Book Review: Almost Everything, Notes On Hope By Anne Lamott

2019, 189 pages

Almost Everything : Notes on Hope  is pure Anne Lamott: Honest, funny, and endearing with an edgy bend toward The Divine.  At a new stage in her life, excited for her upcoming marriage and firmly ensconced in happy grandmother-hood, Anne is still her optimistic and slightly sarcastic self.  Thank God! I love Anne because of her ability to find the tiny light of hope in a miasma of pain and uncertainty, the practical, pull-your-sleeves-up-and-get-ready faith that never fails to make me feel like loving God is as natural and attainable as washing my face.  

 In chapter five, “Don’t let them get you to hate them,” Anne writes:’Something that helps is to look at adversaries as people who are helping you do a kind of emotional weight training. Nautilus for your character.  They may have been assigned to you, to annoy or exhaust you. They are actually caseworkers.” Getting us to look at even hate from another angle is just one way Ms. Lamott can take the daunting task of living and break it down into manageable steps, changing the perspective so we are able to view our life through a new lens.  

 As a recovering addict, a mother and a grandmother, a nature-lover and person that has had issues with food, faith, and love, Ms. Lamott gives a fresh perspective because of everything she has been through, not in spite of it.  Like all of her non-fiction, this book is stitched together with love and the unshakeable faith that who we are and what we do matters, that picking up trash in your neighborhood and being nice to yourself leads to a better day, and perhaps a better world.  It all seems doable and uncomplicated, and this very simplicity is the essence of what Ms. Lamott does an excellent job of conveying. Everything matters, she seems to say. But not too much. We are all so important, but so is everybody else. And there is nothing we can do to “Stop God from adoring us.” What a powerful note on hope.   

I proudly give this book 4/4 Stars

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Book Review: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

2015, 349 pages

Fredrick Lothian is a professor that has many secrets lurking under the surface of his bland exterior life. A recent widower, he makes the decision to leave his family home and sequester himself at an old-folks home that he loathes. His days are spent observing his neighbor’s, the next door woman with the loud (and not strictly legal) screeching birds, and the man he watches on his walker, the only person at the home with whom he has a nodding acquaintance. He avoids the dining room, the phone, and the truth with equal alacrity until an accident he observed and didn’t intervene with changes both his life, and his observations.

This book vaguely reminds me of other novels about men that have such a sense of superiority that the reader just knows there is a huge amount of guilt and / or inferiority that will be revealed. Ms. Wilson writes with the emotional restraint of Richard Ford, and Fredrick’s point of view hits as masculine and emotionally caged. Like Mr. Ford, she presents a protagonist that is hard to feel sorry for, until the scales are dropped from our eyes and we are able to see the pain and feel the suffering that has led to this closed-off life.

Towards the end of the book, I was glad for the reprieve offered by the character of Fredrick’s daughter, Caroline. She has spent her life in her adopted family feeling different and out of place, and her eventual search and reunion adds a nice touch to the story. It became clear to me that Fredrick had so much love for Caroline, as well as his son, who doesn’t get to speak and yet is a pivotal character in the book. The fact that the story takes place in Australia added a little something for me, however, the story could have been set anywhere, and the sense of place was only evident to me during Caroline’s’ passages.

Caroline is very academically interested and involved with extinctions, and extinctions in general are a theme in the book, including several black-and-white photographs that at first appear to have no relation to the story. The reader is left to interpret what they are doing in the book, and there is a detailed explanation of the photos (but not their meaning) in the appendix. As you may have surmised, this is an unusual book!

As all good novels leave us filled with hope, or at least a sense of impending hope, this book is no exception. Jan, Fredrick’s indomitable, optimistic, and effusive neighbor is the light in his story. It is because of her spirit that it is likely Fredrick will not become another extinction.

This book is well worth reading, especially if one is in the mood for something a little different, with an ending not wrapped up tidily with a big bow. It is one that makes the reader think differently about the plain, older men we pass on the street every day.

I proudly give this book 4/4 Stars. Bookish and Proud

Book Review: The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

2019, 386 pages

The last year of the war  is a total diversion from the current times.  Set in the year before the end of WWII, the book draws upon the tensions present in the United States that led to the internment of individuals of both Asian and German descent and their American children in “camps.” This is the story of two of those families, one Japanese, and one German.  Elise Sontag was a natural American citizen being raised in Iowa by her German immigrant parents, The little town didn’t protect her from all of the normal angst and uncertainty of a typical rural teenager, but war was not something she worried about every day. Yes, there was a war going on, but the bucolic Iowa farm Elise was growing up on seemed to be far away from the reach of the vagaries of  destruction and death being experienced on the other side of the world. One day all of that changed in short order. Her father was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer, and he was arrested and taken away from Elise, her mother, and her brother, Tom, leaving them without the support necessary to keep them in their home. No matter that her parents had taken America into their hearts and minds as the country they were loyal to, no matter that their children were born and raised in the United States.  The country they had grown to love betrayed them, they were treated as outcasts in the only town the children knew.

