December 27, 2008

Wife in the North

Wife in the North by Judith O'Reilly
2008 Public Affairs Books
Finished on 12/12/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Perhaps it was because she was pregnant and hormones had eaten her brain that Judith O'Reilly was persuaded by her husband to leave London for the northern wilds. But pregnancy hadn't addled her enough not to have a back-up plan: If life in the country didn't measure up, the family would return to the city.

Far from home, Judith, a journalist and mother of three young children, discovers just how tough an assignment making a new life is. In the heart of the country, with no decent coffee in sight, Judith swaps high heels for rubber boots and media-darlings for evangelical strangers and farmers' wives in an effort to do that simple thing women do—make hers a happy family.

Her headlong foray into the country invites adventure at every turn. As she adjusts to the lay of the land and searches for her own true north in an alien landscape, her story offers a hilarious, heartfelt reflection of how to navigate the challenges and rewards of motherhood, marriage, and family.

Oh, my gosh! I couldn't have chosen a better time to read this hilarious book. With its bloglike daily posts, it was a perfect read for the hectic holiday season. I could pick it up and set it down without losing the moment of the narrative, much like catching up on a favorite blog after being away from the computer for a week or so.

O'Reilly is a wonderful storyteller. She had me laughing out loud one moment and bringing a lump to my throat the next. And as with any good book, I wound up marking numerous passages with Post-it Notes.

On mothers and daughters:

One day you wrap, in acid-free tissue layers, the daughter in you. You admire it as you put away its girlish chiffon colours, you mourn its passing as you stand on tiptoe to put it away on the very highest shelf. From a hanger, you take off and shake out the sensible navy role of mother and slip it on. Mother not only to your children but to your own mother. I am at that moment.

On friendship:

Real friends I count like beads on a rosary... You do not keep every friend you ever make. If you are lucky, you keep one or maybe two from the pigeonholes of life: study, jobs, children. One of the best places for making friends is, of course, the office. I have friends from all of the places I worked, newspapers and TV. If you invest wisely, you double them as they grow old and marry. Some friends become another family. Some friends you talk to once a year. A few are there in every crisis and extremity. You hurt when they hurt. There are times you put down the phone when they have read you the latest chapter of their life and weep for them. Some occasionally disappoint. Occasionally, you disappoint back. You try to listen. In sadness and disaster, you say: "I love you," and hope they can hear between their shouts of pain. You say: "I'm here for you," and hope they can see you in their darkness. It seems the least that you can do.

On country life and laundry:

I do things in Northumberland that I would never do otherwise. I hang out washing. I enjoy the weight of a wet shirt in my hand, the reach of my arm and the tidy clip of the plastic peg. Sunshine in my eyes, I squint and string the clothes along the line which runs across the common grass between the sea-fringed fields and the cottages. Then, I catch and heave and hoist them up to the clouds; a length of skinny, metal piping, standing guard, the line caught in its wooden, snake-tongued mouth. They flap and flurry in the northern breezes, lift, noisy and excited in the whippy gusts straight blown from the world's other side to here. It relaxes me to do it, see it, hear it.

On grief:

I took the Yorkshire Mother out to lunch. It was a strange sort of occasion. She has four sons, sprawling, brawling sorts of boys, much like my own, and an older daughter. She should have five sons, not four. Her eldest would have been twenty-one today but no key to the door for him. Dead before his time, seven years ago. Last week, waiting for our boys to come out of school, she said: "Wednesday would have been his birthday. I'll be going to his grave instead." My heart took on the colour of her sadness. I said: "Would it be weird to have lunch with me before you go?" A mother does not forget a son's birthday however far from home he is. We chinked our glasses, drank up the champagne fizz, wiped out the bubbles with our fingers, then filled the empty glasses with our tears.

I truly enjoyed this gem of a book and can think of several friends I'd recommend it to. However, I do have a couple of minor quibbles. About halfway through, I began to grow tired of the author's sarcastic complaints about her husband and her unhappiness in her new location. I suspect she wanted to show an honest reaction to the family's relocation 350 miles north of her beloved London, yet I couldn't help but cringe when she started to complain once again. Kind of like that awkward feeling you get when you're at a dinner party and a husband or wife begins to criticize the other spouse in front of the guests. You feel badly, wishing you weren't a witness to their rants. You love them and enjoy their company, but would rather not have an intimate knowledge of their unhappiness.

