Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

God gives each of us a gift of 86,400 seconds a day. It seems only right that we take one second out of EACH day, not just Thanksgiving Day, to give Him thanks and praise for the countless blessings (big and small) that He so generously shares with us.

On a lighter note...
May your stuffing be tasty,
May your turkey be plump,
May your potatoes ‘n gravy have nary a lump,
May your yams be delicious,
May your pies take the prize,
May your thanksgiving dinner
Stay off of your thighs.
Gobble gobble! Don't forget to set your scales back 10 pounds tonight.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Based on a True Story: A Memoir

Just so we’re clear, Norm Macdonald’s Based on a True Story: A Memoir is not a memoir, though it says memoir on it, it’s a novel. Norm explained this fact in usual Norm fashion while on with Conan; “It’s like if you buy Grapes of Wrath, and you’re like, hey there’s no grapes. Or you put it in the grapes section, that’s smart; then everyone will find Grapes of Wrath. People that like grapes.” Yes, that sort of nonsensical absurdity is scattered throughout this novel’s (not a memoir) pages, which makes for some head-scratching, eyebrow-raising, guffaw-inducing reading.

From the publisher: “As this book’s title suggests, Norm Macdonald tells the story of his life—more or less—from his origins on a farm in the-back-of-beyond Canada and an epically disastrous appearance on Star Search to his account of auditioning for Lorne Michaels and his memorable run as the anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live—until he was fired because a corporate executive didn’t think he was funny. But Based on a True Story is much more than a memoir; it’s the hilarious, inspired epic of Norm’s life.”

While the book is liberally laced with facts and anecdotes from Norm’s life, including his childhood in Canada, time on SNL's Weekend Update, and gambling addiction, Norm gave himself free-rein to copious amounts of artistic license in ‘tweaking’ (for lack of a better word) each tale to farcical proportions so that at times you didn’t know exactly where the truth ended and lie began; at other times, it was pretty obvious. Case in point is the story of his SNL job interview and how he earned the gig by offering Lorne Michaels a bag with seven grams of government-grade morphine (love the commitment to detail). Truth or fiction? You be the judge. Or the forlorn confession to his unrequited love for fellow cast member Sarah Silverman, and his sinister but thankfully unsuccessful plot (thanks to Colin Quinn, the snitch) to hire a hit man to dispatch of his rival and Sarah’s love interest, SNL writer Dave Attell.

I gotta admit that having read this hilarious novel, I hope against hope that Norm writes a real honest-to-goodness memoir for it was the chapters where he was most vulnerable and honest that I loved most. 'My First Five Years' was a hoot; as he laid claim to the fact that at age one he was in peak physical condition and that his best friend was the cat, “who only knew one word, “meow”, but at the time it was one more word than I knew. I thought the cat had it all figured out.” Or his droll self-mockery at the fact that at that age he could do no wrong in the eyes of his parents; “sometimes all I had to do was show up” but how that changed at age three when the “aren’t you the smartest boy in the whole wide world?” changed to “is there something wrong with that boy?” Most notable of all and utterly heartbreaking if it contained even a kernel of truth was the chapter dealing with a family friend (Old Jack) that worked on his parent’s farm that (perhaps, possibly) subjected him to years of silent abuse.

Based on a True Story takes readers on a mindbender of a road trip filled with laughs such as only Norm could deliver. A raw if not honest look at an often underrated, overlooked and underappreciated comedy icon.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

All Is Not Forgotten

Our lives are comprised not of minutes, hours or days but of moments, both happy and sad, that help shape us. What if we could erase the darkest of memories, those moments best forgotten? If the question wasn't could we, but should we, then would we? Would you erase the pain of loss, fear or heartbreak? Would we miss them as if having lost some integral part of ourselves? All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker offers just that hypothetical dilemma in the guise of a riveting psychological thriller.

From the publisher: “It begins in the small, affluent town of Fairview, Connecticut, where everything seems picture perfect. Until one night when young Jenny Kramer is attacked at a local party. In the hours immediately after, she is given a controversial drug to medically erase her memory of the violent assault. But, in the weeks and months that follow, as she heals from her physical wounds, and with no factual recall of the attack, Jenny struggles with her raging emotional memory. Her father, Tom, becomes obsessed with his inability to find her attacker and seek justice while her mother, Charlotte, struggles to pretend this horrific event did not touch her carefully constructed world.”

