Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild": Searching for her Dad and Finding Herself

"Looking back on my struggle to find my father, I began to understand my quest as part of a bigger human drive.  My journey triggered by my desire to have children, but whether we reproduce or not, the need to understand where we come from is universal.  It's just part of the human process, like learning to talk, or to jump.  We have an instinct to tell the story of our past, to understand what came before, to try to make sense of it." - Novella Carpenter

I love to read memoirs that chronicle the searches that people undertake for healing and understanding in their lives.  In Novella Carpenter's "Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild" she searches to better understand her elusive, erratic father, George Carpenter, whose moods, beliefs and lifestyle baffle her.  Her parents divorced when she was only four years old, and she spent a lifetime becoming more and more estranged from her father.

Novella's search for her father begins because she gets a message from her mother that her father is missing.  Her mom's commentary on George's disappearance is "weird, huh?" Novella reasons with herself that she "had always accepted, or at least didn't dwell on, his absence, but now that he had disappeared in such a dramatic, tangible way,  [she] felt compelled to find him." After days of worrying over never seeing her father again, Novella receives an email from him that he's alive and well in Arizona, but as she processes the news of her father's unintended disappearance, she decides that she needs to "make things right with her dad" because she has a "breeding plan" and wants to figure out what happened with her parents.  Why was her dad the way he was? Could they reconcile or rebuild a relationship? 

She crafts a quick email to her dad which says, "This whole missing person thing made me realize how much I would regret it if we don't have some meaningful time together.  I would love to stay with you and learn some mountain man skills, or just go fly-fishing.  I love you dad and love your spirit, I know it flows in me." 

In this story of discovery, Novella discovers ugly truths about her father - his hot temper, his suicidal tendencies, his ramshackle life in a run down shack of a cabin, and his increasingly crazy and anti-social behavior.  She also starts to see herself more clearly - how her mom and dad's ideals are also some of her own.  She starts to take a harder look at the life she lives surrounded by goats, urban farming and her love of growing plants on a plot of abandoned land next to her rented home,  her hoarding tendencies, and her uncompromising viewpoints.  She realizes that the life her parents dreamed for her when they were young parents - a feral existence of living off of the land, and how they arrived at their beliefs about how to raise two little girls off of the land in Idaho - mirror some of her own philosophies about life.  She sees this as "rhyming the past" rather than repeating it. Our parents run through our veins whether we like it or not.  

I loved Novella's search for her father which really led her to a discovery of herself and more of a clear picture of not only her parent's paths in life, but how she became who she is. She notices the subtleties of life around her and has a keen sense of the natural world (just like her father and mother), and she can profoundly declare the truths of existence in a way that clarifies life.  My favorite passage of the book comes close to the end: 

Families are like ecosystems.  They begin looking one way, but as the years tick by, the inhabitants change. Some grow and flourish, others are wounded.  They might rebound, or die.  Nests are built and young are raised, then the fledglings leave.  When disaster hits, only the adaptable survive.  In my family, there were constants that added a certain texture to our family's ecosystem: love of language, of reading.  A tendency toward living on the fringes.  A hot rage that burns inside of us, and sometimes threatens ourselves and others. Sensitivity, a sense of the incredible power and beauty in the natural world.  A love of the numinous so powerful that it mesmerizes and inspires us.  We are craggy and hard; intense and uncompromising . .  . Every movement, every act, is a meditation on those who came before us.

These are HUGE realizations that many people choose to ignore in their lives.  As I read this book I thought about my own father and mother - who they are as people and how they shaped the person that I am and the person that I still hope to be.  

If you've never asked yourself what constants are in your family or who you are because of (and in despite of) your parents, this book will make you confront those questions and take the journey to discover yourself as you discover what you love and despise about your mom and dad equally run through your veins.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, a Marriage": Be ready to crave pizza

"There is something about Delancey that, to me, matters just as much: We get to make people happy.  We get to give people a good night. We get to spend our days doing work that we can be proud of, and when we're done, there's all the pizza you can eat."

I'm pretty sure I was the only kid who didn't go crazy over pizza.  Whenever my parents wanted to have a pizza night, I nicely requested for them to get me a sub instead.  I even lied in my 3rd grade class when I was interviewed by a high school student assigned to write a book about me.  The personalized book would include all of my favorite things.  When asked what my favorite food was I lied and said, "pizza" just because I knew that saying shrimp scampi would sound weird.  My parents owned a fine dining restaurant when I was in 3rd grade, so when all my friends were loving macaroni and cheese, I grew up on lobster tails and filet mignon.

