Mid-Flight into The Sparrow Readalong #SparrowRAL


I first heard about The Sparrow from my friend Florinda, who proclaims it to be among her favorite books.  Yet, even when I bought it at a book sale for $2, I resisted reading it because … well, I don’t know, exactly.  I was under the impression this would be more science-fiction-oh-look-there’s-a-little-robot-alien-thing-with-antenna-who-speaks-in-jibberish-and-is-taking-me-in-his-spacecraft-to-another-planet than is to my liking (which is to say, not my liking at all).

When Trish from Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity announced a readalong of The Sparrow, I thought this would be a great chance to finally read this novel.  So far, I’m more into this book than I expected – although not as far along as I would like. Today’s our midway check-in and I’m only on page 75. Still, here are some initial thoughts:

1. How is The Sparrow matching up with your expectations going into the book? Are you surprised by anything?

It’s not as sci-fi as I thought. I mean, yes, right from the beginning you know that travel to another planet is involved. But these are regular, everyday people going into space. They could be you or me. A few of my neighbors could pass for Anne and George.

Also, this was published in 1996. Seeing a chapter dated “Cleveland, Ohio: August 2014 - May 2015″ was a little jarring, to say the least. I mean, when you’re reading a science fiction type book set in the future and there’s a chapter dated in the present day and time, that kind of makes you sit up and think, HOLY SHIT, THIS IS TAKING PLACE RIGHT NOW. You gotta admit that’s a bit disconcerting. Not to mention that 1996 feels like it was LAST WEEK. Maybe it’s me but I guess that’s a natural reaction.

Even if, you know, it’s a NOVEL.

But still.

If I’m lucky enough to still be around in 2059 (and if I am, somebody better be throwing me a hell of a kick-ass 90th birthday party) I’ll probably feel the same about those parts, too.

2. Do you feel the switching back and forth between past and present to be effective?

Yes. It doesn’t bother me when authors do this. It does make me more inclined to want to read this in longer sittings, which isn’t always possible. (Did I mention I’m only on page 75?)  And I have had to go back to previous sections to refresh my memory, but that’s the case with other books that employ this technique, too.

I will say that the “[a]s many as thirty or as few as ten years later” (pg. 21) and “Seventeen years or a single year later” (pg. 22) is confusing and makes me want a timeline.

Or a drink.

3. Which characters do you want to hug and squeeze? Any you’d like to strangle?

As of page 75, I feel most sympathetic to Emilio.  (Hugging and squeezing him probably isn’t the best idea, though.)  He’s so broken, in so many ways.

For whatever reason, I’m not trusting John Candotti yet and I’m definitely suspicious of that Voelker guy.

4. Any other thoughts? #copoutquestion

Favorite line so far: “He had discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.” (pg. 21)

There are books that seem to come along for us to be read at the right time, regardless of how many years they were published. I’m thinking The Sparrow might be that kind of book for me.

It’s not too late to join us in The Sparrow Readalong.  Visit Trish’s blog for additional mid-point posts and to sign up. 

The Book Review I Can’t and Won’t Write

Can't and Won't

Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

289 pages

I can’t write a typical review of this collection of short stories.

You probably won’t believe me when I say that most of the stories are only a few sentences or paragraphs long.

I appreciate the quirkiness and experimental form, language, and voice that Lydia Davis brought to these stories (especially when this review took me as long to write as some with hundreds more words) but in the end I can’t say that I loved these stories.

Still, I won’t let my first Lydia Davis book be my last.






The Sunday Salon: Bookin’ It Through Fall

The Sunday Salon

We’re kickin’ off the first official day of football season, which in this house is akin to a national holiday.  NFL GameDay Morning started us off promptly at 9 a.m., and we’re watching the Steelers-Browns with the sound muted while listening to the Eagles-Jaguars game on SiriusXM. I’m bedecked in my black and yellow; The Husband is in his Eagles’ jersey. Here in the ‘Burgh, it’s a gorgeous Sunday weather-wise and the start of football season also marks, for me, the unofficial beginning of fall. I love this season.

Maybe it’s just me, but fall always seems to herald the best book events – both in-person and reading challenges in in the book blogging world. I swore off challenges almost three years ago now, but every once in awhile I can’t resist joining one or two … or three. Here are just a few bookish events, challenges, and readalongs that I hope you’ll join me in participating in:

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014  shortlist will be announced this Tuesday, September 9 and I’m eagerly anticipating which of the 13 books move forward. I’d love to see History of the Rain by Niall Williams make it to this next round and win the whole thing, because I loved it so much. ‘Course, it’s the only one of the Booker longlist mentions that I’ve read, so that makes it my personal favorite.

Orfeo by Richard Powers is in my TBR pile beside the bed and I’d hoped to have gotten to that – and several others – by this point too, but that hasn’t happened. This longlist looks really good this year.


