Category Archives: Audio Book

Book Review: Under Magnolia, A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes (37/99)

Under Magnolia

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir
by Frances Mayes
Narrated by Frances Mayes
9 hours, 46 minutes

Anyone who has ever called the South home will likely identify with the people and recollections that Frances Mayes – born and raised in Fitzgerald, Georgia – serves up in Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir.

“Memory is capricious. I can look back and see decadence, old bigots, the constant racial slurs, the bores, the wild cards, the bighearted, the family album of alcoholics, the saints, the old aunt propped in a chair saying only “da-da,” the slow-motion suicides, but at four, six, ten, they loomed, powerful, not as types but as themselves. Among them, logic takes wing.” (pg. 31)

Many such characters appear in Under Magnolia as those who have shaped Ms. Mayes into the person she is today. She writes that “sometimes you have to travel back in time, skirting the obstacles, in order to love someone.”  Those of us who have had the gift of time and the occasion to reflect on certain experiences in our lives know how very true this can be.

When I read memoir, I’m looking for more than a life’s chronology or experience that transcends a good story. I look for some renewed understanding about that experience as a result of that process.  The real story isn’t what happened; the real story goes behind the images to have the memorist share what he or she has learned, how someone has changed as a result, (“Images are the pegs holding down memory’s billowing tent.”)

Under Magnolia is more chronology, a recollection of what happened, with the feel of autobiography.  Frances Mayes, who narrates the audiobook version (which I listened to) of Under Magnolia sounds like a lovely person with many stories and experiences from growing up in the South that have shaped her. But it’s hard to pinpoint the “takeaway” from these experiences. Is it that we really can always go home again? That we can’t truly leave because home is always with us? That change is possible? That despite our family history we have the strength in us to overcome issues like a parent’s alcoholism and devastating illness and societal expectations? All of the above?  I’m not quite sure.

Yet, there are parts of Under Magnolia where Ms. Mayes takes her reader on a journey with her back to her hometown, in a poetic yet rambling way.

“Growing up in Fitzgerald, I lived in an intense microcosm, where your neighbor knows what you’re going to do even before you do, where you can recognize a family gene pool by the lift of an eyebrow, or the length of a neck, or a way of walking. What is said, what is left to the imagination, what is denied, withheld, exaggerated-all these secretive, inverted things informed my childhood. Writing the stories that I found in the box, I remember being particularly fascinated by secrets kept in order to protect someone from who you are. That protection, sharpest knife in the drawer, I absorbed as naturally as a southern accent. At that time, I was curious to hold up to the light glimpses of the family that I had so efficiently fled. We were remote-back behind nowhere-when I was growing up, but even so, enormous social change was about to crumble foundations. Who were we, way far South? “We’re south of everywhere,” my mother used to lament.”

A gorgeous passage with so many fascinating questions to explore. Which may be the point — maybe finding out who we are and how place shapes us into the people we are isn’t a definitive process.  Maybe it is supposed to feel somewhat incomplete, a stream of conscious narrative in our lives.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post 37 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 




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sunday salon: ides of march edition

The Sunday Salon

Time and Place:
Sunday evening / the couch in the living room. As per usual.

Weekend Happenings?
Not much. The Girl went to a SibShop yesterday. It’s a support group for kids who have a sibling with special needs. It took me awhile to find such a group and they’ve increased the number of sessions to three weekends per month. A bit of driving around on the weekends, but as much as I might complain about trekking around Pittsburgh, it’s worth it because The Girl loves going and the facilitators are wonderful with her. Afterwards we enjoyed lunch at Panera and I came home and took a long nap.

Today’s been a lazy day. Grocery shopping was the extent of my activity. I should have done more, but I’ve had a bad headache all weekend and wasn’t up to it.

The last week or so has been a mixed bag on the bookish front, with everything from a book that will likely be on my Best Books I’ve Read in 2015 list to two DNFs.

