Category Archives: books

Book Review: Miller’s Valley

51wvFN1WeRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite modern authors, and I picked up this book almost as soon as it hit the bookstore shelves.

In 2016.

I’ll let that sink in.

I started the book sometime last year, but lacking the time and mental capacity, I wasn’t really able to engage with it until the end of February. I’m glad I did.

I get that I’m predisposed to like anything Anna Quindlen writes. For some reason, her novels and characters tend to resonate with me. And Miller’s Valley described a small, rural town, and the long slide toward irrelevance. Eventually, the valley is flooded and becomes a recreation area.

These characters somehow seemed like people I know. Recognizable in the familiar faces of my hometown, where family farmers work hard to provide for their families in the way they always have but that our culture is quickly phasing out. Mimi, the driven girl who becomes a doctor and eventually comes back home. Mimi’s brother who goes to Vietnam and comes back different. A family tied to the land that had been in their line for decades. Aunt Ruth who can’t or won’t leave her small house behind Mimi’s and the dark secret she hides.

As an adult, I’ve learned how much my hometown has shaped and formed me. This novel delves into that, the idea of home, the importance of the place and the people who shape the adults we become. It made me cry; it made me laugh; it made me long to visit my hometown and fall into the patterns of the place that built me.

Quindlen’s descriptions are beautiful and poetic at times and none of the characters feel false or undeveloped. Except maybe Eddie, Mimi’s oldest brother, but that gets resolved later in the book.

And maybe that’s also on purpose. The book is told through Mimi’s eyes, starting when she is a child and ending when she is a mother and grandmother herself. So often as kids, we see the adults in our lives as one dimensional and only as we grow older do we begin to discover the nuances of them, the struggles, hardships, desires, hopes and dreams that have fueled and shaped them. And they become three dimensional, flesh-and-blood characters fighting their own battles each and every day that we were blind to for so long.

I think every Anna Quindlen book is worth the read, but this one touched me in a way maybe the others haven’t. Maybe it’s because I read it at a time when I’m undeniably a little homesick—not for my hometown exactly, but for the idea and ideal of it.


Book Review: A Piece of the World

If you’re interested in reading this book yourself, I’m giving one away! See the contest info at the end of this post. 

First, a few admissions. I am one of those people who never took any sort of art appreciation or art history class in college. No memorizing paintings and sculptures and talking about the meanings behind the artist’s choices.

(Truth be told, I did have some sort of art appreciation requirement. To fulfill this requirement, I took a class called Jazz, Pop and Rock, and I have never regretted it.)

So while I may have a passing knowledge of artists, I don’t know a ton about art. When it comes to American artists, I can probably count the number I know anything about on one hand. But during my first year in grad school, when I was living in my first apartment and out on my own in the big world, I ran across Andrew Wyeth.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how . . . but I was at that moment we all come to at

My favorite Wyeth painting, “Master Bedroom.”

some point. When we want our home to have art but we don’t have the money for real art, so we turn to prints. I was a big fan of a website that sold framed art prints at the time and somehow, I wandered into a collection of Wyeth’s work. And it captivated me for reasons I could not explain. I didn’t necessarily want it hanging on the walls of my home, but I kept coming back to look at it again and again.

So when I read a description of this novel, a fictionalized but highly researched backstory of Wyeth’s most famous painting, “Christina’s World,” I couldn’t resist adding it to my reading list.

510xUSTE02L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Christina Baker Kline’s book, like Wyeth’s art, leaves you a little unsettled. Maybe it’s because of the setting (the harsh winters of Maine play a big role) or the lead character (Christina, who has a debilitating chronic illness), but the novel left me a little unfulfilled. It’s a beautiful novel. Kline’s descriptions, dialogue and the insight into the narrator’s mind and thoughts are flawless, but it’s also bleak, a bit unforgiving and harsh.

But so was Wyeth’s work. And those Maine winters. And Christina’s life, in many ways.

But the character’s life—and in the turn, the novel—are also beautiful in their own ways. Wyeth’s paintings are arresting in their starkness, and so is this novel. Kline doesn’t go on for pages with anything that feels out of place or unnecessary. At the end of the book, you’re not left wondering why a certain scene or conversation was in the book. They all have a purpose, and they serve them well.

If you’re looking for a book that’s basically a Hallmark movie on paper, this isn’t the novel for you. If you’re looking for a book that explores the inner workings of a woman who feels in many ways trapped in her world, then read on. If you want to read something that won’t make you think, don’t pick this one up.

