Tag Archives: Armchair BEA

Armchair BEA 2015: On Visual Expression and Thoughts from Yoko Ono

ArmchairBEA 2014

Armchair BEA is the experience for book bloggers to participate in Book Expo America (BEA) from the comfort of their homes. This experience is created lovingly by book bloggers specifically for our peers who for whatever reason are not able to participate in the main conference in New York each year. We bring publishers, authors, and bloggers together in celebrating our love for all things literary by hosting celebrations such as sneak peeks, daily discussion topics, and sponsored giveaways.

As one of my favorite book blogging events, I look forward to Armchair BEA every year; however, for various reasons, neither this event nor BEA itself  have been much on my radar lately.  We’ve been sick with a cluster of illnesses (pneumonia, bronchitis, the end-of-school-year inertia rendering both kids grumpy and miserable) making life a bit of a challenge during the last month – and especially this past week. I’m actually grateful I wasn’t planning on going to BEA (I’ve been to the Book Blogger Convention that was held as part of it in 2010 and again in 2011.)

Anyway, crazy times like these on the home front are when I crave short books, ones that I can read quickly and feel some sense of control and accomplishment. Today’s Armchair BEA topic, Visual Expression, fits with that.

There are so many ways to tell stories. Whether it’s comic books, graphic novels, visual novels, webcomics, etc, there are quite a lot of other mediums to tell a story. On this day, we will be talking about those books and formats that move beyond just words and use other ways to experience a story.

Now, comics and graphic novels are not my thing. Granted, I haven’t read many of them, but for whatever reason – probably the same ones that made me dislike cartoons when I was a kid – they just don’t hold that much appeal for me.

So, because I was focused on the comics bit, it was a bit of a struggle to think what I’ve recently read, am interested in reading, or what I could recommend that fits this category of visual expression. And then I remembered a little book I recently read:  Acorn, by Yoko Ono.

(Yes, that Yoko Ono.)


The best way I can describe this is as a collection of illustrated meditations and inspirational phrases. As Yoko writes in the introduction, her book of “conceptual instructions,” Grapefruit, was published 50 years ago.

“Some years ago, I picked up from where I left off, and wrote Acorn for a website event. Now it’s being published in book form. I’m riding a time machine that’s going back to the old ways. Great! I added my dot drawings to give you further brainwork. i’m just planting the seeds. Have fun.” 

And you know, regardless of what you think of Yoko Ono, this is a fun little book. What I refer to as meditations, or contemplations, are each presented as linked “pieces” about various topics, each with a little Seurat-type of drawing accompanying it.  The artwork alongside each quote or linked group of phrases is almost as compelling as the words. At times she seems to be channeling her late husband John Lennon with several pieces encouraging the reader to imagine a planet or a landscape or all the people. At other times, she can be pretty damn funny. (“Take your pants off before you fight.”  – Dance Piece III)

“Imagine two billion universes.
Visualize yourself on a planet in each universe. 
Imagine what all of you are doing and thinking 
at this moment in time on the different planets. 
Think if the activities are correlated amongst all of you
Think how those activities are affecting the balance
of the infinite space.” 
– Earth Piece VIII

With this one, I can think of a few people who could benefit from this sort of phone:

“Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. 
Call every day and complain and moan 
about your life and people around you.”
– Room Piece V


Tape the sound of your baby son crying. 
Let him listen to the tape when he is 
going through pain as a young man.” 
-Sound Piece VI

I kind of love those.

Then there is this one, which struck me as a bit of an odd sentiment coming from Yoko Ono.

“Your brother is the man you killed in the past world.  He was born in your family because he wanted to be near you.” – Questionnaire I

Um. Well. If you follow that logic, she’s basically saying that John Lennon and Mark David Chapman will be brothers in another life, right?  That’s a bit too woo-woo even for my sensibilities, which can tolerate more than a considerable amount of woo-woo-iness.

