Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Did You Think I Stopped my Book Reviews

Perish that thought.I have been reading, but also busy editing my father's memoirs for publication in a historical journal of his denomination.OK, on to reviews of the most recent reads.-

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex RelationshipsBy Matthew Vines

This is an important book for anyone to read who desires to see more deeply into the Biblical passages that have been used to condemn homosexuality. The author carefully analyzes some of the oft quoted sections, and shows in a new light that the interpretations that were written in a different time in fact mean something other than for what they are sometimes used.

The Biblical analysis is not trivial. In fact, at times the book is challenging. But, if you are a serious student of the Bible and want to go beyond a knee-jerk reaction that has too long characterized the church's approach to same-sex relationships, this book breathes fresh life into the title subject: God and the Gay Christian.

I am not gay, but have many gay friends who I cherish. And, frankly, it is offensive and deeply saddening to me when I hear “church people” inveighing against someone who is attracted to the same sex.  I am blessed to be able to talk with these friends about their experience as they came to understand and accept their own sexuality. In some of the conversations I have had, these friends have revealed how they have been deeply wounded by the church. It was very affirming to read a book that does not condemn someone just because he/she is gay.

Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero  by Christopher McDougall 

I admit it...the front piece photo, of an adorable looking donkey, is what got me to read this book. I am a sucker for animals in need who are "rescued" by people, but who in turn also rescue the people. Anything that helps we humans to get over being the proverbial top of the living heap. In reviewing the list of books I have read, I see many stories that help to connect me to all of living creation.

Now, a prospective reader must know--this book is NOT just about a donkey named Sherman. The book opens with the donkey in question being virtually at death's door when he is "adopted" by the author. And the book takes you along on the journey of rehabilitating Sherman, and eventually getting him ready to run a kind of marathon (of which I had not previously heard)-- the annual World Championship Leadville Burro Race in Colorado.

Along the way, the author encounters various people who are broken in many ways as much as Sherman was. But, like Sherman, their brokenness can be healed. These stories, and Sherman's story make this a very inspiring work.My only complaint--sometimes the author's language is a bit more crude--that does not offend me at all. But the times that there is a change of tone seems a bit gratuitous and unnecessary. ---

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faithby Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor is a well-known author whose works deal with spirituality, questing, and faith. I learned this when I began to read Leaving Church. You see, I had not encountered any of her works before. When her book AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD was published, I was intrigued with the title, but for whatever reasons didn’t read it.So, how did I come to read her earlier work LEAVING CHURCH? One of my friends at church gave me the book and said she thought I might like it. So, I read it.

What to say? First, yes I liked it. It resonated with me in ways that works such as those by Elaine Pagels (WHY RELIGION) and Rachel Held Evans (SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY). In many ways LEAVING CHURCH is a similar kind of personal account. Of course, the details differ, because the authors differ. Each has her own journey to describe. Perhaps I view LEAVING CHURCH through the filter of how closely it approximates my own experience. Rachel Held Evans’ book comes the closest to describing the kind of upbringing I experienced. 

Barbara Brown Taylor’s journey is long and multi-faceted. She describes her early longing for and search for spiritual connection. While the earliest expression she details in the book is a strong connection with nature, she moves on to describing her sense of call to Christian ministry. As a result, she becomes ordained as a priest in the Episcopalian Church, after her seminary training. Her initial call as a priest is to a large church where she is one among several priests. The grinding demands of that work, along with the oppressive sense of living in a highly urbanized area lead her to seek the calm of a more rural area. She and her husband find just such a location to which they move, and she begins life as a solo priest in a small church.

Each of these priestly calls have joys, triumphs, as well as valleys. Just as in the urban church, she begins to feel drained in the country setting. Thus the title LEAVING CHURCH. She traces a somewhat tortuous circuitous faith journey. Perhaps not surprisingly, she experiences burnout in her solo pastoral situation. And then leaves church.

That does not mean she loses faith—her faith continues, broadens and becomes more nuanced. 

If you enjoy and/or are inspired by faith journeys, you may enjoy this book.

The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr.By Marguerite Holloway
 I expected a book that dealt with how Manhattan got to be the way it is...While this book does that to a certain extent, it spends a great deal of time detailing the life John Randel, Jr. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention to the subtitle--because that is what occupied the bulk of the book.

I am still wondering how Manhattan got to be the way it is.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

I Bet You Thought I'd Stopped Reading...

Two more works for the list--as I work toward my self-determined goal to read 25 books this year--one more to go!

Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Stephen B. Oates

I am a part of a book discussion group that our church has, and this book was a recent selection for discussion. That introductory note is partly to explain why I only recently read this biography, first published in 1982.