The Paying GuestsLet’s start with what I loved. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is …well, I was unable to put this down. Set in 1922, Frances Wray and her mother live together in their large South London mansion following the deaths of Frances’ brothers in the War and then her father’s illness. Her father’s mismanagement of the family’s finances makes it necessary for Frances and her mother to rent out some of their rooms. Newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber join the household as “paying guests” and change the dynamic of the Wray house – not to mention each one of their lives.

The Paying Guests also is on the just-announced longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction) along with 19 other contenders. I’ve read only one other nominee (Station Eleven) and if I had to choose between the two, I would definitely choose The Paying Guests.  Anyway, I’m hoping to have a full review up soon.

My DNFs were Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan – about a group of restaurant workers during their last night at a Red Lobster which is slated for closing – and Inside Madeleine, by Paula Bomer. The latter, a collection of stories, has been hyped for being evocative and daring; however, I read the first two (“Eye Socket Girls” and “Breasts”) and found both to be eh rather than edgy. It didn’t do much for me, so back to the library it goes.


Still completely addicted to and immersed in House of Cards. I’ve just started Season 2 and will hopefully have a chance to watch episode 2 and maybe 3 tonight.

ZZ: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was on my TBR Goodreads list, but reading West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan made me more interested in picking this up.  Z is my audiobook this week.

Remember the #1000Speak post I did as part of 1000 Voices for Compassion? (Listening to Our Better Angels) Well, now this project has become a monthly thing and on Friday March 20 we’ll be writing on the theme of “Building from Bullying.”  Join us on the 1000 Voices for Compassion group on Facebook. 



Bloggiesta - Spring 2015Bloggiesta comes back this spring and it is better than ever! You guys, it is a week this time. A week! I have a to-do list a mile long for this blog, so I definitely could use that amount of time. Not sure what Bloggiesta is or what it involves? Click on the button to be taken to the Bloggiesta page or go here.


Daffodils - 3-8-2014

Look closely … my daffodils are coming up after a very long winter! You see them? Full disclosure: this is a photo from last March, taken on 3/8/2014, but they look the same right now.

This headache that I’ve had most of the weekend. I think it’s weather-related (yesterday was rainy and miserable) and I’m being very cautious about not taking much of anything like Advil or my Maxalt because I’m scheduled for a root canal tomorrow.

I actually hate the headache more than the root canal. This is long overdue – my dentist wanted to do this back in 2012, according to my chart (I conveniently forgot about that) and now this tooth is starting to bother me. So, as much as one can look forward to a root canal, I am.

Don’t laugh, but I really want to do some spring cleaning around the house. (I know … those of you who know me are probably thinking my blog’s been hacked.)  Every room in this house is a disaster and could use some freshening up. Nothing major – we don’t have the budget for anything crazy. I’m talking about some significant decluttering and deep cleaning (I might hire someone for that), framing some photos for the walls … simple things.

Hope your weekend has been a good one!


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The Sunday Salon: Food for Thought

The Sunday Salon

I’ve been awake since 3:50 a.m., and all I have to show for the past six hours is: a) a few sentences written on an essay I may or may not submit for possible publication (it’s due today); b) several perusals of Facebook; c) reading The Boy’s latest evaluation from school in preparation for a new IEP; and d) this post.

Yay, me.

Planning to do a few de-cluttering/re-organizing/cleaning projects around the house today. It’s looking like we’re in for a rainy day, perhaps even with some thunderstorms, making it the perfect day for such chores. My approach to housework is that I ignore things up to a certain point and then deal with them when I can’t handle the mess any longer.

On the agenda today is the pantry, which could use a bit of re-organization because things have just been thrown in there half-assed, I’m buying duplicates of stuff, I’m spending too much time looking for basic ingredients … the whole thing is out of control. And the family room/den/office area is way overdue for some attention, bigtime.

Animal Vegetable Miracle

Speaking of food, my current audio book is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. My first reaction was that this didn’t seem any different from other books and blogs promoting eating locally-grown, in-season food  – and then I remembered that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was published in 2007, before concepts like farm-to-table and eating what’s currently available were household words.  Seven years later, it’s still relevant and worth reading because there are still people who don’t understand this.

