Tag Archives: Rachel Simon

Why I Love Book Blogger Appreciation Week

BBAW 2016

A few weeks ago, I was delighted to read that Ana, Jenny, Heather, and Andi of The Estella Society (one of my very favorite blogs) were bringing back the very fun book blogging event known as Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW).

I always loved this event for many reasons — the camaraderie of those of us who love reading and writing about books, discovering new blogs to follow (one can never have too many, as my Feedly proves to me every day), and celebrating what we do as book bloggers.

But this event is special to me because it represents, for me, my introduction to this wonderful book blogging community 7 years ago.  I had just started my blog in August 2008 when Amy from My Friend Amy  decided to create, as the ladies from The Estella Society wrote: “an online festival for book bloggers called Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Her intent was simple:

Acknowledging the hard work of book bloggers and their growing impact on book marketing and their essential contribution to book buzz in general, I am excited to announce the first Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Think of it as a retreat for book bloggers and a chance for us to totally nerd out over books together. And of course, shower each other with love and appreciation.

For me, BBAW came at the perfect time. I was new to the blogging world and to find other people who also loved reading as much as I did — and, who, even more unbelievably, loved WRITING ABOUT THE BOOKS THEY READ  — well, this was a game changer for me.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that book blogging changed my life. I’ve made new friends from all over the world who I would never have met otherwise.  I’ve traveled (by myself!) to New York City for the Book Blogger Con (back when it used to be called the Book Blogger Con), spoken at Podcamp Pittsburgh, and started writing book reviews for our local newspaper. I’ve connected with some of my favorite authors and met new writers who have become some of my favorites. I’ve learned about the publishing industry and strengthened my own writing. I’ve increased the number of books I read each year and discovered new writers and genres.

If you’re new to my blog (either because of finding me via BBAW or Listen to Your Mother), welcome! I’m so glad you’re here.

By way of introducing ourselves for BBAW, we’re asked to tell about five books that represent ourselves in some way or our interests/lifestyle. Looking through my Goodreads list, here are five that seem fitting:

B is for Betsy - orig

B is For Betsy by Carolyn Haywood

In a January 2009 blog post called Happy 111th Birthday, Carolyn Haywood!, I wrote about why B is for Betsy (and all of Carolyn Haywood’s books) were important to me as a child. “The Betsy books were just the beginning of my love affair with books. I still have the same feeling upon discovering a new author, a new work of literature (and your books were, most definitely, literature), a book that pulls me into its world.” 

Stones from the RiverStones from the River, by Ursula Hegi

I read this because OPRAH TOLD ME TO.  (It was an Oprah Book Club selection.) And I’m so glad she did, because this was one of those books that found me at precisely the right time.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

The Collected Stories by Flannery O’Connor

In college, I took an English course called “Faulkner, O’Connor, and Morrison” which introduced me to the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. That was more than 25 years ago now, but I can still remember how in awe I felt when I first read her work.  Her stories made me fall in love with the short story and, of course, with every word she wrote.

Making Peace with Autism

Making Peace with Autism, by Susan Senator

When our boy was diagnosed with “clinical features of autism spectrum disorder” shortly after his second birthday, we were lost. What we needed — instead of the badly-photocopied article that the “specialist” practically tossed at us as she dismissed us from the tiniest exam room in all of Philadelphia — was some reassurance that our boy would be OK.  That our family would be OK. Susan Senator gave me that hope during some very dark days and for that I am very grateful.

Little Nightmares Little Dreams

Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, by Rachel Simon

When this book came out in 1990, I went to a local writing conference where author Rachel Simon was the main speaker.  That book and that event sparked a friendship with Rachel that I am so grateful for, as she is one of my writing mentors.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week continues for the next four days, with writing prompts and much more bookish fun.

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?

 

Book Review: Next Stop: A Memoir of Family, by Glen Finland

Next Stop: A Memoir of Family 
by Glen Finland 
Amy Einhorn Books
G.P. Putnam’s Son’s
2012
288 pages 

The cover of Glen Finland’s book announces this as Next Stop: A Memoir of Family, whereas the inside title page has something slightly different. There, the memoir’s title is Next Stop: A Son With Autism Grows Up.

As it turns out, both subtitles are accurate. This memoir opens with Finland’s recounting of the summer that she rode Washington D.C.’s Metro system with her 21 year old son David, in hopes that mastering the rails would lead David to his next stop in his life of getting a job and becoming independent. One expects from this opening that Finland’s memoir will follow a path similar to my friend Rachel Simon’s bestselling Riding the Bus with My Sister. In a way it does, but in a way it doesn’t.

