Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review: The Dry Grass of August

This debut novel by 71-year-old Anna Jean Mayhew is being compared to The Help, and it deserves the comparison. This was a wonderful book. I would read another by this author and hopefully she will continue writing.

Jubie Watts is a young teen from Charlotte, North Carolina, leaving for a family vacation in Florida with her family and their hired maid, Mary Luther. With a tumultuous family life, Jubie must find her way amid an abusive, philandering father, a weak mother, a doted-on older sister, a disappearing younger sister and a toddling brother. Heading deeper into the South, she notices the climate of racial unrest, but could never anticipate the dreadful turn of events when the family car crashes in a small town in Georgia.

Although this book was sad, it ended with a feeling of hope. Mayhew creates a solid main character and maintains a clear voice throughout. She certainly nailed both the coming-of age tensions and the racial-relations tensions of a time in American history (the 1950's). Thankfully, the story remained front and center and carried the book.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Review: Jasper Jones

I selected this audio book from the young adult reading section of our library. It is slated for listeners ages 12 to 17, however, I wouldn't probably allow any of my sons to read it at age 12. Due to the intense cursing and nihilistic worldview, I felt somewhat uncomfortable listening myself. I thought about setting it aside, but I am so glad that I didn't. In the end, it was a really good book, cursing and nihilism notwithstanding. This would be an excellent book to suggest for a reluctant teenage male reader, with a clear understanding that the content is difficult to sit with and intense at times.

At the beginning, I was tripped up by the constant bad language. I can understand that the author is appealing to teenage boys and teenage boys do have a fascination with such language. It would be realistic for them to use the language, it just made me uncomfortable. I always prefer a story be told without resorting to the crude and obscene.

By the end, I was transfixed. In fact, by the eighth out of nine CDs, I could no longer merely listen when convenience placed me in the car. I had to find time to listen on my CD player in whatever moments I could snatch apart from my younger boys.

Here is the plot summary I gleaned from author Craig Silvey's own website:

"Late on a hot summer night in the tail end of 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleep-out. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the regional mining town of Corrigan. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charlie. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie eagerly steals into the night by his side, terribly afraid but desperate to impress. Jasper takes him through town and to his secret glade in the bush, and it's here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper's horrible discovery.

"With his secret like a brick in his belly, Charlie is pushed and pulled by a town closing in on itself in fear and suspicion as he locks horns with his tempestuous mother; falls nervously in love and battles to keep a lid on his zealous best friend, Jeffrey Lu. And in vainly attempting to restore the parts that have been shaken loose, Charlie learns to discern the truth from the myth, and why white lies creep like a curse. In the simmering summer where everything changes, Charlie learns why the truth of things is so hard to know, and even harder to hold in his heart."

So what did I like so much about the book? The characters were very well-drawn. The main character's best friend, Jeffrey Lu, is quite the character and made me laugh out loud at his bravado. Indeed, much of the typical boy banter between the two was hilarious. From the hypothetical scenario discussions to the constant name-calling between the two, the dialogue was genuine BOY!

The plot was intense. From the moment the secret discovery is made to the end, the reader is riding a wave of action to determine the truth behind the discovery. I will admit, I suspected the wrong person in the end, but was quite satisfied with the resolution and the ending of the book. It was a bit repetitive at times, but I assume that a teenager would certainly perseverate on the actions involved in this story.

I would recommend this to my teenage son, Bryce, because despite the bad elements in the book, there is still a resonance of truth (especially about the way truth gets twisted). However, I would probably discuss with him the nihilistic worldview presented and counter the arguments in the book against the existence of God. I still couldn't recommend it for impressionable young boys, however. And there might even be some 15 year olds who would be unable to handle this book. My 15 year old is quite strong in what he believes and could handle the intense subject matter. Also, since it is heavily laden with boy humor, it might not appeal as much to teenage girls.