Case in point: yesterday at ALDI, I was in the checkout line and the ever-so-pleasant cashier asked the customer ahead of me if she found everything she needed.

“Yes, but you don’t have any strawberries,” she stated.

The ALDI cashier replied, “Right. They’re all done for the summer.”

The customer looked dumbfounded at this. First of all, if you want strawberries at the end of September, you shouldn’t be shopping at ALDI. Go a few miles up the road to the chain supermarket and spend $6 for eight ounces of strawberries that were trucked in from 3,000 miles away.

(I’ll give the customer the benefit of the doubt: maybe she was making a special dessert or something. But, still. If that’s the case, that’s not the week to go to ALDI.)

What’s interesting is reading this not far removed from finishing Flight Behavior. I knew much of that novel was borne from Kingsolver’s own experience on her family’s farm, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really shows the genesis of that story.

The Sparrow

I’m still making progress with The Sparrow and am almost to the halfway pointI’m participating in The Sparrow Readalong and summed up most of my thoughts thus far in the mid-point post. It’s still keeping my interest, but at page 160 I’m getting a bit antsy to find out what the hell happens. I have a sense of what’s to come, but enough foreshadowing and whatnot already: let’s get on with it.

Same with this Sunday. On with it already.

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The Sunday Salon: Currently, 8/10/2014

The Sunday Salon

Time/Place: 8:28 p.m., my family room

Watching: My kids are watching the Teen Choice Awards.  It’s been 29 minutes and I’ve lost count of how many arguments they’ve gotten into already. I may need to separate them. (You’d think they were toddlers. They’re 12.)

Eating/Drinking: I’m wrestling with yet another killer sinus headache this weekend, so I made a pot of gluten-free matzoh ball soup for dinner. Green beans and veggie chicken patties (the latter being for The Husband and kids) rounded out our meal.

Flight BehaviorListening: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is still my audio book in the car, for at least the second week in a row. I have it on my Kindle too and I read some while waiting for The Boy at an appointment this afternoon.

Anticipating: Audio books and my Kindle are going to be my primary reading mainstays for the upcoming week. The kids and I are road-trippin’ it back to my hometown of Philadelphia mid-week. The Boy will be spending a few days with my in-laws, and The Girl and I are heading to the One Direction concert. (My girl is beyond obsessed with One Direction, to put it kindly.) We’re going to the concert with my best friend since 4th grade and her daughter.  I’ll get to spend a rare day hanging out with my BFF along with some time at my mom’s.

The kids will wrap up their summer vacation (school starts in two weeks!) with some time at the grandparents’ while I head back to the ‘Burgh solo – and in addition to finishing up Flight Behavior, I have Rob Lowe’s second memoir, Love Life queued up to listen to.  (I mean, I can certainly think of less desirable people than Rob Lowe to spend six hours in the car with.) Also on deck as an audio book is Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.

Reading: Because of the bricks sitting on my sinuses, reading has been a bit difficult – a very unfortunate situation because I’m in the middle of History of the Rain by Niall Williams. This is one of the nominees for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and my God, this is so damn good.

I seriously underestimated this book at first. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel about the Swains, a fishing family living in Ireland. It’s narrated by a bedridden Ruth Swain (as of page 152, we still don’t know why) who is mourning her twin brother Aeney (we don’t know what happened to him, but Williams has given his reader a sense of the circumstances). 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 room. She references them a lot in her direct narration to the reader. (Someone needs to start a book club of all 3,958 of these books.)

Doesn’t sound like much, right? I know. But the writing in this one is fantastic. And the character of Ruthie! My heart’s breaking for her. This is what The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (which I did not like) could have been.

Anyway. 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.)

Poetry June 2014Finally, despite an especially busy workweek, I was able to get outside for lunch several times this week and read for a bit. For whatever reason, poetry has been somewhat of a stress-reliever lately while still continuing to elude me most of the time. (Go figure.) Perhaps I just like a literary challenge – or, perhaps, not too much of one that I can’t move along quickly to the next piece.