On compromise and dissatisfaction:

My husband left for London for two weeks. Let me see, how long have we lived here. Oh yes, three weeks. How pregnant am I? Seven months. How many children do I have? Two and a bit. Do I want to be here? No. Excellent. He has a deadline, he always seems to have a deadline. He is the one who wants to live up here, yet he is the one who has to work away for weeks at a time. I knew he would have to go back soon after we moved: he can do part of his job down the line but not all of it. Seeing him go—not having him here—is about as hard as I thought it would be. He called me. He said: "I miss you." I gripped the phone, said, "If we lived in London, you wouldn't have to miss me."


One of my acute frustrations living up here is the lack of space. Outside it's all glorious green rolling acres everywhere while the beaches are empty stretches of washed sand. Inside this rural dream country life, it is hell. Five of us squished together in what is effectively a two-bedroom, toy-strewn hovel. Six, counting Girl Friday when she is here. The house is like something from eighteenth-century pre-revolution England—all cottage industry and screaming children with a little less smallpox.

I also feel Wife in the North would have been even more enjoyable if it weren't quite so long. The stories (good and bad) became repetitious and I actually considered setting the book aside for a bit, if not entirely. I'm glad I continued on, though. The author shares a touching piece of personal history in the final pages and I would have hated to have missed reading those passages.

Wife in the North is a bit reminiscent of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence
(yes, there's a home renovation) and Jeannie Laskas' Fifty Acres and a Poodle (no, there aren't any cute animal tales). Great laughs, touching stories, and a lovely glimpse into life in the country.

You can peruse Judith's blog, but be aware if you plan to read her book, many (if not all) of her posts prior to December 31, 2007 are included in the book.

There's also a very good review by a Waterstone's bookseller here.

December 25, 2008

Christmas Memories

Thanks to Cornflower, I just discovered the following from Sir Roy Strong's A Country Life: At Home in the English Countryside. As Karen states, this resonates with so many of us during this Christmas season.

“Christmas is Janus-faced. One side is joy, the other grief. It opens gates of memory firmly locked into a corner of the mind for the rest of the year. But when the festive season beckons those gates open and the past comes back to take us in its embrace. Christmas is always as much about those not there as about those present. The card no longer received because the sender is no more, the telephone which does not ring this year to remind us of a friendship around the globe, the person who is not at the table, the visit which is no longer made.

“But then the sadness fades, for that gate lets in not only tears of grief but those of joy, and thankfulness, too. Memory’s sacred role is to hold in the mind all those whom one has loved. At Christmas they come tumbling back in a season when recollection pulls strongly on the emotions. How often over these days leading into the New Year does the conversation harken back to times past, to people and events long since gone.....

“Always the twelve days of Christmas take on the character of a garland of friendship through time, for not only those of yesterday are recalled, but those of today rekindled. We are reminded of their centrality in any life. Age and bad times make them a bedrock, giving us strength to go forward into whatever the new year will bring.”

Thinking of those of you who have recently lost a loved one.

December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

December 20, 2008

Mrs. Bale on the First Day of Winter

How many days until summer?!?!

Forecast for Lincoln, Nebraska:


Breezy...colder. Mostly sunny. Areas of blowing snow. Highs around 2. Northwest winds 15 to 25 mph. Lowest wind chill values 24 below to 34 below zero in the morning.

Sunday Evening:

Mostly clear. Lows around 11 below. Northwest winds 10 to 15 mph with gusts to around 25 mph decreasing to up to 5 mph after midnight. Wind chill values 17 below to 27 below zero in the evening.

Yep, you read that correctly. A high of 2 (F). On the upside, it'll be mostly sunny. Not that it matters much, as I'll be inside ALL day.

Note to my brother, Mark: No jokes about your weather in San Diego! I don't want to hear how warm it is or the fact that you're running around in shorts. ;)

December 16, 2008

The Alchemy of Loss

The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation by Abigail Carter
Nonfiction - Memoir/Grief
2008 Health Communications, Inc.
Finished on 11/24/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific)
TLC Book Tour Participant

Publisher's Blurb:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Abigail Carter received an urgent phone call from her husband, Arron: "Ab, Ab! There's an emergency. I'm in the World Trade Center and there's been a bomb." He never came home.

Abby had it all—a full life with a successful career and a loving husband, and a beautiful two-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. But in a horrifying instant watched by the world, it was gone, and her family's lives were changed irreparably. The Alchemy of Loss chronicles the tumultuous four years Abby spent trying to come to terms with her loss that day. Honest, raw, and even humorous, this is a book she wished she could have found after Arron died.

