My Top Five…

…books read in the month of March were:

  1. A Trick of the Light: This was my favorite of Louise Penney’s mystery series about Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Surete. I love Gamache and all his friends and neighbors from the village of Three Pines. This book dealt with a death among fine artists, and Penny did a marvelous job of shedding light on the world of fine art and art dealers.
  2. How to Eat a Cupcake: A sweet little confection by Meg Donohue about  long-lost friends who open a cupcakery in San Francisco, and rediscover their friendship in the process.
  3. This Beautiful Life: A thought provoking story about a modern family who is shaken to their core by the scandal that ensues when Jake, the 15 year old son, shares a sexually explicit video sent to him by a 13 year old classmate. When the video “goes viral,” the family’s sense of security and identity is threatened. Helen Schulman has given us a very powerful look at the way modern communication innovations can wreak havoc if not treated properly.
  4. The Orchid House: I absolutely adored this novel by Lucinda Riley. It spans generations and follows the family of Julia Forrester, a concert pianist who returns to her “ancestral estate” following a devastating tragedy. There she unearths secrets from the past that send her on a quest to the Far East.
  5. An Available Man: What happens to a man of a certain age when his beloved wife dies and he is suddenly “available” once again? Hilma Wolitzer joins Julia Glass and Helen Simonson in pondering the subject of middle aged widowers, and her Edward Schuyler is quite an endearing specimen. Less crotchety than either Major Pettigrew or Percy Darling, Edward is looking for love in all the wrong places for a while. Wolitzer creates a lot of empathy for Edward, and the reader is rooting for him to find his way back to happiness.
Next up…delving into some crime fiction with works by Michael Connolly and Stuart Woods. Every once in a while I get in the mood to read about the law in all its grit and glory. A good book about a California criminal lawyer or a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney would be particularly welcome, since I’ve been in the mood to visit California again, and the only way I’ll get there is armchair traveling with a book.

How about you? What were your favorite March reads?

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay

…I was retracing, in some half-conscious way, earlier journeys, trying to feel between finger and thumb some thread of trauma and survival from those earlier generations. I wanted to know how suffering had found us, and what we made of it. I wanted to be able to touch it, like the frayed edge of my serape, with its jagged and esoteric key design.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is a book that  defies classification. It’s a memoir, it’s a study of folk art, of geology, of  history. It’s creative nonfiction at its best, I think, because it weaves several genres together into an interesting, cohesive whole.

Christopher Benefy sets out “searching for patterns in the wanderings of his far-flung family.” He looks for those patterns in geology – the red brick and folk pottery of of North Carolina, where his mother (the daughter of brickmakers and bricklayers) was raised; and the white clay so coveted by early potters like Wedgewood and Benefy’s Quaker ancestor William Bartram, for making fine porcelain. He looks for patterns in the art created at the Black Mountain College, where artists Josef and Ani Albers (his Great Aunt and Uncle) explored the contrasts of texture and pattern in pottery and design. Along the way the takes some side roads into Mexico, Japan, and Nazi Germany. His cast of characters include scholars, artists, craftsman, Quakers, and poets, as well as his own parents whose story he tells with affection and understanding.

Rarely does Benefy go awry in this journey. Occasionally the narrative derails a bit for me – when he wanders too far into the past discussing Josiah Wedgewood or the Cherokee nation. But mostly I was deeply engaged with his evocative journey into the past.

And as one who enjoys the folk arts, and who has always had a sense of appreciation for kinds of objects that serve as functional art – pitchers and bowls and vases – I was able to appreciate the philosophy Benefy shares:

My grandparents’ pitcher on the telephone table was glazed with orange lead and speckled with random spots of black iron that had oxidized during the long firing in the half-buried “groundhog” kiln. The glaze was known as tobacco spit. Only now, writing down the familiar name, do I see what it means: the color of chewing tobacco spat out on the ground.