My knowledge of Dr. King was only cursory, having been aware of him in the 1960s. I confess to having had only a surface level of knowledge about his life. Of course, the news of his tragic death was one of those sentinel events in the 1960s, and one of which I was well aware.

So, I approached reading this book to fill in the gaps.

DID IT EVER…fill in the gaps, that is.
I have read a fair number of biographies, and I am hard pressed to recall a more exhaustive one. The author provided much material on Dr. King’s childhood, his formative years, his family background and his education. The book covers his educational development, his call to ministry and his awakening understanding of the mission he felt he had to pursue.

And that is just the beginning.
The work is long—exhaustive is one word. I learned so much more than I ever knew about Dr. King’s life. So for the reader who undertakes reading it should be forewarned that the reading is not easy.

My objections are few—they are 1) the book is too hagiographical. While Oates does cover many of the flaws in Dr. King, he does so in such a way that he dismissed the fact of those flaws. 2) The book uses extensive exhaustively long portions of speeches and sermons. No doubt, that proves that Oates had permission from the King family to use those writings (they are famously parsimonious in permitting the use of Dr. King’s words. 3) The way in which the sources are cited is somewhat unusual. As it happens, I was reading an e-reader version. So when I attended the book discussion, I asked if the quotes were cited. Well, my fellow readers showed me that in the print version, sources are credited at the end of the book—by page number. Frankly, this technique is arduous and totally unhelpful to a serious scholar who would want to check source.

My overall assessment—this is one of the more important books I have read since it informed about a great man in current American history about whom I previously knew only the barest of facts.

Photo source:


Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor is a well-known author whose works deal with spirituality, questing, and faith. I learned this when I began to read Leaving Church. You see, I had not encountered any of her works before. When her book AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, I was intrigued with the title, but for whatever reasons didn’t read it.

So, how did I come to read her earlier work LEAVING CHURCH? One of my friends at church gave me the book and said she thought I might like it.**
 So, I read it.
What to say? First, yes I liked it. It resonated with me in ways that works such as those by Elaine Pagels (WHY RELIGION) and Rachel Held Evans (SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY). In many ways LEAVING CHURCH is a similar kind of personal account. Of course, the details differ, because the authors differ. Each has her own journey to describe. Perhaps I view LEAVING CHURCH through the filter of how closely it approximates my own experience. Rachel Held Evans’ book comes the closest to describing the kind of upbringing I experienced. 

Barbara Brown Taylor’s journey is long and multi-faceted. She describes her early longing for and search for spiritual connection. While the earliest expression she details in the book is a strong connection with nature, she moves on to describing her sense of call to Christian ministry. As a result, she becomes ordained as a priest in the Episcopalian Church, after her seminary training. Her initial call as a priest is to a large church where she is one among several priests. The grinding demands of that work, along with the oppressive sense of living in a highly urbanized area lead her to seek the calm of a more rural area. She and her husband find just such a location to which they move, and she begins life as a solo priest in a small church.

Each of these priestly calls have joys, triumphs, as well as valleys. Just as in the urban church, she begins to feel drained in the country setting. Thus the title LEAVING CHURCH. She traces a somewhat tortuous circuitous faith journey. Perhaps not surprisingly, she experiences burnout in her solo pastoral situation. And then leaves church.

That does not mean she loses faith—her faith continues, broadens and becomes more nuanced. 

If you enjoy and/or are inspired  by faith journeys, you may enjoy this book.

** Thanks, Lois.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Reading, reading, reading...

Two more books to add to the 2019 progression toward a goal (whatever my goal was/is). Both of these are non-fiction works, and while they couldn't be more different, I recommend them HIGHLY.

If you're thinking about Christmas gifts, you can't do any better for the reader (s) in your life than give Julie Zickefoose's book.  Buy it somewhere where the price is its true price (not the knock down price Amazon uses). Julie Zickefoose is a self-employed naturalist and author, so she earns her "bread and butter" by writing, publishing, and selling books. 

GOD: A  Human History by Reza Aslan

Among the non-fiction works I like to read are those that deal with various religious topics. I am a Christian and have an awareness of the history of Christianity and that it did not develop as a single whole "thing" dropped from heaven. Rather it is a religion that has taken centuries to develop--and that development was not a clear singular path toward "the truth." It was a circuitous, frequently contentious history. Factions developed, new alliances formed, then factions again…and on and on.

Reza Aslan’s GOD: A Human History widens the scope of the history of religion—from mere Christianity to the whole of humanity’s quest for and interaction with god—the many forms of god.  Essentially a chronological account, GOD begins with the earliest of humans and thieir growing awareness and comprehension of  divine power.  The book then follows in succession the chronological development of the various religions as perceived by humans.