In some places, the book was a little hard to read. Christina is considered an old maid. She is lonely, and her life is marked by this Great Disappointment of a man. To protect herself from further hurt, she insulates herself more by becoming more and more insular, bitter and hurtful, even to those whom she loves most. As someone who sometimes struggles with the fact that she is single, it was a reminder of the attitude I don’t want to have!

In many ways, Christina, the main character and narrator, lives an insulated, isolated life. We catch glimpses of her life, ranging from childhood to old age, throughout the novel. Frankly, the jumping back and forth proved confusing to me. Time shifts are clearly denoted, but I could never remember which Christina we’d meet in those time periods, whether young or old.

So much imagery and tools are used to show the stark nature of Christina’s life. The separation and burden her illness causes her, the stark white house up on the hill, the lack of electricity and modern conveniences later in her life. But Christina herself also reveals the insular nature of her world. She’s continually reminding you how things are like poems or lines in books she’s read, showing that her world sometimes isn’t one she has experienced physically, but rather vicariously.

In the end, I think A Piece of the World is a book I’m happy I read. It’s beautifully written and well-constructed. But it’s also a bleak book, with happiness in bits and pieces and a lot of tragedy and unhappiness. Somehow, I think Kline has achieved a novel that points to the same themes that make Wyeth’s work so beautifully arresting and disturbing at the same time.

It’s definitely worth the read, just don’t go into it thinking you’ll feel uplifted at the end.



Want your own copy of this book? I’m giving away one copy of the Kindle version! Enter here.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of Feb 13, 2018 11:59 PM PST, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules

Bonus post: Book 31

I had all these intentions of announcing the final pick for my 2018 reading list last week, but as often happens, life got in the way. But, alas, I have made the selection, and today’s the big announcement.

Drum roll, please!

51Bs3nWoAOL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Book number 31 on my 2018 Reading List will be. . . . Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Nominated by one of you, this book grabbed my attention. As an introvert, I’m a listener and a thinker. When I speak up about something, I have likely thought about it for a really long time or think what I have to say is important. Being the center of attention is something that makes me incredibly uncomfortable, even though there is a part of my personality that desires a good job to be acknowledged. I’ve often worried that my introverted nature makes people think that I don’t understand or

In our world, which seems to prefer extroverts in many ways, I’ve often worried that my introverted nature means people overlook me or that I need to play against type and promote myself more.

Susan Cain’s book appears to speak into a lot of that. I can’t wait to dig into it!

Thanks, Bailey, for the suggestion!

Book Review: The Secret Rooms

51+mMzUv5eL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_A friend of mine gave me this book for my birthday. She said she had enjoyed reading it over the summer and thought I would like it.

It had so many of the things I like. A mystery from the past a person in the present is attempting to solve. Someone who is digging through archives trying to uncover the truth hidden in one of the great houses of a titled British family. My tendency is to pick books set in the WWII era or Regency era, but this one was set during WWI. I’m glad I took the little departure from the usual!

The thing that really interested me, once I figured it out, was that the story relayed in this  book is true. The book declared right on the cover that it was “A TRUE story of a haunted castle, a plotting duchess, and a family secret.” (Sounds like the best kind of Lifetime movie, right?!) Even though it was on the cover, rocket scientist over here didn’t grasp that it was a non-fiction book until I’d read several chapters. LOL!

Once I realized the book was recounting an actual researcher’s quest to unravel a mystery, I was entranced. The book, written by Catherine Bailey, recounts much of the life and death of the 9th Duke of Rutland. John (the duke) died alone in the cramped family archives of his home, Belvoir Castle, of pneumonia on April 21, 1940. His son ordered the room sealed. Bailey was one of the first historians allowed in the rooms, and the person who discovered that John had carefully excised three periods of his life from the family’s papers. All correspondence or anything that could shed light on those dates—one from his childhood, another from the early 1900s when he was serving at the British Embassy in Rome and one more when he was serving near the front during WWI—had simply disappeared. John has seemingly spent the last days of his life making sure these sections of his life were effectively erased.

Bailey’s book takes you through her journey to uncover the truth, all the while weaving in moments from John’s life and information from his family correspondence and other records. If you’ve ever read A.S. Byatt’s Possession (or seen the movie, which is different from the book), the concept of finding clues within the archives will be at least somewhat familiar.