I know Yoko is a bit of a controversial figure and that she’s easily dismissed by many, but I happen to really like and respect the hell out of her. Same is true, perhaps, of Acorn. Some may disregard it or not take it seriously (mine has a copyright date of 2013 and I’d never heard of it) but the goal is to take what works for you.

Read more Armchair BEA post from today by clicking here.

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The Sunday Salon: …And That’s a Wrap (of Armchair BEA and May Reading)

The Sunday Salon

ArmchairBEA 2014

Another fantastic Armchair BEA is in the books! Kudos to all the organizers for a wonderful job in putting this event together. It looks effortless, but it is quite an undertaking along with other responsibilities with work and families, too. So, thank you to all who had a part in this year’s event for a great week!

Although I only participated on a part-time basis, I had a fabulous time with Armchair BEA 2014. I thought it was the best year yet.  The discussion topics were terrific – and I really liked the option of having two to choose from. I’m still reading my way through many of the posts, and loving the fact that I’m discovering so many new-to-me book bloggers. I also had fun being part of the Twitter parties on Monday and Saturday night.

If you missed my Armchair BEA posts, the links are below:

Monday: Introductions and Some Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Literature Today. Or Something. 
Tuesday: Some People Buy Shoes, I Buy Lecture Tickets (some of the authors I’ve been lucky to meet)
Friday: Playing Catch Up (Or, Wait, What Happened to Wednesday?) 

You get a little jaded after nearly six years of this blogging thing, you know? Sometimes it feels like you have nothing to say and other times it feels like you’ll never be able to write all the posts you want to write. You wonder, after you spend so much time writing a review (or any post, really) if anyone is paying attention, if you’re still relevant.

(Andi from Estella’s Revenge had a fantastic post (“Armchair BEA: Relevance in Blogging”) that touched on this on Friday. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already.)

Yet you still do this because … well, sometimes the reasons vary. But it always comes down to the connections with other readers and the community that exists in this space and sometimes we need a reminder that it really does matter, that we matter. Which is one of the reasons that Armchair BEA came at a good time for me.  For example, it was gratifying to be able to give an encouraging word to some new bloggers this week. Sometimes we forget what it was like to be new at this and how much we “old-timers” know and take for granted. This week reinforced to me that I really want to be able to be more supportive of new book bloggers whenever I can.

Like a lot of bloggers, one of my goals was to get re-energized and Armchair BEA definitely helped in several ways. My blogging feels like it has been slacking a bit lately and my reading definitely has been. (My Goodreads challenge button says I am 7 books behind my 2014 goal of 75 books. Good thing I have a vacation coming up.) In May, I only read these three books:

The Storied Life of A.J. FikryPerfectBlown Sideways Through Life

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
(which I really didn’t care for at all, unlike everyone else who has read this)

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce
(loved this … probably going to be one of my favorites of 2014)

Blown Sideways by Life, by Claudia Shear
(which was all right)

Part of this is because I’ve gotten myself on a magazine and literary journal kick.  I read an issue of The New Yorker (4/14/2014) and I’m reading the back issues of Creative Nonfiction. This month I read CNF’s Spring 2013 issue, “Lust, Lies, and Bad Behavior,” which deserves its own review. Likewise, the latest issue of One Story featuring Katie Coyle’s “Fear Itself,” will also be getting a separate review.

(I loved both of them, by the way.)

So, OK, maybe May wasn’t such a slacker of a month. My June is looking promising. How about yours?


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Armchair BEA 2014: Playing Catch Up (Or, Wait, What Happened to Wednesday?)

ArmchairBEA 2014

If there’s one thing I hate about Armchair BEA, it’s this:

This week goes by too damn fast.

I mean, I’m still thinking about what I was going to write for Wednesday’s post and then I got caught up in my regularly scheduled life. That’s entirely my fault, I know. I could have done a better job of planning ahead and all that stuff, but my kids wound up needing my laptop for homework Wednesday and Thursday nights.

