of 180 where it would make sense. Instead, it made me feel like she had a story idea, didn't know how to end it, so just rolled out the craziest curve balls she could think of, reasonable or not, and said be done with it...

 

The first twelve chapters read a little slow to me but Chapter 13 offers a few reveals that give the impression that the suspense is going somewhere. The story seemed to drag on a little longer than necessary, I thought... and then that damn character flip. 

 

SUPER disappointed with the ending chapters.

 

 

Review
2 Stars
Having It All (Even If You're Starting With Nothing) by Helen Gurley Brown
Having It All - Helen Gurley Brown

The editor of "Cosmopolitan" gives advice on dealing with men and women, sex, marriage, career success, becoming more attractive, making money, and staying healthy with frank accounts of her own experiences in those areas.

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Helen Gurley Brown was the founder of Cosmopolitan magazine in the format we know today. There was a version of the magazine in existence, owned by Hearst Corporation, prior to Brown coming on board, but she explains here that the content and layout of the publication was notably different. When the magazine in its original form started financially failing, Brown was hired on to turn things around and revamped it into the format recognizable in grocery store aisles to this day (Chapter 2... man, all I could think of was the movie Working Girl lol). *Well, actually... let's give credit where credit is due --- HGB points out that it was her husband who often wrote the cover blurbs, designed the layout, and more often than not, it was the stories HE liked that ended up being the ones they ran with. 

 

Brown never bothered with college, instead starting her professional life in her 20s, working her way up the ranks first as a secretary and later script girl for the Abbott & Costello radio show. She also wrote script copy for radio commercials of the day. Raised by a mother threatened by a prettier sister, Helen Gurley Brown rarely ever heard the word "pretty" tossed in her direction. As a young woman, she becomes obsessive about her looks so later heading up a women's beauty magazine seemed like a natural fit. Some may be shocked to read just how honest HGB is about the work she had done to attain that "pretty" so often withheld from her in her early years: eye lifts, rhinoplasty, dermabrasion, years-long treatments of silicone injections around her nose and mouth.. just to name a bit of it... but at least she also does advocate the regular use of sunscreen! She also describes details on lax post-op care, at one point opting to sneak out to see Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. 

 

Also not surprising, HGB was clearly consumed with designer labels and makes sly knocks on those with more tomboy style. Additionally, there was one little two page section where she talks about brains being more important than looks but then later goes on to further knock "non-pretties" in a rather patronizing tone, stating that "thoughts and deeds do absolutely nothing for a forgettable face... but a little helping out, ie. makeup or plastic surgery, can." WOW. 

 

 

 

Her discussions on sex get a little weird, y'all. She gets into some probably better left unsaid details of her bed life with husband David Brown (David Brown co-operated a production company with Richard Zanuck, son of Daryl Zanuck, once-president of 20th Century Fox. Brown/Zanuck's company produced films such as Jaws 1 & 2 and The Sting. Apparently, life with David taught her that "men don't want to know about you masturbating." K... noted... WTF. She also spends many pages frequently rhapsodizing about mens' down belows and even offers readers a step by step instructional on fellatio. NOT. EVEN. KIDDING. (Here we go, this book -- originally published in 1982 -- will now show an odd resurgence in sales LOL). She closes with a quaint "swallowing is a sign of affection." Que one of those Bob Belcher OMGs. 

 

 

Then there's the recommendation about occasionally murmuring "would you mind" during sex. LOL. No. Just no. Oh, the laughs this section provides though! 

 

Except, not a laughing matter... what is this bit about nonchalantly referencing incest with her uncle when she was 9?! Seriously, some parts in this book had me wondering if this woman had a wire or four loose the casual way she brought up certain topics. 

 

Her advice on finding men and later marriage success is perhaps questionable though. Where to find men? HGB suggests maybe checking out Alcoholics Anonymous or Tiffany's at Christmas. Already married? HGB totally cool with extra-marital affairs, because, in her mind, people only remain faithful if they don't require romance. Furthermore, she says to not tell others if you are involved in an affair because "you owe it to your husband's honor." JFC. But actually... about on par for Cosmo advice, I guess!

 

If you get through all that, there are portions of actual advice scattered throughout.... much of it dated, most of it laughable, but a small percentage of it still remains surprisingly helpful. Some of the ones that stood out to me (good or bad):

 

Re: Love

 

* On finding men: HGB says women need to aspire to amazing high-level jobs with lots of pay and power, because really hot men won't find you if you're just the entry-level or even SAH sort. 