During those challenging years, Abby came to realize that she had to turn everything she knew upside down in order to earn to live again—and that there is no one-size-fits-all path through grief. She gradually began to build a new life for herself and to see opportunities in her situation. She developed new skills as a single parent, started dating again, and eventually moved across the country for a fresh start in Seattle. Those years were powerfully transformative, and Abby now likens them to alchemy: from them she emerged a new person—wiser, more independent, more sure of herself.

A compelling, moving memoir and a loving portrait of a marriage, The Alchemy of Loss will prove a comfort for anyone who is dealing with unimaginable loss—and serve as an inspiration to us all.

Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day... (Alan Jackson)

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news. Someone had called the store (I was working at Borders in Fort Worth), telling us to turn on the TV right away. I stood with my co-workers, watching in disbelief and confusion as the reporters were discussing the first plane crash when the second plane hit the towers. I continued to watch during the morning and saw the reports about the Pentagon, as well as the crash of United Flight #93. I stood in stunned silence for what seemed like hours watching as the two towers collapsed. I stood horrified with sadness, anger, shock and bewilderment. I watched countless hours of CNN when I got home from work, unable to stop the tears. I worried about my parents who were vacationing in Germany and panicked as I heard fighter jets flying low overhead, later to learn that they were escorting a DFW American Airlines jet filled with grief counselors and staff to the East coast.

But Abigail's book and loss is not just about 9/11.

It's about the death of her husband, the death of her children's father, and the death of her in-laws' son.

And yet, her loss is a shared loss not simply with her family, or even the people of the United States, but rather with the entire world. We were all deeply affected by the events of that awful morning, most of us knowing someone who knew someone who died that day.

I knew that Abigail Carter's memoir was going to be a difficult read. What I didn't know was how I was going to react to the opening chapter; a chapter filled with all the horrific details of September 11th. I've only read one other book that focuses specifically on that day's events (Joyce Maynard's The Usual Rules), and as I did then, I found myself literally gripping the pages of the book, practically holding my breath with anticipation of reading the unfolding details. Carter's opening paragraph slams the reader right back into the intensity of that day. And yet, I couldn't stop reading in spite of the blinding tears in my eyes.

Why do I continue to read books filled with grief and sadness? Why am I so drawn to them?

In her preface, Carter writes:

Driven to write my story despite never having written before, I sat down at my computer shortly after the second anniversary of Arron's death and simply wrote "September 11, 2001." Words spilled onto the pages. I told myself I wanted to record the events for my children, who would someday ask for details, but I also secretly hoped my story would be more—something that could help others to cope with their own losses. I wanted to write the book I had not found, the one that would give me hope that my grief would not be permanent and that a whole new life might emerge from the ashes of loss.

Perhaps I'm searching for that perfect explanation and answer to why? Or maybe I'm simply looking to validate my thoughts and feelings about how to move through this process of grieving. I, too, sat down and wrote endless pages (on a steno pad, nonetheless), trying to sort through my thoughts and feelings. These vignettes eventually transpired into my blog of letters to my stepdaughter.

Like Abigail and her children, I have moved forward with my life. I've found happiness in the beauty of nature, books, friendships and work. My photography has brought me great joy. Yet, I haven't forgotten, nor will I ever forget, Rachel's beautiful smile or contagious laugh. And the pain of losing her will never completely diminish.

It's not unusual to share similar thoughts about grief with those who have been down the same road, but I was completely stunned when I read the following passage:

My first day back at work was a strange foray into public life... After being tucked away for two long months in my house with only minimal contact with people other than my family and closest friends, I feared how people at work were going to treat me. I still felt the weight, whenever I stepped in public, of what felt like others' reverence toward me, or pity, or fear. I found I could classify people into three categories: Those who empathized with me and who always managed to say just the right thing; those who didn't really understand, but tried anyway—they were usually the ones who said, "I'm sorry for your loss"; and those who didn't get it at all and just tried to avoid me altogether. How was I supposed to respond to "How are you?" That look of desperation in someone's eyes, willing me to tell them everything was fine. But it was not fine and it would never be fine. Could they see it in the dullness in my eyes?

And now a passage from my husband's blog (posted 12/11/05):

I did learn, though, that the division amongst friends and their ability to handle what’s happened is about the same at a party, proportionally, as it is at work and amongst our non-work circle of friends.

In other words, the 80/20 rule applies. In business, the 80/20 rule states that roughly 20% of your product line will generate roughly 80% of your revenue. The goal, then, is to determine what products constitute that valuable 20% and concentrate more on those than on the rest; if you can do that, you’ll drive revenue up and costs down. Or so I’ve been told by businessmen, sales reps, etc.

