Book Review: Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life, by Daniel Gottlieb

Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life 
by Daniel Gottlieb 
Sterling Publishing Co.
176 pages 

There’s something powerful in a personal moment of vulnerability, of difference, of change or of broken spirit, when you find another soul who says, “Me too.”

Sometimes that person is a friend or a teacher. Sometimes it is a stranger. Sometimes, a relative.

Daniel Gottlieb is a Philadelphia-based psychologist, family therapist, columnist, and author. When Dan talks with his clients or writes about coping with life’s changes and unexpected turns, his insights come from a deep well of personal experience.

More than 25 years ago, Dan became a quadriplegic after an automobile accident paralyzed him from the neck down. As most of us would, he thought his career – and his life – were over, that he didn’t have anything left to give.

He was wrong.

Sometimes we don’t understand the reasons behind the circumstances in our lives. In Letters to Sam, Dan shares the moment he knew he would be able to continue living, but this memoir’s purpose is to show that there is sometimes even more of a greater reason than may readily be apparent.

For Dan, that reason is his grandson Sam. Like many grandparents, Sam is the very joy and light of Dan’s life – a reason to keep living in spite of adversity; however, theirs isn’t like most grandparent-grandson relationships. At 14 months old, Sam was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disability), a form of autism.

(My boy was initially diagnosed with PDD-NOS shortly after his 2nd birthday.)

Daniel Gottlieb knows a little something about the frailty and unexpected nature of life. While he hopes he has many years together with Sam, he knows more than others that things can change in a matter of seconds. Thus, the concept of Letters to Sam – a touching book that is exactly that: a grandfather’s words of wisdom to his grandson about how to survive (no, thrive) in a world that may not always be too kind to people with disabilities, about embracing life and keeping hope, about making peace with the past, and ultimately, about finding acceptance.


The Sunday Salon 10/19/2014

The Sunday Salon

Another jam-packed weekend comes to a close and I’m just getting a chance to step into The Sunday Salon for the first time today.

A few of you may be new to my blog, as a result of my hanging out with you during part of this weekend’s activities. If that’s the case, glad to see you here. This particular feature is The Sunday Salon, described as such:

Imagine some university library’s vast reading room. It’s filled with people–students and faculty and strangers who’ve wandered in. They’re seated at great oaken desks, books piled all around them, and they’re all feverishly reading and jotting notes in their leather-bound journals as they go. Later they’ll mill around the open dictionaries and compare their thoughts on the afternoon’s literary intake….

That’s what happens at the Sunday Salon, except it’s all virtual. Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week’s Salon get together–at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones–and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Think of it as an informal, weekly, mini read-a-thon, an excuse to put aside one’s earthly responsibilities and fall into a good book.  We link up our posts on our blogs and on The Sunday Salon Facebook group.

I spent Saturday at Chatham University immersed in all things writing with Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference that brings together writers, editors, and publishers in a friendly, supportive environment. It was organized by Barrelhouse, a literary magazine based in Washington D.C., and these fine folks decided to bring this year’s conference to Pittsburgh for the first time. I’m so glad they did. I’ll have a wrap-up post for this week’s Readin’at feature, but suffice it to say, it was one of the best writing conferences I’ve ever attended.

Because of the conference, I wasn’t able to participate very much in Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon this time around. This is always one of my favorite blogging events and I was disappointed to miss it. I’m in desperate need of a Readathon, believe me, especially since I am trying to finish Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel for a freelance review with a looming deadline.

DroodI’m listening to Drood on audio in the car for #droodalong and am really enjoying this. It’s the perfect book for this season, especially blustery and drizzly days like yesterday. In fact, this was part of the dialogue in Drood when I was driving to the writing conference at Chatham yesterday:

“It was a pleasant day yesterday as well. Did you enjoy your outing to Chatham and Gad’s Hill?” (pg. 182)

Indeed I did.

Weekend Cooking: Drood Food

Several bloggers – myself among them – are participating in a Readalong of Dan Simmons’ mammoth novel Drood which is being hosted by Trish at Love, Laughter, and Insanity. At 775 pages, this one more than meets the qualifications for a chunkster of a book.

I’ve been listening to the audio version and when I got to this passage, I absolutely cracked up. Fellow novelist Wilkie Collins is the narrator of Drood and a good friend of Charles Dickens'; in this scene, Collins is having “supper at a club to which [he] did not belong but at which [he] had guest privileges.”

“I settled down to my solitary meal. I enjoyed coming to this club because of how the chef here prepared lark pudding, which I considered one of the four great works produced by my present age. Tonight I decided to dine relatively lightly and ordered two types of pate, soup, some sweet lobsters, a bottle of dry champagne, a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters and minced onions, two orders of asparagus, some braised beef, a bit of dressed crab, and a side of eggs.” (pg. 56-57)

Wilkie considers this to be a “modest repast.”