I read that film rights have been purchased, so it will be interesting to see if they clean up the language or leave it in the film version. It will also be interesting to see if they nail the actor selection for the characters in the story. I'm assuming it will be produced in Australia, so it will have the wonderful Australian accent which I loved in the narration.

The author, Craig Silvey, wrote his first book at age nineteen and completed this second book, Jasper Jones at age 26. Kudos to the young author for such outstanding accomplishments! I'm sure we can look for more from this talented author.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Amazing Tribute to Bi-Polar Sufferer

I have a dear friend, Beth, who recently lost her sister, Karla. Karla struggled with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. But when an individual struggles with those heavy illnesses, they do not struggle alone. Often their families struggle alongside them. At Karla's funeral, Beth's husband, Max, delivered this tribute. It was so beautiful, I felt led to share!:

"Good morning, My name is Max Callahan, and I'm Karla's brother-in-law, the husband of Beth Johnson-Callahan whom most of you know as Major Frank and Miriam Johnson's daughter. This tribute to Karla begins with a purple balloon. There is a real balloon at the heart of my story that I will talk about in a minute. But what this tribute is really about is childhood. Over the years, I've learned many things from Karla, and among them the very deepest and most challenging life lessons. But what I learned most from Karla was about children. About raising children. About letting go of my own childhood to become an adult. And about what it feels like, as a child, to be left behind. Shortly after Beth and I were married we had the honor of becoming the guardians of two of Karla's sons, our nephews Jason and Brandon, who were then ten and eleven.

"At the time Beth and I married, Karla was in the throes of her disabilities, Bipolar and Borderline Personality disorder, which left her in some ways to struggle with forever being a child herself, subject to whim or sudden changes of heart. Like a balloon adrift on the wind, she would step out to pick something up from the grocery store and not come back for literally a year or more. This is not to diminish Karla as shallow or careless. Karla had an extraordinarily deep and tender soul. Inasmuch as she struggled to breach the threshold of her illnesses, she had a depth of feeling and understanding that was wise many times beyond her years. The pain of birthing children and ultimately having to let them go, to be raised by someone else, gave Karla a depth of insight that few people have on what a privilege it is to be a parent. It was something she ached for. Children, having them, loving them, wanting the best for them were at the core of her being. And though she was always openly thankful to us, it was always her aspiration to break through one day and to recover some of the years of parenting she had missed.

"The day before Karla died, we had a family get together to celebrate our daughter Avery's 13th birthday. Our daughters Avery and Abby, Karla and Beth and their parents got together at the Wesley Willows retirement center. Coincidentally, we also had scheduled a family performance for Palm Sunday in the chapel at Wesley Willows. Now, being a part of the Johnson family was a bit like being drafted on as a journeyman for a traveling roadshow. Frank and Miriam and their daughters have been performing as part of their family ministry at churches and community centers since Beth, my wife and Karla were little children themselves. And from day one, I've sensed that one of the prerequisites for marrying Beth, was that I could play an instrument and wasn't too shy to get up on stage and perform with the group. Within a few weeks of being married, I was drafted into this little band of troubadours doing musical performances, Christian magic and biblical narrations. But throughout our marriage, now 16 years, the member of the act who was always missing was Karla. I would hear about days gone by, when Karla would perform, but by the time Beth and I were married, Karla had "left the band" as it were, and although everyone was very kind to me, I always felt a little bit like I was just a place holder for the real McCoy.

"Completely out of the blue, a week ago Sunday, and the very day before Karla died, I had my one and only opportunity to see Karla perform. The ease with which it all unfolded, and the total absence of any fanfare, belied the delicate surprise that I was privileged to witness. Just like the old days, Karla performed with Beth and I got to witness many years after the fact, the same family magic that I'd only seen in pictures and heard about in stories around the dinner table. The rehearsal up in the Johnson's apartment was easy, casual. Our daughter Abby stood behind Karla and brushed her hair while and Avery sat with me and her Grandfather on the couch as Karla and Beth sight-read an arrangement of a song they hadn't performed together since they were in their early teens. When they performed in the chapel later that afternoon, for most people in the audience it was just a lovely little afternoon performance, but for me it was like seeing a reunion concert of the Everly Brothers, and it was as I'd been transported back to another time. There was Karla, at last, not looking like a 45 year old woman, but just like in the pictures in family albums I'd seen of her as a little girl, just a bit nervous, shifting her weight slightly from foot to foot, a little too far off mike, but blending in somehow perfectly, on pitch and in tune. The sound of the two of them together was easy and beautiful.