I’m a lover of mysteries and thrillers, but generally stick to the fiction variety of both. It was fun to come across a book that was nonfiction, yet delivered on all levels as a mystery. If you like the kind of mystery where everything is tied up in a neat little bow at the end, this may not be the book for you because while the secrets behind the excised portions of John’s life are uncovered, the motives and inner workings of those decisions and the people involved are not completely explained.

It’s a long read, but a worthwhile one, especially if you’re a history buff who has a penchant for archival research (like me). If you love a real-life mystery, check it out for yourself!

Book Review: The Life We Bury

So, maybe I wanted to read this book all in one sitting.

51a4kko7qzl-_sx330_bo1204203200_.jpgWhile I may have wanted to, I don’t have that kind of free time. I had added Allen Eskens’ debut novel to my book list at the beginning of the year, but truth be told, I kept putting off reading it. I was convinced that it would be depressing and scared that it would be a disappointing read.

I’m a huge fan of mysteries and thrillers, but have grown a little tired of the genre. Crime procedurals hold little appeal for me these days, and many mysteries are full of violence, language and crimes that are presented luridly. I was afraid The Life We Bury would fall into these traps.

I was wrong on all accounts.

The Life We Bury is the story of Joe Talbert, a college freshmen from a tough family situation who has worked to pay his own way to college. In his first semester, he tackles an assignment to write a biography of someone. After procrastinating for awhile, Joe finally settles on Carl Iverson, a convicted rapist and murderer now released to a nearby nursing home where he is dying of cancer.

As Joe begins to work on the assignment, his discussions with Carl and his friends begins to reveal someone different from the cold killer Joe had imagined. A Vietnam veteran honored for his heroism, the Carl Joe comes to know doesn’t seem to match up with the villain Carl had been described as during his trial. Joe, with the help of his new girlfriend, begins to unravel the mystery and uncover the truth, resulting in an exciting few chapters toward the end of the book—which I won’t spoil here.

But The Life We Bury isn’t just a whodunit. Instead, it’s just a good story with well-rounded characters with back stories and deep emotions and intricate personalities. In a word, the characters are just real. These are not cardboard characters who are only devices to move the plot along, but complex creatures with their own flaws and foibles. Joe’s relationship with his autistic brother, woven through with deep love and devotion, guilt and frustration, is particularly striking. As the aunt of an autistic child, I often found myself drawn into their interactions.

I’d recommend the book to anyone looking for a good mystery that isn’t full of foul language, sex scenes and lurid crimes. There are some undoubtedly tough topics in the book, but they aren’t the centerpiece, nor are they dwelled upon. All details are used to add to and move the story forward.

While I do think that at times, Eskens was a little enamored with his own prose, resulting in descriptive paragraphs with a touch too much description, that’s really one of the only negatives I can point to. Eskens is incredibly talented at dialogue, which generally felt very genuine and realistic.

All in all, The Life We Bury was a great read to start off the summer. I hope the rest of the books on my list will be as good!

On Writing

5563c0f816ca69e039d426cdI’ve always loved stories. Books line one entire wall of my parents basement, double-shelved in some places. The built-shelving in my old bedroom at their house still holds a collection of books that range from Sweet Valley High to a Little House on the Prairie. I even belonged to a book club for preteen girls for awhile, getting a selection of books every month, ranging from a melodramatic teen tear-jerker about a girl who had meningitis and lost her hearing and a gem like The Face on the Milk Carton.

The written word has always been important to me, but when I talk with today’s teens about writing and books, most just wrinkle their noses and tell me writing is boring and that they don’t like to read.

I’ve always thought that good writers were first voracious readers.

And we’re raising up fewer and fewer readers—and even fewer writers. So, my question is: Who will be the great writers of tomorrow?

We live in a society that says everyone can write. Google the word fanfiction or check out the number of  self-published ebooks on Amazon if you don’t believe me. And while it’s true that anyone can write, we’ve lost focus of the craft of writing. Gone are the days of a well-crafted, beautifully constructed prose that leads us into the story and introduces us to characters we’ll never forget. We’ll accept hastily written stories, rife with plot holes, bad grammar, and stilted conversations and call it good literature—even when it’s not.

So what does this mean for the future of literature? I don’t know. But I hope that somewhere out there—whether its a self-published ebook or a big publishing house best seller—that someone is writing the defining piece of literature of the early 2000s, the “classic” that will be on the must-read list of our grandchildren’s children.