Pizza was just never my thing, until I moved to the Chicago area and discovered the joys of Georgio's deep dish spinach pizza.  OMG.  It's glorious with just the right amount of cheese, and a thick layer of bright red sauce.  The spinach and onions offer a beautiful balance and the crust is light even though it's a deep dish. Something about the baked in cheese on top of the crust and then the layer of spinach,  topped by the sauce makes it irresistible.

I didn't know pizza could taste like this, but now that I know, I can't un-know it.  I'm still a liar when it comes to my 3rd grade biography, but at least now I get what all the fuss is about, so when I read Molly Wizenberg's memoir "Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage" I could relate and even crave the perfect pizza that her husband, Brandon set out to create.  Wizenberg is the critically acclaimed author of The New York Times bestseller "A Homemade Life" and she also created the blog "Orangette" voted the best food blog in the world.  In her memoir "Delancey" she reveals the back story of when she and her husband conceived the idea to open a restaurant, and not just any restaurant, but the perfect place to eat pizza that didn't feel like any old pizza joint, but felt instead like a dinner party with farm fresh ingredients and a simple menu.

Although Wizenberg didn't believe her husband Brandon would ever go through with his idea to open a restaurant and even supported his dream, when the reality of the hours, the unreliable employees, the pizza flour that got everywhere and required late night cleanings, the stress of not sleeping and having to contend with payroll and food ordering and pleasing the public set in, she understandably fell apart. I loved her candor about wanting to be involved in the kitchen and forcing herself to be who she wasn't and how unhappy it made her.  The tension between her and her husband grew thick, and only until they devised a transition plan to get her out of the kitchen did things start to gel.

Daunting.  That's the word I thought about when she described those unsure days after they opened their restaurant's doors to a pizza hungry crowd.  I was part of that as a child as my parents tried to run a successful fine dining restaurant.  The hours were crappy.  My two older sisters and I never saw them.  They were always stressed.  The employees stole food and whatever else they could get their hands on when my mom and dad weren't being vigilant, and the public is hard to please on a consistent basis.  Not knowing what you are doing and opening a restaurant are a lethal combination (if you ever watch Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant Impossible, you know what I'm talking about), but Brandon and Molly stuck with the idea, figured out their roles (after trial and error) and went on to create a successful restaurant and even open a companion bar / restaurant later on.

Was it easy? No way, but nothing worth doing is ever really that easy.

If you know a foodie or a pizza lover or maybe even someone who really wants to open a restaurant, Wizenberg's candor and wit and especially her descriptions of the pizza pilgrimages she and her husband took across the country as research for their restaurant will entrance you and probably entice you to seek pizza either during or right after reading.

Happy reading and eating (pizza).

Monday, December 8, 2014

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry": The Journey to Find Meaning in a Life of Drudgery

"You'd think walking should be the simplest thing . . . Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other.  But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things are that are supposed to be instinctive really are." 

I once hiked for 6 hours on the Appalachian Trail.  When I returned to my car, I felt relaxed, hungry and mildly exhausted.  During my hiking days, I would run into "through hikers" who intended to hike the 2,200 mile journey that stretches from Georgia to Maine.  They looked feral, and thin but intently focused on their ending point, and that's how Harold Fry, the unlikely hero in Rachel Joyce's book, "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" looks in the middle of his journey when he decides to let go of all material things - even money and tough out his journey by trusting in the universe to provide what he needs. 

Harold Fry, a recently retired man who lives in a small English village with his overly critical and hardened wife, Maureen receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy written in shaky handwriting that says she is in hospice care and wanted to say goodbye.  Harold, unsure of how to respond to his former work mate and friend, writes a quick reply letter.  As he goes to put his letter in the mail, he decides to keep walking.  He makes it to the post office, and decides to keep walking.  Without telling anyone (including his pinched wife, Maureen), he starts walking the over 600 mile journey to hand deliver the letter to Queenie himself.  He alerts the hospice directors that he is walking to say goodbye to Queenie and politely asks her to wait for his arrival.  

Thus begins Harold's journey of self discovery as he spans the English countryside encountering interesting characters who want to help him, talk to him and eventually follow his lead and journey with him. Harold faces numerous challenges on his walk to Queenie.  First, he contends with his health issues.  Walking so much at first causes bruises and aches and pains that Harold is unaccustomed to in his soft life of tea and sitting on a couch.  He struggles against the weather, his physical condition, and hunger, but mostly along his journey he struggles with self-doubt (Is he doing the right thing? Does it even matter? Why is he walking in the first place? Can he really walk over 600 miles?). Even more pervasive by the end of the novel,  Harold struggles with the demons of his past and the realizations about what his life has become.  