The Sparrow Readalong
Throughout September, Trish of Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity is hosting a readalong of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  I’ve had this on my Goodreads “to-read” list forever and on my actual bookshelf for several years. I’m looking forward to participating in this.

RIP 2014

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX
If it’s September, it’s time for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, one of the best reading challenges in the blogosphere. And I say that as someone who isn’t usually a devotee of the mystery, suspense, horror, thriller, gothic, dark fantasy, supernatural types of reads that R.I.P. focuses on. I love this challenge hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings (his introduction to this annual challenge, now in it’s 9th (!!!) year, is always a fun read in and of itself).



There are several R.I.P. IX levels and I’m planning to participate at Peril the Second (Read two books of any length that you believe fit within the R.I.P. categories) and Peril of the Short Story (which is self-explanatory … to read short stories that fit the categories). 

A More Diverse Universe 2014

A More Diverse Universe
Between September 14-27, Aarti from BookLust is hosting A More Diverse Universe to encourage reading at least one book written by a person of color.  Aarti writes, “None of us lives in a monochromatic world, and yet the fact that terrifying hate crimes still occur makes it clear that we do not fully understand or trust each other.  And maybe part of the reason is because the media we consume does not accurately reflect the diversity of our society.  And books are such a massive part of the media we consume that we should demand and fight for those that do represent minorities and those that do present the world from a different perspective than the one we are used to.  So please – participate.  You may just discover a character or an author or a setting or a story that will completely change your life.”

This is not hard to do. Aarti makes this easy, giving links to book suggestions right on the #Diversiverse introductory sign-up post.

How about you? Are you looking forward to or participating in any of these events this September? If so, what are you reading?




READIN’AT: Submit a Book Title, Ya Jagoff!


One of my favorite Pittsburgh blogs is the hilarious Ya Jagoff!, which documents with pitch-perfect humor and wit the irreverent behavior (often parking and driving-related) of Yinzers. If you’re not reading Ya Jagoff!, you’re definitely missing aht on one of the best things about da ‘Burgh.

As has been the road traveled by many successful blogs, a Ya Jagoff! book is in the works (and scheduled to be published in time for holiday gift-giving). Slight problem, though: in typical Ya Jagoff! style, this book needs a name.

Submit your title suggestion here before September 7, which is when the Ya Jagoff! powers-that-be will make their selection. If your title is chosen, you will get 2 comp copies of the book and 2 t-shirts.



Book Review: Blown Sideways Through Life: A Hilarious Tour de Resume, by Claudia Shear

Blown Sideways Through LifeBlown Sideways Through Life: A Hilarious Tour de Resume
by Claudia Shear
The Dial Press
116 pages

When I was job-hunting, one of the things that I found to be somewhat of a pain was having to complete a job application with the same exact information as on my resume. I know there are reasons for such, but it just always struck me as something that took entirely too long – and I don’t have nearly as many jobs in my history as most people.

Now, I can be thankful that I’m not Claudia Shear, who writes in her memoir-turned-one-woman-show Blown Sideways Through Life about the 64 different jobs she’s held – and quit, and been fired from, too.

“She worked as  (among other things) a pastry chef, a nude model, a waitress (a lot), a receptionist in a whorehouse, a brunch chef on Fire Island, a proofreader on Wall Street (a lot), and an Italian translator.” ~ from the book jacket

Told in essay format, on their own these stories seem to be simply a collection of “I had this crappy job, I hated it even there was this cool person or two that I worked with, but I wound up telling the owner to go fuck off, so I got fired or quit.”

Repeat. Repeat again. Sixty times.

This is billed as “a hilarious tour de resume,” which made me think that I was going to be in for a very funny read. Although there are certainly some amusing moments as Ms. Shear is sharing anecdotes about her various jobs, something about this kind of irked me and it took me awhile to figure out why. Because I can understand this “take this job and shove it” mentality once, maybe a couple times in one’s career… but not 64 times.

Finally, it dawned on me: I’m reading this in the wrong decade.

Because no way, no how does anyone, in this 2014 economy, treat 64 jobs with that kind of laissez-faire attitude. But Blown Sideways By Life wasn’t written in 2014; it was published nearly 20 years ago, when life was all kinds of different, indeed.

The takeaway is what matters, though, and it’s timeless. It’s especially relevant for this economy. It’s a reminder that every person taking your order, bagging your groceries, cleaning your hotel room, answering the phone, sweeping the floor, and getting your food is more than their job.

You got that, right? We, you, they are more than our jobs.