I’m really liking the various literary journals that the Library subscribes to, and they’ve been my lunchtime reading. This week I read the June 2014 issue of Poetry Magazine, published by the Poetry Foundation. I was most struck by Anne Frank’s High Heels” by Phillis Levin. Right from the title, we know Anne Frank didn’t wear high heels – she didn’t get a chance to. What those high heels represent – the possibilities, the future, the journeys yet to be taken, the roads to be discovered – give Phillis Levin’s poem even more of a sense of loss, making it even more powerful.

(Go ahead and click on the link to read it – and take special note of the date mentioned in the poem.)


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READIN’AT: The Girl Factory: A Memoir, by Karen Dietrich

One of the things I love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town. As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” a column focused on Pittsburgh-based novels and stories, authors, and literary events around town (or …tahn).

With today’s post, I’m proud to announce that READIN’AT is now a weekly feature here on the blog, rather than just a whenever-the-hell-I-feel-like-it kind of thing. Look for it every Thursday! 

The Girl Factory

The Girl Factory: A Memoir
by Karen Dietrich
skirt! an imprint of Globe Pequot Press
255 pages
Audio narrated by Cassandra Campbell

As a child of the ’70s and ’80s growing up in Connellsville, PA, a working-class town located 57 miles south of Pittsburgh, Karen’s life is fairly predictable. Both of her parents work different shifts at Anchor Glass, a local bottle factory in town. They’re the proverbial ships passing in the night; their daughters Karen and Linda are latchkey children during an era when such  arrangements were not only acceptable but very much the norm.

In March 1985, the Anchor Glass plant was the scene of a mass shooting by a disgruntled former employee who killed several colleagues of Karen’s parents.  The incident devastated and shook the town, and although Ms. Dietrich’s parents were not at the plant at the time of the murders, it was certainly a traumatic incident.

A sidenote: the book jacket and promotional copy give the impression that the killings and the aftermath are the focus of this memoir. It is not. In fact, it’s almost downplayed. I’m somewhat perplexed by that, actually; I didn’t live in the Pittsburgh area during that timeframe and I don’t remember any news coverage of this incident – probably because March 1985 was pretty damn traumatic in my own life.

So let’s just leave it at this: I sincerely hope that the murder of four people wasn’t used as a marketing ploy to sell some books.

Because the reality is that The Girl Factory works perfectly fine – and then some – on its own as a coming-of-age memoir about Karen’s relationship with her emotionally cold and ultra-superstitious mother, the changing dynamics of families over time and generations, and the power of unspoken truths on our lives.

“Some stories belong to my mother, if it’s possible to own a story, to carry it inside a small case you wear, perhaps one that fits inside your shoe, invisible to most people. She only takes the stories out of the case for me, not Linda, not my father, not the women she talks to on the phone. Just me. Sometimes, I feel like the stories were written just for me, so that maybe I can carry a small case of my own stories some day, so I will remember the shape of suffering.” (pg. 12)

If Karen needs a reminder of the shape of suffering, all she needs to do is pick up her book.  That’s not meant as an insult. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s incredibly well-written (Ms. Dietrich nails the ’80s references, even some that I had forgotten) but the sadness that comes through every page can seem overwhelming. There’s so much lost here, so very, very much.

But so much to gain, on the reader’s part.

I listened to this on audio, which was an excellent choice. Cassandra Campbell is one of the best audiobook narrators (and one of my favorites) and she doesn’t disappoint with The Girl Factory. 

4 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: Next to Love, by Ellen Feldman

Next to LoveNext to Love, by Ellen Feldman
Spiegel and Grau
304 pages 
Read by Abby Craden
11 hours, 23 minutes

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman is a historical fiction novel set during World War II and the decades afterwards. It follows the lives of Babe and Claude, Millie and Pete, and Grace and Charlie – all close friends living in Massachusetts. When the men are sent overseas, leaving the wives behind, all of their lives are changed.

At first the plot sounds like any other wartime novel, but after a slightly slow beginning, this picks up steam. What I liked about this was Ms. Feldman’s focus on the women. Certainly, the men and their sacrifices as soldiers and veterans are an absolutely essential part of the novel, but it gives equal time to the women and their struggles.