I found All Is Not Forgotten provocative, intriguing and engaging, yet I can't say that I loved the book. The science at the center of this compelling tale is still hypothetical, but the family dynamics which propel the story are firmly rooted in reality and well fleshed out by the author. Though I found the plot suspenseful, the pacing deliberate but not plodding, and the narrative around the rape disturbing and dark yet authentic to the tale and not gratuitous, I felt the choice of narrator diminished Jenny's voice and the chance for her to own her journey. In essence, the narrator hijacked Jenny's tale of fight and survival and made it instead about his Machiavellian plans and manipulations.

Despite my issues with the construct of the novel, I was utterly fascinated by the subject of memory and its manipulation as planted before us in this memorable tale, and the dilemma of whether it's best to forget or to face our boogeymen and wounds, even those more painful than those that bleed, head on. I'll say that while I found our narrator's actions at times contemptible, on this thought-provoking issue I wholeheartedly agree with his contention that moments of pain and trauma must be faced not erased, for in that confrontation can be found hope, healing and strength. The truth is that some memories even when seemingly forgotten still linger within us, like ghost in rattling chains, because once lived they're forever a part of us. As such, it seems unsurprisingly inevitable that excising those memories would engender the phantom pain of a missing part of us; their absence mourned by mind and soul.

Though I didn't love All Is Not Forgotten, I love having read it for it was a frustratingly thought-provoking, twisty and page-turning tale, which no matter your sentiment by book's end, you most definitely won't soon forget.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Discovering Johnny

You might think me a nerd, but I’ll confess to being a huge fan of movie previews. I await them with the same eager anticipation most reserve for the feature presentation, and despite the grumblings of other movie goers around me, never feel you have too many. I’ll admit though that the experience is usually so fleeting that between the too-brief trailers and watching the 2-hour movie that got me there in the first place, I usually end up only remembering the 1 or 2 most memorable ones. During yesterday’s screening of Hacksaw Ridge, one trailer worked its magic, obliterating all the rest, leaving me utterly enraptured and searching not for the trailer of the film, but for the singer and song in the trailer’s soundtrack.

The film was Logan, but much more importantly, the singer was Johnny Cash and the song was his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. As I’ve mentioned countless times, I’m not a music buff; I only have a handful of CDs that I keep in my car and otherwise listen to news radio. Yet, much like heavy metal band Disturbed’s cover of The Sound of Silence which left me singing its praises, Cash’s cover was so utterly gut-wrenching and haunting in its delivery that it stayed with me long after leaving the theater. Here’s the breathtaking video of the song which throbs with palpable emotion.



Released back in 2002, the video went on to win a Grammy award for Video of the Year, so I’m only 14 years late, and a dollar short in my discovery, but alas, this is one time when I can say with heartfelt conviction, better late than never. Oh, and by the way, here’s the trailer to Logan. I’m not an X-Men fan, I only ever saw the first film in the series, but I must admit Cash aside, the trailer looks fantastic and Hugh Jackman’s buff physique has nothing to do with it.

Hacksaw Ridge

"War is hell." Undoubtedly most war movies barely scrape at the surface of its savagery and futility, though Hollywood does its best to capture their version of the experience. Directed by Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is the latest entry into this genre which unflinchingly delivers a story so unbelievable it must be true, making no concessions to the gentle constitutions of its viewers. The film does not scrimp in its gruesome, savage and gut-wrenching depictions of mangled bodies and much worse, instead opting through candid ferocity to help us better grasp the horror – the blood, guts and stench of battle – endured by our soldiers. Yet, here is the conundrum I find myself in while writing this review, for as much as it's a war movie, intense and violent and making no apologies for it, it is also – equally and unquestionably – a movie about faith.

From the official website: “Hacksaw Ridge is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWI, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

A riveting and powerful movie, Hacksaw Ridge is not for the faint of heart, for sure. It is bloody, gory, and heart-wrenching to say the least, but also AMAZING in its accomplished feat of highlighting in equal measure the vagaries and barbarity of war, as well as the strength and hope found in God and faith. Much like his epic The Passion of the Christ, Gibson has layered his film with violence AND spirituality. Viewers of all stripes (but especially people of faith) will be moved by Doss’ journey; beaten during boot camp by fellow soldiers who saw his reluctance to fight as an act of cowardice and mocked for his believes, he turns the other cheek, forgives their transgressions against him and with God’s grace and help (for the results are nothing short of a miracle) goes on to save countless lives. While war is a large part of this film, Gibson also beautifully captures moments of love and family. By starting the tale during Doss’ youth, Gibson lays the groundwork for viewers to better understand Doss’ conviction given life events which helped shape him as a man.