"The performance was followed by a little birthday party for Avery in the Dining Hall. Avery is now 13, an accomplished student. Karla was especially proud of Avery and excited to get together to celebrate Avery's first birthday as a teenager. It was as perfect a family afternoon as we could hope for. Had we known it was our last day, it would have been heavy, overbearing, not the gift that it was, light hearted, buoyant, playful. As we walked out to our car to drive home, Karla handed Abby a purple balloon that one of the staff in the dining room had given her. And Abby, distracted for a moment, lost hold of the string and the balloon rose up into the sky. No one was very much concerned. The girls are almost too old for balloons. But there was something about it, as it rose into the sky that struck me, and I felt drawn to watch it. So I stood there, away from the group, feeling a bit silly, almost obstinate, and I stared after the balloon as it rose into the gray sky. Abby wandered over, and grabbed me around the knees and watched with me. Every now and again asking "Do you still see it, Dad?"

"There is something about loss when it's fresh, that's especially painful. Because it seems like it ought to be reversible, even though it's so clear that it can't be. Like a balloon just after it's been let go, there's a feeling that, if one could jump just high enough or run just fast enough, or if it were to get caught in a branch, one could grab ahold of it. The morning after Palm Sunday, Beth called me at work to tell me that Karla had died. And it just seemed impossible. Karla was like a force of nature. She had withstood any number of addictions, illnesses and crazy mishaps. There were times at which she seemed to have almost superhuman powers. I had random thoughts that she must have a signet ring or an amulet. A day or so after she died, we stood in the hallway outside her Grandparent's apartment and puzzled through it together. Abby who is eight, was looking for a loophole, and reasoned sensibly "Auntie Karla said she was coming over to our house tomorrow. She promised, Dad. Does this mean she won't be coming" I shook my head. "What about my for my birthday?" Abby paused. "Or Christmas?" She was trying to find an occasion that would be important enough for Karla to come back. And part of me felt that it really wasn't that unreasonable. After all, we had made the plans just a day or so ago and we had Karla's number on speed dial.

"Karla was never confident like her older sister Beth. Karla was awkward. Shy. She felt out of place. Of the two, Beth was clearly the leader. And yet, for years, it was Karla we all followed. Every hair-raising step of her inadvertent journey, through bipolar disorder and addiction, carried her, and us along with her, like a balloon on the wind, rudderless from whim to whim, leaving collateral damage in her wake. And yet, with all the damage, the seeming disarray, there was always always a gift. Courage found at the last minute, when it was needed most. Resourcefulness against all odds. Steadfastness. And the journeys we took through the years. The stories. The adventures. The fury, the frustration. They call to mind Romans 5: "But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; from perseverance, character; and from character hope. And hope does not disappoint."

"This was the miracle of Karla. To lead you, kicking and screaming, to that place where your hope is strongest, not because you wanted it to be, but because God told you it had to be. Not for yourself, but because you had to be there for someone else. Someone in peril. Sometimes Karla herself. Sometimes a young person she left behind. But as mad as you were, you could never stay mad. Because there was no malice in Karla's misdeeds. Like the a hurricane, or a bolt of lightening, they were just destructive natural phenomena of Karla's neurology, ethically neutral. And I believe that God marked the day before Karla's passing with that purple balloon for a very important reason which I will now explain.