In terms of grief, the 80/20 rule works a little differently. It seems that a small number—about 20%, in fact—of your friends will fall into one of two camps: About half of that 20% will be able to talk about what happened. They’ll confront the issue head-on, they’ll attempt to be supportive; they’ll come to you and put their arms around you and say, “Are you doing OK? I’m so sorry. I know the holiday season must be very difficult for you. Can I do anything? Would you like to just sit down and talk?” And then they do sit down and talk, or listen to us as we talk.

These folks are very brave. We can’t be much fun to be around, especially when the conversation turns to your murder and to how we’re all holding up.

The other half of the 20% won’t talk to you at all. They simply cannot deal with what’s happened—perhaps they have their own losses to deal with, or they can’t bear to consider the possibility of such a loss. It’s a pain that’s not only too great to discuss, it’s too great to even imagine.

To these people, the bottom half of the 20%, the grieving are like lepers of old: We must be avoided, shunned, ignored; if we do travel amongst the non-grieving, we should be required to wear distinctive clothing, our gloomy passage marked by a lamp-bearer who rings a bell and shouts, “Unclean! Unclean!” as we pass by. It would be best, one feels, if there were colonies where the grief-stricken gathered, forced to huddle in amongst themselves; perhaps grief ghettos would serve to protect the normal folk as they go about their lives.

The remaining 80% of one’s friends and acquaintances can and do speak to us, but not about what’s happened. They try to pretend that everything is normal. We’re up and about, after all; we seem to be able to function—and besides, it’s been several months now, time to “get over it.” They can talk to you about just about anything, usually with a bright, chipper smile and a perky lilt to their voices. (Some of them are marketing people, so they can’t help this, of course; “perk” is part of their job description. It might be an inbred thing, I’m not sure.)

Sometimes, though, someone in the 80% group accidentally asks a dangerous question. He may look up and smile as I stand at the office coffeepot. “So,” he says, “how are you doing?” He doesn’t really want to know the answer. You can tell by his furtive, hangdog look that he didn’t really mean to ask that and that he regrets that it slipped out. Like a store clerk muttering “Have a nice day” after she finishes bagging the groceries, it was just something to say, words to fill a conversational void; it was meaningless chatter that was meant to remain meaningless. You can almost hear him thinking, “Oh, crap! Please don’t let him really answer that. I just want to talk about volleyball, or this terrible coffee, or the dress code at work.”

So, at work and at parties and in the world at large, the 80/20 rule seems to hold true. The vast majority of our friends and acquaintances need—for their own peace of mind—to pretend that all is well, that life is normal, that things can go on as they are, that the world isn’t falling apart.

Pretty much the same thoughts as Abigail's!

On grief and noise:

All the noises in the house were too loud to me. A Thomas the Tank Engine video, seemingly played on a loop, provided a constant background noise. The dog barked and I flinched.

What is it about grief and noise? I recall several instances when we happened to be in a restaurant and it was all we could do to get through our meal and rush out, throwing our money on the table. The sound of people enjoying themselves, laughing and talking to their friends, grated on our nerves, bringing us close to tears. We were so fragile back then, angry that the world continued to turn, annoyed that everyone else was enjoying life while we ours was shattered.

On public image:

My nervousness was also rooted in my fear of the unknown: this was my first public outing as a widow. I was certain that I must look different. Perhaps it was possible to see in my eyes that not only was I a widow but I was a 9/11 widow. I felt I had to act a special way, be demure, or red-eyed, or wear a black band around my arm, or carry a folded flag. I wished I could wear something that might explain my strange slow gait, and, what I felt must be, my vacant look.

I remember going for my afternoon walks on the bike path, listening to my music on my iPod, with tears streaming down my face. I saw the sidelong glances from those walking past me with their dogs or children and I found myself wishing I could explain that I had just returned from my stepdaughter's funeral and that I was just so horribly sad. I wanted the entire world to know of my pain.

Abigail shared my feelings:

"I'm numb. I don't really know how I feel. I was walking the dog today and met a couple of old ladies in the park. They were making a fuss over Harley and I blurted out that Harley had just lost her master in the World Trade Center. I shocked them and then felt terrible because I hated seeing the pity in their eyes. Yet I seemed to need to tell every stranger I met about my tragedy."


On the roller-coaster of grief:

"Have a nice day!" the cashier sang at me.