As for performances, Garfield does a wonderful job in conveying Doss’ faith journey and struggle for understanding, yet the actors which were a true revelation to me were Vince Vaughn and Hugo Weaving. Vaughn effortlessly delivered much needed moments of levity (to be expected), but also somber strength and emotion. As Desmond’s dad, Weaving (aka Agent Smith from The Matrix) brilliantly conveyed in every scowl and pain-filled grimace the grim, tortured soul of a man lost to the horrors of his own war past; whose drinking and violence is unleashed on his family not out of hate for them, but for himself. Honestly for me, every time Weaving came on the screen, there was a rawness – a bleeding heart laid bare before me quality to it – that was breathtaking. (Oh, you might not have seen the movie yet, but his performance during the dinner table scene when Hal informs them of his enlistment gave me a knot in my throat the size of a golf ball.)

Hacksaw Ridge is a gripping must-see film that shines a much-needed spotlight on a humble American hero whose life and actions serve to remind us that the task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us when faced with faith. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

All the Missing Girls

You can’t go home again they say, and if you were under suspicion in a missing person investigation, you probably wouldn’t want to anyway. Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls protagonist, Nic, chooses to fly in the face of such wisdom and returning home after 10 years is quick to realize another hard truth, you can’t run away from your problems because you can’t run away from yourself.

From the publisher: “It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace. Back again to tie up loose ends and care for her ailing father, Nic is soon plunged into a shocking drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched. The decade-old investigation focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson. Since then, only Nic has left Cooley Ridge. Daniel and his wife, Laura, are expecting a baby; Jackson works at the town bar; and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter, Nic’s younger neighbor and the group’s alibi the night Corinne disappeared. Then, within days of Nic’s return, Annaleise goes missing.”

All the Missing Girls was an engaging read (in that you had to put some brain power behind it), in part due to the author's original format which featured the story being told backwards (day 15 to day 1) from the point that the current day disappearance takes place. While this narrative device was unique (at least for me) and probably quite suited to a suspense novel, I felt like in this case it didn't add a new dimension to the story. In fact, I think it impeded the usual incremental build of tension and suspense which occurs in most mystery/thrillers. Despite some twists, the book never quite reached its full potential due to an at times plodding pace, a less than likeable narrator, and the bleh resolution to Corinne's storyline.

A fair to middling plot can be easily salvaged by great characters; nuanced, complex, likeable or at least relatable, but here Nic was none of the above. Readers are fickle but oh so forgiving of a book’s flaws if emotionally engaged with its characters, but I never truly felt invested in Nic’s struggles. Honestly, even the relationships, interactions and dialogue between the characters seemed contrived at times, not an organic or natural dynamic, but just a way for the author to get us from Point A to Point B. Well, I won't beat a dead horse. You get the idea, I didn't connect, care or empathize with the entire cast of characters.

All the Missing Girls could’ve stayed missing a little bit longer. I kid, I kid. No really, it was one of those middle-of-the-road books that in its averageness has a con for every pro. Original yet predictable, engaging but a little boring; the kind of book you read, finish, and forget by next week.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

"Gruesome" and "fascinating" are prominent adjectives used on the book jacket of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and I’d have to agree with both. "Hilarious" which is another one used quite regularly is a bit of head scratcher, but to each their own. This oddball of a best-selling biography which offers a peek behind the curtain of the funeral industry has been around for a couple years, so it might be familiar to some.

From the publisher: “Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty―a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre―took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures. ”

I’ll confess that despite countless rave reviews I started the book with a healthy dose of trepidation; unsure whether my stomach and nerves could take the read. I quickly realized that while I had no qualms reading the salacious or cringe-worthy facts surrounding cremation, a body’s decomposition, or even the goosebumps inducing details on embalming that are found in the book, what did bother me wasn’t what was in the book, but what was missing. I get that to do this job on a day-to-day basis the author must employ a level of professional detachment, or else she’d be crying and hand-wringing over every corpse. Yet, at no point during the book is there an acknowledgement that these human remains were human beings that lived and breathed and were (are still) loved by family and friends, and that to the very end, though only their shell is left, they deserved to be treated with the grace and dignity which was their due. Where in these anecdotes was the solemnity required of the occasions? Would the same witty banter and lighthearted jokes – which I concede made for entertaining reading - have been shared between Doughty and her co-workers if it was the body of their own loved one lying before them?