Like Simon’s memoir, Next Stop focuses the reader’s attention on a critical issue that often goes silent but which families of people with disabilities think about 24/7: what happens when people with disabilities, specifically autism, age-out of services at 21?  What happens when a population of individuals with special needs enters a world without jobs, accommodations, or the necessary supports to live independently? We can argue about the reasons for the increase in autism in recent years, the causes for this epidemic – but none of that does anyone any good until we have solutions (and funding for those solutions) in order to best support what is and will be a significant number of people needing services.

“While mawkish TV shows and movies focus on beautiful, hazy-eyed toddlers and quirky adolescents who fit in somewhere along the spectrum, our very real autistic sons and daughters have grown into flesh-and-blood adults with matter-of-fact needs to be met in the communities they live in. We families get that instead of seeing autistic adults as targets for therapy, we must commit to a society in which they have equal access to jobs and the skills to succeed with the support and legal rights they deserve. But we also get that expecting empathy for those who lack it is a tough sell.”

Those of us with younger children on the autism spectrum (my Boo is 11) are already beginning to think long and hard about these issues. This is one of the things I love about the autism blogging community: just as we turned to those trailblazers (i.e., parents with children older than ours) for guidance, direction and inspiration in the early, dark days of getting diagnoses and therapies, now we’re watching them to see the paths they’re blazing for their children. And those who are coming behind us are watching us for the same answers we once so desperately sought – which is why, Glen Finland says, we must tell our stories and “tell them true.” 

Glen Finland writes candidly and honestly in Next Stop about her and her husband’s struggles to find that next stop for David, the impact that has had on their marriage, the relationship between David and his older brothers, and what they keep hidden from their extended family. 

“”Where to begin with the things I wouldn’t be telling my sister today? How to explain the raw sendoff from the teenagers at David’s apartment? Or maybe the squelched promise of David’s animal shelter job? How about ciphering the impact on David’s psyche after two years at an independent living skills program with so little to show for it? No, I would not be explaining what it’s like to watch time be so cavalier with a child. 

To do so, I would have to unwrap the dried-up scrapbook of Hope that has toyed with me for years. Early on, Hope had me clinging to reports of edgy therapies and magic pills that promised results for my child. And Hope made me overlook the childhood milestones that weren’t reached while we waited, believing he’d get there. Then one day, chin up and a bit impatient, I saw that my beautiful little boy no longer fit onto my lap. The cuddliness of his childhood had vanished and a thinned out version of all that sweetness had begun to sprout knees and elbows. In its place was a gangly weed with the unsteady vocal chords of an adolescent boy. But this child was different. Although his body had kept pace with its biological clock, his mind remained veiled in a separate time zone. From now on, social gaffes would go unforgiven and the mother-launched prompts that had worked before – “Got a handshake for the doctor, David?” – would seem domineering and turn me into a nag haunting the background. That thing called Hope had settled into the attic, boxed away.

Nor would I be explaining to my sister that David will make his lifelong journey in this state of being. That my son’s present is his future. A solitary life to be lived in the right-here, right-now zone. Because what’s not easy today will not be easy tomorrow or thirty years from tomorrow – and, trust me, no one wants to talk about that.” (pg. 163-164) 

Those of us who have lived this life might recognize ourselves (or our future selves) in Finland’s words. She’s careful to say right up front that her family’s stories are exactly that – one family’s stories, different than any of those lived by any other person with autism, or any other family who loves him or her. She also makes no apologies for the honesty presented in the pages of Next Stop, because without families telling their stories as they are, then society as a whole will never understand people with autism and their needs and change will never happen. 

“And this is why families must bear witness to their sons’ and daughters’ potential. Although there is still no known cause or cure for what huddles under the broad umbrella of autism, I believe other healing agents will come out of the telling of our stories. After all, we families live the reality that the researchers are digging ever deeper to comprehend. While we may not understand, we get it. 

So, let’s tell our stories – and laugh, and cry, and bang our heads on the table if we must – but let’s tell them true.” (pg. ix) 

That Finland does while also laying bare the emotions that parents of special needs share – the fear of what happens after we’re gone. 

“The howling dread for us and every parent of a special needs adult – the singular ache that dries the mouth and makes the heart race – is the growing isolation. Who will offer this human being a healthy touch, chaste and loving, when I am no longer there? Now, as he moves toward greater independence as an adult, who will know if he has not made it home by the end of the day? And if there is no one, will there be safe shelter for him somewhere in his aloneness? 