(I know! During Armchair BEA! This week of ALL WEEKS! It’s the last goddamn week of school … aren’t we done with that crap yet?  I know I certainly am.)

Anyway. So that brings us to Friday, a talk-about-whatever-you-want-to-talk-about topic day. Since I missed Wednesday and was looking forward to talking about short stories, I’ll talk about that today.

I love short stories. LOVE. THEM. I know there’s a love-’em-or-hate-’em mentality about short stories in the blogosphere, and it seems (at least to me) that those of us who are passionate about the short story are in the minority.

I always mention Flannery O’Connor, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, and Lorrie Moore when I talk about masters of the short story form, and indeed, they are often mentioned by bibliophiles like me.  There are several others who deserve a nod, including:

Lauren Groff (Delicate Edible Birds)
Tracy Winn (Mrs. Somebody Somebody)
Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge)
Lydia Peele (Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing)
Natalie Serber (Shout Her Lovely Name)

… and probably dozens more who I am forgetting.



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Armchair BEA 2014: Some People Buy Shoes, I Buy Lecture Tickets.

ArmchairBEA 2014

 “Some people buy shoes, I buy lecture tickets.” ~ my Facebook status before a Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures event

We’re lucky here in Pittsburgh.  We’re an incredibly literary town, moreso than the average person might imagine. Among the literary offerings is a very popular lecture series called Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures that brings world-famous authors to town at a price that is affordable for all. This has quickly become one of my favorite ways to spend an evening.

When I heard that Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures would be hosting Colum McCann, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers, I bought my ticket A YEAR IN ADVANCE. Yes. An entire year. And then I upgraded my seat at the last minute, paying extra to sit in the second row (which was so worth it). And then I met him.

And then I died and went to heaven.

Melissa and Colum McCann

That was almost three months ago and I still haven’t written a coherent post about it because I am still grinning about how wonderful Colum McCann’s talk was here in Pittsburgh.  Thank God I took good notes.

I’ve been fortunate to meet several writers but I have to say that having the chance to talk with Colum McCann (even briefly) was extraordinary. And his lecture! If you ever have the opportunity to hear him, go. You won’t regret it.

Ann Patchett was another author I met through Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures. So incredibly gracious and kind. Her lecture was lovely, and when I got my books signed by her, I mentioned that I was interested in reading The Magician’s Assistant because I’m writing a novel about the AIDS epidemic.

“Oh, you want to read Borrowed Time by Paul Monette,” Ann Patchett says to me, scribbling down the title on the Post-It note with my name that marked the place for her to sign my book. “You need to read this.”

Well, when Ann Patchett gives you a book recommendation, you listen. At least I do.  (Guess what book I’m currently reading?)

(Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures has an awesome lineup for next season. James McBride, Simon Winchester, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jesmyn Ward, and Jodi Picoult are just a few of the authors who will be appearing.)

Rachel Renee Russell and daughters

Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures has author events for kids, too. (As a child, I would have been over the moon. To be my daughter’s age – 12 – and meeting my favorite writers?! Are you kidding me??!!) I’ve taken my daughter to meet Rachel Renee Russell, author of the Dork Diaries series. Ms. Russell’s daughters help her co-write and illustrate her books and they were all absolutely lovely.  (This was a crazy book-signing … they each signed every kid’s book, and there were hundreds of kids! Some people were in line for nearly 4 hours.)

I would also be remiss without mentioning Rachel Simon (The Story of Beautiful Girl) and Beth Kephart. I consider each of them friends now, but I started out as a regular fan. (OK, maybe a little bit on the groupie side.) I met Rachel in 1990 when I attended a writing conference and she was the keynote speaker. She had just published a short story collection called Little Nightmares, Little Dreams and was regularly writing columns in The Philadelphia Inquirer. I admired her writing and soaked up any bit of advice and knowledge I could get from her – and when I had the chance to take a class with her, I was thrilled.