In fairness, the book was informative and answered countless questions you might have been afraid to even voice. It also offered a plethora of eye-opening and fascinating information on the treatment of the dead by other cultures, both in the past and present day. Nonetheless, I must honestly say that by book’s end there were tons of facts that I wished I could unlearn; a simple wish that I hadn’t opened this Pandora’s box of images and words, like trocar or needle injectors, that are now forever linked in my mind with memories of lost loved ones that went through doors similar to those of Westwind Cremation & Burial. I was a little wiser for the experience, but what was in my head and heart were two very different things. What I 'felt' was that “as human beings, sometimes it’s better to stay in the dark, because in the dark there may be fear, but there’s also hope.” (Believe it or not, that's a Grey's Anatomy quote; who knew they could be so deep?)

Alas, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a well-written book, quite engaging and interesting, but ultimately not my cup of tea.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Lily and the Octopus

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. In Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, denial is the only thing getting Ted Flask through the fear and heartache of facing the possible loss of his best friend. This utterly charming and emotional tale introduces us to two souls made for each other, who embark on an unforgettable, at times hilarious at others heartbreaking, odyssey as they fight a dastardly octopus intent on breaking the bonds of their love.

From the publisher: “When you sit down with Lily and the Octopus, you will be taken on an unforgettable ride. The magic of this novel is in the read, and we don’t want to spoil it by giving away too many details. We can tell you that this is a story about that special someone: the one you trust, the one you can’t live without. For Ted Flask, that someone special is his aging companion Lily, who happens to be a dog.”

I loved, no let me get this right, I LOVED Lily and the Octopus, and if you’re a dog lover; no, I lie, if you have a beating heart and a sense of humor, you will too. Our tale offers two characters with bigger than life personalities that you can’t help but love, with the grandest wish of all, being cool enough to be a part of their circle of love. Yes, Ted and Lily have the kind of friendship that lets them chat about cute boys (I’m partial to Clooney myself), play monopoly on a quiet night in, and of course, be there for each other in the brightest days, but especially the darkest hours. The tale does have some fantastical elements to amp up its charm and magic, which might turnoff some readers; but if you go with the flow folks, you’ll be carried off to serene seas and a love story you won’t soon forget.

A word of warning to fellow pet owners, this book captures both the joys and heartache of pet ownership, and all that encompasses, so caveat emptor. At odd passages, I was dragged back to past moments of fear and sorrow involving my pets; back to vet rooms during health scares when I stood with pain in the pit of my stomach and trepidation in my heart waiting for words I was afraid to hear; or worse yet, those heartrending moments of loss. For those whom this pain is still raw and new, you might want to skip this book right now. Keep it in mind though for the future because on par with the captured pain, it also joyfully highlights the beauty of loving a pet; the moments of unadulterated happiness, hilarity, grossness (plenty of those) and, of course, unconditional love.

Lily and the Octopus is a quirky, humdinger of a story that will have you smiling in delight, wiping away tears (or ‘eye rain’ as Lily would say), and hugging your furry friends a little closer.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Female of the Species

Vengeance in the name of justice denied sets the gears in motion in the gripping YA thriller, The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis. “This is how I kill someone;" as far as character introductions go, it's a doozy; and in those chilling words and one act of unspeakable violence, Alex Craft wields a darkness within previously kept at bay, but one which once unleashed will no longer be denied.

From the publisher: “Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. Three years ago, when her older sister, Anna, was murdered and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best—the language of violence. While her own crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people. Not with Jack, the star athlete who wants to really know her but still feels guilty over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered. And not with Peekay, the preacher’s kid with a defiant streak who befriends Alex while they volunteer at an animal shelter. Not anyone. As their senior year unfolds, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting these three teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.”