I ran the cart to the car and threw the bags into the back and got in quickly before the full flood of tears began. I sat for several minutes, letting the tears come, and then let out a scream of frustration. Just when things seemed to be feeling normal, I was ricocheted back into grief. I drove home through my tears and put away the groceries, seeing that I had bought too much. The apples would rot in the bowl. The chicken would remain frozen for months. I looked at the empty space on top of the fridge where the chips used to reside, the only perceivable indication that my life had changed forever.

On grief support groups:

And yet I longed to connect to the community that these widows represented. They supported each other and had become friends. I still knew none of the 9/11 widows, other than Kimmy from the consulate. I wanted to know if their anger helped them, if their common mission to address the lack of policies and inadequacies that had conspired to create the buildings' collapse was a good outlet for their grief. I wondered if they felt as guilty as I did receiving money from charities. I wondered if they knew how to act when someone cried on their shoulder and they heard the words "Sorry for your loss" for the hundredth time. Did they tell their tragedies to strangers in the park? Kick the lawn mower? Did they fall asleep feeling the hole of their missing loved ones in the pits of their stomachs?

My husband and I joined a support group (Community of Friends - a spin-off of Compassionate Friends) for parents who have lost a child. (That's one euphemism I really came to hate. We didn't lose her. She was taken from us.) As painful as those meetings were, hearing all those parents share their sad stories, we both found it beneficial to talk to others who had similar thoughts and feelings about the death of their child. And, it was good for us to see that those who'd been grieving for several years (even decades) were able to laugh and joke and eventually enjoy life once again. It gave us hope and comfort.

On overcoming fear:

As I read the book [Awakening from Grief: Finding the Way Back to Joy by John Welshons], I realized that Arron's death had weakened my own fear. Perhaps my so-called communications with him were all in my head, but I was surviving his death. I was learning to live without him. I now knew that all of us had the ability to cope with loss in our lives, and that we learned from our losses.

Oh, I know this feeling so well. I'm quite a worrier. Or, I used to be. Not so much anymore. I used to be afraid of flying. I worried about foundations cracking. I panicked when our basement flooded. I imagined termites slowly demolishing our creaky-old floors. Yet after the death of our daughter, I realized I wasn't worrying quite as much as I used to. I wasn't afraid of dying. I wasn't anxious about black mold or carpenter ants. I had experienced a tragic death of a loved one and survived the emotional wreckage. Anything else is truly insignificant (well, with the exception of losing our younger daughter!). So I stopped worrying. Not completely, but enough to gain a sense of perspective and know what's really worth worrying about and what's simply a waste of time.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "I don't know how you do it. How you go on." I'm sure Abigail has heard those same words. And I would be willing to bet she thought the same thoughts as I: You just do. What other choice do you have? You just get up and put one foot in front of the other and eventually it gets a little bit easier. It's been a long, long time since I looked at the clock on a Saturday morning, remembering where I was when we got the phone call. I still know how many years (and how many Christmases) have passed without her, but I no longer count the weeks or months. And I smile when I hear her daddy play his guitar, because there was a long period of time when he couldn't even sing.

Thank you, Abby, for sharing such a tender account of your passage through grief with this reader. We may not know each other, but I think we know and understand one another's pain and suffering. It's good to know we've both reached a happier place in our lives. Here's to finding that "real, actual, wind-in-my-hair exuberance for something" once again.

TLC Book Tour Details

Be sure to visit Abby's website and blog. You may also read an excerpt here.

I'd like to send a big thank you to Lisa for inviting me to participate in this TLC Book Tour! Now that I've posted my review, I'm anxious to read all the others.

Abigail Carter’s TLC Book Tour Stops:

Monday, December 1st: Crash Course Widow

Wednesday, December 3rd: Solomother

Thursday, December 4th: The Tome Traveler

Monday, December 8th: Widows Quest

Tuesday, December 9th: A Novel Menagerie

Wednesday, December 10th: Anniegirl1138

Thursday, December 11th: Learning To Live

Monday, December 15th: Wormbook

Tuesday, December 16th: My Friend Amy

Wednesday, December 17th: Lesley’s Book Nook

Thursday, December 18th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books

Monday, December 22nd: Single Mom Finding Herself

December 12, 2008

A Few Words From Kelly

I read this over on Kelly's blog and asked if she would mind if I posted it here. This is such a lovely "essay" about the power of friendship and I want to share it with all my girlfriends, today, on my 47th birthday. I want all of you to know how much your friendships mean to me. And if you haven't read Kelly's memoir, it will be out in paperback on the 23rd. You can read my review for the hardcover here.

