Category Archives: Book Reviews

wednesday musings

image of a late winter sky with heavy and light cloud streaks over pittsburgh, february 2017

Still with me? I know, I know … it has been a few weeks since I wrote an actual blog post here–besides posting links to several published book reviews, that is. Actually, those are a big part of the reason for my absenteeism in this space. Most of you know I do some freelance workwriting, editing and the like. This in addition to my full-time, pays-most-of-the-bills-and-provides-health-insurance (for now) job, which also involves quite a bit of wordsmithing.

Anyway, to my delight, the freelancing assignments have picked up speed in recent weeks. Definitely a nice problem to have. One consequence (if you can call it that) is I’ve needed to spend more time reading–and since most of those books are for reviews post-publication, I feel I can’t say much about them beforehand.

Which, you know, doesn’t lend itself to having much material for one’s book blog.

Good thing there’s nothing else going on in the world to discuss.

(We won’t talk politics tonight because the whole state of the world has me feeling overwhelmed, angry, sad, hopeless and downright frightened. Often all at the same time.)

Tonight offers a slight reprieve from reading and writing (plus The Girl, who has been using my laptop for homework is finished early) so I thought I’d give you a few updates.


Two weeks ago I made an impromptu, whirlwind trip back to my hometown of Northeast Philadelphia for what was a sad visit. My best friend’s mother died and as I said in my eulogy at the funeral, she was like a second mom to me. I expected it to be an emotional trip–and it was. I’m working on a post or an essay about this because it was a jarring experience to return to my hometown after many years away. I’m really, really glad I went even if it took me a good week to feel back to what passes for my regular self.


On my trip, I listened to the audio of Wishful Drinking by the late Carrie Fisher. Albeit bittersweet, it was the perfect choice for what is a boring five hour plus drive across the red state of T**mpsylvania. (The audiobook is shorter than the drive.) It’s incredibly conversational, as if Carrie herself was riding in the passenger seat. An excellent audiobook. I loved it.


Mrs. Douglas, our cat, had a bout of pancreatitis last week. She’s on the mend now, thank God.


Kids are fine. I’m in summer activity mode. I think The Girl is going to be doing some volunteer work along with at least one or two week-long camps (writing and music).  The Boy is going to camp for four weeks. Thanks to the freelancing, there will likely be a family vacation after not being able to take one last year.


Speaking of The Girl, she has been working really hard to improve in math. At Christmastime, she mentioned she really wanted to see Bon Jovi in concert when they came to Pittsburgh so we struck a deal: if her math grades improved and she sought extra help after school through the tutoring service if necessary (something she has vehemently resisted), I would think about getting tickets. She hasn’t stopped talking about this. She’s been consistently hovering above or close to a B for a few months now so we’ll be seeing Jon in a few weeks.


Can I say how much I love that my girl is a huge fan of Bon Jovi and how grateful I am that she inherited my taste in music? (Because, yeah, twist my arm to take her to see Bon Jovi and pretend I’m back in 1986.)


I haven’t been running. Like, at all. Even though this has been a mild winter by Pittsburgh standards, I’m not a cold weather girl.  I haven’t managed to get myself to a yoga class or anything else I’d intended on doing. Hell, I’ve stopped taking the stairs at work. When the weather gets warmer–maybe as soon as this weekend!–I’m going to start over with Couch to 5K. That means I won’t be ready to do the Pittsburgh Marathon 5K this year, but maybe I’ll aim for the Great Race this fall instead or another 5K.


If you need a good book to read, here are two of my recent Shelf Awareness reviews.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff  (she’s a Philly writer, whooo!)

The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

 

Book Review: The Dark and Other Stories, by Deborah Willis

You know how much I love me a good short story collection, and this one — The Dark and Other Love Stories, a collection of 13 short stories by Deborah Willis — is absolutely engrossing and irresistible.

I was fortunate to review this one for Shelf Awareness. You can read more of my thoughts here.

 

Book Review: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

If the reviews on Goodreads and such are any indication, my dislike of this novel puts me solidly in the minority of Lucky Boy readers. It has a good premise, one that is timely and in sync with current events surrounding immigration issues, but I had more than a few issues with … well, a lot of things.

You can read more of my criticisms in my review published today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Always grateful for the opportunity to talk books within its pages.

Review: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic (Encore Post)

In honor of the groundbreaking work of Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at age 80, here’s my book review of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Originally written and posted on 3/4/2014.  

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

There’s a good reason for that.  When this groundbreaking sitcom premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. But I was a stubborn enough toddler (or so I’ve heard) that, had I understood what “MTM” was all about, I bet I could have made a pretty convincing case to my parents to let me watch it.