The Female of the Species was a thrill to read; a true page-turner with well-developed characters and a compelling plot that moved its protagonists at a relentless pace towards the tale's inexorable conclusion. The story was told through Alex, Jack and Peekay's alternating points of view, offering readers a more insightful perspective into Alex, the catalyst driving this dark tragic tale. If guided merely by Alex's judgment of herself, readers would assume that there was no redeeming value to this lost child; but in her interactions with Jack and Peekay, we see a wounded cynicism which belies her age, and an undeniable light and goodness in direct juxtaposition to the evil of her actions.

Though the author has woven the important subject of the rape culture found in schools into the tale, I found more thought-provoking the novel's theme of vigilante justice and whether the end justifies the means. Alex kills a rapist and murderer, thereby preventing a predator from finding new prey and victims. Is a murderer a murderer, and a victim a victim no matter the circumstance? Do both crimes have a moral equivalency? I've always felt in these instances that two wrongs don’t make a right; that justice should be left to our criminal justice system or to a higher power, with my sentiment extending equally to capital punishment. After all, it makes no sense that the State is killing someone for killing someone. I'll honestly confess though that I don't know how I'd feel if the injured party was a loved one; if the unbearable grief of their loss and seething anger at the suffering inflicted upon them would alter my moral standing. God willing I never have to find out.

The Female of the Species was a memorable novel that chillingly and poignantly reminds us of the truth of Victor Hugo's astute words, “Every blade has two edges; he who wounds with one, wounds himself with the other” for an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Amy Ellis Nutt, is as much an illuminating novel on a transgender girl’s journey, as it is a testament to her strength and fortitude, and an ode to the amazing family that helped her to chart her path in life. Its every page speaks to the power of a parent's love to nurture and empower a child's sense of self to help them become who they were destined to be.

From the publisher: “When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys, they thought their lives were complete. But it wasn’t long before they noticed a marked difference between Jonas and his brother, Wyatt. Jonas preferred sports and trucks and many of the things little boys were “supposed” to like; but Wyatt liked princess dolls and dress-up and playing Little Mermaid. By the time the twins were toddlers, confusion over Wyatt’s insistence that he was female began to tear the family apart. In the years that followed, the Maines came to question their long-held views on gender and identity, to accept and embrace Wyatt’s transition to Nicole, and to undergo an emotionally wrenching transformation of their own that would change all their lives forever.”

Becoming Nicole was an insightful, informative and emotional read. The author's unprecedented access to the family through journals, home videos, interviews, and medical records is evident in the honest and in-depth look at every obstacle, heartache and milestone, both large and small, which the Maines faced individually and as a family; from bullying at school, to facing their own fears and preconceived notions, to fighting and winning a landmark court battle. It’s a story of growth for child and parent alike, because while love came easy, acceptance of Nicole’s truth took a little longer for dad, Wayne, whom is now both her most ardent supporter and a public advocate for transgender rights.

As a science writer, the author offers an abundance of facts on the subject. Like the fact that genitals and gender identity develop differently before birth; that while genitals are an anatomical fact of nature, gender identity occurs in the brain and sometimes there is disconnect between the two. The most eye-opening statement for me, that led to a true moment of understanding, came from Dr. Norman Spack when he explained: “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with. Gender identity is who you go to bed as." The book provides a sensitive peek into the inner turmoil and fear of many transgender people who face a future not as their truest self, where the person in their head doesn’t match what they see in the mirror, at times forced to live a lie to please the world around them.

More than the scientific facts or legal rights battles highlighted in Becoming Nicole, what drew me in was the truth of this normal American family and the love, compassion, understanding and acceptance with which they surrounded their child. The suicide rate amongst transgender youth is at a staggering 40+%; not surprising given the hardship and heartache faced by many in their day-to-day life, including rejection by friends and family, discrimination, and sometimes actual physical abuse and violence. Just think of the lives changed if every transgender child, youth and/or adult could armor themselves against the outside world with the love of a family that said you are loved totally and unconditionally as you are, not in spite of your sexual orientation or gender identity, but because of it, because that is just one of the million and one things that make you, YOU.

Becoming Nicole is a worthwhile read that as it educates also opens hearts and minds.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Weird, Wonderful and Wearying

Wanton idleness and wonderful books were the theme of the day yesterday, when as planned I spent the day pinballing from couch to bed and back again during Dewey's readathon. Much like my dry run, I didn't make it to the 24-hour mark. Honestly, I've come to accept that if I couldn't pull off an allnighter when I was in my 20s, at 48 I might be asking for the impossible. By two o'clock in the morning, neither pride, love of books nor spirit of competition were speaking to me; I was deaf to all but the sirens call of my sweet pillow. Ultimately, having consumed three and a half books or 1108 pages and quadruple that amount in calories between snacks and meals, I proclaimed the day a success, and my weary body succumbed to sleep. As for the weird in the title, skeevy is probably more appropriate; but more on that later.