Summarizing the book is impossible—each chapter in human history is so rich with content and meaning the reducing it to a summary does it injustice.

My understanding of religion has deepened, and my appreciation for various approaches to god has grown. All thanks to Aslan and his book GOD.

SAVING JEMIMA:Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay by Julie Zickefoose

When I began blogging in 2006, like many novice bloggers, I waited for my first comment…a link to the larger world of people interested in some of the things that enthrall me. As it happened, the woman who commented on a blog I had written (about a trip to Spain) was someone who was deeply involved in the amateur world of bird-watching. In turn, through her I found a network of bloggers with many and varied interests but the common connection was birding. Thus did I “meet” Julie Zickefoose.

As a self-employed author, artist and naturalist, she is…well, here’s her own description from her website “ I am a writer, artist and naturalist at home in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio. Every day, I roam our 80 acre wildlife sanctuary, and every day I find something new. This deep relationship with the land is the wellspring of my writing.”  

Out of this description comes the makings of SAVING JEMIMA. Given that Julie is a wildlife rehabilitator, she gets frequent calls to rescue sick, or helpless, or abandoned animals and birds. It was in this capacity that someone called her about a baby blue jay. And that was the beginning of the book.

From the opening page, I was captivated. Make that from the first opening of the book, looking at the inside cover which is colored and speckled EXACTLY like a blue jay’s egg. It is that kind of attention to detail and authenticity of writing down her observations that makes this book unlike any other I have read—and that in the most delightful special way.  

Lest you think this book is only about birds—you would be wrong. True, you learn a great deal about birds! And the way Julie explains things, even if you aren’t a “birder” (that would be me…I love to look at them, but know next to nothing about them), you will be entranced.

Beyond learning a great deal about birds in general, blue jays in particular, you also learn what it is like to go through a life crisis—which Julie did—and how being connected to nature helps one heal and regain an even keel.

Saturday, August 03, 2019


Occasionally, when I mention my age* to someone, they respond "you don't look it."
I take that as a compliment, of course, but at the same time I wonder.
--What does it really mean?

Does it mean I look OLDER that my age?  Or YOUNGER?
Does it mean I look great (my preferred possibility) or terrible?

It's a curious thing--time. We tend to think of time as linear, progressive, each stage leading to the next. It's that kind of image Shakespeare evokes in the words from AS YOU LIKE IT--you will recognize it from its opening line: All the world's a stage.**

But I think we don't really experience time as a slow progression, one stage to the next a la Shakespeare. In some ways, that approach makes us cherish some stages and rue and fear others. 

Shakespeare's evocation of the cavalcade of life lists seven stages:

--infant in his nurse's arms, whining school boy, then lover, then soldier, then the justice, then the sixth stage--"the lean and slippered pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side," and finally the last stage, the second childishness--"sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

I think of time, not as something linear, but pleated like a fan. The folds may coincide with my life's progression--curly haired smiling infant, little girl with pigtails, newly minted boarding school girl 
with awful haircut (my worst stage!), budding teen,  long haired quasi-hippie new mom, professional woman embarking on a career, empty-nester, and now "you don't look your age."

But that's not how my memory works. I can jump from one stage of my life in a blink. I can connect the dots that may seem random. I can move backwards and move forward in time. It seems that the same person who was inside me at the various chronological points in my life is still there. Sure, experience and reflection have added dimensions, but generally I am who I am, who I have always been. And no doubt who I will always be.

So, I don't look my age? Maybe, maybe not. But my mind stores all  the steps along the way, and lets me move back and forth in time.

* For the record, I was born in February, 1945. You can do the math.
**AS YOU LIKE IT (Act II, Scene VII)
by William Shakespeare

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

More than Halfway there...

For 2019, I set a goal to read at least 25 books.  I have read 17 books thus far.

Herewith my reviews of the 4 most recent books I have read.

By Elizabeth Strout

When I saw that Elizabeth Strout had a new novel, I got it right away. I had loved OLIVE KITTERIDGE, her first work.  ABIDE WITH ME bears some similarities to the earlier work—New England setting, a variety of characters interacting in situations, characters seen from both positive and negative perspectives.

It differed in that ABIDE WITH ME is a continuous story in traditional novel form.  We meet Tyler Caskey, a newly minted seminary graduate who goes to his first church. He is also newly married to Lauren, who has led a charmed and pampered childhood. What seems like an idyllic setting with a fairy tale couple slowly deepens and is complicated by relationships. As the story progresses we begin to see the various characters with their flaws.