 

* keeping a man: a woman stands a better chance "if you love something other than him"

 

* HGB also offers some tips on married life -- how to navigate hurdles such as a spouse losing a job -- that are not entirely unhelpful. 

 

 

Re: Career

 

* Hone in on what your specialty skills are and pursue work in that direction, make your overall personality open and welcoming and be sure to have or develop a sense of humor about the journey! 

 

* Learn to be "quietly aggressive" -- keep eagle eyes on what needs to be done and just get it done

 

* Make confident, solid decisions, learn not to dwell on rejection. Remember that powerful people can still be vulnerable but use moments of hurt to fuel you further in your work.

 

* Problems don't magically disappear once you're at the top, you just have better resources to handle them. Also, once you reach the top, don't forget to help people behind you still trying to get there. 

 

Re: Personal Growth

 

* HGB encourages readers to take up charity / volunteer work. Not only is it good to help but it develops useful multi-tasking skills

 

* Embracing alone time plays a key factor in personal emotional growth.

 

* HGB gives you some ideas on how to strengthen friendships and / or how to handle frenemies

 

* This woman is going to harp on and on about this term she came up with called "mouseburgering": when you start out feeling low about yourself but quietly gain confidence over time until you eventually rise to the top. Brace yourself. She's gonna bring it up A. LOT. It's not the concept I have an issue with. It's just a stupid f-in word.  

 

 

In addition to all that, Brown also dishes out some hilariously (though sometimes borderline dangerous) 1980s style health tips. She promotes the idea of semi-starvation to keep a trim figure -- her personal plan being starvation for breakfast up until dinner where one is allowed one big meal and then later a pre-bed snack. At least she admits to the dangers of bulimia (she doesn't actually use the term but that is essentially what she describes). She also encourages 36 hour fasts after binges and notes that the use of saccharine (aka Equal) is her "guilty cheat food".

 

"As I write this, a new artificial sweetener, aspartame, is being test-marketed. I've used it and it's sensational. Put out by G.D. Searle & Co under the brand name Equal, it should be available for all of us soon."

 

Brown continues on to offer her stance on the whole "are models too thin?" argument, to which she firmly replies, "Models are not cadaverous, they look great." Remember, this was in the 80s and this debate is STILL going on in the fashion industry. There's also a story here where she knocks singer Peggy Lee for struggling with dieting, "zooming back up to 150".

 

So, yeah, take HGB's diet advice with a HARDCORE grain of salt. This woman clearly had issues with unhealthy body image that she foisted onto vulnerable young readers. Her sex advice, have a good laugh with it like you would any Cosmo issue today. The tone is definitely geared towards a female audience, but there is still plenty of take-away advice for the men as well. But again, use your own discretion as to what you would actually take to heart. 

 

Image result for bob belcher gif

 

Also keep in mind that this will read dated as hell -- eg. "We'll see how Princess Diana makes it (as far as her HEA as a princess)..." eeehhh --- but the dated references are actually part of what still make this thing readable in today's world... the historical look back, the ridiculousness of some of the passages. The actual advice, not so much. Also, the continuous unnecessary transitions will drive you batty: "More in a moment", "more on that later", "now let's talk about"... c'mon girl, you were the head honcho at a major magazine!

 

Review
2.5 Stars
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today by Leslie Marmon Silko
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit - Leslie Marmon Silko

Bold and impassioned, sharp and defiant, Leslie Marmon Silko's essays evoke the spirit and voice of Native Americans. Whether she is exploring the vital importance literature and language play in Native American heritage, illuminating the inseparability of the land and the Native American people, enlivening the ways and wisdom of the old-time people, or exploding in outrage over the government's long-standing, racist treatment of Native Americans, Silko does so with eloquence and power, born from her profound devotion to all that is Native American. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this collection of essays, Silko, a member of the Pueblo Nation, discusses art, symbolism, and overall cultural growth within the Pueblo community. Some of the topics covered in Yellow Woman (the title of the book coming from one of the essays enclosed):

 

ART

 

* Symbolism in Pueblo art, ie. use of squash blossom on pottery designs = possible berringer of death, lightning imagery could mean good fortune, karmaj petals used for their symetry to represent four corners of the earth or four elements  (fire, water, earth, air). Discussion of how some imagery is used to illustrate the earth being simultaneously complex and fragile

 

* "Yellow Woman" an image of Pueblo mythology, a goddess highly regarded for her bravery, strength, calm demeanor during catastrophe, and her "uninhibited sexuality" Rather than relying on violence and destruction to assure victories, "Yellow Woman" bewitches foes simply through her sensuality and self confidence.