(It made me think of my grandparents’ own missing years (see this post), and of my grandmother writing to my grandfather about going into town with her sisters, and with news about who was coming home from the war.)

Next to Love gives the reader a glimpse into an era that is quickly being forgotten, with approximately 550 World War II veterans dying each day. At times, it almost seems as if Ms. Feldman is packing too much cultural and societal change into this – but it was truly a time when so much was changing.  A lot of issues are explored here, many of which (post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, racial relations, early widowhood, rape – just to name a few) still carry stigmas today.

In interviews, author Ellen Feldman mentions the influence of the Bedford Boys in this novel. From

Q: In your acknowledgments you give partial credit for your inspiration to the Bedford Boys of Virginia. Who are the Bedford Boys?

A: The Bedford Boys were a group of young men from the town of Bedford, Virginia (population 3200), who joined the National Guard before World War II. They went through training together, shipped out to England together in September 1942, and were among the first American G.I.’s who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Nineteen of them died in the first minutes of the landing, twenty-two in the invasion. Six weeks later, on July 16, the Western Union teletype machine at Green’s Drug Store in Bedford began rattling out the messages from the War Department. It was said that no other community in America lost more of its young men in a single day. Revisionist history now suggests that the casualties came not from the town, but from the county of Bedford. Geography is beside the point. Whether to town or county, the loss was staggering, the ripples from it heartbreaking and enduring.

Though the Bedford Boys were part of the inspiration for Next to Love, I was careful not to research the lives of the actual young men from Bedford who served in World War II. I wanted to write a novel about love and loss, and the scars they leave rather than an account of those particular men and the loved ones they left behind.

Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, is an excellent historical fiction author who is becoming one of my favorites. (On my Kindle – thanks to NetGalley – is her new novel, The Unwitting, which was published earlier this month.) Several years ago my aunt lent me Lucy, Ellen Feldman’s historical fiction novel about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer, and I loved it (and now my aunt knows where the book is, because I never returned it to her). I requested Next to Love from NetGalley and wound up listening to it on audio, which I enjoyed. The production and Abby Craden’s narration are both excellent. 

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The Sunday Salon: A Week of Author Meetings

The Sunday Salon


Dork DiariesI’m taking my daughter and one of her BFFs to meet Dork Diaries author Rachel Renee Russell this afternoon, and their enthusiasm is absolutely palpable. They’ve been talking about this for weeks, ever since I mentioned it to my girl, who then told her entire lunch table, and her friend reportedly started “almost crying and jumping up and down.”

So, yeah, they’re a little excited.

I get it. Oh, you know I absolutely get it.

Today’s event follows on the heels of the lecture I attended Monday evening with Colum McCann, which was everything I thought it would be and then some. And then some more. I was – and still am – in complete awe. He’s just as amazing a speaker as he is a writer – and so genuine, personable, and funny as hell. I haven’t had a chance to recap the event here, but I wrote a post here that I’m rather proud of and that I think captures the event.  (“One Book One Community: Colum McCann’s Gift to Pittsburgh and the World.“)

(Oh, OK. Because I can’t resist.)

Melissa and Colum McCann

Me and Colum McCann!

(You have no idea how many times I’ve looked at this photo to make myself believe that I really did meet and talk with Colum McCann.) 

In the Body of the World

It was a good week book-wise, too. I listened to Eve Ensler’s memoir In the Body of the World on CD and … my God. First of all, it’s a miracle that Eve is alive at all to tell this story – her experience with cancer and the god-awful aftermath. Eve Ensler does not sugar-coat her cancer story in the least, and if you’re familiar with her work, nor would you expect her to. Still, this memoir is raw, searing, gritty, honest, and downright real. It can be difficult to read or listen to in parts, but at the same time, it is absolutely riveting to hear her talk about how her cancer is part of her work with the women in the Congo and her past history of abuse.

Time is short. Must run to the next author event. Such a fun week this has been.

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