There are other authors I’m forgetting, but I’ll leave you with this photo of me and Beth Kephart from Book Expo America in 2010 (actually, it’s the Book Blogger Convention). I look like I am ready to collapse; that day, I left my house at 3:30 a.m. to catch a train to New York City (chances are, Beth did too) and I was fading fast when this photo was taken. Beth, on the other hand, looks vibrant and radiant in her fuschia, ready to take New York by storm, as she always does.

Book Blogger Convention (38)

Now it’s your turn: which authors have taken your life by storm?


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Armchair BEA 2014: Introductions and Some Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Literature Today. Or Something.


ArmchairBEA 2014

Design by Amber of Shelf Notes

Armchair BEA is one of my favorite book blogging events, and I’m thrilled to participate this year. For those not in the know, it’s the online version of the very-real life trade show Book Expo America (BEA), the #1 book and author event in the U.S. and happening in New York City this week. Several years ago, I was fortunate to attend part of this – the BEA Bloggers Conference (back in the inaugural days of that event when it was called the Book Bloggers Con). It was an extraordinary experience, one that I hope to repeat in the future. Until then, and for this year, there’s Armchair BEA.

So, what can you expect? For the next week, I’ll be talking books. A lot. (I know, you won’t know the difference.) The amazing organizers have given us some writing prompts, and if you want to join in, by all means, feel free!


I’ll try to keep this brief, because there’s a whole section on my website where you can read all about me, if you care to do so.

I’m Melissa, and I’ve been blogging since August 2008 (almost six years ago!)  In addition to book reviews, I also blog about our family’s journey with autism and cancer  (my son has Asperger’s Syndrome and my husband is a thyroid cancer survivor), offer up an occasional political opinion or a rant about some ridiculous celebrity, share a gluten-free recipe, talk about the writing process, or tell you something awesome about my newly adopted city of Pittsburgh. On the Twitter (@thefirmangroup), I do all the above when I’m not partaking in my guilty-pleasures, live-tweeting Shark Tank and Dancing With the Stars.

Originally, my blog was called The Betty and Boo Chronicles. (Betty and Boo were – and are – the blog nicknames for my kids.) I spent about a year, maybe more, considering a blog name change. I decided to use my own name because I wanted to be transparent and not hide behind an anonymous online identity. It was a way for me to begin what has become an ongoing process of marketing myself as a writer, editor, and to fully own my stories and work. Also, now that they are getting older, my kids’ stories are becoming more and more their own and not so much mine to tell.

READIN’AT is a fairly new, occasional feature on my blog where I celebrate all things literary as they relate to Pittsburgh and the region. There, I review books with a Pittsburgh connection, talk about literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases, and more.

I tend to read mostly literary fiction, memoirs, and short story collections, along with nonfiction. Favorite book read last year? The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. This year, so far? TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann, who is one of my favorite authors. Meeting him was one of the highlights of this year for me so far. (Oh, shit, that’s a spoiler for tomorrow’s post ….)

In addition to the blog, you can connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

What do you think of when you think of literature? Classics, contemporary, genre, or something else entirely? We are leaving this one up to you to come up with and share the literature that you want to chat about the most. Feel free to share a list of your favorites, break down your favorite genre, feature your favorite authors, and be creative about all things literature in general. 

For me, I think of literature as being not a genre, per se, but a type of writing. It’s a “know-it-when-I-see-it” thing. It’s a work that has gravitas. Staying power. Integrity. A soul. You can feel the words practically pulsating off the page. You want to consume them.

You know you are reading literature when the characters are timeless, when you can relate to them. It doesn’t matter what era the story is set in or when you are reading it; there is something about these people and their situations and the way their story is being told that is new and alive. Even though you may have heard some variation of this story before, somehow – even slightly – you are changed for knowing them and their story.