For years we have fought side by side, battling for the right school, therapy, job coach, and, lately, housing. As we champion his quest to become his own man, we have no idea what twists this life will take. He’s finding his own way in to where he wants to go, but he will be alone when he gets there. On the other hand, how many times have I put down the newspaper with a shudder after reading the latest story about a grim act of parental wrath that befalls so many children and young adults with special needs? That’s when I find myself studying the power in my son’s legs or the fine curve of his jaw. I feel wonder and a bit of awe for what he can do for himself, and am quietly convinced that some kind of grace permeates the everyday world.” (pg. 185) 

4 stars out of 5.

The Barnes and Noble interview with Glen Finland is well worth the read.

copyright 2013, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Armchair BEA: Introductions First!

Today kicks off the first day of Armchair BEA, an online virtual convention event that was organized in … um … 2010 (I think) as a consolation prize of sorts for those of us who were unable to be at the real life BEA.  (That’s Book Expo America, currently underway this week in New York City.) Armchair BEA has come into its own, however, and is now an event that complements BEA quite nicely.

Like any conference, it’s all about the networking and building community, so the Armchair BEA team asked us to start things off on this first day by selecting 5 interview questions to answer about ourselves and our blog.

Forgive me for being a tad chatty. I like talking about books. (Obviously, or else we wouldn’t all be here, right?)

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?
I’m Melissa and I’ve been blogging here at The Betty and Boo Chronicles for almost 4 years … since August 14, 2008. In those days, I had a very long, dreadful commute to and from work and I was feeling the passing of time.  (And literally seeing it rush by as I sat in traffic, which felt like a metaphor for my life.) I wanted a way to capture the everyday moments with my kids (they’re the “Betty” and “Boo” in the blog title) and also to get back into writing, which was something I missed.

I started by writing personal essay type posts – about just whatever was on my mind that day. Some idiot I saw in traffic, a memory conjured up from a song I heard on the radio, the latest craziness from Sarah Palin. (The 2008 presidential campaign was in full swing, providing ample blogging fodder.) I discovered the world of book blogging in Fall 2008, when I was delighted to find a passionate community of readers like me who liked reviewing books and sharing their opinions.  I can’t remember the first book blog I read. I’d like to think maybe it was Dewey’s. I thought, what the hell, I could do that on my blog too …. and so, for almost 4 years and 1,377 posts, I have.

2. Where do you see your blog in five years?
That’s an interesting (and timely) question because it kind of ties into some changes I’ve been recently contemplating – namely, in regards to my blog name itself.  A blog name change is very likely, possibly in the near future.(You heard it here first!) I still plan to write about my kids, but I’m finding that as they get older, their stories are becoming theirs. At the same time, though, the issues (especially Boo’s autism and our journey as a family with this) are ones that I want and need to continue writing about. I have a new name in mind, but the thought of changing and the logistics in doing so … well, let’s just say that if YOU’VE been through this, I would love some advice and your suggestions.

(That’s what’s cool about this community. There’s always someone who has paved the way before you who is willing to offer advice to you.)

I’m also in the process of writing a novel, and in five years, I’d like for that novel to be DONE. More than done, actually. Published in some form would be nice. I’d like to be onto a second book. So, in that regard, I’d like for the content here to take the form of some more writerly posts. Excerpts and the like.  Photos from my worldwide book tour.  (A girl can dream, right?)


3. What literary location would you most like to visit? Why?
This might come as a surprise to some people but London would top the list. I say a surprise because I’m not much of a classics girl (I like the idea of them) … but I think I would become one either shortly before or after such a trip.

And South Carolina would be a close second. Every time I finish a Pat Conroy novel or anything in the Southern literature genre, I want to find the nearest wraparound porch and pour myself a glass of sweet tea.


4. What is your favorite part about the book blogging community? Is there anything that you would like to see change in the coming years?
I could write an entire post on this question alone – because in a way, my favorite part about the book blogging community and what I want to see changed are the same exact thing.

Allow me to explain.

Nearly four years into this blogging thing, it still thrills me to no end when an author comments on a book review I’ve written or friends me on Facebook.  My day can easily be made if Beth Kephart likes a photo I’ve posted or if Rachel Simon comments on a Facebook post of mine. It’s yesterday once more and I have time traveled back to my overjoyed 6 year old self because my favorite author, Carolyn Haywood, has written me a personal letter.

That, to me, has been the best part about the book blogging community – how it has brought authors and readers together in a way that is unprecedented. But like many good things, we’ve seen a dark side with all too many instances of Authors Gone Wild when faced with a negative review.  I’d like to see that sort of behavior change and all of us try to get along.

I’d also like to see self-publishing gain more respect. As someone who will likely be self-publishing her first novel in some way, shape or form, it distresses me to see how hard authors like my friend Melissa Luznicky Garrett work. I’d like to see that change.