In many ways, we are all Harold Fry, struggling against ourselves in our journey through life.  Unlike Harold Fry, many people are too afraid to face our fears and travel through them to annihilate them and live more fully.  Most of us aren't drawn by our instincts or by the internal drive that tells us that we can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish regardless of the odds.  Most of us don't put our trust in the universe to provide us with what we need. 

I thought often of the Henry Ford quotation while reading this book, "Whether you think you can or think you can't - you're right." Jodie, from my book club, asked the question, "Could it even be possible for someone like Harold to take this journey?"  My immediate and heart felt response was, "Absolutely!" We can all accomplish so much more than we believe we can.  Just like Harold, it might not always be clear why we need to do the things that are the most unlikely, but if we believe we can, we might just meet with success and overcome whatever plagues us from our past or in our present lives.  

One of the nuns who works in Queenie's hospice center tells Harold that his journey to see Queenie and his respectful request for her to wait for him to arrive to say goodbye is "a rather unusual kind of healing." She goes on to say, " I don't know how you came up with it.  But maybe it's what the world needs.  A little less sense, and a little more faith." 

That sounds like good advice to me.  

If you are looking for an inspiring book about an unlikely hero overcoming impossible odds on a journey of healing and self discovery, Rachel Joyce might just be your new favorite author and "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" might become your new favorite book. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Big Little Lies:" Add it to the list of books you can't put down

Last December I read Liane Moriarty's book "The Husband's Secret."  Although it was highly recommended and I flew through it, I wasn't all that enthralled with it and discounted it as chick lit with a bit of a sinister edge.  I loved the pop culture references thrown in and the converging of the different characters. Moriarty also did a great job of incorporating the themes that we never truly know anyone, that we all have secrets to keep, and we remain blind to truths that we don't want to know about those that we love.

Moriarty's 6th novel, "Big Little Lies" reads much like "The Husband's Secret," but something about it made me think more, read faster and ultimately feel more satisfied at the end.  It could be that I liked the characters better, or possibly that Moriarty set up the mystery even better in this book. The mystery revolves around suburban moms in an idyllic Australian beach community called Pirriwee Penisula who all have children in the same school.  From the very first chapter, the reader knows that something terrible happened on Trivia Night at the school and that it involves one of the main characters.  But who? Could it be the outspoken and stiletto heel wearing, Madeline who on her 40th birthday twists her ankle only to be rescued by the new mom in town? Could it be the new, young, single mom in town, Jane, whose mousy exterior hides her devastating secrets about her son, Ziggy's real father? Could it possibly involve the devastatingly beautiful and wealthy Celeste who appears to have the perfect husband and perfect life? Maybe it's Bonnie, the peace loving yoga instructor who is the new wife of Madeline's ex-husband, Nathan (who just happened to walk out on Madeline and their 14 month old daughter).

As the seemingly mundane situations that arise in normal life - a bully in the classroom, invitations to a birthday party, a book club, and a school fundraising function - become way more twisted and sinister, the truths about the character's lives and hearts tumble out with tragic consequences.

I had to know what happened in the gossipy town that turned ugly (and bloody) amidst the parents who dressed up as Audrey Hepburn and Elvis to attend an annual trivia night.  Without food to sop up their copious amounts of alcohol, tempers flared and situations that may have seemed trivial (on trivia night . . . get it?) turned deadly.

Would guys like this book? No.  Is it Chick Lit? Yes, but it's Chick Lit with a backbone.  It isn't just as the cover suggests, an exploding, neon colored lollipop, and it's worth reading and becoming entrenched in until the very last page (honestly, if you are looking for a book that you won't put down until you get to the end, read it).  Liane Moriarty knows how to capture her readers and keep them guessing until the very last page and do so without over-sentimentalizing. She also masters the art of throwing in subtle human truths (without hitting the reader over the head with them) in the midst of the soap opera scene of suburban moms squabbling.  That's a gift.

If you are looking for books that you can't put down to either read during the cold, long winter, or to give as gifts (or maybe, if you are lucky enough, to take on a winter vacation), here are some of my other recommendations:

YA Literature:
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout
Gone Feral by Novella Carpenter (I'm reading this right now, and I can't put it down.  It was actually hard for me to take a break to write this blog post!)
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Books that have romance and substance:
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Me Before You by  Jojo Moyes
One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
The Rosie Project by Graeme Stimison

Happy Reading this winter, everyone!  If you have a book suggestion for me (something I won't be able to put down), I'd love it!