The people who live in West Annett have lives that are filled with small issues that seem to them to loom large. In addition to their own daily problems, the times (the novel is set at the end of the 1950s) make them fearful. For example, one family is building a bomb shelter in preparation for Russia dropping a bomb.

As the first part of the book comes to a close, we learn that Tyler’s wife who was suffering from cancer has died. She leaves Tyler with two young daughters.

As the second part of the novel begins, we see the cracks in the facades of various characters. The revelations help carry the plot of the novel forward. 

Ultimately, this is Tyler’s story. He turns again and again to the words of the old hymn for solace:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

The conclusion of the novel provides a sweet connection to the words of the hymn, in a very satisfying conclusion to the many threads of the story.

By André Aciman

Rarely do I finish a book with an intake of breath and something close to a sob. But CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is one such book.

André Aciman's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is a story of finding one's identity; it is a story about the journey from youth to adulthood; and it is a story of desire. But above all it is a story of love--found, lived, lost, and remembered.

If we are fortunate, we have in our lifetimes one of those heart gripping loves--the memories of which stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Such is the focus of this novel. It tells the story of a summer love affair between Elio, a 17-year-old boy living in Italy in his family's villa, and Oliver, a 24 year old U.S. graduate student who spends a summer at the villa as an intern to Elio's father who is a professor of classics.

Elio and Oliver eventually have a passionate love affair. But when the summer ends the inevitable question is whether they will be together again. That option is unlikely, given the social mores of the 1980s when the novel takes place. Oh, of course there were gay romances then, but societally such were mostly subterranean. 

So they part. Elio, whose story we continue to follow, is bereft. He aches with longing to see Oliver again. After 20 years, they do reunite. The question that hangs between them is whether they will/can resume their love affair. 

I will let the answer to that question for the reader to discern.

The ending of the novel left me with an aching emptiness--all captured in two words Oliver speaks "Cor cordium."

By Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

This has to be the scariest book I have read in a long time. And it’s non-fiction. It is so scary that I had to put it aside from time to time—just to let my psyche recover…which, to tell the truth, it hasn’t. 

But I persevered and finally finished the book. The book is full of analyses of various democracies over time that have been under assault. Some failed, other faltered. In some instances countries even recovered. But, of course, the impetus for this book is the current political scene in the United States. So the book becomes part cautionary account and seer into the future. It also gives suggestions as to how we might recover. 

The current president did not cause this assault on democracy, but much of what is happening in our body politic is greatly fueled by the behavior particularly of Republicans. The authors lay out three possible “futures for a post-Trump America.” First, there could be a swift recovery brought the collapse of the Trump presidency—for whatever reasons: defeat in reelection, resignation, impeachment. But that alone would not help democracy recovery.

A second possible future could occur if the political leadership is unchanged, if the Republicans control the presidency as well as both houses of Congress. Such control could embolden Republicans to expand their efforts to assure a white electoral majority. Examples they give are “large-scale deportation, immigration restrictions, the purging of voter rolls, and the adoption of strict voter ID laws.” Any such steps would be “profoundly antidemocratic.”

A natural response to such increasing restrictions might be resistance—which would in turn be suppressed thereby reinforcing the effort to maintain the restrictions. All one needs to do is look at modern day Russia—an example of extreme suppression of political dissent.

A third possible future, which the authors think is more likely, is increasing polarization. The authors particularly emphasize “departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare…democracy without solid guardrails.” 

Perhaps, now you see why I paused several times in reading this book. And perhaps you also understand why I call it scary. BUT—we cannot change the threatening outcome of what is happening today by being uninformed. 

Fittingly, as I was reading the book, I used as my book mark one that had come from the ACLU—it had printed the text of the original Bill of Rights which included amendments 1 through 10, and the additional amendments that directly relate to citizenship and voting rights. A most fitting book mark—and a constant reminder that what we have in the United States is precious, fragile, and once destroyed very difficult if not impossible to regain. 

IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN: Life lessons from 29 Heroines who Dared to Break the Rules 
By Karen Karbo

While I don't think of myself as a "difficult woman" I certainly respect those women throughout history who have been considered "difficult." That label is presumably applied to a woman who refuses to use the social norms as the only measure of her worth.

So I looked forward to reading this book. The first few profiles were interesting. A few of the women were "new" to me, but most of them I had previously read about. As the book continued, I began to become increasingly annoyed with the author's approach. There was in some of her portrayals a strong wiff of gossip column writing. In other words--the primary focus of each portrayal was an assessment by Karbo of what these women did that made them difficult. A few examples were genuine--things the women did that were norm-breaking. But other details were just titillating.