5. Have your reading tastes changed since you started blogging? How?
I’m definitely reading more Young Adult books, absolutely.  Before book blogging, I would have never picked up the likes of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness or Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt, two YA books that I recently enjoyed tremendously.  At the library on Saturday, I checked out Jay Asher’s The Future of Us, which I was delighted to see back on the shelf. (I had to return it unread, because another patron had it on hold.)  The circulation clerk looked at me and then looked at Betty, who is 10.

“Which one of you is reading this?” she said, holding up the book.

A fair and legitimate question, I thought.  “Me,” I proudly answered.  “I’m one of those adults who reads Young Adult books.”

She smiled. “Me too.”

Another point for book blogging.

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

My Best Books I Read in 2011 Lists: Best Fiction, Young Adult, and Short Stories

I love this time of the year, this looking back and making lists reflecting on the year gone by and what lies ahead. And with all that comes my annual list of the Best Books I Read in 2011.

I’m probably going to end 2011 with having read either 69 or 70 books, depending on how the next day or so goes. (I’d like to get to that nice round number of 70.) So, while this seems like a lengthy list, it’s really not when you look at it as a percentage. Still, it was a pretty good reading year, all things considered. 

My usual disclaimer applies: these are books that I read in 2011, not necessarily books that were published in 2011 (although there are are few of those as well). I’ve broken my annual list down for you into two separate posts.  In this post, I’ll give you my picks for:

Best Fiction

Best Books That Are Marketed for Young Adults But That Completely Blew Me Away and Are Ones That Every Grown Up Should Read;
and

Best Short Story Collections

In a separate (and shorter) post that will go up either later today or tomorrow, I’ll give you my Best Memoirs/Essays and Best Nonfiction lists.  The descriptions are from my reviews; you can click on the links in the title to read the review in its entirety.  (Some I didn’t write a review for – and I’m guessing that, at this point, that’s not going to be happening – but they are ones that still stay with me even months later which is even more a testament to how lasting and wonderful they are!) Books are listed alphabetically, by author’s last name.

Best Fiction 


“And both of us luxuriate in the village yard with words that have a lover’s lightning – lightning that can shake the world, invert what is for what ought to be.”  (pg. 161) Words that have a lover’s lightning.  How can any reader not love that phrase?  And words like that, my friends, are part and parcel of the treat you’re in for with this superb novel. 
Jerome Charyn makes Emily Dickinson so intriguing, capturing her voice and her feisty spirit in such a way that you can’t help but want to keep reading and learning more.The reader is taken on a wonderful literary ride through Emily’s life (Charyn writes in the beginning which elements of the book are fictional, which is very helpful because that is one of my personal stumbling blocks with historical fiction). We meet her beaus and her Holyoke friends, her headmistresses, and her family. We see her as a budding poet and as a recluse, forever in mourning of the deaths that affected her and would become a force in her poetry.  


By Nightfall is a novel about internal and external beauty and what happens to us when we feel that the beauty has gone out of our lives. Peter Harris knows a little something about beauty. He’s a 44 year old art dealer in New York City with a respectable client list and a slight case of insomnia, living in SoHo with his 41 year old wife Rebecca.  Like many professional couples who have been married and have been parents for a number of years (21 of them), theirs has become a marriage (a life) of complacency, of routine and familiarity, of going through the everyday motions of jobs, of sex, of social obligations. By Nightfall is much more of a in-depth look at who we are as a person, and how we relate to each other, and the questions we ask ourselves in the middle of the night as we sense our life becoming not what we anticipated.

(Cunningham’s debut novel, A Home at the End of the World, which I also read this year, deserves an honorable mention on this list. I’m just not sure how I feel about the last third of the book. It felt rushed, too tidy. But the writing, my God ….)

The first thing you need to understand about Room is that this is so much more than your regular novel, and about so much more than the actual plot.  So much more.

From the book jacket:  To five-year old Jack, Room is the world. It’s where he was born. It’s where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination – the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe below Ma’s clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night in case Old Nick comes.  
Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held since she was nineteen – for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven foot space.  But Jack’s curiosity is building alongside her own desperation – and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer.”  
It is original in respect to the writing – for it is the mark of a true talent to sustain the incredibly authentic voice of a five-year-old over the course of a novel, which Emma Donoghue (a mother of two young children herself) does brilliantly.  The pacing is perfect and has you on the edge of your seat.  While Room is indeed very tense in parts, this isn’t a gory or graphic novel. (Donoghue could have easily gone down that road, but didn’t, and it works just as well.)