The day dawned cold, wet and windy as forecasted. I hit the ground running with the novel Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, a YA thriller that proved both gripping and insightful. Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley was up next and this one, though I hate to point fingers, might have been to blame for my readathon downfall. It was such a charming, funny and utterly touching read that I skipped my planned siesta, a fact which came back to bite me in the behind at 2 am. All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda was next at bat; an original and compelling thriller and murder mystery, uniquely told backwards from day 15 to day 1. Last, but not least, was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a biography filled with 'heartbreaking and hilarious, fascinating and freaky, vivid and morbid' stories from a young, twentysomething year old mortician. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, so here I acknowledge a moment of temporary insanity for knowing that I was barely keeping my eyes open, I decided to start my fourth book from the comfort of my warm bed. Dumb, de-dumb, dumb.

Now to the weird. It happened during Lily and the Octopus. I was reading and enjoying the book thoroughly when I turned the page and there flattened between the pages, like someone would press and dry a small delicate flower for posterity, was a bunch, a clump, a gaggle (I don't know what you'd call it), but more than a few long strands of hair. Eek! I was more than a little grossed out, but I calmly walked to my garbage can and let them slide into the receptacle without touching them. Again, I was a little skeeved but not enough to put the book down and stop reading. I continued reading, enjoying the story as much as before, when lo and behold, again more hair. I had to repeat the process, not once or twice, but 3 or 4 times.

Yes, in a stroke of pure genius (or not) it would appear the reader before me used their hair as an au naturale bookmark of sorts. Deranged or ingenious? You be the judge. The wackiest part of this story is that, swear on the Bible, this is not the first time this has happened to me. What are the freaking odds? I spared you all the gory details the first time, but a second time is just too freaky not to share. The worst part? I obviously share this enterprising weirdo's reading taste (unless there is more than one of them out there), so there's a good possibility this will happen again! I shudder at the thought.

All things considered, I'm glad for the experience. Will I do it again? Ugh, probably not. How many readathons do you really need in a lifetime? I'd say two should suffice to duly impress the masses.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon

It’s finally here! Man your battle stations, namely your couch. Yes, Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon takes place tomorrow October 22nd. My dry run back in May was relatively successful with three books read; I’m hoping I can duplicate my effort, if not improve on it. Rain and wind on schedule tomorrow for my neck of the woods. Could you ask for more perfect reading weather? Books, couch, and some yummy treats to keep me sugared up and wide awake. Ooh-wee, I can’t wait!

I hit the proverbial wall at around the 18-hour mark in May, so I’ve decided to rework my strategy and include a brief nap during the day. Yes, a little siesta shortly after lunch should hit the spot. A dreary day, a full belly, a cozy bed and the bedroom window open to hear the pitter-patter of rain; what could be better? On further thought, this might be a recipe for disaster. I better set an alarm or I might be waking up when the marathon is over.

As for reading materials, I have four books already on my reading pile (All Is Not Forgotten, All the Missing Girls, The Book of Joy and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes), but I’m still going to make a library run this afternoon in hopes of maybe picking up 1 or 2 more (it can’t hurt to have a little something for any mood), including maybe an audio book in case I get a little cabin fever. Now for the important stuff, snacks! A little sweet, a little savory, something hearty to ward off the chill and something ooey gooey and decadent to cap off a successful day. I’m going to come out of this more well-read but 5 pounds heavier.

Visit Dewey’s and sign up to participate; after all, the more the merrier.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Man Called Ove (Swedish film)

As you guys might recall from my book review, I loved the Swedish novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, so I was downright giddy when I learned there was a Swedish film made of the novel. Well, last Friday I went to my local fine arts cinema and caught a screening, and boy did it ever do the book justice. It was so beautiful!