Here's where my interest in the book began to fade. I read a book such as this to learn something, not to be enthralled with a particular writer's adulation of historic figures. Even the author's language lent itself to a breezy gossipy kind of assessment.

Some examples--in describing Gloria Steinem: "Just because Bunnies served horny businessmen highballs and medium-rare steaks didn't mean they were good with being felt up." This was in discussing Gloria Steinem's having "been a Bunny" for a short time. Karbo does refute the common belief that Steinem worked as a bunny; in fact, she was doing undercover research for an expose she wrote. For me, the flippant presentation of information such as that combined with the quote above robs the passage of the import it is intended to convey.

Here's another example--this in the chapter on Amy Poehler. "Even difficult women who are stubborn, brave, outspoken and won't take no for an answer tend to let this kind of thing go. Men, however, do not let this sort of thing go. That's why there are bar fights and the situation in the Middle East." WHY? Why undo the impact of the initial sentence with a trite comparison?

Then there are the footnotes and attributions. Usually footnotes indicate a source for the statement to which the foonote is attached. Not so here. The footnotes are too often a clever, or witty comment (at least an attempt) on the information just given. Why? On at least one occasion a detail was outright in error. The statement in the chapter on Billie Jean King was that “in June 1972, the Supreme Court passed Title IX”  Um, sorry—the Supreme Court never “passes’ a law. It may rule of the constitutionality of a law, but that’s not same as “passing” it.

Go ahead and read it if you want. But remember it's not an indepth study of some important women of our times. It's more like a Liz Smith column.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


But it's summertime and things slow down a bit. Other activities occupy me--e.g. flowers, flower and flowers.

But I have kept reading.  

Here are three more reviews.

THE FISHERMEN by Chigozie Obioma

A friend of mine recommended The Fishermen--of which I had not previously heard. Since I have read a fair bit of fiction coming out of Nigeria, I was drawn to reading it.
The novel centers on four brothers--Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin. Their family also includes their father and mother, as well as two little siblings--David, the youngest brother, and Nkem, a daughter who is the baby of the family.

The settings is Nigeria in the mid-1990s. The family lives in Akure, and their tribal background is Igbo, one of the larger tribal groups of the some 300 tribes in Nigeria. The father works in the Central Nigerian Bank, and the family is solidly middle-class. The Nigerian Civil War (which is sometimes called the Biafran War, as it involved the breakaway state of Biafra, to the east of the setting of this novel) occurred about a decade before the time frame of the novel. Occasionally, the effects of the civil war are alluded to--so it helps to know a bit about the impact of tribal rivalries.

The novel is not, however, as a commentary on African national development. 
The pivot of the novel occurs when the four older brothers decide they want to go fishing--to become fishermen. The river where they go is a forbidden site--once a clean free-flowing river, it is now contaminated by human development with the waters being unclean and smelling foul. It is also a river that was once viewed with reverence, and is now cursed by locals. Because of that, the boys have been strictly forbidden to go fishing there.

That prohibition cannot stand up against their youthful drive and curiosity, however. So they become "fishermen." They acquire the requisite gear, which they manage to hide in their house at night.

The second pivot is the absence of the father. At the outset of the novel, told from the memory of Benjamin, the father is transferred from his job in Akure to another town. He is able to return home only occasionally. Since he was the one who disciplined the older children--with the mother consumed with caring for the two youngest children--the four older boys are able to pursue their fishermen dream.

At the river, they encounter Abulu, a crazy man who lives on the edges of society. He is portrayed as filthy, frequently naked, given to sexual transgressions in public. But he also shouts "prophecies" which seemingly come true. One day, after the boys have tormented him, he chases them and calls out after them a detailed prophecy that essentially say Ikenna will be killed by "a fisherman." Ikenna takes the prophecy to heart, and determines he will be killed by one of his brothers.

His greatly changed behaviors, as he grows more and more rebellious, coincides with a normal teenagers' quest for self-identity. However, for Ikenna, he goes beyond what might be seen as normal and becomes violent and confrontational.
When he is killed, the family unravels. In the course of the novel, three of the four older brothers die, and it is left to Benjamin to tell the story.

This book is a very compelling read, and particularly satisfying. Not surprisingly, the book was nominated for various awards, including the Man Booker prize. The author Chigozie Obioma was rightly lauded for this novel, his first.



I was drawn to So Brave, Young and Handsome because of the author. I had read Peace like a River by Leif Enger some years ago, and while I don't recall the plot of the novel, I do recall the sense of satisfaction at having read what seemed like a perfect book (for me). (Parenthetically, I recognize we all having varied reading interests, so what may be the epitome of good writing may be dreary to another reader.) I admit that at first I found the going a bit...tedious...where is this novel going? 