Friday, November 21, 2014

"We Were Liars": Dark, Mysterious and Incredibly Addictive

I waited almost two months to get E. Lockhart's highly touted YA book "We Were Liars" from the library.  When I finally brought it home, and cracked open the cover, I couldn't get up until I finished. I closed the book after the shocking ending and still couldn't believe it.  When I picked my girls up from school that day, my thoughts about the book still churned around in my head and my older daughter got worried.  "Are you okay Mommy?" I replied, "I just can't believe how the book I just finished ended."  She asked me what happened, but I didn't want to tell her because it's a surprise and you never want to solve the mystery before someone else has the opportunity to discover it on her own.

"We Were Liars" revolves around the privileged, cashmere sweater, overly wealthy Sinclair family who own a private island called Beechwood off the coast of Massachusetts. Parallels abound between King Lear and the grandfather who rules the island wielding control over his three useless and ungrateful daughters who drink too much, can't hold onto love and can't hold down jobs.  They all fight to win their father's approval to secure their inheritance.  Stuck in the middle of the sister rivalries are the oldest grandchildren who are nicknamed the liars, Cadence (Cady), Mirren, Johnny and in summer 8 they are joined by a sorta step brother / step cousin, Gat who plays the role of Heathcliff from "Wuthering Heights", the dark, penetrating outsider who lacks the approval of the patriarch of the wealthy family.  Gat and Cady form an unbreakable and somewhat forbidden love connection.  The liars entertain themselves on the island while their moms bicker over money and what they are owed by the grandfather.

And then, in summer 15, things get a bit cray cray.  Cadence washes up on the beach in her underwear with a case of amnesia and wicked migraines.  The next summer, she is forbidden to return to Beechwood without reason since the doctors want her to remember the awful events of summer 15 on her own.  She struggles with depression and claims that her new boyfriend is percocet.  She fruitlessly reaches out to her fellow liars.  When she turns 17, she is allowed to return to Beechwood and she starts to remember what really happened summer 15.

Maybe some of you are groaning and eye rolling at the amnesia aspect of the book which seems a bit like a bad subplot in Days of Our Lives, but something about E. Lockhart's edgy style and deft writing works with Cadence's gradual memory recovery.

There is way more to love about this book than to not love.  Even with the time shifts to the past, and the watery characterization of the moms and the littles (the younger grandchildren who form an amorphous clump of people rather than contain their own distinct roles), the storyline makes you want to find out what happened and why so much has changed on the seemingly ideal Beechwood.

"We Were Liars" will make you guess, remember summer beach loves, think about being 15 while parents are busy drinking and talking about life, dream about feeling rebellious and ponder feeling lost and feeling even more lost when the truths about life are slowly revealed.  It's a book worth reading or giving to your favorite YA reader.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Cranford": A Dull Glimpse into Victorian Feminism Utopia

I did something I never thought I would do.  I registered on MeetUp.com and joined a MeetUp Book Club called The Crystal Lake Bookworms.  When I discovered that the book for their November meeting was "Cranford" by Elizabeth Gaskell, I almost decided not to go through with the first meeting.  Victorian literature? For the past 15 years, I've always had a book club, and we've never touched Victorian era literature.  Why? Because . . . well, because it can be a bit British and a bit boring and a bit like Brit Lit in high school.  Don't get me wrong, I love Jane Austen, and "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte was one of my favorite books in college.  I even taught Brit Lit for a few years, but book clubs were created to read anything but Victorian era literature, right?

I reluctantly picked up my copy of "Cranford" from the library.  When my daughter saw the cover she said, "Mommy, what are you reading? That looks so boring!" I then had to explain that Dame Judi Dench is pretty amazing, and that "Cranford" has been adapted into series on PBS.  I referred to my love of Downton Abbey mostly because I wanted to give the book and the MeetUp Book Club a fighting chance.  Serendipitously, my husband was on a business trip to London while I read "Cranford," so while he was reminding me about the British vernacular that I loved so much when I lived there and talking about afternoon mandatory tea breaks, I was plodding my way through Gaskell's book.

Many people believe that this vignette style book which gives a glimpse into what a utopian female centered Victorian society would be like and supposedly does this tongue in cheek, is charming and heart warming.  I found it dull, and slow, BUT I also see the charm in it and that it must have been revolutionary when Gaskell wrote it in 1851.  It follows the lives of two sisters, Miss Deborah Jenkyns and Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns who live in . . . you guessed it, Cranford.  Mary Smith, who visits them regularly, narrates their tales and gives a glimpse into what daily life was in the community of Cranford where all the women are in control of their lives and their meager fortunes.  This is not the Downton Abbey class of people.  The Cranford women are more of the proud, non-working townsfolk who take pride in what they have and their station in life.  They don't flaunt money (because they don't have much), but they have savings and tea times, and enjoy the simple pleasures in life and revel in fineries as well.

