March 31, 2012

The Underside of Joy

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson
2012 Penguin Group
Finished on 3/8/12
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Overview (from Barnes & Noble)

Set against the backdrop of Redwood forests and shimmering vineyards, Seré Prince Halverson's compelling debut tells the story of two women, bound by an unspeakable loss, who each claims to be the mother of the same two children.

To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. Yet one summer day Joe breaks his own rule-never turn your back on the ocean-and a sleeper wave strikes him down, drowning not only the man but his many secrets.

For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known and has believed that their biological mother, Paige, abandoned them. But when Paige shows up at the funeral, intent on reclaiming the children, Ella soon realizes there may be more to Paige and Joe's story. "Ella's the best thing that's happened to this family," say her close-knit Italian-American in-laws, for generations the proprietors of a local market. But their devotion quickly falters when the custody fight between mother and stepmother urgently and powerfully collides with Ella's quest for truth.

The Underside of Joy is not a fairy-tale version of stepmotherhood pitting good Ella against evil Paige, but an exploration of the complex relationship of two mothers. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars-both physical and emotional-to the families' deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during World War II and postpartum psychosis.

Weaving a rich fictional tapestry abundantly alive with the glorious natural beauty of the novel's setting, Halverson is a captivating guide through the flora and fauna of human emotion-grief and anger, shame and forgiveness, happiness and its shadow complement . . . the underside of joy.

I first read about The Underside of Joy on Bermudaonion’s blog and became interested when I discovered that the novel takes place in Northern California. I lived in Redway (Humboldt County) in the late sixties and was curious to see if Elbow is actually based on the town of Benbow (which is just south of Redway and Garberville). I couldn’t figure that out, but I did enjoy the authenticity of the setting, as well as the occasional references to San Diego (I, too, worked for a biotech firm in La Jolla) and Encinitas (a small beach community near another town I in which I once lived).

Northern California Coast

I didn’t mark any passage and have since returned the book, but the story grabbed me from the opening pages and I read it over the course of just a few days (while cooped up in a condo on Kauai). The grief shared by a mother and stepmother (albeit, for a husband and not a child) rang very true and there were a few instances in which my heartstrings were gently tugged.

This is one of the rare instances in which I prefer the American cover art over that of the UK’s:

U.K. Cover Art

I discovered this “bio” on Halverson’s website. I love the poetic cadence in her words!

Where I'm From

I am from driftwood, a Mason jar of beach glass collected from our backyard shore on the Puget Sound, and wobbly figure-eights carved on a frozen backwoods pond in Connecticut — shoveled and jump-tested first by my dad.

I am from 25 houses and the inherited determination to have made each one my home and yet...

I am from a persistent longing to finally find home.

I am from Goose Lake suntans, a banged up rowboat and fishing for bluegills, grandma's rhubarb pie and sweet coffee-milk, grandpa's sign in the shower: hang up your wet swimsuits signed the management, a fun pack of cousins, and our painstakingly choreographed shows put on for the tipsy grownups.

I am from three third grades, two second chances, and one first love.

I am from "The only way to make a living by writing is to work in advertising," and "Follow your dreams."

I am from lapsed Catholics. I am from being a Born Again only to be reborn as a Born Only-Once. I am from the acceptance of mystery and trying to remember to find the sacred in this moment.

I am from holding reverent funerals with my little sister as we buried pet moths and butterflies and goldfish under an enormous lilac bush, pressing us with its blooming fragrance and early lessons of impermanence.

I am from Jan and Don, from cocktail parties where I ate the olives soaked in martinis and the maraschino cherries drenched in Manhattans, from boat trips through the San Juans, from aunts and uncles in Seattle who spoiled my sister and me every summer with Spuds Fish 'n Chips, camping, and shopping trips.

I am from singing road songs like I've Got Six-Pence while the red-orange reflections of my parents' cigarettes danced along on the windshield.

I am from moving to a place where I discovered that the Golden Gate Bridge is really red and where I learned to call the beige hills of late summer "golden."

I am from a kitchen timer that told me everything from how long I had to practice the piano to how long my mom had to watch us and the neighborhood kids play Marco Polo in our pool.

I am from gourmet dinners served at 11 p.m. and Carnation Breakfasts blended with ice cream the next morning.

I am from wordplay, inappropriate jokes, and milk-through-the-nose laughter; open arms and long hugs; honesty and admitted mistakes; and the deepest, unshakable certainty that I was always loved and always will be.

I am from old slides that still need to be made into pictures, from packing and unpacking boxes, from revising and finishing and beginning again. And again.