I hope that young writers continue to write, even when their friends think it’s uncool because they know they have a story to tell.

Because no matter the format, the written word and the innate human love of story will never fade—and we shouldn’t have to accept sub-par storylines and flat characters.

So, prove me wrong, writers. Go out and write the next great classic.

Read on!

What have I been doing over the weekend, other than changing up the layout of this site?

Well, as promised, I’ve been compiling my 2013 reading list. After taking some suggestions (I didn’t get many) into consideration and reading some best of 2012 book lists (NPR, Goodreads, among others) and mulling over the books I said I’d read and didn’t quite get to, I’ve compiled a list of 35 books to read this year. It’s a lofty goal, since I’m fairly sure I didn’t break 20 in 2012, but we’ll see!

With no further ado, the list:

947375_315364461. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner (non-fiction)
2. On Writing by Stephen King (non-fiction)
3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (fiction)
4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction)
5. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (fiction)
6. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (non-fiction)
7. Radioactive: Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (non-fiction)
8. A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano (fiction)
9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (fiction)
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (fiction)
11. The Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel (non-fiction)
12. Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis (fiction)
13. House Rules by Jodi Picoult (fiction)
14. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (fiction)
15. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (fiction)
16. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (non-fiction)
17. Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen (fiction)
18. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (fiction)
19. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark (non-fiction)
20. The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Riggs
21. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
22. The Brontes: Wild Genius On The Moors: The Story Of A Literary Family by Juliet Barker
23. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield
24. The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates
25. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
26. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larsen
27. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
28. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon
29. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
30. Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley
31. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
32. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
33. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
34. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
35. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

A new year, a fresh start

947375_31536446It’s January 29, and I haven’t even compiled my book list for 2013. That just tells you a little of how this year has gone so far.

Actually, most of the time, I’ve felt like I’ve been in a whirlwind, making decisions about big stuff at work, when to have dental surgery, and everything else in the world.

And, truth be told, my great plan to read 30 books in 2012 fell really, really flat. . . .I’m fairly sure I was barely into double digits before I just quit.

So, dear ones, it’s another year and another chance. Over the next week, I’ll be compiling my list of books to read in 2013. While I tend to lean heavily toward fiction, I do like to throw in a little non-fiction or biography here or there. I like to include classics and newer fiction. And I always put a little Jane Austen on the list.

But before I jump in and consult all my sources (best book lists, NPR lists, the books on my list from last year that I didn’t read), I want to ask you to chime in. In the comments, sound off on books you think I would enjoy or should read—and include author, title, and reasons why you think I would like it or should read it. This time next week, I’ll unveil the list!

Ready! Set! Go!

Book Review: The Paris Wife

Ernest Hemingway is haunting me.

Recently, I rewatched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Guess who’s woven throughout the story? Hemingway. Then, I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It may be about Hadley Hemingway, Papa’s first wife, but Hemingway is definitely one of the primary characters. Then, I went to see The Words last weekend. And throughout the movie there are nods to Hemingway: Bradley Cooper’s character visiting Hem’s haunts in Paris, another character reading The Sun Also Rises and being inspired, the plot line of someone losing all of their written work on a train. All Hemingway nods.


And let’s just say it this way: Papa and I don’t have a friendly relationship. I have always wanted to like Hemingway. It just seemed like the writerly thing to do. Plus, he’d been a journalist, spent time in Missouri, married two women from St. Louis, and even spent time in Piggott, Arkansas, at second wife Paulie Pfeiffer’s family home—a home I visited once when I was working on a day trip travel series for the newspaper in Sikeston, Missouri.

But all my attempts to love Hemingway’s writing have fallen flat. I’ve started and never finished For Whom the Bell Tolls more times than you can count. When I read Hemingway, I get annoyed by his sentence style rather than awed. This from a woman whose senior review of her work included a comment from a magazine professional that one of her stories reminded her of Hemingway, in the way I described the hot, dusty roads. I’ve always liked that comment—but I’ve never been a big Hemingway fan.

But a couple of years ago, I read a fiction piece about Hemingway. It was interesting and stirred my interest in him again. (I made another stab at For Whom the Bell Tolls and failed.) I saw Midnight in Paris and laughed at the caricature of Hemingway. And somewhere along the way, I kept seeing The Paris Wife by Paula McLain appear on best-seller lists or lists of books you should read. So, I did. And while it made me hate Hemingway for his selfishness and cry for the deep sense of loss and yearning nothing ever really filled for him, it was also an extremely good book.