Attendance was touch and go for a couple minutes because I couldn't find parking, but thankfully after the third loop through the train station parking lot, success. The movie was being screened in the tiniest theater imaginable, I think it seated 30 people, so with the late arrival thanks to parking and of course a stop at the concession stand for popcorn, drink and candy (what's a movie without them?), seating was limited to either the very front row or one single seat next to an elderly gentleman who had placed a bag on the chair. You're probably like, "and I care about this why?" I'm sharing this tidbit because he was so downright charming that it made my afternoon. Get this, I asked if he was saving the seat for someone and his response was "for you." Aww.

For those of you who haven't read the book (you totally should), A Man Called Ove tells the story of the eponymous hero, "the quintessential angry old man next door. An isolated retiree with strict principles and a short fuse, who spends his days enforcing block association rules that only he cares about, and visiting his wife’s grave. Ove has given up on life. Enter a boisterous young family next door who accidentally flattens Ove’s mailbox while moving in and earning his special brand of ire. Yet from this inauspicious beginning an unlikely friendship forms." Think Grumpy Old Men meets It's A Wonderful Life. Honestly, the film was heartwarming, charming, funny, and poignant; in part due to the great source material but also thanks to the utterly riveting and emotional performance by the lead actor, Rolf Lassgård.

The film was sweet and sentimental but in the best way, not sappy or maudlin. Much like the book, the director relied on flashbacks to share with the viewer the hidden truths of this curmudgeon's bittersweet life of love and loss and the fact that behind that scowling exterior beat a heart of gold. Of course, by the end of the film I was a mess, both figuratively and literally since I didn't have tissues and I had tears streaking down my red cheeks, a runny nose and was this close, like a hair's breath, from choked sobs. I didn't feel bad though because remember my charmer and seat buddy, he was a mess too! Yup, he was sniffling like there's no tomorrow and you know the whole shoulder shake you do when you're holding in tears, yup that was him. A man after my own heart.

Long story short, do yourself a favor and go see A Man Called Ove; you'll be thanking me if you do; after you finish blowing your nose from crying.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Because I'm Watching

FDR said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which is profound and good advice, but in my case totally impossible. I mean he’s totally overlooked spiders, snakes, heights, roller coasters, public speaking, and things that go bump in the night. Yeah, I’m pretty lily-livered if I do say so myself. All joking aside, I don’t mind a good scare when it comes in book form and from the comfort of my own couch and Christina Dodd’s, Because I’m Watching, had the potential of delivering in spades. What could be scarier than your own fear used as a weapon against you in a psychological warfare where the enemy seems to be inside your own mind?

From the publisher: "The survivor of a college dorm massacre, a woman accused of her lover's murder, Madeline Hewitson is haunted by ghosts and tormented by a killer only she can see. At night, she works, writing and drawing the monster that slithers through her imagination, and living in fear of those moments when the doors of her mind unhinge and her nightmare lives in the daylight. A seasoned military veteran, Jacob Denisov lives alone in his small, darkened home, sleepless, starving, and angry. Every day he lives with the guilt that comes from his own failures and the carnage that followed. When neighbor Madeline Hewitson drives her car through the front wall of his house, she breaks his house--and his life--wide open. Forced to view the world outside, Jacob watches Maddie, recognizes a kindred spirit and wonders what she fears more than herself. Has someone caught her in a twisted labyrinth of revenge and compassion, guilt and redemption, murder and madness?"

I might have tipped you off as to my lukewarm feelings on the book when I used the dreaded word “potential” in my first paragraph. Because I’m Watching was a good book; not great, but by no means a total waste of time. I found it to be a great idea poorly executed, though I’ll concede that the problem might lie with me, or namely my preferences as a reader. The problem, as I see it, is that as a romantic suspense novel it tried to successfully deliver on both genres (romance and suspense), and ended up holding true to the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ It was neither sweetly, sweepingly, movingly romantic nor thrillingly, frighteningly, suspenseful.

Given the frightening premise of the tale, Dodd could have done so much to ratchet up the tension if she'd helped readers to better grasp Maddie’s escalating sense of horror. Instead of telling us of Maddie’s fear, put us in the room with her and make us feel it; make our heart pound a little faster, make us cringe and shiver right along with her. Why not add a little suspense and make us truly doubt whether she's just batshit crazy? As for the identity of the villain, way too predictable; Nate the Great could've solved this case.

Because I’m Watching was a pleasant read that could’ve amped up its spook factor for a more spine-tingling, tense read; if you like that type of thing, which I do (in books only).