 

FAMILY / SOCIETAL STRUCTURE & PREJUDICES

 

* Silko writes that her own family is a blend of Pueblo, Mexican and Caucasian and her own struggles of "not looking right" to any of these groups. She speaks lovingly of her "dark and handsome" great-grandmother who "exuded confidence and strength", but admits that the woman might not have been considered traditionally beautiful by either Caucasians or Pueblo people, which opens up an essay discussion for how beauty, the thing itself, is interpreted by different cultures. Silko notes that facial differences are highly prized among the Pueblo people. 

 

*Discussion of how the idea of gender norms or "mens' work vs. womens' work" doesn't really have a place in Pueblo culture, only a matter of if you are able-bodied enough to get the job done.. so you find women doing construction and men doing basket weaving and child care. People just go where they are needed. 

 

*Historically, Pueblo people were originally fine with sexual fluidity and up until the arrival of the Puritans, openly supported LGBTQ members of the tribe. Also, babies born out of wedlock were not an issue because unplanned or not, the life was honored as life. If not wanted by the biological parents, the newborn was simply given to a barren woman within the tribe to raise. 

 

The discussions on art and culture were interesting but there was something quietly underneath that just had a feel of Silko sometimes talking down to her readers. Some of the essays repeat topics and even certain passages are duplicated verbatim from one essay into another, which I found incredibly disappointing and lazy. I know some of these pieces were previously printed elsewhere, but certain essays she must have been sitting on for a long while. For instance, one that is noted as having been previously published in 1996 -- "Auntie Kie talks about US Presidents and US Policy" -- but within that essay Silko talks about telling her aunt about an upcoming article Silko is to have published, "What Another Four Years Of Ronald Reagan Will Mean to Native Americans" (Reagan announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994). 

 

So while some of the topics were interesting, I thought the collection as a whole was kind of sloppily put together. Also, if you haven't read any of Silko's fiction, there are spoilers for some of her short stories within these essays.

 

 

 

Review
2.5 Stars
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (memoir) by Anna Quindlen
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake - Anna Quindlen

In this irresistible memoir, Anna Quindlen writes about a woman’s life, from childhood memories to manic motherhood to middle age, using the events of her life to illuminate ours. Considering—and celebrating—everything from marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, parenting, faith, loss, to all the stuff in our closets, and more, Quindlen says for us here what we may wish we could have said ourselves. As she did in her beloved New York Times columns, and in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen uses her past, present, and future to explore what matters most to women at different ages.

Amazon.com

 

 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is Quindlen's 2012 retrospective of her life after turning 60. Presented through a collection of essays, Quindlen addresses topics from her childhood right through to the "empty-nester" years and everything in between. There's mention of how she didn't start having children until the age of 31 and then tried to write op-ed pieces on aging in her 50s but got some flack from some older readers for not being quite old enough (in their minds) for her to write about such things. Maybe an extra decade will give her the proper amount of cred for geriatric critics?

 

Quindlen explores themes of marriage, female friendship, parenting, trying to age gracefully, personal loss and the subsequent struggles with faith, etc. One topic I made a personal connection with is when she writes on losing a parent when you're still young and how that changes you -- taking health / life more personally and such. Might not be surprising for some readers that within this memoir the topic of death is brought up a fair bit. 

 

Quindlen admits to once being offended by women who CHOOSE a life of domesticity but later realizes that -- brace yourself --- some women might want different things! 

 

There are even a few celebrity stories thrown into the mix. She writes about meeting playwright Tennessee Williams (of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie fame). Quindlen also discusses how her friendship with actress Meryl Streep came about -- Streep played the lead in the movie adaptation of Quindlen's novel One True Thing. They've been good friends ever since. It was interesting to read that Streep's characteristic way of smiling and speaking softly was something she deliberately developed back in high school! 

 

In her commencement address to the graduating class of Barnard College in 2010, Meryl Streep said that the characterization of the pleasing girl she created in high school was a role she worked on harder than any ever after. Speaking for so many of us, she recalled, "I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy natural sort of sweetness, even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys."

 

Maybe I read this at the wrong time in my life, since I'm not in my retirement years just yet. Maybe it's just a matter of Quindlen's style of writing not being quite my thing. This is the third or fourth book of hers I've tried and all have fallen under "just okay" for me. Some of the stories were good, others turned a bit boring, sometimes depressing. In between you run into some "Captain Obvious" style platitudes (but I guess that's how we recognize them as platitudes? lol). 