"There is a passage in Matthew where Jesus speaks about two children. One who agrees readily to do a task, but then does nothing. And another who refuses initially but, later, thinking better of it, does what he's asked to do. And Jesus asks the disciples which child is heaven bound. When the disciples guess wrongly that it would be the dutiful child, Jesus says "you will never understand what heaven means". This is a jarring parable because it seems at face value as if Jesus is condoning slackers everywhere and encouraging us all to quickly make promises we have no intention of keeping. Several months ago, I was driving and talking on the phone to Beth about it and she said "well I think it has something to do with having a willing heart". I literally pulled off the road, because in a flash I felt I had caught the meaning. What Jesus is saying is that, no matter how you might try to do "the right thing" to "live a virtuous life" try as you might, and we all do, you are bound to fail. Your success or failure in accomplishing the deed is all relative. Only the willingness to try, is what has any meaning for God. Karla stumbled, and struggled more than most, and she fought with a neurological adversary that had taken up residence inside her own head. But whatever she did. Whatever the outcome, however she might fail to deliver. Her intentions at the outset were pure, optimistic, and full of hope.

"For anyone among us, who might momentarily think of ourselves as people who "deliver", or make the mistake of misinterpreting the meaning of Karla's struggle or wonder whether she was victorious in the end, God left us a simple reminder. Sometimes a balloon is just a balloon. But sometimes when you're looking at it, you feel the Holy Spirit telling you it's much more. I am convinced that God gave us that purple balloon to teach us about loss, to remind us that an ascent to heaven isn't a self-directed enterprise, but one of letting go, and allowing God to guide us, to mark Karla's passing for anyone who might worry about which direction she was headed with an undeniable indication that she was upward bound, but most of all it was to remind those of us who loved Karla, that the soul, like a balloon is made for celebration, that our best life lived by never forgetting that as we struggle to be adults, to master the circumstances of day to day living, we are first and foremost children, here to share in little family celebrations, birthdays, meals shared together, songs sung together, and for praying and rejoicing. To this, I know Karla would heartily agree."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Night Road

This book, by Kristin Hannah, was selected by my book club and I cannot praise it enough. It was one of the best books I've read this year. I fully agree with the endorsements on the back cover which declare: "It's a tearjerker, but the journey is as lovely - and haunting - as a snow-filled winter's night." "The author ... has written another powerful story of misunderstanding, family, love and strong women." "Deliciously romantic and often heartbreaking, this is a book you'll want to climb inside of and stay as long as possible."

I cried through the ending of this book. I loved every minute of the ride. It was a fantastic read!

Jude Farraday is a dedicated mother to her twin teenage children, Mia and Zach. She admits she is a "helicopter mom," hovering over them faithfully. She worries somewhat over her shy daughter, but is happy to welcome Mia's new friend, Lexi Baill into their lives.

Lexi comes from a troubled background, with a dead mother who shuttled in and out of prison and Lexi's life. Lexi has finally landed on her feet with a previously unknown blood relative, her great-aunt Eva. Eager to prove herself worthy of provision and attention, Lexi does everything she can to foster the good relations with her aunt and with the Farraday family (who have become her world).

Nothing can prepare Jude, Lexi, Mia and Zach for the roller-coaster ride they are about to embark on when one decision on a fateful night changes their lives and their relationships forever. The story is full of intense pain, as well as powerful redemption.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I will probably read it again and will enjoy it every bit as much the second time. I cannot wait for our discussion this evening. It is a book club selection par excellence!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: Far From Here

This book had an enticing cover, complete with an endorsement by Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean. Once again, though, my reaction to this book differed from the celebrity endorsements. One author claimed she "couldn't put [it] down." I don't know. I just didn't like it as much as they did. I felt that the story kept going on slowly without ever really getting to the point of closure or revelation. Once it reached a pinnacle of an unexpected revelation, then it picked up for me, but it was almost to the end before this happened. I would have liked it to have had more action throughout.

Plus, it was written from two different points-of-view. I found this awkward. I never did really figure out what the purpose was in providing a first person point of view, alternating with a third person point of view. It was done well ... it didn't really trip me up ... but it didn't seem necessary.