(This was inspired by Lindsey Mead’s beautiful post at A Design So Vast, which was inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon, which was inspired by a poem by Jo Carson. With all this inspiration, perhaps you'll be inspired to try your own version.)

Final Thoughts: A bit simplistic and predictable, yet an enjoyable beach read. I look forward to her next effort.

March 24, 2012

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
2011 Books on Tape
Reader: Catherine Taber
Finished on 2/22/12
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)

Columbia County, Arkansas, 1956

John Moses couldn’t have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he’d planned it for a lifetime. Which was possible. He was contrary as a mule. It was the weekend of the Moses family reunion, and everything was perfect—or at least perfectly normal—until John went and ruined it.

Publisher’s Blurb:

Every first Sunday in June, members of the colorful Moses clan gather for their annual reunion at “the old home place,” a sprawling hundred-acre farm in Arkansas. Samuel Lake, a handsome young preacher with a huge heart and strong convictions, has brought his wife, Willadee Moses, and their three young children to the festivities. For the children it’s a time to vacation away from the prying eyes of their father’s congregation, and for Willadee it’s a chance to be with her beloved mother and father. But tragedy strikes, jolting the family to their core and setting the stage for a summer of crisis and profound change.

Samuel soon learns that he has lost his parish back in Louisiana, so he and his family take up temporary residence on the farm. Everyone is drawn to Samuel’s eleven-year-old daughter, Swan, with her outspoken questions and mischievous spirit. Swan, in turn, is fascinated by her powerful, secretive Uncle Toy, a war veteran, and his sultry wife, Bernice, an old girlfriend of Samuel’s whose desire to win back her old beau is a bit too obvious. But when Blade Ballenger, an eight-year-old neighbor, comes into Swan’s life, she focuses all her fierce energy on keeping him safe from his terrifying father, never realizing the possible dangers to herself and to those she loves.

With characters who come to life like members of one’s own family, Jenny Wingfield’s The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is a novel with the universal reach of the most memorable and lasting works of fiction.

I listened to the first five chapters of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake twice. On purpose. I fell in love with Catherine Taber’s southern accent, which is not too sweet or syrupy, but just thick enough to let you know you’re listening to a work of Southern fiction. Superb Southern fiction. Not since Kathryn Stockett’s The Help have I been so moved by a novel.

I need to read the printed version of this book since it’s all but impossible to keep track of favorite passages while listening. I did find this excerpt, which gives you a sense of the writing, over on Random House:

The reunion was always held the first Sunday in June. It had been that way forever. It was tradition. And John Moses had a thing about tradition. Every year or so, his daughter, Willadee (who lived way off down in Louisiana), would ask him to change the reunion date to the second Sunday in June, or the first Sunday in July, but John had a stock answer.

“I’d rather burn in Hell.”

Willadee would remind her father that he didn’t believe in Hell, and John would remind her that it was God he didn’t believe in, the vote was still out about Hell. Then he would throw in that the worst thing about it was, if there did happen to be a hell, Willadee’s husband, Samuel Lake, would land there right beside him, since he was a preacher, and everybody knew that preachers (especially Methodists, like Samuel) were the vilest bunch of bandits alive.

Every year, the day after school let out for the summer, Samuel and Willadee would load up their kids, Noble and Swan and Bienville, and take off for south Arkansas. Willadee already had freckles everywhere the sun had ever touched, but she would always roll the window down and hang her arm out, and God would give her more. Her boisterous, sand-colored hair would fly in the breeze, tossing and tangling, and eventually she would laugh out loud, just because going home made her feel so free.

Columbia County was located down on the tail end of Arkansas, which looked just the same as north Louisiana. When God made that part of the country, He made it all in one big piece, and He must have had a good time doing it. There were rolling hills and tall trees and clear creeks with sandy bottoms and wildflowers and blue skies and great puffy clouds that hung down so low you’d almost believe you could reach up and grab a handful. That was the upside. The downside was brambles and cockleburs and a variety of other things nobody paid much attention to, since the upside outweighed the downside by a mile.

The “old homeplace” had been a sprawling hundred-acre farm, which provided milk and eggs and meat and vegetables and fruit and berries and nuts and honey. It took some coaxing. The land gave little up for free. The farm was dotted with outbuildings that John and his sons had erected over the years. Barns and sheds and smokehouses and outhouses, most of which were leaning wearily by 1956. When you don’t use a building anymore, it knows it’s lost its purpose.

Wingfield has created some wonderfully endearing characters, all with interesting personalities and names such as Willadee, Noble, Bienville, Swan, Calla, Toy, and Blade. Reminiscent of Scout Finch, with her spunk and tender heart, Swan Lake (yes, that is her name) is one I will never forget.