 Just when Elise was unsure that her fragile mother could bear the separation much longer, the family had a reunification plan.  Sent to Crystal City, Texas to live with her father, Elise and her brother join her mother for the long and dismal train ride to the camp.  Although I had never heard about the German-Americans being sent to the camps along with Japanese families,I was quickly absorbed by the story of this family being forced to stay somewhere completely foreign to them, the unrelenting heat being the first hint that they were no longer in Iowa. The camp was set up with very basic necessities of living, including cheap furniture and no walls between the parents and children’s sleeping quarters.  The author does a wonderful job of describing what camp life was like, both positive and negative. One of the positives was that the children were able to attend school, and it is at school that Elise becomes acquainted with a Japanese girl from California, Mariko Inhoue. The Sontag and Inhoue families become more familiar with each other, however the friendship between the two girls, immediate and lasting, becomes the focus of Elise’s time at the camp.  This book seemed almost like a love story, the kismet between the girls is so strong, and by the time the book was over, I knew this was exactly what it was. The love the two girls had for each other was deep and strong, the connection of soul mates meant to be in one another’s lives, not in a filial way, but in a deep and abiding friendship. Also like a love story, the girls make plans for the future which does not go exactly the way they plan. After only a few letters from Mariko over several years, Elise has to take stock of her life and make adult decisions at a very young age.

 The themes of paranoia, prejudice, and destiny are woven into the book without the words ever being written.  The reader is transported to different settings that make perfect sense within the context of war and the space of having no control over events that shape and define the lives of the two families.  It was heartbreaking to me that the patriarchs of the two families developed very different approaches to both their confinement, and eventual expulsion from the country they chose to call home. Their decisions end up by being the very same despite their differences.  The theme of “Home,” and what home comes to mean to Elise is at the very core of this story, a love story, a story about the heart and the home, which, in the end, may very well be the same thing.

I proudly give this novel 4 / 4 Stars!

Book Review: A Certain Loneliness by Sandra Gail Lambert

2018, 219 pages, Memoir

This poignant book is mesmerizing from the start, when we are introduced to Ms. Lambert as a child who struggles within the confines of her disability to just be a kid. Her voice is strong and unvarnished, straightforward about her own character flaws, and honest about who she is and what she stands for simply by telling her story. Disability is only a part of who she is, but as her condition worsens, she makes sweeping accommodations to her life described in short sentences that serve to underscore the brave and hopeful choices she made to continue to live a life of meaning. The paradox of this unsentimental little book is that the brevity she uses to convey the reality of her life is the very thing that evoked a rush of empathy and understanding from me as a reader. I was astounded by her love of the natural world, and the lengths she would go to in order to camp and kayak as her body became less and less cooperative with her desires to experience the world. As she goes from crutches to her first wheelchair, from owning a bookstore to hand-crafting her own books as her condition changes, we are right there with her, quietly rooting for her to experience a life in full.

The voices of reason that give conflicting opinions about what she should and shouldn’t do are but a background buzz in the book. This amazing woman of substance and intellect sorts through the B.S. and makes her own clear choices. This book may be a masterpiece.

I am proud to give “A Certain Loneliness” five stars. Bookish and Proud

Just about perfect!

Book Review: The Curiosities by Susan Gloss

2019, 341 pages

“The Curiosities” is a novel divided into chapters that are told from the point of view of the individual characters living and working in an artist colony in Madison, Wisconsin. Nell Parker, who lives in Madison and has a PhD in art history, is the somewhat reluctant director of the colony, which was created at the behest of Betsy Barrett, the former resident of the mansion that houses the colony. After the recent loss of her preterm baby, Nell and her husband, Josh, an attorney, have been floundering while undertaking a round of infertility treatments. (The true cost of which Nell keeps to herself.) Nell took the job as a respite from the reoccurring thoughts of her tragedy, and because she simply needs the money. Chosen for her degree and not her managerial savvy, she is thrust into her role when the executor of Betsy’s will slaps the keys of a huge, old mansion on the edge of Madison into her hand and drives off.

Nell and the residents of the colony, (Including deceased benefactor Betsy Barrett) all have their stories revealed in their chapters. There is Paige, the offbeat recent art-school grad, Annie, an older artist of some past renown, and Odin, a young metal sculptor with his own tragic loss looming over his work. The first round of residents were chosen by Betsy before she died, and Nell’s job is essentially to keep them happily ensconced in the mansion while also tending to a myriad of other duties.

While Nell finds herself busily consumed with the activities at the newly minted “Mansion Hill Artists’ Colony,” her marriage continues its’ downward slide until fate, in the form of an arrest at the mansion, allows her to see her buttoned-up husband in a new light.

The story flows quite naturally around the characters in the book, and although I liked the arc of the novel, for some reason Betsy’s’ first chapter not being introduced until the fifth chapter threw me off. I liked that the background and history could be established with this character, however I would have preferred it happened earlier in the book, maybe as part of the Prologue. That is just my opinion, of course, and I quickly moved on from the thought as the story progressed.