Thank you, Kelly. This is such a special essay. You have quite a way with words!

December 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dear Amy...

Photo courtesy of Aaron Adams

Photo courtesy of Aaron Adams

25 years! Where has the time gone? I wish you the very happiest birthday, Amy. We wish we could be down there in Texas to help you celebrate this milestone birthday.

All our love, always, Mom & Rod

December 4, 2008

Bookworm Award

Janet from Joyful Jottings and Kim from Page After Page have both tagged me (oh, two-and-a-half weeks ago!) for the Bookworm Award meme. Here are the details:

Open the closest book to you, not your favorite or most intellectual book, but the book closest to you at the moment, to page 56. Write out the fifth sentence, as well as two to five sentences following there. Pass this on to five blogging friends.

The following quote is from Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs.

He preferred a baseball game, if there was one, some other sporting event, if there wasn't. He gave me to understand that professional wrestling was fake, but this in no way diminished his appreciation of it. He wasn't much interested in the shows my mother liked—dramas like the Philco Television Playhouse—but offered no objection to her watching them, snoring peacefully in his armchair when he did.

I've only just started the book, but like all the others I've read by Russo, this has great potential!!

Thanks for the tag, ladies. I'm willing to bet most of you have already participated in this meme. If not, consider yourself tagged!

December 3, 2008

A Month in Review - November ('08)

Not a bad month. I have one book that I've not yet reviewed, as I'm a tour host for TLC Book Tours. My scheduled date is December 17th, so be sure to check back on that day.

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

'Tis the Season! by Lorna Landvik (4/5)

Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger (4.75/5)

The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation by Abigail Carter (TBA)

Comfort and Joy by Kristin Hannah (2/5)

Favorite of the month: Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger

Books Read 4
Male Authors 1
Female Authors 3
New-To-Me Authors 2
Epistolary 2
Current Affairs 0
Japanese 0
Audio 0
Fiction 3
Nonfiction 1
Historical Fiction 0
Coming-of-Age 1
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Romance 1
Humor 0
Travel 0
Holiday 2
Memoir 1
Essays 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 0
Series 0
Re-read 0
Challenge 0
Mine 3
Borrowed 1
Gift 0

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

November 30, 2008

Comfort and Joy

And the winner is...


Send me your snail mail address (I moderate comments, so I'll delete it without posting) and I'll get the book out in the mail on Monday. Hope you enjoy it!

Comfort & Joy by Kristin Hannah
Contemporary Fiction - Holiday
2005 Ballantine Books
Finished on 11/29/08
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Product Description

In this modern-day fairy tale, New York Times bestselling author Kristin Hannah gives us a very special gift: the heartwarming story of a woman at a crossroads, caught between two lives, who finds a second chance at happiness.

Joy Candellaro used to love Christmas more than any other time of the year. Now, as the holiday approaches, she finds herself at loose ends. Recently divorced and estranged from her sister, she can’t summon the old enthusiasm for celebrating. So without telling anyone, she buys a ticket and boards a plane bound for the rural Northwest.

Yet Joy’s best-laid plans go terribly awry. The plane crashes deep in the darkness of a forest. Miraculously, Joy and her fellow passengers walk away from the wreckage as the plane explodes. There, amid the towering trees, Joy makes a bold and desperate decision to leave her ordinary life behind and embark on an adventure . . . just for the holidays.

Daniel O’Shea has returned to the small town of Rain Valley, following the death of his ex-wife. Now he is a single father facing his son’s first Christmas without a mother. Six-year-old Bobby isn’t making it easy–the boy has closed himself off from the world, surrounding himself with imaginary friends.

When Joy and Bobby meet, they form an instant bond. Thrown together by fate, these wounded souls will be touched by the true spirit of Christmas and remember what it means to be a family.

Then a dramatic turn of events shows Joy the price of starting over. On a magical Christmas Eve she will come face-to-face with a startling truth. Now she must decide: In a time of impossible dreams and unexpected chances, can she find the faith to reach for the love she has found . . . and the new life only she believes in?

It's been several years since I've read anything by Kristin Hannah, but after reading Beachreader's glowing review of Comfort and Joy a couple of years ago, I decided to add it to my list of possible holiday reads. I didn't get around to reading it last year, so when I spotted it on one of my shelves earlier this month, I decided it was next in line for this holiday season.