The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano 
The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

(I had a review written in Drafts, attempted to copy and paste a portion thereof here for you, and promptly deleted whole damn thing. Sadly, it was really good. Almost as good as the book, which I really loved and which was the first book I read on my Kindle.) 
Internal and interpersonal conflicts, those spoken and unspoken, are at the heart of Children and Fire. Thekla – a teacher of 9 year old boys – is a complicated, conflicted woman, proud of her independence but who learns that it has come at a price paid by others’ dependence and guilt. While she’s thrilled to have finally landed a teaching position after ten years, it comes with a combination of guilt and loyalty to her beloved teacher and mentor, Sonja Siderova. There’s the personal torment of those in her family (her mother Almut, her father Wilhelm) that they can never escape, that keeps them prisoners in their minds. There’s Thekla’s inability to commit to Emil, whom she loves but who she won’t allow herself to fully love. (“Loving was different. It was only the falling she minded. She wished she could love like a man, be skin only, lust only. Her friend Emil was good practice.” pg. 13)
The structure of Children and Fire works beautifully and provides for the novel’s tension, particularly toward the end. The chapters alternate between February 27, 1937 as we follow Thekla and her students through their school day and the years 1899 – 1933 which provides the critical elements to the novel’s backstory such as the relationship between Thekla’s parents and a wealthy Jewish couple in town and her father’s family tragedy.  The day that the current action takes place, Tuesday, February 27, 1937, is not random; it’s the one year anniversary of a fire that destroyed the Reichstag, the parliment building in Berlin.  Even though that fire was hundreds of miles away from quiet and quaint Burgdorf, there is the fear that whatever evil force was responsible for the fire will eventually come to their small village. (And as the reader knows from history, it surely will.)

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd 
In this National Book Award winning novel, Colum McCann transports his reader to New York on August 7, 1974. There, high atop the city and on a wire strung between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers (which are not even at half their full office capacity), is tightrope walker Phillipe Petit, strolling and soft-shoeing his way across the skyscrapers, 110 stories above the concrete jungle below.  
But although the fundambulist’s story is at the center of the novel, Let the Great World Spin is really about the stories of those who witnessed this daring act and those whose lives were therefore affected by it.  While the tightrope walk really did happen, the fictitious literary liberties taken by McCann are within these stories.  As with Olive Kitteridge (another novel within stories that I adored), all of these characters are not simply witnesses; they are all connected. How McCann shows this while drawing his reader into a New York of August 1974 – a time when the Bronx was burning, a time defined by Vietnam and boys who didn’t make it home – is the brilliance of this novel.  
The characters who inhabit this world are vivid, incredibly true to life and alive on the pages.  We see Tillie and Jazzlyn, a mother-daughter prostitute pair living in the Bronx.  We see Corrigan, an Irish immigrant and priest who is one of the more complex characters in the novel, and his brother Ciaran who is stymied as to how best to help.  There’s Claire, a grieving mother whose only child was killed in Vietnam despite working on computer programs and seeing a future that included computers being interlinked and having the ability to communicate with one another. Let the Great World Spin is about the everyday (a car crash, a judge presiding over a case, a group of ladies gathering for tea) and the extraordinary.  
It is about the extraordinary moments in the everyday.

I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn 

Every once in awhile, a novel comes along with the power to significantly change one’s perspective while simultaneously being a beacon of hope for people who have been forgotten, who are disenfranchised, and who remain on the fringes of society.  
It happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee that illuminated race relations in the Deep South. And it has the potential to happen again (as I hope and pray it does) with The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is, The Story of Beautiful Girl is also a game-changer, this time for people with developmental disabilities who were, once upon a time, “put away,” sent to stark and barbaric institutions with cringeworthy names like The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, forgotten by families and by the world as a whole.

That’s the name of the fictitious Pennsylvania “school” where Lynnie Goldberg was placed as a young child by her middle-class, Caucasian family who didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to cope with and accept her developmental disability. Such was common in the 1950s and 60s, a time when parents were advised to put their children away to better “forget” about their mistakes in the form of their children who were labeled as imbeciles, idiots, incurable.

(But as The Story of Beautiful Girl illustrates so clearly, forgetting becomes impossible to do when hearts are involved, even when the distance of years and place come into play.)

At the School, Lynnie – who is mute – meets Homan, an African American man who is deaf, but who is only known to the school officials as a John Doe, Number Forty-Two.  (He is based on a real person.) There they become friends and fall deeply in love amidst the neglect and abuse that was all too prevalent in such institutions (and which still exists today, here, in the United States).  Lynnie is also pregnant, and during one storm-filled November night in 1968, the couple escapes from the School.  A baby girl is born, and the couple finds refuge – temporarily – with Martha, a retired widowed schoolteacher living in a remote place, both in terms of place (her home) and in terms of the fragile, unresolved feelings she still carries after her husband’s emotional distance and loss of their only child.  Read the rest of my review here.