Instead, I saw it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I – as someone with my first job out of college – could appreciate it much better. (Never mind that I usually watched Mary and Rhoda while my fiance watched sports with his best friend in the other room, but that’s besides the point. I was happy, he was happy, and we’ve been married ever since. We must be doing something right.)

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why having a team of female comedy writers was so groundbreaking in 1970.

In today’s anything-goes television environment, it’s almost quaint to remember just how revolutionary “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was. The idea of Mary being divorced and having a career was – to put it mildly – a hard sell to network executives. The CBS execs replied with, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.

Yeah. Those were the good old days, right?

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted explains how the writers and producers got around that (some reviews suggest that the book should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan,” for the writing and producing team that made the show happen). It also explains how having a female writing team significantly shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as the edgy ones on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises.

Ironically, my childhood dream was to grow up and be a screenwriter for “St. Elsewhere” – the critically-acclaimed medical drama that, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also saw its share of firsts and also was produced by Grant Tinker’s company MTM Enterprises, named for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore.

(In high school, I entertained the crazy idea of sending Mr. Tinker an unsolicited script. I talked about this a lot. Now, after reading the story about how superfan Joe Rainone would write detailed, weekly letters to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast analyzing each week’s show and how Marilyn Miller from Monroeville, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh) wrote a spec script for MTM and became a writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kind of want to kick my own ass.)

Regardless of my lost dreams, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted was entertaining – and the audiobook proved to be a good choice as I lived vicariously through the characters on my way to and from my real life, slightly-less-exciting-than-a-scriptwriter-but-hey!-still-a-writer! job as I listened to this on my commute to work.  I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers. I was glad that they included what they – the writers and the actors – have done since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air.

It was also so goddamn nostalgic, almost sad to a point. So many magnificent shows of television’s Golden Age of Comedy are referenced in this book as well as how the show that almost wasn’t going to be on the air wound up inspiring so many others.  The end of the book gives a nod to Mary Richards’ “cultural daughters” like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” and “power ensembles” as found in “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” Truly, Mary Richards’ influence and that of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is more far-reaching than anyone probably ever imagined.

Still, although we have indeed come a long way (baby) from the days when a writer couldn’t pen an episode about a New Yorker who was divorcing someone who was Jewish with a mustache, it makes one wonder if all the hard fought gains are truly appreciated by the talent we have today. Probably by some, yes. But I think the further we get away from television’s Golden Age, and the less communal our viewing experience becomes, the fuzzier those golden days will seem.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong 
Simon and Schuster
2013 
298 pages
Narrated by Amy Landon 
11 hours, 22 minutes 

Two New Reviews: House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel and Nowhere Else I Want to Be, by Carol D. Marsh

Two new books to share with you, via my reviews in the 1/13/2017 issue of Shelf Awareness.

House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is “an engaging, fast-paced blend of historical fiction and suspense.” Before reading this, I didn’t know much about Mary Todd Lincoln’s stay at Bellevue Place, a sanitarium where her son Robert had her committed 10 years after President Lincoln’s assassination. This novel weaves Mary Todd Lincoln’s story with the fictional Isabelle Larkin, a socialite whose fiancé Gregory is a political hopeful and one of Chicago’s most eligible and attractive bachelors. When Isabelle catches Gregory committing a crime, she’s trapped … until being sent to Bellevue where she befriends — you guessed it, Mary Todd Lincoln. You can read more under the Fiction section in the Shelf Awareness issue.

Nowhere Else I Want to Be is Carol D. Marsh’s memoir of her 14 years as executive director of Miriam’s House, a community of women who are addicted to drugs and dying of AIDS. She lived on the premises with her husband Tim and together with their staff, provided the women with a home and cared for those forgotten by their families and society.  Along with the many heartbreaking stories of the women she came to know at Miriam’s House, Marsh shares her own story of growth in this role as she learned to confront her naiveté and false assumptions.

Although I didn’t work in a direct service capacity, a lot of this reminded me of my time working at a domestic violence shelter. More of my review in the Shelf Awareness issue, under the Social Science heading, as well as a review with Carol Marsh by my writing colleague Katie Noah Gibson, who blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

 

 

Reflections on the New Year and My Best Books of 2016 (part 1)

Books Transform in Hourglass

Happy New Year, friends. The beginning of another journey around the sun, a time for reflecting on what has gone before and what the future holds. Given the state of the world, this particular year brings a heightened level of uncertainty. It probably goes without saying that I’m right there with you if you’re feeling a bit (or a lot) apprehensive and anxious about the days ahead and not wanting to embrace the usual spirit of hope and new beginnings that typically marks this day. 