In spite of my low rating, I must say I was quickly drawn into the story, eager to see how Joy's situation would play out. Somewhere around the half-way mark, though, I began to feel disappointed in the plot and overall writing. The story is unnecessarily drawn out, dialogue repetitive, and the majority of characters underdeveloped. One must be willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy this fairy tale, yet one of the key plot points (involving Joy's relationship with her sister) was impossible for this reader to buy into.

I'm not a big romance reader and as it turns out, Hannah is apparently a hit-or-miss author with me. I gave up on Between Sisters, endured Angel Falls, yet thoroughly enjoyed Summer Island and Distant Shores. One of the reasons I'm so attracted to her books is the Pacific Northwest settings. She always manages to make me want to put our house on the market and move to Washington or Oregon! So, next time I'm in the mood for a light, fluffy read, I'll probably give her another chance. Anyone interested in giving this one a try? Leave a comment indicating your interest and I'll draw the winning name on December 6th.

November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Krieger-Renner Pond
(Lathrop, Missouri)

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest-home;
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin.

Henry Alford
"Come, Ye Thankful People, Come," 1844

November 21, 2008

Last Days of Summer

Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger
Contemporary Fiction - Epistolary
1998 Bard (Avon Books)
Finished on 11/12/08
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)

Publishers Weekly

Mixing nostalgia, baseball and a boy's mostly epistolary friendship with a 1940s baseball star, this inventive but sentimental novel consists entirely of letters, fictional newspaper clippings, telegrams, war dispatches, report cards and other documentary fragments. Growing up Jewish in a tough, Italian Brooklyn neighborhood, Joey Margolis is troubled by anti-Semitic neighbors, by Hitler's rising power, by his parents' divorce and by his absent cad of a father. Craving a surrogate dad, Joey strikes up a correspondence with Wisconsin-born New York Giants slugger Charlie Banks. The boy's outrageous fibs, tough-guy posturing and desperate pleas grab the reluctant attention of the superstar, whose racy vernacular guy-talk (peppered with amusing misspellings and misusages) hints at his deepening affection for Joey. Charlie is a politically enlightened proletarian ballplayer with a heart of gold. His liberal views find an echo in Joey, whose best friend, Japanese-American Craig Nakamura, gets shipped off with his family to a wartime internment camp. In a plot that swerves from Joey's Bar Mitzvah to a White House meeting with President Roosevelt to [spoiler deleted], Kluger keeps changing the pace and piles on a slew of period references with a heavy hand. Despite these flaws, this debut novel is at its best a poignant, golden evocation of one boy's lost innocence.

Product Description

May 15, 1940

Charlie Banks
New York Giants
Polo Grounds, New York

Dear Mr. Banks:
I am a 12–year–old boy and I am dying from malaria. Please hit a home run for me because I don't think I will be around much longer.

Your friend,
Joey Margolis

Dear Kid:
Last week it was the plague. Now it's malaria. What do I look – stupid to you? You're lucky I don't send somebody over there to tap you on the conk. I am enclosing 1 last picture. Do not write to me again.

Chase. Banks
3d Base

Dear Charlie:
Nobody asked for your damn picture. I never even heard of you before. And you can forget about the home run too. The only reason I needed one was because the bullies who keep beating me up somehow thought you were my best friend and the homer was supposed to keep them from slugging me anymore. Thanks for nothing.
Can I go on a road trip with you?

Your arch enemy,
Joey Margolis

Dear Joey:
"Somehow" they thought I was your best friend? Where did they hear that from? A Nazi spy? J. Herbert Hoover? Franklin Delano Biscuithead? And didn't I tell you not to write to me anymore? Go bug DiMaggio.

P.S. And just because there's a spot open for a bat boy this summer doesn't mean your going to get it. Even if we ARE chips off the same block.

I've had this book on my shelf for nearly a decade! I know at one point I read a dozen or so pages, but couldn't get interested. Usually, I'd give up at that point, but I remembered my boss at Borders Books saying it was a great read, so I set it aside for another time. As I was putting together a list for my epistolary endcap, I remembered this book and decided to give it another chance, especially since I don't like to have any books on the endcap that I haven't read. Well, just as with the first attempt, I had a bit of a slow start with Last Days of Summer, but once I got a couple of dozen pages in, I was hooked.

Of course this shouldn't have surprised me, as I love baseball, books set during World War II, epistolary books and coming-of-age stories.

I laughed out loud and I cried.

I hugged the book to my chest when I finished and whispered, "Great book!"

I thought about various actors, wishing this were a movie as well as a book.

I'll read it again and recommend it to everyone.

Yep, great book.