So Brave, Young and Handsome began slowly. You meet the main character, or at least the one who is the common thread throughout the novel, Monte Becket. He is an author--in fact, a one book wonder. Having published a wildly successful novel MARTIN BLIGH, he is now like a ship on a becalmed ocean. He has lost whatever inspiration guided him in that first work. In short, he has severe writer's block. His loving, supportive wife Susannah encourages him to keep trying to recover that writer's skill. He sets writing goals--so many words per day. Gradually, the inspiration leaks out and he reduces the daily count until he finally stops. Oh, he writes. And completes novels. But his publisher continually rejects his latest offerings. So he is himself becalmed.

Into this introduction sails Glendon Hale. He is standing upright in a small boat, rowing down a river. We soon learn that Glendon Hale is on the run from the law. And when he sets out to escape his would be captors, he invited Monte to accompany him--just for 6 weeks.

Thus begins the adventure of a lifetime for Glendon.

Structured in the form of a journey across country, from Minnesota to California--we meet along the way various characters: Hood Roberts, Charles Siringo, Blue (aka Arandano) and Claudio. They all become part of Monte's journey. And eventually provide the inspiration that unblocks Monte the novelist.

The novel, which began slowly, ended very satisfyingly for me. When the novel ended, I was sad to leave the characters behind.

THE MOTHER TONGUE: English and How It Got that Way
By Bill Bryson

Well, you’d think I learned my lesson. A few books ago (check back in the blogs to see the review) I reviewed Bryson’s NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND. But once again, the title intrigued me—I love English and learning about its history—so I bit.

Here’s the good part—there are sections of the book that are truly engaging.

And, here’s the bad part—once again, he goes on and on long after the point has been made.

And then there’s the erroneous part. After I had begun the book, I read the reviews on Goodreads. I was somewhat startled to find a fair number of people who absolutely panned the work. The main reason was the opinion of the reviewers that parts of the book were erroneous. Since I am no linguist, I thought “piffle—just over-smart people who know everything.”

But then I encountered two passages that gave me pause.

At one point, Bryson refers to the South African language Xoxa—well, I grew up in southern Africa, and as far as I know, there is NO such language. I suspect he means Xhosa which is a southern Africa language—frequently referred to as the click language. X is one of the letters clicked. 

And the passage talks about Scrabble.  He claims that the highest scoring in a game was 3,881—and it included the word “psycholanalyzing.” HUH?  How is that even possible. The only way I can figure that out is that a player laid the letters “analyzing” and connected that to a “g” already on the board. Then in a later move, someone added “pyscho.”  Yet, Bryson reports that word earned 1,539 points. Can that be done? Maybe, if you’re a Scrabble player, you can figure it out and let me know.

That's all for now...more books await.

Monday, June 10, 2019


This is prom season in our town. The local newspapers feature photos of the various high schools with prom goers displaying their finery. I have noticed that each year seems to produce a certain flair of clothing. Gone are the simple elegant classy gowns and tuxedos. In their place are brilliant electric colors schemes with boys and girls trying to outdo each other.  There are singles, couples, groups. Mixing and matching clothing and mixing in whatever friendship combinations there are. All is joyful even if a bit bewildering to me.

My own prom experience is limited to three proms. First, the one for my high school.  I didn’t go. Why? Many reasons. Partly because I grew up in a conservative Protestant Church environment—no dancing. Along with no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no  ... whatever.

And I wasn’t asked. And back “in those days” you simply didn’t go to the dance unless you were asked. Things seem kinder now. At least I hope so.

Then, there were the proms each of my children went to. Sweet occasions, at least for mom. Watching this boy and this girl, who my husband and I brought into the world, whom we nurtured along the way. And cheering as well as dreading the impending arrival of adulthood. Our son working up the courage to ask someone. Our daughter looking so elegant in her gowns ( both of which I still have hanging in our basement closet). Watching them pull away from the house after the customary photos at home. 

How long have there been proms? I wonder if there’s a connection to the cotillions of days past? Or the debutante balls now opened up to all society. I remember working for wealthy Americans several summers while I was in college. Debutante balls, sometimes called coming out balls, where young women were “introduced “ to society, presumably to be on the marriage market. 

Parenthetically, I should add that high school proms are completely different from 
“Going to the Proms” a la London style. These summer symphony programs at the Royal Albert Hall are wonderfully celebratory. One of the few things on my bucket list (trust me, I really don't put much on my bucket list...seems somehow too limiting) is to attend the Last Night of the Proms--complete with "Rule Britannia."