The most delicious thing in Swan’s life was this one week every summer of wearing boys clothes and forgetting about modesty. She could scoot under barbed-wire fences and race across pastures without those confounded skirts getting in her way. She was little. She was quick. And she was just what Noble dreamed of being. Formidable. You couldn’t get the best of her, no matter how you tried.

When I first read The Help, I was completely bowled over by Stockett’s writing. I loved it so much that I went on to listen to the audio.

It was just as good.

When the movie came out, I went to see it with my daughter.

It was just as good.

My gut tells me that the printed version of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake will be just as good as the audio. How wonderful if someone were to option the rights for a film. I imagine Reese Witherspoon as Willadee and maybe Jon Hamm as Toy or Samuel.

See what some of my blogmates have to say about this remarkable novel:

Jenny Wingfield does an admirable job in recreating a mid-century Southern family. The food, community, gossip, and landscape all come together to firmly place the reader in the South during a time in history when reliance on faith and belief in family were strong. (Wendy, of Caribousmom)

Just finished and just amazed. I loved this book…The book has so much to offer. It is filled with a family of terrific characters that in one way or another touch your heart. You just can't help but let them in…This "best read" is now on my list of "must purchase" so I can add it to my personal bookshelves. (Joy, of Thoughts of Joy)

Recommend? An EMPHATIC yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This was a home run read for me and one that lingers in my mind still. One of the best reads for 2011. (Staci, of Life in the Thumb)

Jenny Wingfield weaves together a beautiful story about family, about humanity. It's both heartfelt and humorous, and also dark and tragic. It's about being there for family and others when they need you the most. This book is certain to make my top 10 list for 2011. You MUST read this novel. (Diane, of Bibliophile By the Sea)

Final thoughts: Jenny Wingfield is a consummate storyteller who has written the proverbial Great Read. I believe it will be The Help of 2012. Read it!

About the Author

Born in Fountain Hill, Arkansas, Jenny Wingfield was a preacher's kid who grew up "pretty much all over Louisiana". She graduated from Southern State College in Magnolia, Arkansas, and for several years, taught English, French, and Language Arts. She lives in Texas with her rescued dogs, cats, and horses. Her screenplay credits include The Man in the Moon and The Outsider. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is her first novel.

Go here to listen to an excerpt, read by Catherine Taber.

March 21, 2012

Birds of Paradise

Red-Crested Cardinal
(Paroaria coronata)

Also known as the Brazilian Cardinal

March 20, 2012


The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;

The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his heaven--
All's right with the world!

Song from Pippa Passes
Robert Browning

March 18, 2012

Sunday Ramblings - March 18, 2012

Hello! Yes, I’ve been absent for quite a while now, haven’t I? I need to catch up on reviews (I have three in the works), but wanted to pop in and say hi. How are you all doing with the time change? It’s almost 7 a.m. and still dark outside. We’ve been having summer-like weather this past week, so I have all the windows open to cool things off a bit. (I refuse to turn on the air conditioner in March!) As I sit here, sipping my cup of coffee, reading some of my favorite blogs, I hear two birds (probably cardinals) chirping away, as if to say, “Wake up, everyone! It’s going to be another gorgeous day and you don’t want to miss a single moment.” And, I’d have to agree. With these warm days (we’ve been in the 80’s all week!), my garden is requiring quite a bit of attention. The daffodils are in full bloom, as is the Star Magnolia bush and Forsythia. Unfortunately, we’ve had very little rain (and very little snow – three storms this winter, which amounted to about 16 inches in all), so I spent some time watering the beds yesterday afternoon. I cleaned up one of the beds in the front yard and plan to do more work out there today. But I also want to get back out on the bike trail. I had my first ride of the year on Wednesday and it felt great! I convinced Rod to go for a short ride before dinner last night and I can’t tell you what a joy it was to be out on the trail just before sunset. I love this time of year and am looking forward to another week of beautiful weather.

Which brings me to the week before last. You might have wondered where I disappeared to. I ran out of time before my departure to say goodbye and let you all know I was heading off to Kauai. My parents have a time share in Princeville and invited us to join them for a week. My hubby wasn’t able to go, so I invited my biking partner, knowing she’d enjoy all the activities I was hoping to do. After three flights (Omaha to Dallas to Honolulu to Lihue), we arrived on Kauai in the middle of a thunderstorm and made our way from the airport to the north end of the island. It was a pretty intense drive, as it was dark & raining and I was not familiar with the road, not to mention I have terrible night vision. But we finally arrived and collapsed. It felt like we’d been up for days!