It's a simple book with some mishaps (all the men have a terrible habit of either dying or disappearing).  There is almost a love story, but that fizzles when the man who could have been Miss Matty's love interest dies shortly after a visit to Paris.

The most memorable aspect of the book for me is the fact that the women control the fictional town of Cranford, a small town in Northern England.  The first line of the book sums it up, "In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons."  Cool, right? I wish the rest of the book could have lived up to the excitement alluded to from this first line, but the stories of life in the Amazonian controlled Cranford are more simple - how Captain Brown came to be respected (because he died saving a child's life), why Peter Jenkyns ran away and how he returned, how Miss Matty lost her money and how the Cranford women rallied to help her, how Betty Barker reacted to her beloved cow falling into a lime pit and losing all of its hair, how the women enjoyed the new spring fashions, how the town reacts to Lady Glenmire marrying a lowly doctor.  None of it was riveting, but I read the whole thing and wasn't taxed too much by doing so.

When I finished the book, I wanted a cup of tea (which to me is a good sign that the book at least put me in the mood for a British custom).  I got out the East India Tea Company set my husband brought back from his business trip to London, and steeped a hearty cup of English breakfast tea after I closed the book.  I did a silent cheers to Dame Judi Dench, smiled warmly, and vowed not to read Victorian literature for quite some time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: : A book for book people

I love books more than I should.  I love the way they smell. I love the way they feel.  I love when I get to a point in a book where I don't want to stop reading, and I don't even remember turning the pages until I am at the very last page.  I love when I meet characters who speak my world and my truth.  I love reading real stories of real people who have overcome incredible hurdles.  And, of course, I love bookstores.  I mourned the day that Borders closed in York, Pa, even though my favorite bookstores are the small ones run by independent store owners who just love books.  When e-readers became the rave, I held fast to my tangible books with pages and covers.  There is something about the weight of a real book in my hands - the weight of it, the protection of it, that makes me feel more alive. When I lived in London, I got into the habit of always having a book tucked under my arm no matter where I went, that way I would never feel alone.  Reading books helps me feel more connected - way more than Facebook, or any type of social media ever could.

I am not alone in my passion for books, and when I find a book that is really written for book people but in an unpretentious, unassuming way, I want to rave about it. I passed by "The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin in the Hot Picks section of the Crystal Lake library several times before picking it up and reading the book jacket which said, "an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love." Yes, please.  I want to read a book that has all of that wonderful-ness inside of it.

The story starts with A.J. Fikry, a contentious, recent, young widower who own Island Book Store on the tiny Massachusetts, Alice Island.  After his wife dies in a tragic car accident when she is two months pregnant, Fikry spirals into a depression, drinking himself into isolation and rage.  He pushes away his sister in law, Ismay, who wants to pick him up and set him straight, and the very friendly Chief Lambiase who seems genuinely concerned for Fikry's well-being.  He is rude to everyone including his customers, employees, and even the very hopeful and persistent Knightley Press sales rep, Amelia Loman.  Everything changes when shortly after losing his prized possession, Tamerlane (a rare and valuable collection of Edgar Allen Poe poems), he gets a special package delivered to his store and he decides to keep it (or should I say to keep her).  Fikry's icy exterior melts the day baby Maya comes into his world and he decides to raise her as his own and eventually adopt her.

The short novel weaves its magic through the power of book people coming together in a decade long span of love, loss and redemption, not to mention some powerful statements about the beauty of reading and the meaning of our lives. By the end of the novel these statements increase as Fikry tries to articulate what he is not able to for Maya.  He says, "We read to know we're not alone.  We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone."  Fikry finds love, but he finds more than that, he finds a family and a new revitalization of his book store.  He comes to the realization, "We aren't the things we collect, acquire, read.  We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved.  The people we loved.  And these, I think really do live on."

Zevin, a seasoned YA writer,  presents a few twists and turns in her first adult fiction book, but each rings with believability. She paces the book brilliantly and even though it spans a decade, it feels like life - it's over before you know it.  For the book people out there, who just like Lambiase discovers and Zevin believes (as she stated in an interview with NPR) - everyone is a book person, you just need to find the right book, who like paper and how books feel in their back pockets, too, this is a book for you.