He then goes on about the culinary skills of Catherine Dickens, Charles’ wife.

Book Blogger Convention 2011 - NYC (86)

Cheese display at Eataly, New York City, NY May 2011

“…one of the few things I had ever liked about Dickens’s wife was her cooking – or at least the cooking she oversaw at Tavistock House, since I had never seen the woman actually don an apron or lift a ladle. Years ago Catherine Dickens had (under the name Lady Maria Chatterbuck) brought out a volume of recipes, based on what she served regularly at their home at Devonshire Terrace, in a book called What Shall We Have For Dinner? Most of her choices were visible on my table here this evening, although not in such plentitude or with an equal glory of gravies (I consider most cooking as simply a prelude to gravies) – as her tastes had also run towards lobsters, large legs of mutton, heavy beefs, and elaborate desserts. There were so many variations of toasted cheese in Catherine’s volume of recipes that one reviewer commented –

“No man could possibly survive the consumption of such frequent toasted cheese.” (pg. 57)

Half a page later, and with Collins still at the table eating the same supper:

“This night, I could not decide between two desserts, so – Solomon-like – I chose both the lark pudding and the well-cooked apple pudding. And a bottle of port. And coffees.”  (pg. 57)

Book Blogger Convention 2011 - NYC (108)

Meat display at Eataly, New York City, NY May 2011

Even though I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be trying this at home in my vegetarian/gluten-free kitchen, I couldn’t resist finding out what consisted of lark pudding. According to this post from the blog Victorian Gems, this delicacy includes “one pound of rump steak, three sheeps kidneys, one dozen larks, nicely picked and drawn, and all well seasoned with two of salt and one of pepper, and one dozen oysters blanched.” 

Yum. Save room for dessert, indeed.

No wonder Wilkie Collins had troubles with gout. I mean, obviously we know a hell of a lot more than our Victorian friends about the connection between food and health but … still.


WeekenWeekend Cooking - Newd Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page. For more information, see the welcome post.


Readin’at: J.J. Hensley; Conversations and Connections; Podcamp 9

You may have noticed that it has been several weeks (maybe longer) since I wrote a Readin’at post here on the blog, contrary to my intention to make this a weekly feature.  I still have those aspirations (always good to have something to strive for, right?).

God knows it isn’t for lack of content ideas. All kinds of great things have been happening in the Pittsburgh literary community lately.

Measure TwicePittsburgh writer J.J. Hensley has a new novel, Measure Twice. Official book launch is Friday, October 10 from 5-6 p.m. at The Shops at Heritage Station, 201 Eleventh Street, Huntington, WV.

Hensley will be donating a portion of sales from Measure Twice to Par for the Cure, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for breast cancer research.

One doesn’t usually think of Huntington as the go-to-spot for book launch parties, but Hensley is a Mountain State native and wanted to introduce this book in his hometown. Those closer to the ‘Burgh will have several chances in October to catch Hensley closer to home, including at one event at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop on October 25.

Hensley has chosen Pittsburgh for the setting of Measure Twice. In this novel, Pittsburgh Homicide Detective Jackson Channing’s alcoholism addiction may cost him his marriage, sanity and career. When the body of a city official is discovered in a public location, the entire city of Pittsburgh bears witness to a form of evil that is difficult to comprehend and Channing must face more than one demon.

Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference that brings together writers, editors, and publishers in a friendly, supportive environment, comes to Chatham University next Saturday, October 18.   The conference is organized by Barrelhouse, a literary magazine based in Washington D.C., Keynoting is Roxane Gay – who seems to be everywhere these days. For your $70 registration fee, you get A LOT, including fantastic sessions, speed-dating with editors of small presses, a featured book of your choice, a subscription to a featured literary journal of your choice, and a boxed wine reception. Event proceeds go to Barrelhouse and participating small presses and literary magazines. I’m registered and cannot wait.

Finally, Podcamp Pittsburgh 9 is happening! Point Park University will be the place again when Podcampers convene on November 22-23. I’m a maybe at this point; the Sunday portion is a more likely bet than Saturday. Look for more details on the Podcamp Pittsburgh Facebook page. 

Keep readin’at!



#SaveDallas (and a piece of our childhoods)

Growing up, Friday nights were sacred.

I don’t mean that in a religious sense, although my parents did an excellent job giving me and my brother a solid upbringing in that regard. Friday was Pizza Night, followed by our family’s weekly pilgrimage to the Neshaminy Mall. As an engineer who spent his days off immersed in some home improvement or gardening project, my Dad always seemed to need something at Sears for the weekend fun ahead.