The title caught my eye with this book. I think it could have derived from the descriptions of items cataloged by Nell that she found in mansion, but could easily apply to the characters, a curious mix of ages and personalities that blend to provide a satisfying and charming read. I’m proud to give this novel 3.5/4 stars.

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Sweet and satisfying!

Book Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis By Patti Callahan

2018, 392 pages

Patti Callahan is a favorite writer of mine, I love her voice and the interesting way she connects her characters in her fiction. I know she is a protege’ of one of the South’s favorite writing sons, Pat Conroy. I’ve seen her speak on a few occasions, and she always presents as very well-spoken and professional. So I have a passing familiarity with her, and with her fiction. I thought I had her “Pegged” as a decent writer, one I could count on to provide an entertaining book, slightly on the “Light” side, with strong female leads that are encountering change and challenge. I thought I “knew” her. That is until I read “Becoming Mrs. Lewis.” This book takes her straight out of the box I had mentally prepared for her as a reader. I was, quite simply, blown away by this book!

Creating a work of literary fiction based on real-life people has to be a tricky feat. The reader has to believe the premise that the author has gotten far enough into the head of her subjects that she can be trusted to turn real-life people and events into a story of her own creation. No matter what facts are available as the bones of this work, the flesh and blood has to be seamlessly woven in to give the book life and a beating heart. Ms. Callahan does all of this and more with her subjects. Joy Davidman, the “Mrs. Lewis” who fell in love with the author and poet C.S. Lewis before she had ever met him, is the main character, and the enigmatic intellectual writer she fell hard for also comes to life, with his huge personality, idiosyncratic thoughts and behaviors, and undeniable charm intact.

Before Joy ever thought about Mr. Lewis, she was a writer, a dreamer, and a skeptic in her own right. She had a complicated and intricate inner life, and a chaotic and unstable real one. She was the wife of another writer, an alcoholic philanderer who seemed to want his family, yet disappeared into the ether at times, leaving Joy confused and alone. The correspondence she began with C.S. Lewis brightened up her days to the point she almost lived for his letters. Their story unravels slowly, and Ms. Callahan lets it be what it was without rushing through the thoughts, emotions, and circumstantial underpinnings that are integral to the tale. As a reader, I was never bored with the intricate detail of what was happening in Joy’s brain, and in her life, because the tiny glimpses into what she was thinking gave me insight about why she chose to leave her husband and two young sons behind to travel to England and meet a person she only knew through letters.

The adventurous spirit of Joy, her willingness to devour life, her need to quench the desires of her heart, her unrelenting pursuit of her “Jack” (C.S. Lewis’ nickname) were all judged harshly in many publications. She was considered a religious writer, and nice religious women of the time didn’t behave like she did. However, Patti Callahan reveals the woman behind the judgments, one plagued all of her life with illness, one who tried with all she had to save her marriage, her children, and herself. As a reader, this exploration of a complex woman was refreshing to me. Joy was a fully formed woman, one of deep commitment and desire, one who dared to take a chance most would never approach. I loved her story, one of limitless love and the redemption it eventually gives to one bold enough to reach for it. This is Patti Callahan’s best book, and I hope she writes others with the power and beauty of this one.

I proudly give this book 4/4 stars

Read this one!

Book Review “Into the Free” by Julie Cantrell

If there were a category named “Sweet and Spiritual Without Being Preachy” or “How to Find Your Wings in A World of Worry,” this book would definitely be near the top of the list.  Featuring themes of family bondage, secrets, and the pull for something more as experienced by the protagonist, Millie, Into the Free manages to put bones and a heart together to explore meaning and growth through an unforgettable character.  

 The challenges Millie faces as the young caretaker of her unstable mother in a hardscrabble part of rural Mississippi are multitude. Yet always through the pain and insanity of her mother, the reader can sense the abiding love they have for one another. When a doctor comes to “Check on” her mother, now in the hospital, instead of “Shutting her up” as the doctor suggests, Millie joins in her mama’s seemingly disconnected ramblings” “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.”

 The gypsies that meet up in the local town once a year are one of the few things Millie looks forward to with anticipation. The colorful clothing, the dancing, the ambiance they bring to the bleak circumstances brightens Millie’s spirits and makes her contemplate joining them when she has little left to keep her in Mississippi. What she does with her limited choices and circumstances form the backbone of the story. With a light, lyrical prose that lifts the heavy subjects in this book, Ms. Cantrell never forgets the reader while she writes. I sensed the overwhelming odds against Millie without ever feeling that she wouldn’t make it, that in her own, true way, she would find herself set loose, obstacles be damned. Love, need, and the search for stability while still maintaining one’s own identity are universal ideas for women’s fiction, and Ms. Cantrell explores all of these, along with the search for faith in a world that appears destined to break it.

I proudly give this book 3.5 /4 Stars

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