I don’t necessarily think literature needs to be relegated to a certain era or a specific class of authors. I think that’s intimidating, off-putting, and pretentious-sounding. I do wonder what current novels will be considered great literature in years to come. I think about this a lot, actually – probably more than most people, since I work for a very large library system with more than 5 million items in its collection. (And yes, believe me, I would love nothing more than to read every single one.)  It’s fascinating to me to ponder which authors and which books will stand the test of time.

When I think back to my various literature classes, usually the authors were already dead. I can only recall one class – a college course I loved called “Faulkner, O’Connor, and Morrison” – where we studied an actual living author, that being Toni Morrison.

So who are our current, modern-day authors who have written – and are still writing – work that is worthy of being called great literature?  * I’d like to give a nod to:

  • Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale)
  • Michael Cunningham (The Hours)
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin; TransAtlantic)
  • Toni Morrison
  • George Saunders (In Persuasion Nation)

* Note that there are many more worthy writers, but these are just the ones I’ve read.  There are others who I’d consider to be writing tomorrow’s classic literature today, but either I haven’t read enough of their work or perhaps I’m waiting for them to write some more.

What about you? Which authors would you consider to be writing great literature today? (Go ahead, add to my ever-growing Goodreads list!) And tell me, how do you define literature?   And definitely check out what other Armchair BEA participants had to say by visiting the Armchair BEA page! 


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The Sunday Salon: This Post is Brought To You By the Letter “B”

The Sunday Salon

OK, so this is kind of a cool thing.

As of yesterday afternoon, I had four books going at the same time and – this is from my Goodreads profile – they all begin with B.

Check this out:

(Yes, I hear you sounding the Literary Nerd Alert Alarm. And …y’know, I don’t really care.)

It’s simply coincidental that the bookish stars aligned this way. Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergerian is the audio book I turned to yesterday after a few DNFs that I couldn’t get into (Atonement by Ian McEwan; Tracks by Louise Erdrich, the latter of which I think is a matter of not being the right format – audio – for that novel). I have much respect and admiration for John Elder Robison, and this memoir is one of the best books about autism and Asperger’s that I’ve ever read. I’ll be recommending this to others, I’m sure.

Blown Sideways Through LifeBlown Sideways Through Life, Claudia Shear’s memoir-turned-one-woman-show about the 64 jobs she’s had (and, mostly, been fired from) was recommended to me by my friend Keith. I can understand why he thought I would like this one – which I did, somewhat, to a degree. I think there’s a timing issue with this book, though; while it’s easy to relate to someone who has worked menial jobs in his or her life, it’s more difficult in this economy to muster up sympathy for someone who casts any job aside, much less 64 of them. Now, mind you, this was written in 1995, which was a whole different world back then.

Best of the Best American Poetry: 25th Anniversary Edition is a bedtime reading book. It’s on my night table, for those evenings when I am too tired to read more than a poem.  This collection is perfect for that purpose because, frankly, most of the poems are forgettable.

Borrowed TimeBorrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir is the book that I’ll be spending the most time with this weekend. I just started it last night, and it is so well written, so gorgeous, and so very sad. Ann Patchett recommended this to me (yes, that Ann Patchett!) and … well, when Ann Patchett gives you a book recommendation, you kind of tend to listen. I’m glad I did.

(That is a whole ‘nuther post.)

Book Expo America and the BEA Bloggers Conference

So, while everything may have aligned perfectly in my reading life, that isn’t the case for two other “B” words this week – which would be Book Expo America (BEA) and, of course, the BEA Bloggers Conference. I had been quietly crunching the numbers, trying every which way to make this possible, but it wasn’t in the cards this year … again.

ArmchairBEA 2014

Design by Amber of Shelf Notes.

I’ll miss seeing all my book blogger friends, of course, but I CANNOT WAIT to participate in Armchair BEA again.  If you haven’t signed up, this is shaping up to be the best year ever. I’m hoping to use part of this long weekend to prep my posts for this week.