“You talk to the people who serve you the food the same way you talk to the people you eat the food with. You talk to the people who work for you the same way you talk to the people you work for…

“Sitting on rooftops, desktops, countertops, under counters; perched on milk crates, wine crates, paper cartons, front steps, hanging out in back alleys, deserted cafeterias, spooky hallways, we are all the same: a motley crew of artsy-fartsy types and single mothers and social misfits and immigrants who work six days, double shifts and send all the money home. We are people in recovery, people in denial, gay guys shocking the shit out of pizza guys from Queens – and vice versa. We all fit in because none of us belongs anywhere. And, boy, what you can learn: dirty words in every language and the fact that nobody is just a typist, just a dishwasher, just a cook, just a porter, just a prostitute. That everyone has a story. Everyone has at least one story that will stop your heart.” (pg. 114-115)

Score or Fumble? The NFL Tackles Domestic Violence. (Finally.)

Purple Ribbon

It’s wrong to hurt other people. Hurting other people is a very, very bad thing.

Most of us learn this life lesson pretty well sometime during our earliest years. Then there are some people who grow up, become football players, make unfathomable amounts of money, and think there’s no difference between tackling your opponent on the field and tackling your girlfriend until she’s unconscious or dead.

This mindset has been business-as-usual in the NFL for decades. Now, if Commissioner Roger Goodell is to be believed, the new football season has ushered in a new attitude. In a letter sent to all 32 team owners, Goodell wrote:

“My disciplinary decision [in the Ray Rice incident] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future
properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we

You’ll forgive me for not performing a shaking my ass, pointing to the sky celebratory endzone dance for you.

I should be. But I can’t, and here’s why.

I spent five years working at Laurel House, a domestic violence agency in suburban Philadelphia, and during that time, had the opportunity to coordinate several fundraising events and domestic violence awareness projects with Coach Andy Reid and his wife Tammy during their tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Reids’ commitment and compassion to helping victims of domestic violence – often in private, off-camera ways – was something genuine and that our agency saw often. I’m grateful for having had that experience and for getting to know them in the way I did. The Philadelphia Eagles also lent their support – both financial and by having players involved – to our events. And more.

What we in Philadelphia knew was something the rest of the NFL didn’t. We knew that having the strength of the Eagles brand during 14 mostly pretty damn good seasons (no matter how the Reid era ended) was some of the most powerful advertising, advocacy and awareness for domestic violence that a nonprofit could have dreamed of. It was our personal Gatorade bucket challenge.

Imagine how different the NFL would be today if each one of the 31 teams had been doing this work alongside us for the past 14 years. We always wondered how much more magnified that message of prevention and awareness could have been if it was shouted throughout every stadium.

I’d like to believe Goodell is sincere and truthful about taking a stand against domestic violence. The reality is that attitudes about domestic violence change slowly, and usually not with press releases or letters hung up in locker rooms, especially in cultures that are indoctrinated to think otherwise. The NFL has been in overtime on this issue for entirely too long.

Now there’s a mandate and an opportunity for teams to partner with the experts in their communities to educate everyone from their players to the fans to the front office staff to the guy hawking the beers in the stands on how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and how to get help for yourself or someone in crisis. It will take staff and funding and time – all of which are in short supply at domestic violence agencies across the country – but the NFL is a well-funded machine and has the dollars to do this right if they choose to do so.

As they kickoff a new season, here are two things the NFL can do within the next 60 days to demonstrate their commitment to helping to educate people about domestic violence.

1. Remove O.J. Simpson From the Hall of Fame. 
It’s been 20 years since the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and yet O.J Simpson, former running back for the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers, still remains a member of the Hall of Fame.

In his letter, Goodell writes: “Among the circumstances that would merit a more severe penalty would be …violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child. A second offense will result in banishment from the NFL.”

If Pete Rose can be banned from baseball for gambling, then O.J. can be removed from the Hall of Fame for practically beheading his ex-wife and companion while his children slept upstairs.

2. Drop the ball on the pink. 
Hey, have you heard about this disease called breast cancer? You have? I think most of us are Very Goddamned Aware of breast cancer. Then why, pray tell, do we really need the NFL to go all Pretty In Pink every October?

Between the fuchsia ties on the NFL Gameday hosts and the shoelaces on the players, October makes me long for the days of black-and-white television. (Yeah, buddy, I’m old enough to remember that.)  I don’t mean any disrespect to any of my friends or family who have been through this battle, but everyone knows someone who either has or has had breast cancer, most people know where to get answers and help (hint: another of my former employers, the American Cancer Society is a great resource).

Did you know that October happens to also be National Domestic Violence Awareness Month? Oh, you didn’t? I’m betting the NFL didn’t know that, either. What if, in addition to wearing purple, each NFL team distributed purple ribbons at every Sunday game in October along with instructions about what to do if you think someone is in an abusive relationship?

What if they launched a national campaign?

What if a DART (Domestic Abuse Response Team) was stationed on-site at every game, for counseling?

What if the NFL created a foundation that would support direct services in local communities for education and shelter and legal assistance for domestic violence victims, and what if a significant, substantial, meaningful percentage (I’m talking almost 50%) of ticket sales from October went towards domestic violence services in each team’s local community?