Books That Are Marketed for Young Adults but That Completely Blew Me Away and are Ones that Every Grown Up Should Read 



Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine


With Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine gives an incredibly heartfelt and wonderful gift to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, their parents and teachers, and their peers.  

It is, quite simply, the gift of knowing that there is someone (Erskine herself) who “gets it.”  And that knowledge, that understanding, is truly something “good and strong and beautiful,” to quote one of the many themes that resonate through this book. 
When we meet fifth grader Caitlin Smith, her world seems to be anything but good and strong and beautiful.  It is a world where her mother died when she was 3, and her beloved brother Devon was recently killed (along with several others) during a school shooting.  Left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives are Caitlin and her grieving father. 
While such a tragedy would be difficult for anyone to comprehend, it is compounded even moreso by the fact that Caitlin has Asperger’s Syndrome.  Her world is very much like the charcoal drawings she creates: black and white.  No color, no gray area, no ambiguity.  All that is confusing to Caitlin, and she struggles – oh, how she struggles! – to make sense of the senseless, to cope with feelings, to try and reach the elusive closure.  Read the rest of my review here



The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

This is more fairy tale than fright-fest, more enchantment than gore.  Right from the first couple pages, I was captivated by the story of a baby who crawls away from his family – all murdered – to live among the larger-than-life spirits in a nearby graveyard.  

“Ever since the child had learned to walk he had been his mother’s and father’s despair and delight, for there never was such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things. That night, he had been woken by the sound of something on the floor beneath him falling with a crash. Awake, he soon became bored, and had begun looking for a way out of his crib. It had high sides, like the walls of his playpen downstairs, but he was convinced that he could scale it. All he needed was a step …”  (pg 10-11)

C’mon, doesn’t that make you want read on to find out what happens to the orphaned boy?  
What happens is that he makes his way to a nearby graveyard where he is taken in by the kindly souls that reside there.  He gets parents and a new name (“Nobody Owens,” and is nicknamed Bod), and a guardian named Silas.  They teach him practical things, like history and the alphabet and how to Fade and Haunt.  In Bod, Gaiman creates such an endearing, lovable character that you just want to scoop him up and adopt him.  He evokes your sympathy, first with the loss of his entire family and then as he is ignored by much of the world when he does, on occasion, venture out of the graveyard. 

You Are My Only is the story of Emmy Rane, a devoted young mother who does what every mother has innocently done: leaves her baby unattended for the briefest of moments. On a still, bright day, outside in the yard while tucked snug in the branches of a tree swing, four month old Baby goes missing.  The only trace of her is one single yellow sock.


You can see this unfold because we have all experienced this – a simple act that results in the shifting and forever changing of lives – and you can see this in the opening pages of You Are My Only because Beth Kephart takes you right there.  You’re with Emmy in her moments of desperate terror (anyone who has ever had a child wander off, gone missing even for mere moments, knows this piercing anguish). You’re right there when Emmy’s emotionally and physically abusive husband is in her face, accusing her of being a bad mother by causing Baby’s disappearance through her carelessness.


From there, You Are My Only alternates between two timeframes and two points of view: Emmy Rane’s, as she endures the days and months after Baby’s disappearance, and Sophie Marks’ (formerly Baby) who is now 14 and living an always-on-the-run-from-the-No-Good life with Cheryl, the only mother she has ever known. The way in which this story unfolds for its reader is beautifully written, with Kephart’s signature lyrical prose infusing each page. 


You Are My Only is a story that reflects the times in which we live.  While there have always been hearts-held-captive baby-gone-missing stories in our nation’s history (think Lindbergh, think Elizabeth Smart, think Jaycee Dugard) having this fictional one appear now brings a powerful message in these dark days of personal despair and economic uncertainty for so many.  With You Are My Only, Kephart is saying that we have the strength within us to endure the darkness and break through into the light. It is a message that she personally knows well, and it shows – beautifully, triumphantly – in this novel.  

Sixteen-year old Jacob Portman and his grandfather Abe have a special relationship. They’re connected in a way that transcends familial bonds, and in a way that mystifies (and maddens) Jacob’s emotionally-distant parents. Their closeness allows Jacob to become curious about his grandfather’s past, about the “peculiar” children he grew up with (and the reasons for their peculiarity) and why they still so much a part of Abe’s life today.