Back to high school proms. I find it very heartening the way the binary assumptions are falling away. You know, boy asks girl in ever more elaborate ways. Girl accepts. Now I’m not sure who is expected to ask whom. And it is no longer obligatory to pair up. Now girl asks  boy, girl asks girl, boy asks boy, groups of boys and girls OR whatever. Why not? No one who wants to go to the party should be left out.

One of the most endearing experiences of my life had to do with proms. During my work career life, I was involved with health policy analysis and development. In that capacity, I attended a conference focused on the AIDS epidemic and what appropriate policies and actions should be in place to provide proper health care, support and counseling. 

Among the attendees were medical and health professionals, health policy people like me, and advocates for gay issues as well as people who were in fact AIDS patients. It was a rigorous and vigorous conference. One of the most astounding parts of that conference was sitting in a discussion group with health professionals and lay people. At a lull in the discussion, some of the gay men began talking about and reminiscing about buying their first prom gown. I listened in amazement and in silence, with a touch of jealousy. That memory heartens me, even as I rue my own teen years bereft of a season at the proms.

So, here's to the proms in all their glory and in all their permutations. Everybody dance now.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


This is a story about a little girl named Effie. She was about 10 years old when I met her, some 50 years ago. Truth is, I don’t really remember what she looked like—only that she was slight, mousey, somewhat unkempt looking, and subdued.

I met her in the hospital. I was in the ob/gyn ward for testing and a surgical procedure. Back then, hospital rooms were either two patients to a room (that was the more private level of care) or a ward of 8 patients. There was no such thing as a private room.

Since the testing I was undergoing was not painful or strenuous, when no tests were scheduled I was “free to roam”—within limits, of course. But I could walk around the ob/gyn area. And that’s how I met Effie.

Understandably, all of the patients in this area were women—and all were there for reasons relating to women’s reproductive health. The gynecological patients (which I was) were separated from the obstetric patients. So, there were no newborn babies or nursing mothers nearby.

In the course of my wandering around the area, I met a Puerto Rican woman, in one of the 8 bed wards. She was in her mid-50s—likely in the hospital for a hysterectomy. The nurses were very concerned about her because she wasn’t eating. Keep in mind, this was in the days before “get you in and get you out” hospital stays. You could be there for upward to a week for even routine surgery. So, her not eating was of concern. Because I am nosey, and was wandering around chatting with other patients, I quickly discovered the Puerto Rican woman spoke no English. The daily food choices were printed on menus in English and given to patients each day to circle their choices for meals. If nothing was circled, the default meat was beef. This woman did NOT like beef. After talking with her a bit (dusting off my high school Spanish), I learned that she had not been circling any choice on her daily menu. So, she constantly was served food she didn’t like. A bit of quick translation on my part—pollo y puerco—and she was able to give her preference and began eating again. (When the nurses discovered my “translating skills,” they asked me to tell the woman not to smoke with the oxygen tanks so close by!)

Back to Effie. As you can see, she was an anomalous patient. She didn’t need ovarian surgery, as I did. She didn’t need a hysterectomy as did the Puerto Rican woman. And, I assumed she wasn't pregnant because this was not the obstetric part of the hospital. So, what was her problem? When I talked with her, all she could tell me was that she understood she had a “growth” in her and needed to have it removed so she could get better.

Well, that piqued my curiosity. Growth? In a gynecological ward? It didn’t take much figuring to work out that she WAS pregnant. I was so stunned, that I asked a nurse—why does Effie think she has a growth and doesn’t know she is pregnant. The nurse explained (note: this was in the pre-HIPPA days) that a) the child had no sexual understanding at all. Obviously, she hadn’t been told “the facts of life,” including what it meant when she began menstruating early; b) she was about 8-10 weeks pregnant; c) she had been impregnated by her father; and d) the hospital was going to use a procedure which would cause her to go into “labor", deliver the fetus, and then go home. BUT she was NOT to be told why she would have all this done—that she was pregnant.

That’s the last I heard of Effie. I have long wondered what happened to her? Did she return home to be abused again? Did she realize, when she reached adulthood, that the pains were that she experienced as a girl in the hospital was actually “labor”? Where did she end up in life?

So, why I am telling you this long story? I am telling you this because this is a sad occasional reality. Pre-teen girls become pregnant because someone impregnates them. A medically safe abortion is a kindness for that young girl.  I am also telling you this story because it happened in 1970—before the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. Then, without abortion being legal and safely available, women AND girls who became pregnant had few options. Yet, someone found a way to have Effie’s wrong pregnancy terminated. Not that I think it was handled in a way that was psychologically healthy—but it was handled.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions about what criminalizing abortion will do. BUT one thing I can tell you—it will NOT end abortion. But it will end medically safe procedures. Like it or not, you cannot accomplish the end of abortion until you make it impossible for a woman OR girl to become pregnant.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

I'm Making Progress

Now that gardening time has arrived, I find it a bit more difficult to keep up my reading pace.
BUT, I have finished read two more books. So I better get to reviewing them.