In The Paris Wife, McLain tells the story of Hadley Richardson who became Hadley Hemingway, Papa’s first wife—before anyone even called him that. She was the wife who believed he had greatness before he’d proven it; the one who went with him to Paris so he could exercise his talent among the ex-patriates already there (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein); and who stood beside him when he broke ties with nearly all of them. She supported him in his work and also with her trust fund. She loved him, despite all of his flaws and his violent temper.

The book is fiction, but doesn’t play fast and loose with the facts. It’s fiction because it’s told in Hadley’s voice, with a few snippets when Ernest himself breaks in. Basically, it recounts their marriage, which lasted almost 5 years and produced one son, John Nicanor Hemingway, called Bumby by his parents and later in life, Jack. Hemingway basically ruined the marriage with his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who had been Hadley’s friend and became his second wife.

At the end of this novel, I cried. I was really mad at Hemingway and identified somehow with Hadley, the woman who assumed she didn’t really deserve him anyway. And in the end, she turned out to be the better, stronger person—at least in my opinion. Hemingway once wrote of Hadley, years later after the dissolution of their marriage and when he’d married 3 more times: “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” The final book Hemingway wrote, A Moveable Feast, recounted his marriage to Hadley and his life in Paris in those early years. In many ways, it was his final tribute to her, a remarkable woman who had every right to say terrible things about him, but referred to him kindly, calling him a “prince” in later interviews. He called her the winter of 1961 to talk about their marriage and A Moveable Feast. Later that summer, he committed suicide.

So, if you want a well-written book that’s fiction but pretty true to the facts, read The Paris Wife. And then we can talk about how I’m still a little mad at Hem.

The year in which I accidentally read a billion books about. . . genocide

Remember when I wrote that post about how I picked up Sarah’s Key because I liked the cover, then read it and discovered it was all about the Holocaust?

Well, that kind of happened again. A few weeks ago, I went rogue from my list of books to read this year. I kept running in to books with subject matter and language I felt were unnecessary and marking them off the list. And in the middle of year at work that has been stressful, my reading has lost a little steam. So, one afternoon I was checking out the Kindle Store on Amazon (my Kindle app has proven quite helpful in giving books a test run so that I only buy copies of the ones I really love) and saw a book called The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. I downloaded it, thinking the description was interesting and the cover image was nice. Plus, I’d read Bohjalian’s earlier work Midwives years earlier and thought it was pretty good. And once again, Bohjalian, a man, was writing a novel from the viewpoint of a woman. It’s always interesting to me when men write in a woman’s voice and do it well, so I wanted to see if Bohjalian came off as authentic this time.

By Chris Bohjalian – The Sandcastle Girls: A Novel (6/17/12)

Then, I started reading the novel. Using two parallel timeframes, 1915 and the present, Bohjalian weaves a story about a young American woman, the Armenian genocide that time has generally forgotten, a love story, and a woman uncovering secrets about her grandparents in the present. And once again, just like with Sarah’s Key, I completely missed the fact that this book was about genocide.

Who reads two books in a matter of months that are about huge populations of people being exterminated and doesn’t realize it? Apparently, that person is me.

Ahem. Anyway. . . with such subject matter, the book has some undeniably hard-to-stomach and graphic scenes to read. Characters are motivated by sheer hate and revenge. Governments commit atrocities and others look on, doing nothing. And at the end, you don’t get to know everything that happened to all of the characters you’ve come to know and love. For me, Bohjalian wasn’t quite as successful at switching from past to present as he could have been. Sometimes, the shift happened within a matter of pages or paragraphs with nothing to signal the timeshift. I like to think of myself as a thoughtful, informed reader, but it was confusing sometimes.

I doubt I’ll ever read The Sandcastle Girls again. It’s good, but it’s not a lovely masterpiece that I want to stop in and visit all the time. It weaves a tale in a time in history that horrifies and frightens me, as I consider the depths of sinfulness and hatred that can rule a man’s heart.

But at the same time, I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I now know about the genocide of Armenians in the early 1900s, a fact my study of history had pretty much skipped over until now. So, I applaud Bohjalian on a well-written, well-researched, heart-wrenching book—but I probably won’t be adding a physical copy to my personal library.