A work of pottery like my grandparents’ orange pitcher lives in two different worlds. It is beautiful to look at, and Jugtown pots during the last fifty years have migrated steadily from private homes into museums. But these pots were also made for use, for keeping the iced tea cold. The German philosopher Georg Simmel, in a beautiful essay called “The Handle,” wrote about this double life. A pottery vessel, he wrote, unlike a painting or statue, is not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose – if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life. Thus the vessel stands in two worlds at one and the same time.” The handle marks the journey from one world to the other, it is the suspension bridge from the world of art to the world of use.


Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read and review this very interesting book.

Other stops on the tour can be found here.

TLC Book Tours: Late for Tea at the Deer Palace

Iraq is a nation that is portrayed either through its politics, most notoriously through Saddam and his regime, or through its ancient and glorious history, but never through its people. ~Tamara Chalabi, author of Late for Tea at the Deer Palace

Since my knowledge of Iraq is based on solely on the attributes Tamara Chalabi identifies in the above statement from the Prologue, I was eager to read her book because she has chosen to tell her country’s 20th century story as it relates to her family. Through the eyes of her people, Chalabi is able to bring a troubled nation to life. She also helps us understand the background of the Iraqi people, and what they have been through in the past 100 years.

Ms. Chalabi’s father and grandfather were prominent Iraqi businessmen and political leaders in the early part of the 2oth century, but were forced to flee their home when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1950’s, leaving most of their wealth and possessions behind. The family was forced into exile in London, and had to virtually rebuild their entire lives. Unlike many other immigrants who had the same experiences over the years, the Chalabi family has come full circle and was able to return to Iraq.

The book is subtitled “The Lost Dreams of my Iraqi Family,” and the reader becomes well acquainted with Ms. Chalabi’s family. I loved her grandmother, Bibi, who was short in stature, but long on faith and devotion to her family, and knew how to “work the political system” to the family’s advantage. Chalabi acknowledges in the introduction that her father, Ahmad Chalabi, has been accused of being the source of false intelligence that led the US into war with Iraq, so perhaps the families troubles are not over.

Tamara Chalabi holds a PhD from Harvard, and her attention to historical detail is marvelous. But because the books focus is on the way historical events in general affected one family  in particular, it is accessible to the non-historically minded reader while it provides a great deal of insight and information about this interesting and troubled country.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book. A list of other stops on this tour can be found here.

The Lantern: TLC Book Tours

As often happens in this wonderful world of blogging, I stumbled upon Deborah Lawrenson’s blog many months ago and fell in love immediately, captivated by the lush descriptions of her Provencal farmhouse and the inviting photographs of the French countryside. So entranced was I by her writing and imagery, I didn’t realize for a while that her blog was a preview of the novel she was writing.  I soon placed The Lantern high on my TBR list, and was ecstatic when TLC tours offered me the opportunity to read it.

Normally I might not choose a novel in this romantic-Gothic-supsense genre. But The Lantern appealed to me on other levels – the setting, a dilapidated and ghostly hamlet in the French countryside; the protagonist, a young woman known for her bookishness and reticence; and the writing, which, if Lawrenson’s blog was any indication, would be lush and evocative. I wasn’t disappointed on any of these counts, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself caught up completely in the story as well.

“Meeting Dom was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to me,” says our heroine, Eve, who is irrevocably drawn to this somewhat mysterious older man and is soon caught up in a “classic whirlwind romance.”  Soon she has “thrown her lot in with his,” and they are off to France where they immediately fall under the spell of Les Genevriers, a charming, if dilapidated property hidden away amongst the lavender fields in Provence.  The couple moves in during the flush of first love and warm summer days, but as the weather begins to turn chill, so does their love and their surroundings, as both Dom and Les Genevriers begins to reveal their darker secrets.  Many of those secrets involve the former owners of the house, a troubled family whose presence has never been completely eradicated, even though every member has long since died.  But Dom has secrets of his own, and a sense of foreboding begins to trouble Eve as she realizes that Dom is hiding something and that her home harbors the ghostly presence of unsettled souls.  Undaunted, she is determined to uncover the hidden past and put all the ghosts to rest once and for all.