 I was drawn to reading this novel, as I grew up in southern Africa and have a long-time interest in reading non-fiction and fiction about the experience of a country moving from colonial, white-dominated rule to native black rule.

This novel is NOT about that, but within it are references to the seeds of that transition. Nelson Mandela is referenced as someone who will emerge as a leader in the struggle for freedom. What this novel is about the growing realization by two characters that "the other" is just as human as they are.

The story revolves around two people: a young girl named Robin and a middle-aged woman name Beauty. Robin is white living with her parents in a wealthy white area of Johannesburg, South Africa. The time is 1976 in the days leading up to, and then beyond, the Soweto uprising.

In the days immediately before the Soweto uprising Robin's parents are killed. She is taken under the care of her aunt, who is barely able to handle the responsibility of having a child. Robin had been cared for in large degree by her family's black maid, Mabel. When the parents are killed, Mabel disappears.

When the story switches to Beauty, who lives in the Transkei, we learn that Beauty is an educated black woman who leaves her remaining family, two sons, to go to Johannesburg to find her daughter who is living in Soweto.

By focusing on these two characters, we get a highly charged account of the unfolding events that pull these families apart and disrupt the lives of both. 

The author is very successful in creating believable characters--who operate with motives entirely consistent with their natures. At least, through the first half of the novel. As events move toward a climax, the believability factor, particularly where Robin is concerned, goes awry. I had a great deal of difficulty believing that a 9-year-old girl would proceed as Robin does.

Had the author kept the characters staying true to their natures, I would have rated this book higher. At the outset of the novel, the plot unfolds because it grows out of the characters' natures. BUT, toward the latter part of the novel, the plot takes over and drives the actions of the characters.

One of the hallmarks of a well-constructed novel is that the novelist creates the characters and THEN lets them develop the events that unfold. A novelist who uses characters as a puppeteer would manipulate a puppet is less believable, for me.
I must add that the novel is a GOOD READ--and I read it quickly, pulled forward by story being told.
 JUDAS by Amos Oz
 When I first began reading this novel, I was annoyed at the central character, Shmuel.
But through marvelous story telling, his character grows on the reader.

In many ways, the novel is a very interior work. Plot is spare (I'm fine with that). Characters are very well drawn (I am thrilled about that). And dialogue goes on for pages (very interesting, however) because that is part of the point of the book.
The setting is Israel in the mid-1950s, after its creation as a state and the 1948 war. The question of the validity, urgency, and justification desirability as a separate nation state has been debated and settled, and then defended by military action. Some knowledge of that setting is essential to understanding the themes of the novel.
Judas, of course, refers to the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him, leading to the crucifixion. Shmuel is a student wrestling with a thesis--the essential premise is that Judas was the first Christian, believing in Jesus Christ even when Jesus had no intention of being anything but a Jew. But Shmuel's studies stall. He is somewhat estranged from his parents, is very close to friendless, so he answers an ad. The ad is for a companion for an elderly man.

Shmuel answers the ad and is introduced to Gershom Wald, who is an invalid aged man in need of company. In turn he meets Wald's daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel. As the story unfolds, we learn of Atalia's history--she had married Wald's son who was then killed in the 1948 war.

Shmuel's duties are to spend several hours a day with Wald, converse with him, give him porridge, and feed the goldfish. The rest of his time is his own. 

As these conversations between Shmuel and Wald unfold, we learn many aspects of the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, of interaction with the Arab population that inhabited Palestine, and the politics of establishing Israel. Atalia's father Shealtiel Abravanel opposed establishing Israel as a separate Jewish state. He argued to a single country shared by Jews and Palestinians. 

One can glean some of the seeds to today's present conflict over whether to have a one state or two separate states. 

There are several narrative techniques that I enjoyed--one is that the novel is a journey--for Shmuel. And it is a discourse on the merits of modern day Jewish/Arab relations. It is also a coming of age story for Shmuel. AND it is a bit of a romance story. By the time the novel ended, I was deeply attached to Shmuel, and wonder how his life unfolded.

OK-- because this novel is so richly layered, so informative, and so engaging, I highly recommend it. It may feel like it's slow going at the outset, but stay with it.

The next two books I am working on are THE FISHERMEN and HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE. Stay tuned.