Abe’s past is one spent in a children’s home (that would be Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), located off the coast of Wales.  Jacob and his orinithologist father travel to this remote island for two purposes: bird-watching and research for the father and for Jacob, to discover the origins of the stories his grandfather held close to his heart while cryptically sharing details with Jacob. What begins as Abe’s story continues as Jacob’s, and as he discovers truths he never imagined, author Ransom Riggs takes his reader right there to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Read the rest of my review here
 Best Short Story Collections 
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Stories by Yiyun Li 

Everybody Loves Somebody
Stories by Joanna Scott 

Some additional Honorable Mentions:
The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris
Ford County: Stories by John Grisham 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson 
Dangerous Neighbors, by Beth Kephart
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson 
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork


Have you read any of these? Did any of them make your Best Of 2011 list … or make it onto your list of books you’d like to read in 2012? Regardless, hope you have a Happy New Year … and Happy Reading!

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Book Review: The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon


The Story of Beautiful Girl
by Rachel Simon
Grand Central Publishing
2011
346 pages

Every once in awhile, a novel comes along with the power to significantly change one’s perspective while simultaneously being a beacon of hope for people who have been forgotten, who are disenfranchised, and who remain on the fringes of society.  

It happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee that illuminated race relations in the Deep South. And it has the potential to happen again (as I hope and pray it does) with The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

(Allow me to interrupt this review briefly for a book blogger’s disclaimer.  As regular readers know, Rachel Simon is someone whom I consider a friend.  I’ve been a fangirl follower of her career since 1990 when I attended a writer’s conference where she was the keynote speaker; I’ve been lucky to take part in a writing salon she offered at a local bookstore, and we hang out on Facebook and the Twitter. I have tried to separate all this from the novel, but the truth is?  I love her work and have for quite some time. The friendship is fairly new; the fangirl appreciation of her work goes back two decades.  Even if she never gave me the time of day, I would still be saying what I say here about this book.)

As I was saying.  Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is, The Story of Beautiful Girl is also a game-changer, this time for people with developmental disabilities who were, once upon a time, “put away,” sent to stark and barbaric institutions with cringeworthy names like The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, forgotten by families and by the world as a whole.

That’s the name of the fictitious Pennsylvania “school” where Lynnie Goldberg was placed as a young child by her middle-class, Caucasian family who didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to cope with and accept her developmental disability. Such was common in the 1950s and 60s, a time when parents were advised to put their children away to better “forget” about their mistakes in the form of their children who were labeled as imbeciles, idiots, incurable. 

(But as The Story of Beautiful Girl illustrates so clearly, forgetting becomes impossible to do when hearts are involved, even when the distance of years and place come into play.)

At the School, Lynnie – who is mute – meets Homan, an African American man who is deaf, but who is only known to the school officials as a John Doe, Number Forty-Two.  (He is based on a real person.) There they become friends and fall deeply in love amidst the neglect and abuse that was all too prevalent in such institutions (and which still exists today, here, in the United States).  Lynnie is also pregnant, and during one storm-filled November night in 1968, the couple escapes from the School.  A baby girl is born, and the couple finds refuge – temporarily – with Martha, a retired widowed schoolteacher living in a remote place, both in terms of place (her home) and in terms of the fragile, unresolved feelings she still carries after her husband’s emotional distance and loss of their only child. 

From the book jacket: “When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. Before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: ‘Hide her.”

Lynnie and Homan choose Martha’s home because her mailbox is a lighthouse, a beacon of hope for those who are lost.  The symbolism of the lighthouse plays out throughout the novel, as Lynnie and Homan and Martha and the baby journey separately (but always interconnected) out of the darkness of their lives into the light. It is not an easy road, and as the reader, you find yourself holding your breath and turning pages to learn what happens next.  In doing so, you become immersed in a world that is rarely talked about, one that is shrouded in darkness even today. (For those who may be concerned that the abuse and neglect are too graphic in this novel, they are not portrayed as overly such.  It is more heartbreaking and eye-opening than horrific.)

The most significant aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how it sheds light on one of the biggest disgraces in our country: how we treat those who are developmentally disabled and the people who were put away. It’s easy to forget that we still have numerous such institutions in the United States today.  In fact, the abuses at one of them was brought to light JUST ON SATURDAY in a New York Times article (“Boy’s Death Highlights Crisis in Homes for Disabled,” June 5, 2011) about the horrific depravity occuring at  O.D. Heck, an institution in New York.  You read that article (you want to talk about graphic) and there you have, live from New York, the likes of Clarence and Smokes straight out of The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded.

Another compelling aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how universal this story is, and Simon conveys that to her reader through the physical sense of place and the spiritual elements present throughout the novel.  In regards to place, there were times I wanted to know definitively where the action was taking place.  I like to be grounded as a reader, to know where I am.  You don’t always have this with The Story of Beautiful Girl, and it took me a few chapters to realize that this jarring was intentional. With the action sweeping literally across the country – from Cape Cod to San Francisco, for example – it illustrates that people with disabilities are everywhere in our society. They might be right in front of us or they may be hidden in the shadows.  They’re in every community.  