Reading The Lantern was a bit like stepping into a warm pool of water that starts out calm and quiet and just a little sleepy, but soon sucks you in with a surprising undertow and finally whirls you in a vortex of  questions and emotions. When at last you come up for air, you find yourself basking in the placid sunlight of a summer day, wondering if it was all just a dream.

Deborah Lawrenson grew up in Kuwait, China, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Singapore. She studied English at Cambridge University and has worked as a journalist for various publications in England, including the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, andWoman’s Journal magazine. She lives in Kent, England, and she and her family spend as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France, the setting for The Lantern.

Connect with Deborah:

The Art of Saying Goodbye

As of this moment, I have four friends in various phases of treatment for late stage cancer.  It’s a scary thing, to know four women in my own age group who are facing the very real possibility of untimely death.

So I was almost afraid to read Ellyn Bache’s book, The Art of Saying Goodbye, which is about a group of women friends who must say goodbye to the centerpiece of their group, Paisley Lamm, a woman filled with vitality and the excitement of living, a woman who has kept each member of the group going through difficult experiences in their own lives, and woman who has, in effect, “breathed life into them all.”

But I needn’t have been afraid.  The book is poignant, yes. It’s thoughtful, yes. But it’s also funny, and warm, and truthful.  Each character – feisty Iona, the oldest member of the group famous for  her tough, no-nonsense attitude; Ginger, a woman trying to reconcile her career ambitions with her desire to be a good wife and mother; Andrea, who appears strong on the outside, but harbors secret fears and disappointments on the inside; and Julianne, a nurse who has an unnerving ability to actually feel what’s going on inside her patients – brings their own spark of personality to the tale, and illustrates the way a group of individuals can come together and find strength when it’s needed the most. Each woman reacts differently to Paisley’s illness, and in their reactions, they discover important truths about their own lives.

A novel like this could easily fall into the saccharine, too sweet for words kind of story that gives women’s fiction a bad name among more “serious” readers. But Bache’s writing is so good, there’s no chance of that happening. She’s got a wonderful way of showing (not telling) which is the mark of a seasoned writer. And she sprinkles in just enough wit (in the form of Iona’s character) to give the novel a little zest. Like this passage:

When Iona goes to her front door and sees Marie Coleman standing there, her first inclination is to slink back into the house and pretend she’s not home. Marie, in a simple but expensive looking brown sweater and trendy jeans that hug her shapely bottom, doesn’t look like the local do-gooder church lady, but she is. Marie doesn’t just go to church – she lives and breathes it.

If this is a God thing, Iona thinks, I’m out of here.

In an afterword to the book, Bache writes that the novel “began with something that really happened many years ago” in her suburban neighborhood. She decided to write about it after realizing how many women had gone through similar situations. The Art of Saying Goodbye has given me much to think about. It’s a compellingly readable book, but it’s more than light summer reading. After all, it deals with one of the biggest transformations in the course of a lifetime. But it does so in an utterly honest and relatable way.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read yet another wonderful book. For other TLC reviews, check here.

The Art of Saying Goodbye, by Ellyn Bache

published 2011, by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers

334 pages, with Author Insights and Reading Group Guide

ISBN: 978-0-06-203368-0

Author website
and Facebook

Buy this book from my Amazon store

South of Superior

Madeline sighed, content for the moment to do nothing at all. The lake rolled into shore, the sun shone hot on the top of her head, and Greyson lounged heavy in her lap, a small parcel of person with whom she was inexorably connected. The flies buzzed, lazy and indolent, and time seemed suspended. McAllaster seemed ageless, infinite, eternal. It was a hard feeling to pin down with words, but it was a good feeling, a big feeling. from South of Superior, by Ellen Airgood

Life is not always so idyllic in McAllaster, Michigan. Madeline Stone finds the truth of that when she moves into this tiny community on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In fact, it’s a pretty hardscrabble existence for the folks who live there.  Madeline, still reeling from the death of her adopted mother, leaves her Chicago city-life behind and moves north to help care for an aging family friend. At the same time, she’s in search of some truths about her past – the mother who abandoned her and the grandfather who refused to keep her – both of whom had their roots in this community. To her amazement, she comes to love this funny little town and its quirky inhabitants, who all know and care about one another. And she discovers who she really is, in more ways than one.