Dear Mr. Kluger,

You scored a home run with this marvelous book. I fell in love with Joey, Charlie, Hazel and Stuke and was sorry when I came to the last page. Thank goodness you have another epistolary work for me to read!

Thanks for the laughs.

A happy reader in Nebraska.

November 18, 2008

Epistolary Endcap

Main Entry: epis•tle
Pronunciation: \i-‘pi-səl\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, letter, Epistle, from Anglo-French, from Latin epistula, epistola letter, from Greek epistolē message, letter, from epistellein to send to, from epi- + stellein to send
Date: 13th century

1 capitalized a: one of the letters adopted as books of the New Testament b: a liturgical lection usually from one of the New Testament Epistles
2 a: LETTER; especially : a formal or elegant letter b: a composition in the form of a letter

Here's my new endcap, which is doing quite well! I set it on October 30th and so far the sales have been very good. The Guernsey book is an easy sell, as is 84, Charing Cross Road and These Is My Words. Here's the entire list (click on the titles for reviews or purchase information):

'Tis The Season by Lorna Landvik

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

Between Friends by Debbie Macomber

These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy Turner

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg

The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg

The Boy Next Door by Meggin Cabot

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I've read all but Address Unknown and Fair and Tender Ladies. (They're in my stacks!) Please don't ask which of these are my favorites. They're all very, very good!

November 17, 2008


This is simply marvelous!

To view in full-screen mode, click on the small box, second from the right.

For more video clips about this project, go here.

You can check out the book here:

November 12, 2008

'Tis the Season!

'Tis The Season! by Lorna Landvik
Contemporary Fiction - Epistolary
2008 Ballantine Books
Finished on 11/2/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Product Description

Bestselling author Lorna Landvik shines in this delightful holiday novel of redemption and forgiveness.

Heiress Caroline Dixon has managed to alienate nearly everyone with her alcohol-fueled antics, which have also provided near-constant fodder for the poison-pen tabloids and their gossip-hungry readers. But like so many girls-behaving-badly, the twenty-six-year-old socialite gets her comeuppance, followed by a newfound attempt to live a saner existence, or at least one more firmly rooted in the real world.

As Caro tentatively begins atoning for past misdeeds, she reaches out to two wonderful people who years ago brought meaning to her life: her former nanny, Astrid Brevald, now living in Norway and Arizona dude ranch owner, Cyril Dale. While Astrid fondly remembers Caro as a special, sweet little girl left in her charge, Cyril recalls how he and his late wife were quite taken with the quick-witted teenager Caro had become when she spent a difficult period in her life at the ranch as her father was dying.

In a series of e-mail exchanges, Caro reveals the depth of her pain and the lengths she went to hide it. In turn, Astrid and Cyril share their own stories of challenging times and offer the unconditional support this young woman has never known. The correspondence leads to the promise of a reunion, just in time for Christmas. But the holiday brings unexpected revelations that change the way everyone sees themselves and one another.

At once heartfelt and witty, ’Tis the Season! bears good tidings of great joy about the human condition–that down and out doesn’t mean over and done, that the things we need most are closer than we know, and that the true measure of one’s worth rests in the boundless depths of the soul.

I don't usually read "holiday" books, but a couple of weeks ago, as I was helping set one of the Christmas tables at work, I spied the new Lorna Landvik book. The colorful cover caught my eye, so I flipped it open and discovered it's an epistolary. What perfect timing!! I had just set my new end cap and knew this would be the perfect eye-catching book to sit in the #1 position on the display. Of course, I really like to have read all the books I recommend, so I got a copy and brought it home to read as soon as I finished my current book.

What a treat!! I could have easily read it in an afternoon, but as life seems to go around here, I wound up reading it over the course of two days.

It's been a while since I've enjoyed one of Landvik's books (gave up on The Tall Pine Polka and haven't felt compelled to read The View from Mount Joy), but this is a winner! As with most epistolaries, the exchange of correspondences between multiple characters takes a bit of time settling into who's who. But once the characters were established, I quickly devoured the book. And, just in case you're not a fan of Christmas-type books, this spans five months prior to Christmas. I'm tempted to say it really isn't a holiday book at all. Just happens to conclude in December.

This is definitely a quick read, but it's also one of those feel-good books that we can all benefit from during this hectic and stressful time of year.

If I haven't been able to convince you, check out Lesa's review for more details. 'Tis the Season! won't wind up on my Top Ten for 2008, but I'm so glad I took the time to read it. Perfect brain candy after a couple of very long months!