I’m encouraged by Roger Goodell’s letter – and heartened that it includes some specific examples of ways that the NFL plans to change. Since January 2000, there have been 77 players involved in 85 domestic violence incidents so forgive me for feeling like this is too little, too late. The League has a history and a reputation of fumbling the ball on this issue.

Only time will tell if the NFL scores a touchdown on this one.  I’ll be watching.

And waiting to do my celebratory dance in the endzone.


Book Review: History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

History of the RainHistory of the Rain
by Niall Williams
355 pages

One of Paul McCartney’s most poignant songs, in my view, is the heartrending “Too Much Rain.” In it, he sings about the difficulties of smiling “when your heart is full of pain.” Sometimes, the unfairness of life’s difficulties is just “too much for anyone.” It’s not right, in one life, too much rain,” McCartney sings.  

The abundance of rain in this small Irish fishing village is both literal and figurative in History of the Rain, Niall Williams’ newest novel, which is on the longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Let me say this: I haven’t read any of the other nominees, but this one gets 5 stars out of 5 in my book. It will be on my Best Books I’ve Read in 2014 list as well as on my list of All Time Favorite books.

I was intrigued from the second paragraph.

“We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.”(pg. 1) 

A few pages further, I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel about the Swains, a poor fishing family living in Ireland. It’s narrated by a bedridden Ruth Swain (she refers to herself as “Plain Ruth Swain”) who is mourning her twin brother Aeney, who, clearly, Something Sad happened to and who is very much beloved.

“Aeney was a magical boy. I knew. We all knew. Some people make you feel better about living. Some people you meet and you feel this little lift in your heart, this Ah, because there’s something in them that’s brighter or lighter, something beautiful or better than you, and here’s the magic: instead of feeling worse, instead of feeling why am I so ordinary? you feel just the opposite, you feel glad. In a weird way you feel better, because before this you hadn’t realised or you’d forgotten human beings could shine so.” (pg. 128)

Throughout most of the novel, we’re not sure why Ruth is bedridden, nor what happened to Aeney (until closer to the end), or if that’s the reason Ruth is bedridden or what.  What we do know is that it rains constantly in Faha, that there was a grandfather who was a pole-vaulter and a salmon-catcher, and that there was an Impossible Standard that the Swains felt compelled to live up to. We know that Ruth is trying to better understand her father Virgil (yes, Virgil) by reading the 3,958 books – mostly classics – that he owned and that are stacked throughout her attic room. She references these books often in her direct narration to the reader. They’re catalogued, dropped like acorns throughout the narrative. (Someone needs to start a book club of all 3,958 of these books.)

“I love the feel of a book. I love the touch and smell and sound of the pages. I love the handling. A book is a sensual thing. You sit curled in a chair with it or like me you take it to bed and it’s, well, enveloping. Weird I am. I know. What the Hell? as Bobby Bowe says to everything. You either get it or you don’t. When my father first took me to Ennis Library I went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of the writers, but the readers too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books. The books were worn in a way they can only get worn by hands and eyes and minds; these were the literal original Facebooks, the books where faces had been, and I just loved it, the whole strange sense of being aboard a readership.” (pg. 62)

I seriously underestimated this book at first because I didn’t quite know where Niall Williams was taking us with this one. (It all comes together at the end.)  In the meantime, here’s what makes Niall Williams so immensely talented as a writer: somehow, you trust him as an author and he makes you, the reader, trust him because the writing in this one is fantastic. Truly, it is some of the best writing I’ve ever read.  The metaphors (“sash windows rattling like denture laughter”) are gems.

Along with the writing, Williams draws you in with unforgettable characters. Ruthie is so smart, so sensitive and insightful  (“Hope, you see, takes a long time to die,”) yet so sad without the ones she loves.

“When I call my father Virgil Swain I think he’s a story. I think I invented him. I think maybe I never had a father and in the gap where he should be I have put a story. I see this figure on the riverbank and I try to match him to the boy I have imagined, but find instead a gristle of truth, that human beings are not seamless smooth creations, they have insoluble parts, and the closer you look the more mysterious they become.” (pg. 169)

“Because, just like his father, our father was not young when we were born, there was an extra-ness to the joy. It’s not that we were unexpected, it’s that until his children were in his arms he hadn’t actually gotten further than the imagining of us. He was a poet, and the least practical man in the world. And a baby is a practical thing.

Two babies, well.”  (pg. 129)

This is probably going to be among my favorite books of 2014. I’d love to see this win The Man Booker Prize so it gets more attention. (‘Course, I haven’t read any of the others, but whatever.)

“We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” (pg. 176)

With History of the Rain, Niall Williams has written exactly that kind of story.

5 stars out of 5

Highly recommended