The following morning we awoke to a torrential downpour. I had heard it rained a lot on Kauai—it is the Garden Island, after all—but I had not expected such a deluge. The wind was blowing so strongly and palm tree fronds were flying everywhere. It felt more like a monsoon than a tropical rainstorm. We were finally able to venture out later that afternoon and walk along the golf course, only to get soaked in anther downpour as we headed back to the condo. The days are all a blur at this point, but suffice it to say, it rained all but two of the six days we were on the island. We were able to get out and enjoy the southern part of the island (delicious lunch at Brennecke’s in Poipu!) on Wednesday and spent most of Thursday morning in Hanalei. We took a long walk on a bike trail right along the ocean near Kapa’a and watched the sunset from the St. Regis hotel, overlooking Hanalei Bay. But by Thursday night the storm returned and the bridge out of Princeville was closed (the second time that week) due to either a mudslide or downed trees. The bridge into Hanalei had also been closed earlier in the week due to flooding. With an earlyish flight out of Lihue on Saturday, we decided to pack up and leave as soon as the bridge reopened. We made our way south to Kapa’a where we found a couple of rooms at the beautiful oceanfront Courtyard Marriott. The staff was more than generous with their discounted rates for displaced tourists and we enjoyed a delicious dinner followed by a wonderful hula demonstration by four little girls. I wish I had thought to get some of the show on video. The music was beautiful and the girls were adorable.

Saturday we flew home, arriving back in Nebraska Sunday morning. I’ve only taken a red-eye flight one other time (Nebraska to England) and I have to say the name is truly fitting. I was awake for more than 36 hours on that trip home. Add the hour time change and you can imagine how red my eyes were! Fortunately, I have Mondays off, so I was able to sleep as long as my body needed…13 hours!! It took most of the week for me to recover from the jet lag, but now I’m feeling back to normal. I sure wouldn’t want to do that on a regular basis. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be a pilot or flight attendant!

So, do you want to know how much it rained in Kauai? I don’t know if you saw any reports on the news about the storm that hit the island, but the north shore (where we were staying) received 46 inches in the week we were there! 46! There was also hail, damaging winds, flooding, mudslides, and a tornado. Yep. If it weren’t for the palm trees and the gorgeous ocean, I would have started to wonder if I’d ever left the Midwest. ;) You can read more about the storm here.

You would think with all that time spent indoors, (as well as close to 32 hours of travel time) I would have read all the books I packed. Not so. I finished one book and read most of another, but that’s it. I wound up spending a lot of time catching up on my blog-hopping, which in my opinion is just a good as reading. And we did manage to get out and do quite a bit of walking between the rain showers. We weren’t able to bike down the Waimea Canyon or kayak up the Wailua River, but I did see a whale from our balcony. And several gorgeous waterfalls from a distance. And I had the most delicious Kona coffee and fresh ahi fish tacos I’ve ever tasted. And a few Mai Tais. J In spite of the rain, I was able to spend a week with my parents, which is always a joy. My mom and Bill are avid readers and it was cute to see them sitting side-by-side on the couch, each reading from their respective Nooks. I was also able to squeeze in a quick visit with my daughter and her boyfriend at the Grand Hyatt at DFW. They came out to have breakfast with us since we had such a long layover between flights. Love that D Concourse!

First morning at Alii Kai Resort
(Princeville, Kauai

The ubiquitous wild chicken of Kauai

Sunset over Hanalei Bay
(from the St. Regis Hotel, Princeville)

Flooded Lower Hanalei River Valley

Flooded road in Hanalei River Valley

Mai Tais at Brennecke's Beach Boiler

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll close for now. As usual, I took a bizillion pictures on my trip, so stay tuned for Wordless Wednesday.

Click on photos to enlarge.

March 2, 2012

Life Is Good - February

It's important to recognize and remember the good things in life, so I've decided to make a point of jotting down my weekly monthly blessings.

So what made me smile (or laugh) this past month?

  • Friday night pizza (with Italian sausage & homemade meatballs).
  • My husband walking Annie-Dog when it's -1 with a windchill of -14.
  • Red roses.
  • Memory foam pillow.
  • Compliments from strangers on my photography exhibit in the B&N cafe.
  • Senior citizen discount offer for Southern Living. Ha!
  • 2 books in the mail from a friend.
  • Discovering that Tana French has a new book coming out in July!
  • The sign of spring -- daffodils poking up through the mulch.
  • Sharing the couch to nap with Annie-Dog on a Sunday afternoon.
  • Saturday morning coffee & scones at Cafe Italia with Rod.
  • Billy Crystal and Chris Rock.
  • Packing for a tropical getaway.
  • Outpouring of love on February 17th.