I get that. I don’t tend to make resolutions anymore, preferring to embrace the practice of choosing one word (or three) as a touchstone for the year. (I’m currently vacillating between two words.) I also like the idea of using this time to release those regrets, disappointments, mistakes — and yes, unrealistic resolutions or goals — that we may have carried with us into the new year. Sunday’s service at our UU congregation was “Letting Go” where we did just that with a Burning Bowl ceremony, also known as Fire Communion. In this ritual, you write down on a piece of paper a word or a phrase that represents something you want to release and let go of for the new year. It was all very meaningful and cathartic, especially on New Year’s Day itself. I loved it.

I had much weightier concerns to let go of, but as far as book blogging goes I’m going to try and forego setting a goal for the number of books to read this year. I don’t even think I’m going to join the Goodreads reading challenge. I mean, I read 43 books in 2016 and somehow I feel like that was a lousy reading year because I didn’t meet my self-imposed, twice-revised goal. That’s not a healthy mindset when you consider that the typical American only reads four books a year. Given that, 43 books is an exceptional year and that’s how I choose to look at it. Maybe I’ll change my mind — who knows?

What I do know is that among those 43 were some excellent fiction and nonfiction. In this post, I share my picks for the Best Fiction of 2016, alphabetical by author’s last name. (I’ll do my selections for Best Nonfiction in a separate post, hopefully later this week.) I don’t limit my selections to works published in 2016, however in the case of my fiction selections all but one was released this past year.  I also don’t limit my annual list to a specified number of books (i.e., my top ten). If I loved all 43 books, I would be highlighting every one.

So, without further ado,  I recommend for your reading pleasure the five works of fiction (among them two novellas) that I consider to be the best that I read in 2016. Links take you to my full review, if I wrote one.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In this novella, the dysfunctional Riley family is en route to Washington D.C. where their teenage son Otis, a violinist, will be performing at the legendary Ford’s Theatre. The road trip is symbolic of each family member’s individual journey. The characters — especially Alex, a transgender teen — are brilliantly rendered and with its suspenseful plot, Jennifer Finney Boylan creates a dark-humored gothic mood reminiscent of the best of Flannery O’Connor. (SheBooks, 2014, 81 pages)

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Flash fiction tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity can be deceptively hard. In this collection of “short (short) stories”, Pittsburgh author Sherrie Flick gives her reader enough details in a sentence — or a phrase — to make a story feel complete while still eliciting curiosity about what happens next or the backstory that led up to the situation. With succinct, tight sentences, Flick tells all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy. My full review, here.  (Queens Ferry Press, 2016, 224 pages)

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart
Water defines life in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast. The residents, among them teenage Mira Birul, her mother, and brother, live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared — until the day they’re not. During a hurricane, everything that Mira knows is questioned as circumstances are altered. Mira must figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality. This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources. More of my review here. (Chronicle Books, 2016, 264 pages)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Set in England, this decadent novella takes place in 1924 and centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid to the wealthy Niven family. They are friends with the Sheringhams, whose son Paul is engaged to marry Emma Hobday.  That small detail doesn’t stop Paul or Jane from having an affair. The entire story unfolds over a few hours, making this the perfect book to read over the same amount of time. In fact, I’d say that this should be required to be read in one sitting, as I did. It’s resplendent and luxurious, sexy and suspenseful, with hints of Virginia Woolf and reminders of Mrs. Dalloway.  I loved every word and every minute I spent immersed in this one. It’s also a tribute to the power of book bloggers because I would have never have known of this one if it wasn’t for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing’s enthusiastic review. (Knopf, 2016, 192 pages)

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer
At 13, Madelyn Branch arrives in Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister. Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame. Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot. Set in 1874, this historical fiction novel covers a lot of ground — women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, love and betrayal — all within the context of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. It’s a solid read that echoes the themes of a changing time. Read my full review here.  (Soho Press, 2016, 354 pages)

 

In an upcoming post, I’ll share my favorite nonfiction books of the year.

 

 

 

Book Review: Tomboy Survival Guide, by Ivan Coyote

tomboy-survival-guide

For several weeks, I’ve been hinting about a new freelance book review gig. I’m thrilled to announce that I am a new contributor to the popular book site Shelf Awareness.  My first review for Shelf Awareness was Ivan Coyote‘s memoir Tomboy Survival Guide about growing up transgender in the Yukon during the 1980s and their process of discovering and accepting their gender identity.

As coincidence would have it, this review was published last week — on Election Day, no less — and I share it with you now, during Transgender Awareness Week. In these uncertain and frightening times, Ivan’s voice becomes even more important.

Read more about Ivan’s story and my full review of Tomboy Survival Guide in the Biography and Memoir section of Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, November 8, 2016.