Review
4 Stars
Gathering Courage (memoir) by T.A. McMullin
Gathering Courage: A Life Changing Journey Through Adoption, Adversity, and a Reading Disability - Ross McMullin

Award-winning Gathering Courage author, T. A. "Terry" McMullin, knows as well as anyone that hard times are a part of the journey of life.  Gathering Courage is about Terry's journey, who was born in an orphanage, then adopted, and made a foster child by her parents. Because Terry struggled with reading, comprehension, and spelling, she was placed in a foster home at the age of nine.  Terry was failing in school and no one knew how to help her. From deep within, Terry developed an internal desire to excel, no matter the obstacle, no matter the situation. Pushing adversity, rejection, and a reading disability aside, Terry gathered the courage to enroll in college. While attending college, Terry taught herself how to read and study while working nights and weekends to pay her tuition and living expenses.  Because of dyslexia, Terry worked much harder than most students. For ten years, she remained diligent and focused on the goal of achieving a college education and a teaching certificate. Step by step and class by class, Terry succeeded, and walked across the stage to receive a Bachelor's and Master's degree from Texas A&M University. Terry's life transformed from a broken-hearted child who could barely make out words in elementary school to a successful teacher who encourages young people to work hard and achieve their greatest aspirations.

Gathering Courage is an inspiring life-changing journey not only to be read but also to be passed on as an encouragement to others. What started as a thought, then words on a napkin, set the dream in motion to form sentences on paper. The dream grew and the formation of a book developed into a purpose, a mission - "To Make Life Better."
Amazon.com
 
 
 
As a child, author Terry "T.A." McMullin discovered she had dyslexia. A school administrator suggested to McMullin's parents that she be taken out of the home and placed in a foster home as part of the therapy for her reading disability. There wasn't much argument given to this plan, as Terry had a pretty rocky home life as is.
 
Terry's very existence was the result of a relationship her then 25 year old biological mother was having with a 24 year old already-married man. She was not wanted by either of them. She was adopted pretty early on in life, but over time began to feel rejected by her adoptive parents. Preferential treatment was given to her younger brother Oliver, the only biological child in a home of adopted ones. Time and again, Terry's adoptive parents proved themselves verbally cruel, untrustworthy and self-centered. As part of her so-called dyslexia therapy, Terry was temporarily placed with a family on a farm. The family themselves were not so bad, but Terry suffered a sexual assault from a next door neighbor before being returned to her adoptive parents.
 
 
Though she may have had little encouragement at home, Terry found happiness within her involvement in her school's 4H program. The 4H club provided opportunity to attend events hosted by Texas A & M University. While at one of these events, Terry meets a professor from the university's Animal Sciences department, who is taken with her and encourages her to apply to A & M's science program. Though initially nervous to entertain such dreams (because of her dyslexia), Terry decides to take the leap. Prior to applying to A & M, Terry takes remedial math courses at a local junior college. Once accepted to A & M, over the course of a number of years, Terry goes on to obtain two degrees from the university: a Bachelor's in Agricultural Science and a Master's in Education. Out of school, Terry went on to have jobs teaching science and special education classes as well as courses for the visually impaired. She also developed curriculum used by both civilian and military schools across the country.
 
There's a straightforwardness to the writing style that moves along at a lovely cozy pace. There's also the relatability factor. Though readers may not always entirely connect with Terry's specific combination of struggles, there IS something here that I imagine most any reader can nod to or think on at least on some level. Her story is a testament to the power of having positive influences / people in one's life, how a simple kind word... just the display of someone having faith in you... can sometimes be enough to move mountains.
 
 
"Words of affirmation have the power to break chains and heal many wounds. Gentle words spoken so tenderly are hidden deep inside of my being and are some of the best gifts I have received." ~T.A. McMullin
 
above: inscription McMullin added to the copy I was sent
 
 
 
Additionally, McMullin uses her story to urge readers to move through life with "an attitude of gratitude" as some like to call it... Remind yourself of all the little successes that add up within each day rather than beating yourself up over the occassion setbacks or perceived failures. 
 
McMullin's way of telling her story, as well as certain details of her life she relates, reminded me a bit of the life and books of Temple Grandin. Similarly inspiring, that's for sure!
 
McMullin supplements the text with illustrations of her own feather sketches as well as full color, relevant photos pulled from either her own collection or those of friends. 
 
 
FTC Disclaimer: BookCrash kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 
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