To be honest, I’m trying to stay somewhat unplugged during this long weekend, with the exception of writing/scheduling some posts and catching up on blogs. I’ve been overwhelmed and overextended. I have over-promised and under-delivered, not so much on the work front (I don’t think) but in other areas.

My remedy is to spend as much time on the deck (where I am, currently, in the warm sun, writing this) with words, both my own and those of other people’s. I went to church this morning for the first time in months. I need to take a walk or two. A friend from out of town will be in the city, and tomorrow we may visit the art museum (there’s a new photography exhibit).

So, yes, there are many words beginning with “B” this weekend. Books. Blogging. Armchair BEA. (OK, close enough.)

And at least one more, that has nothing to do with any of those.


In memory and in honor of all who served, thank you doesn’t seem like enough.

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Armchair BEA 2013: A Matter of Trust

Armchair BEA 2013

 Logo design by Sarah of Puss Reboots

I’m falling behind on my daily Armchair BEA blogging topics, but I didn’t want them to go unacknowledged, so I’m trying to use the weekend to catch up. On Thursday we talked about literary fiction, and since that’s my favorite genre of books, I really wanted to be part of the discussion. (Alas, too many things came up that prevented me from doing a post – either that day or a prescheduled one.)

I’ll get back to the literary fiction in a separate post, but I also wanted to discuss Friday’s subject of Ethics and Literary Blogging, combined with recommendations of favorite nonfiction books.

I think it’s interesting that these two (ethics and nonfiction) were paired together, especially given controversies that have been connected to recent nonfiction books, most of them popular reads and/or bestsellers. In some cases, it has been tough to distinguish between nonfiction and fiction as revelations have surfaced of authors embellishing or fictionalizing what actually happened (James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces) or writers getting caught up in scandals associated with their books (Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, Stones Into Schools).

This is unfortunate on so many levels. Certainly, in the Mortenson case, it is damaging philanthropically, but I think it also carries a residual effect to the nonfiction genre, especially memoirs. I think there’s the temptation by some to give all nonfiction books the hairy eyeball (which isn’t a bad thing, to question) or to forego them altogether because you’re not quite sure if what you’re reading is accurate or if it is something that should have been shelved in the fiction section.

It comes down, then, to a matter of trust. We want to trust our authors – we need to – but in reading reviews, we also need to trust bloggers to speak their truths and to share their opinions honestly. Just as I want to know that an author has some knowledge of the nonfiction topic he or she is writing about as an expert, I also like reviewers to be upfront about their relationship with the book and the authors themselves, if there is such a relationship. It has always been my policy to tell you, as a reader, if I am friends with or have a relationship with an author whose work I am reviewing.

I review books for TLC Book Tours, for which I am not compensated except in exchange for a copy of the book. In those cases, I clearly state that the book was received from TLC and give a disclosure statement. I also have started to review books as a freelancer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and those reviews are compensated. I haven’t shared the links to any of those here on the blog yet (the first one will be published on Wednesday), but when I do, I’ll also mention that with a disclaimer.

If you haven’t read any nonfiction lately or you think that it is akin to reading a stuffy textbook, think again! Reading nonfiction is a great way to broaden one’s knowledge on topics of interest and also to learn more about those subjects that you may have been familiar with, but wanted to know more about. Creative nonfiction can be a fascinating genre, and if done well, can sometimes be even more compelling than some fiction! Here are some of my favorite nonfiction books that I often recommend (links take you to my reviews): 

America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, by Gail Collins

American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and what we can do about it) by Jonathan Bloom

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts

Father’s Day: A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, by Buzz Bissinger

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen

The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan

A Slant of Sun, by Beth Kephart

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, by Steve Lopez

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

Under the Eye of the Clock: A Memoir, by Christopher Nolen

When Children Ask About God: A Guide for Parents Who Don’t Have All the Answers, by Harold S. Kushner

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