If you know me at all, you’ll know this is just the kind of book I love. A book about community, about self-discovery, about overcoming fears and changing your life for the better. It’s a novel populated with funny, lovable characters, an interesting small town atmosphere, and best of all, it’s set in my home state. In fact, my father in law was born and raised in a small town in the UP which was probably a lot like McAllaster. The crusty characters in this book remind me of him, and their descriptions of life in this community help me understand a little more about him.

Ellen Airgood, author of South of Superior, obviously knows small town life.  She runs an old-fashioned diner in Grand Marais, Michigan, where she is proprietor, waitress, and full time baker. This is her first novel, and it’s charming, entertaining, and heart-warming. The only thing missing was being able to sit on the porch of a cottage beside the lake while I read it.  If an Up North vacation is in your future this summer, be sure and pack a copy of South of Superior in your suitcase.

Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this book. Other stops on the tour are listed here.

South of Superior, by Ellen Airgood

published June 2011, by Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group

384 pages * ISBN 978-I-59448-793-4

Author’s website

and Facebook

Buy the book from my Amazon store

Thoughts Without Cigarettes, A Memoir

As a reader, I’m always thrilled when one of my favorite authors writes a memoir or autobiography, or publishes a collection of letters or journals.  Perhaps it’s voyeuristic, but I really enjoy a glimpse of the person behind the writer of those words I’ve come to love.  And when I stumble upon a new writer, I’ll always search out their complete bibliography, to see if any personal writing or creative nonfiction is part of their body of work.

But with Thoughts Without Cigarettes, a memoir by Oscar Hijuelos, the tables are turned.  I must admit I was not familiar with any of Mr. Hijuelos’ work, although his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, won a Pulitzer Prize. After reading this wonderful memoir about his youth in New York City, his Cuban heritage, and the people and places that shaped his writing and his life, I am eager to acquaint myself with everything he’s written.

Hijuelos’ has the gift of elevating the everyday to something interesting and important, which I think is vital in memoir writing.  He spent his childhood in West Harlem in the 1950’s, the son of two Cuban immigrants. When he was quite young, a severe bout of nephritis required several weeks of hospitalization, which becomes a pivotal event in his memory.  His descriptions of this event, and the ensuing years when his mother was extremely overprotective, determined to keep him safe from any further exposure to “bacteria,” are picture perfect, and take us right into the emotional mind set of this small boy.  Hijuelos’ relationship with his father, a cook at the Biltmore hotel who died suddenly when Hijuleos’ was 17, is also beautifully portrayed.

Hijuelos’ didn’t grow up with the idea of becoming a writer, and in fact, wasn’t even much of a reader until he got to college.  He spent a lot of time in his youth playing music, skipping school to play guitar and drink beer. When he began attending City College of New York, his writing talent was noticed and nurtured. “I had a lot of questions to ask myself,” Hijuelos says in an interview, “which I could only seek to answer through prose: much as I loved music, and for that matter, the visual arts, writing is the only form that leads to – and allows for -the direct expression of self-exploratory emotions.”

Thoughts Without Cigarettes is a beautifully written self-exploration of the writer’s emotions and memories. If you’re familiar with Hijuelos’ work, you’ll enjoy it for the way it shapes the man behind those words.  If you’ve not read his other writing, you’ll want to, and very soon.

I know I do.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.




The Bookstack

When we got home earlier this evening from our visit to Dallas, where we spent a lovely week visiting our son and daughter in law in their new home, a familiar sized box from awaited me on the front porch.

“Let me guess,” my husband said drily as he picked it up. “Books, right?”

“But of course,” I answered, grabbing it out of his hand.  “What could be better?”

Even though it was dark, I know he rolled his eyes at me. “Just how tall is this bookstack of yours going to get?” he answered, fitting the key into the lock and opening the door.

“As tall as it can,” I replied archly.

Truth be told, my bookstacks (there are actually three of them at this point) are getting a bit wobbly these days.  I may have to get a debt consolidation mortgage and add another room on the house…actually, that’s not such a bad idea.  The bookstacks are all very tall, with review books, research books, library books, writing books…books and more books.  The one thing about e-books that I like better than real books?  You can’t see the ever-mounting stack piling up in front of you.

