Category Archives: Book Reviews

In Memoriam: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Sad news today in the Philadelphia poetry world. Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, author of the poetry collection Slamming Open the Door and founder of Musehouse, A Center for the Literary Arts in Chestnut Hill, has died at age 61.

I didn’t know Kathleen personally but her poems chronicling her profound grief in the aftermath of her 21-year-old daughter Leidy’s death from domestic violence in 2003 resonated with me seven years ago. Below is a slightly-edited version of my review of Slamming Open the Door from April 2010.

My deepest condolences to Kathleen’s friends and family.

Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

I never should have read this book.

I never should have read this book because it should never have been written … because the subject of these incredibly heartbreaking poems, Leidy Bonanno, should still be alive.

Leidy should be alive today, not memorialized so lovingly on the pages of Slamming Open the Door, a collection of poems written by her mother Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno.
Her name is pronounced “lady” and her nickname was Ladybug – hence, the ladybug on the cover and the images of them throughout the book in illustrations and in several poems. We meet Leidy as a child (“Meeting You, Age Four”), as a nursing school graduate (“Nursing School Graduation Party, Six Weeks Before”), as a 21-year old victim of domestic violence (“Hearsay”). Her beautiful face greets the reader, and you smile wistfully back, only to be immediately choked by the first poem, “Death Barged In.”

Death Barged In

In his Russian greatcoat
slamming open the door
with an unpardonable bang,
and he has been here ever since.
He changes everything,
rearranges the furniture,
his hand hovers
by the phone;
he will answer now, he says;
he will be the answer.
Tonight he sits down to dinner
at the head of the table
as we eat, mute;
later, he climbs into bed
between us.
Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
clamping two
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
From now on,
you write about me.

As painful as it must have been to do, I’m grateful to Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno for sharing Leidy and her story with us. In each poem, in each line, she gives us every emotion that accompanies Leidy’s death. We are there with Kathleen and her husband as they call Leidy’s cell phone, as they drive to her apartment, as the police officer gives them the news. We’re there in the flashbacks at Leidy’s graduation party from nursing school, and we know exactly who Kathleen is talking about when she writes:

When Dave clears his throat,
and raises his glass to toast her,
we raise our glasses too –
and Johnny Early, a nice young man
from Reading Hospital,
smiles and raises his glass.

In Slamming Open the Door, we see the full spectrum of grief, from the anger to the absurd.

Sticks and Stones

To you, who killed my daughter—
Run. Run. Hide.
Tell your mother
to thread the needle
made of bone.
It is her time now
to sew the shroud.
The men are coming
with sticks and stones
and whetted spears
to do what needs doing.

What Not to Say

Don’t say that you choked
on a chicken bone once,
and then make the sound,
kuh, kuh  and say
you bet that’s how she felt.
Don’t ask in horror
why we cremated her.
And when I stand
in the receiving line
like Jackie Kennedy
without the pillbox hat,
if Jackie were fat
and had taken
enough Klonopin
to still an ox,
and you whisper,
I think of you
every day,
don’t finish with
because I’ve been going
to Weight Watchers
on Tuesdays and wonder
if you want to go too.

I saw this at the library and started reading it while my own daughter was selecting her books (the irony not being lost on me), and couldn’t put it down. Leidy’s story – that domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, regardless of one’s background or education or anything – is one that needs to be told to as many people as possible. It’s a story that needs to be told, too, because it shows us that we’re not alone in our grief – that although the specific circumstances and details might differ, we have all experienced similar emotions.

Although, understandably, the majority of the poems focus on Leidy’s death and the aftermath, Slamming Open the Door is also a tribute to her all-too-brief life.  She lives in the hearts of those who loved her, and for those of us who didn’t know her, we get to do so in these 41 emotional and contemporary poems.

Slamming Open the Door is the recipient of the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award.

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The No Meat Athlete Cookbook (spoiler alert: you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy this one)

I’ve become somewhat of a slacker with running. There are enough reasons for that to warrant a separate post, I think, and I do want to get back to more of a fitness routine. I’m starting with walking; The Girl and I did two 2-mile walks on the beach last week and that felt good, so that’s something.

When I started running last fall, I went back to eating chicken. I thought I needed the additional protein for my increased workouts. That experiment lasted only a month or two because a) I didn’t really notice a difference (it’s not like I suddenly became a triathlete) and b) after 20 years of not eating meat* the stomach woes were too much. Within a month or two, I was happily back to being a gluten-free pescetarian.

Around this time I discovered the No Meat Athlete  site and podcast, which reinforced that it was definitely possible to eat a plant-based diet while partaking in high-intensity fitness activities like marathons. Even though I’m nowhere near that point — and may never be — NMA offers a lot of great information, strategies and recipes for athletes of all abilities.

I was thrilled to review The No Meat Athlete Cookbook by Matt Frazier and Stepfanie Romine  in Tuesday’s issue of Shelf Awareness. They offer athletes at every level 125 plant-based recipes providing a powerhouse of essential nutrients for strength and endurance.

“It’s everything in the food–and the remarkably complex interactions of countless nutrients–that our bodies thrive on, not a single constituent,” the authors state. Because the body also requires less time to process whole foods, more energy is available for workouts and a full recovery afterward.

While athletes are this cookbook’s focus, there’s plenty here for people who are simply interested in eating a plant-based diet.

Thanks to Shelf Awareness for the opportunity to review The No Meat Athlete Cookbook. Read my full review here.

* There was a brief period in 2011-2012 when I ate chicken. The kids and I were still living in Delaware while The Husband commuted back and forth from Pittsburgh, and it was just easier for the three of us to eat the same thing. And then I got a job where I was on the road extensively, often in rural parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. After that ended, so did my meat consumption.

 

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Book Review: Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan had me with that cover.

Actually, that’s not true.

Well, partially. But that cover is pretty kick-ass, isn’t it? I feel like making it my Facebook profile picture.

I was sold on this book simply because it’s written by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile now — loved her novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (one of my Best Books of 2016) and her memoir I’m Looking Through You: A Memoir of Growing Up Haunted (one of my Best Books of 2013) — and I admire her advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community. (She’s the outgoing co-chair of GLAAD.)

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s from Philly. Like me.

The dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s famed and creepy as hell Eastern State Penitentiary is  the setting for Long Black Veil. Darkly suspenseful, fast-paced, and character driven, this is told through alternating narratives that segue smoothly between 1980 and 2015. It accurately captures Philadelphia’s gritty essence from a bygone time. It’s about secrets, friendship, identity and authenticity.

You can read more of my review in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness.

(And yes, this one will be on my Best Books list for 2017.)

 

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Book Review: The Wide Circumference of Love, by Marita Golden

Alzheimer’s and other dementias affect millions of people and their families. In the United States, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s dementia. While the majority (5.3 million) are age 65 and older, approximately 200,000 individuals are under age 65 and have younger-onset Alzheimer’s. (source: http://www.alz.org/facts/)

In The Wide Circumference of Love, Marita Golden takes a frank and authentic approach to dementia’s relentless and all-encompassing nature–losing one’s dignity, forgetting loved ones’ names, bewildering personality changes, disappearing friends–while also calling attention to the increased prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the African American community, something I was not aware of before reading this novel.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to review The Wide Circumference of Love for Shelf Awareness. You can read more of my thoughts in my review published here.

The Wide Circumference of Love, by Marita Golden
Arcade Publishing
300 pages
2017

 

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

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