By 9 p.m. sharp, we were home in front of the TV, the channel tuned to CBS. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember when entertainment consisted of only three TV channels.) Nine o’clock was when the weekend really got started, ushered in with that distinctive “Dallas” theme song accompanied by glimmering skyscrapers, grinning-but-guilty-as-hell oil barons, and their glamorous, shoulder-padded women.

“Dallas” in its heyday was iconic, escapist, legendary, and fun. Who among a certain generation doesn’t remember the infamous “Who Shot J.R.?” episode? We loved to loathe J.R. and his conniving, scheming ways with money and women. There was, it seemed, no end to the “Dallas” drama.

Until …it ended.

We grew up, went on with our lives, had families of our own, and were content – sorta – with the occasional “Dallas” movie. J.R. and Sue Ellen and Ray and Donna became akin to the kind of cousins once so constant in your life but whose names you’re damned if you can remember at family funerals.

Then, like a mirage out of the desert of decades of economic recession and collapse, back-to-back wars, and political scandals run amok (and that’s just in any given week), along came “Dallas” in 2012, like Bobby Ewing appearing Lazarus-like in the shower, back from the dead.

This latest incarnation of “Dallas” has, for three seasons, been one of the most brilliantly acted dramas on television, thanks to the indisputable talents of Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Ken Kercheval, Judith Light, and of course, the late Larry Hagman. Combine their star power with the energy of “Dallas” newcomers Josh Henderson, Jesse Metcalfe, Jordana Brewster and Julie Gonzalo — and the dead-on, true-to-the-original writing of Cynthia Cidre and team, complete with meticulous research and sly references (“Dallas” fans, you see what I did there?) from the ’80s — and you’ve got one hell of an explosive show.

It shouldn’t have worked. These things rarely do. These days, when everything old is new again, such efforts are usually embarrassing at their best and abyssal at their worst.

Not “Dallas.” Because nothing with J.R. Ewing’s imprimatur is a failure.
Ours is a low-key, cheap date kind of family.

On the rare occasion we eat out, most likely you’ll find us at Pittsburgh’s standby, Eat’n Park. It’s affordable, I usually have a decent coupon for the Soup and Salad Bar, and everyone in our picky-eater family gets what they like.

We’re not athletically-inclined or outdoorsy, so our leisure-time family activities usually involve the four of us akin to islands in the stream of life in our house: hanging out together in the same room but pursuing our own thing: reading a book, playing Minecraft, listening to One Direction, writing a blog post.

The exception?


My husband shares my original “Dallas” love and affection, so naturally we tuned in weekly to see John Ross, Christopher and the latest generation of Ewings. At times, they proved to be just as good – dare I say, sometimes better – than the originals. They did their homework; you could tell, for example, that Josh Henderson as John Ross was a student of Larry Hagman as J.R. That look, those sneers, that’s art taught by the master.

Proving the adage that history really does repeat itself, our kids soon put down their iEverythings and joined us – just as my brother and I did when our parents watched “Dallas” in our suburban Philadelphia family room. All these years later, “Dallas” is still among the few things that – as our kids slip into the coveted teenage demographic market – we’ve been able to bond over as a family.

Just as in the ’80s, the magic was there a second time.

As our kids asked questions about the original “Dallas” and we nostalgically filled in the pieces about J.R.’s nemesis Cliff Barnes and the shaky branches on the Ewing family tree, those explanations segued into stories.

Stories about our own personal Cliffs, those former middle school arch-enemies now turned Facebook friends, filled then with as much drama as anything on must-see-TV.

Stories about parents and grandparents who watched “Dallas” alongside us and who – because they died before our kids would be born – became alive again in our retelling.
On Friday night (of all nights!) TNT announced the cancellation of “Dallas.”
The show, experiencing a viewership decline, wasn’t attracting the younger viewers advertisers fiercely covet.

What “Dallas” has is a decades-loyal fanbase that is showing its passion on social media with links to petitions and hashtags like #SaveDallas that have attracted the attention of the cast. For we are all Ewings. We are all family.

You may think that I – and thousands of others – need to move on, to get a life. Here’s what I know about that:

Life is vastly different than when J.R. was shot. Our lives – all of our lives – have challenges. At 45, my husband and I have experienced cancer, infertility, long-term unemployment, parenting a special needs child, and a loss of nearly 20 years of steadfast retirement savings in the economic recession. We face the same or equally challenging day-to-day situations as many people who grew up in the ’80s, believing they would do better than their parents but now wondering how the hell they’re going to make it to retirement – or, more likely, next month.

Somehow, with the magical blending of the nostalgic old and the electrifying new, this present incarnation of “Dallas” gave us …something.

A connection to our past and a reminder of a simpler time.