I zipped open the cellophane tape, unsealed the box,  and added these newest additions to their proper stack: The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate; and Tell it Slant, Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, by Brenda Miller.  While I was there, I searched out Thoughts Without Cigarettes, a memoir by Oscar Hijuelos, which I’m due to review on June 13, 2011,  for TLC Book tours.  Lucky for me (and my bank account), most of my recent acquisitions have been review copies and library books, so at least I’m safe from the debt consolidation mortgage on that score!

Oh, did I tell you about the great mystery book I bought while I was in Dallas? It didn’t even get a chance to go on the stack – I bought it and cracked it open immediately.

Aren’t bookstacks wonderful?

Faith: A TLC Book Tour Review

Like faith itself, this compelling, deeply introspective novel by Jennifer Haigh, is filled with mystery and power. It centers around a Catholic priest who is accused of sexually molesting an eight year old boy.  But it’s really a story about family relationships, and the way our faith in our family (or lack of it) can have irreparable consequences.

“Most of you have heard, by now, what happened to my brother,”  Sheila McGann says, as she begins this retrospective narrative of her half -brother’s story.  A middle aged woman, estranged from her family and her faith, Sheila tells the true story of “what happened” to Father Art Breen. It’s a “ragged tale,” one filled with half-truths and unspoken emotions, secrets that lead to disaster for everyone.  Sheila is unsparing in her analysis of each person’s reaction to these horrifying accusations.  Her mother, the strictest of all Catholics, refuses to acknowledge the possibility that her eldest and favored son could have any complicity in the situation. Her brother Mike, however, is quick to judge, and turns his back on his half-brother without even offering him the opportunity to defend himself. Such discussion would have been fruitless anyway, because Father Art has his own demons which have little to do with his guilt or innocence in regard to these specific charges.  Demons which cause him to retreat defenselessly into his shell of resignation.  Ultimately, the scandal brings many long buried secrets to light, and forces each member of the family to confront some of their own deeply held beliefs, leading to the redemption we all crave.


Jennifer Haigh has created a character driven novel that is suspenseful as well as insightful.   It illustrates how a pivotal event in a family can call into question everything you believe about yourself and the people you thought you knew well, and the way each person responds alters the shape of the family forever.

Buy the book from Amazon


Other stops on the TLC Tour












Perfect Timing

When we got home from Florida last night, I put all the electronic reading devices away for a while, and ran straight to my library book bag where a fresh stack of bound books was waiting for me.  What to read?  During the holiday, I finished The Castaways, by Elin Hilderbrand, who has recently become one of my favorite authors in the women’s fiction category.  I had just dipped into The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in the famous Steig Larrson trilogy, but there is something razor-sharp and vicious about those books, and I felt too tender last night to continue with it.  So I pulled The Charming Quirks of Others, an Isabel Dalhousie novel, out of the bag and immediately felt I had found my book.  I needed the quiet charm of Alexander McCall Smith’s heroine, was desperate for her good common sense and her pure approach to life, was hungry for the quiet companionship of her gentle nature.

I returned from this trip a bit sore at heart, for a chapter of our lives has closed this Christmas.  My son, whose home in Florida was just down the road from ours, will be moving to Texas next week.  It’s a wonderful opportunity for him, and while I am excited and pleased (of course I am!) for him, I’m also confronted once again with the specter of change, and reminded that our children are never really our children, but “the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.”

So I was lying in my bed late last night, reading myself to sleep as I always do, and Isabel Dalhousie, my good literary friend, suddenly describes exactly what I’m feeling as she hurries home to greet her  two year old son:

…she would have to rush to be home when Charlie arrived.  She wanted to be there in the hall…to hold him tightly against her, which he allowed, but only for a few seconds, before he began to struggle to escape her embrace.  That was the lot of the mother of sons; one embraced and held them, but even in their tenderness they were struggling to get away, and they would.

Oh, yes, they definitely would.