In the story, Danica Greene hates flying but is married to a man who lives to take to the skies. When her pilot husband goes missing, she must confront realities in her marriage that she hadn't faced up to before. She endures the not-knowing and tries to move on. What finally propels her to a change in character is the revelation that when he disappeared he wasn't alone.

I don't want to say it was a bad read. I did enjoy it somewhat, but I felt it could have been so much more than it turned out to be. Her books seem to get five stars in reviews on Amazon, so perhaps I will try one of her other books.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: The Soul Tells a Story

I noticed this book on my book club leader's end table. Since it focused on creative endeavor and especially writing, I decided to give it a whirl. I spent a good portion of my writing retreat reading this.

I wouldn't say it is a phenomenal book about writing. There are plenty I would consider more inspiring, but it was a worthwhile read. Plus, I must have felt somewhat inspired because I found myself jotting down quotes from the book. Here are a few:

"We have to have faith - faith that what we do ... is worth our best energy.... You are called to a work, and you respond with your particular gifts, vision and energy.... You say yes and then hope that your skill will live up to the yes.... Your vision will always exceed your abilities."

This was very poignant to me, in light of my recent struggles with assessing whether I have a lot of talent or just a little.

The author also quoted Robert Withnow's book, Creative Spirituality, when he wrote, "Although it is possible to be creative without having experienced personal trauma, such experiences often jolt people into asking questions that other people have no reason to ask and gaining a new perspective on realities that other people take for granted."

This made me try to pinpoint what personal traumas would be good fodder for my own story-telling. Those personal traumas were allowed by God for a reason and must be an important place to search for something significant to say. Maybe it will take time and distance to be able to step away from the intense pain, but eventually those traumatic events will reap a perspective that needs to be shared.

If you are interested in exploring your God-given creativity (be it art, writing, music, etc.), this book encourages you to value your gift and to devote yourself to the pursuit of excellence in that gift. The writing is easy to read and affirms the idea that your creativity is an expression of your spirituality. It was fun, if even just to eavesdrop on another writer's journey.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review: Escape

It feels like forever ago that I finished this novel, even though it was only a little over a week. This was a book I checked out in audio form so I would have something to listen to on long drives. It kept my interest and told a good story, but wasn't anything to rave about.

Emily has had it. Life has gotten to the breaking point and all she wants to do is escape. Who can't relate to that story line? Thus, one day Emily hops in her car, leaves her job as a lawyer and shows up on the doorstep of her best friend, whom she hasn't seen in ten years. Life in a small town pulls her back to a summer long ago when she lived and worked with Vicki Bell and loved her brother. The brother is back, the coyotes are pulling her and she must decide if she will give up her hectic life and marriage in Manhattan or simply work to rearrange it.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Writing Retreat

Since my mother-in-law was scheduled to come visit us during the week of my boys' spring break, my husband urged me to get away for a writing retreat. I googled "Writer's Retreat - Indiana" and discovered an idyllic little location called "Woodland Retreat," in Laurel, Indiana. It was under a two hour drive and provided a wonderful chance to get away to a quiet, peaceful, intensely beautiful location.

I rented the smaller of two cabins. I checked in Tuesday evening and left Thursday morning around noon. In the intervening hours, I took two walks along the trails and worked on a contest submission, a query letter and a novel synopsis. It was almost too quiet (coming from the constant chaos that is my home). I watched a movie, "The Ultimate Gift," on Wednesday night. It was wonderfully relaxing and fairly productive (I had intended to continue my work on my 2009 Nanowrimo novel, but only have it uploaded to e-mail on my laptop and couldn't get a connection).

Here are some photos of my time there:

My cabin

breakfast nook

front porch where I read books

bigger family cabin

owner's house

lake house

blue heron

Here's the dog that walked alongside me during my walk along the trail on the first day.

It was a wonderful getaway and I can't wait to do it again!