A salve to our world-weary spirits.

And a reassurance that in the end, family is what matters most of all.




Weekend Cooking: A Potluck Sort of a Post

Weekend Cooking - New

I’ve missed participating in Weekend Cooking for the past several … um, months (my last such post was in July – which, okay, maybe that’s not so bad).  I thought I’d jump back in with a random, odds-and-ends-filled sort of post this week. Potluck, if you will, because who knows what this will be by the time I’m finished with it.

Soup’s On!
Today’s the kind of Pittsburgh day – rainy, blustery, a sudden drop in temperatures from a gorgeous not-to-be-believed stretch of high 70s  – that gives you all the foreshadowing you need that winter’s woes are upon us whether we like it or not. I dreamed about driving in snow last night (down a steep flight of steps, no less) so that probably means that tomorrow will be a blizzard here in the ‘Burgh.

When the weather’s less than perfect, it’s the perfect day for soup. I’ve got a hodgepodge of end-of-summer vegetables simmering in the crockpot as I type. A zucchini and yellow squash were nearing the end of their days in our fridge; I chopped them up and dumped them into the crockpot along with a 32 oz can of crushed tomatoes in puree, 4 cups of vegetarian beef broth, some carrots, a handful of frozen corn and onions, some garlic, and a sprinkling of basil and oregano. We’ll have this for dinner tonight along with grilled cheese sandwiches. Simple.

With this soup, I’ve started a new bag of trimmings for vegetable stock. I keep a bag of scraps in the freezer, intending to make stock, but I never have. Every cookbook seems to have a recipe for stock and I’m thinking this is the year I make my own.

Cookbook Binge
Speaking of cookbooks, I’ve been on a vegetarian (and vegan) cookbook binge at the library. I have a bunch of them checked out that look amazing, and I’ve even made a recipe or two from several of them. They include:


Vedge: 100 Plates Large and Small That Redefine Vegetable Cooking, by Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby

Mayim's Vegan Table

Mayim’s Vegan Table: More Than 100 Great Tasting and Healthy Recipes from My Family to Yours, by Mayim Bialik

Meatless All Day

Meatless All Day: Recipes for Inspired Vegetarian Meals, by Dina Cheney

I’ll give my thoughts on them here, hopefully sooner rather than later.

I’ve also been cooking a lot from The Oh She Glows Cookbook: Over 100 Vegan Recipes to Glow from the Inside Out by blogger Angela Liddon.  I love, love, love everything I’ve made from this cookbook (it was an impulse buy at Costco in May and I declared it my Mother’s Day gift from The Husband and kids).  Oh She GlowsHere are two of my favorites from Oh She Glows: Portabello Mushroom “Steak” Fajitas and Strawberry-Mango Avocado Salsa.

Portobello Mushroom Steak Fajitas and Strawberry Mango Avocado Salsa

Taste of summer, indeed.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page. For more information, see the welcome post.


Book Review: Dog Years, a memoir, by Mark Doty

Dog Years

Dog Years: A Memoir
by Mark Doty
Harper Collins

I confess – I am not much of a dog person.

I am, however, very much of a Mark Doty person. Whatever that guy writes I will gladly read.

And the way Mark Doty writes of his golden retriever Beau and his black retriever Arden in Dog Years makes me want to go right out and adopt 10 dogs. One of every color and size, it doesn’t matter. I want them all.

I adore this book, just like I adore all of Mark Doty’s other books I’ve read. That’s because this isn’t a dog book in the traditional sense. Like Doty’s much-acclaimed memoir Heaven’s Coast (which may be the one book of his I haven’t read…yet), Dog Years is Mark Doty’s memoir chronicling his partner Wally’s passing from AIDS and beginning a new life. It’s about the healing power that Beau – who was adopted as a companion for Wally as he was dying – gave to him during his time of grief – and about how we find strength to look forward in the midst of sorrow.

“Can hope really be in vain, can you be harmed by hope? Obviously, there is hope that amounts to nothing, in terms of the wished-for result, the longed-for cure, the desired aim. But is that hope in vain, is it simply lost? Or can we say that there’s some way it makes a contribution to the soul – as if one had been given some internal version of those steroid shots, a dose of strengthening?

Hope is leaven; it makes things rise without effort. I have moved forward at times without hope, when Wally was sick and dying, and there wasn’t a thing in the world to do but ease his way. Without hope, you hunker down and do what needs to be done in this hour; you do not attend to next week. It is somehow like writing without any expectation or belief that one will ever be read – only worse, since a Dickinson secreting her poems away in private folios sewn by hand expects, at some unknowable time, her treasure to be found, her words to be read. Hopelessness means you do the work at hand without looking for a future.” (pg. 120)