Similarly, the spiritual aspect was one that I appreciated about this novel too. It’s hard not to miss the symbolism of the young couple traveling a long distance, the seeking of shelter, the secret birth of a baby in a barn. When the novel opens, it’s November, the eve of Advent and the Christmas season.  Yet, Lynnie was raised in the Jewish faith and The Story of Beautiful Girl includes a traditional Passover.  Buddhism comes into play, too.  These elements are not heavy-headed but again, included intentionally to show the universalism of people with disabilities being part of a religious community, even though that community might not know how to address and minister to their spiritual needs. 

When I finished The Story of Beautiful Girl, I immediately thought of the phrase “faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” That is, at its essence, what this book is about.  It is about having faith and trust in others, in rebuilding that faith and trust when it is irrevocably taken, and ultimately, having faith and trust in yourself to survive the darkest of nights and go on to do what might have seemed impossible. 

It’s about hope that never fades, that survives decades. (“There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could. And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad.” (pg. 313)

And yes, The Story of Beautiful Girl is very much a love story.  It’s a love story that illuminates how people with disabilities aren’t immune to the feelings of love that we all experience. It’s a story about the love between a parent and a child, and how those bonds aren’t always defined by blood. It is a love story “for those who were put away,” (to whom the book is dedicated), to those who have who have been forgotten and neglected, and those who have risen from darkness into light.

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

The Sunday Salon: Getting Back Into the Groove, Post Book Blogger Con

It’s no secret that my reading life has been a bit stuck in neutral of late, but I have discovered the sure-fire cure for that: spend a day immersed in the bookish goodness that was this year’s Book Blogger Convention and you’ll be on literary fire.

You’ll also be rendered temporarily immobile, as your shins and feet continue to ache more than 48 hours after your return home.  I honestly don’t know how you people who attended BEA for a week or several days are still standing because after one day, I was parked on the couch in my PJs for the majority of Saturday.  If it wasn’t for the need to retrieve my children from their grandparents (who watched them while I was at BBC – whooot!)  then I would remain RIGHT. HERE.

(And if I could get someone to do my grocery shopping and prepare my meals while I sit here and read blogs and write a bunch o’ post-BBC posts, and finish up two great books, I would be in heaven.  I have my first post-BBC post ready for you and will probably start posting them later tonight and throughout this upcoming week.)

I’m thisclose to finishing Breaking Night, a memoir that wasn’t on my radar until I saw it on the New Books shelf at the library.  This one has been compared to The Glass Castle (which I loved) and indeed, there are some similarities in both Jeannette Walls’ story and Liz Murray’s.  The subtitle of Breaking Night is A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard. 

Liz was raised by parents who blew the family’s only source of income (her mother’s monthly social security check, due to being legally blind) on cocaine instead of food, leaving Liz and her sister Lisa to barely exist (sometimes) on rotten mayonnaise sandwiches and eggs.  Growing up the Bronx, Liz would eventually become a homeless teenager, honing her survival instincts as she lived on the streets or occasionally with friends or in seedy motels.  Obviously, Liz survives this rough hard-knock life of hers, but getting there is a journey that is compelling and one keeping me turning the pages of Breaking Night into the night. 

While Amtraking it to and from New York on Friday, I was reading my friend Rachel Simon’s new novel, The Story of Beautiful Girl. I’ve been talking about this one forever, I know, and it is living up to all my expectations.  Can’t say much more about this one until I get further into it (I’m only on page 50), but trust me … you’ll be hearing more about this one.  It’s getting a lot of accolades and is currently #30 on The New York Times Bestseller list.  Deservedly so, I might add. 

And finally, in the car I’m listening to Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, by William Kuhn.  The premise of this one is that, since Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis never wrote her memoirs, we can learn all we need to know about her life, passions, and interests through the more than 100 books she acquired and worked on in her role as editor for Viking and later, Doubleday.  I’m enjoying this one, too – and I think it is a book that helps to shatter the misconception of Jackie as “rich woman who is pretending to be an editor” that some may still hold, even 17 years after her passing. (Creepily, I started listening to this audiobook on the very anniversary of her May 19, 1994 death.  Kinda freaked me out.)  

Anyway, I’m off to try and finish Breaking Night over breakfast followed by a quick trip to the farmer’s market in desperate search of a side dish to bring to our friends’ cookout this afternoon. 

Whether you are spending this Memorial Day weekend (here in the United States) remembering and honoring those who served and sacrificed, or doing something else entirely, I hope yours is a good Sunday. 

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.