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

Have you ever looked at a painting and had your imagination so captured by its beauty and depth that the brushstrokes disappeared and you felt a part of something real? Like a true artist, Scott Stambach pulls off a similar feat in his stellar debut, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, making you feel as if a voyeur, a silent fellow inmate (for it seems more prison than hospital) or comrade to our eponymous hero, equally trapped within the cold white walls of the only home he's ever known.

From the publisher: “Seventeen-year-old Ivan Isaenko is a life-long resident of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. For the most part, every day is exactly the same for Ivan, which is why he turns everything into a game, manipulating people and events around him for his own amusement. Until Polina arrives. She steals his books. She challenges his routine. The nurses like her. She is exquisite. Soon, he cannot help being drawn to her and the two forge a romance that is tenuous and beautiful and everything they never dared dream of. Before, he survived by being utterly detached from things and people. Now, Ivan wants something more: Ivan wants Polina to live.”

I loved this book. Touted as The Fault in Our Stars meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ivan’s tale of woe, love and hope is imbued with his irrepressible wit, wisdom and cynicism. Written as if a found memoir or journal, Ivan’s early humble confession quickly ensnares our heart and imagination; “I need to share this place with you, Reader. I need to share my friends who I would never admit were friends. I need to share with you my beloved, whom I would never admit I loved. For if I don’t document our world right now…we will risk fading into the foam of history without mention.” With a host of wonderfully three-dimensional, nuanced and complex characters, the author effortlessly it seems gives the tale the gravitas and believability, as well as palpable emotion, you’d expect from a real memoir instead of a work of fiction.

“I’m seventeen years old, approximately male, and I live in an asylum for mutant children.” Ivan and his ‘friends’ are products of the Chernobyl disaster (though never directly named), bearing the physical burdens caused by the carelessness of men. Ivan describes himself as hideous with a crippling phobia of reflective surfaces; he only has one arm and the hand attached to it 2 fingers and a thumb, and the ‘rest of his appendages are short, asymmetrical nubs that wiggle with fantastic effort.’ Yet his mind and wit are all there and then some, both a blessing and a curse, for he’s fully-cognizant of his limitations and deprivations unlike his fellow residents. Ivan's intellect is fully developed thanks to reading all the Russian literary greats. The books, kindness, and in-depth conversations on a multitude of subjects are thanks to his nurse and pseudo-mother, Nurse Natalya. By contrast, Polina (Juliet to his Romeo) doesn’t belong; beautiful, able-bodied, and cheeky. Polina wasn’t just his equal, she was his greater. Newly arrived at the hospital, Ivan sees her as an interloper, an enigma, even a nemesis, but slowly friendship and camaraderie become love, and start us on our sad tale for Polina is dying.

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is a memorable love story where the heartache is a known fact from the tale’s onset; a constant blip in the not-too-distant horizon to which we draw ever closer with every page. Nonetheless, readers quickly find that death and sorrow are but an infinitesimal part of this heartwarming, heart-wrenching and poignant tale. Intelligent, funny, and uncompromisingly honest, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is a must-read novel that ensures our narrator and hero that not through statues or great deeds, but through simple words on a page, he and his beloved will live forever.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Sound of Silence

Prepare to have your world rocked. I heard this version of The Sound of Silence by heavy metal band Disturbed this weekend, and what can I say? Goosebumps. I love Simon and Garfunkel, but this will forever be my favorite version of this song.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

With Malice

In today’s social media crazed world where gossip is news, drama sells, and every Tom, Dick and Harry posts or tweets their views as if experts, the court of public opinion rules and the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty seems to have become a thing of the past. Eileen Cook’s YA thriller, With Malice, highlights the truth that in part nowadays “it doesn’t matter what’s true – what matters is what people believe.” Inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox trial, this engaging thriller keeps you guessing until the very end.

From the publisher: “Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron's senior trip to Italy was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. And then the accident happened. Waking up in a hospital room, her leg in a cast, stitches in her face, and a big blank canvas where the last 6 weeks should be, Jill comes to discover she was involved in a fatal accident in her travels abroad. She was jetted home by her affluent father in order to receive quality care. Care that includes a lawyer. And a press team. Because maybe the accident...wasn't an accident. Wondering not just what happened but what she did, Jill tries to piece together the events of the past six weeks before she loses her thin hold on her once-perfect life.”

With Malice was a relatively tame thriller insofar as action and adrenaline, but a no less enjoyable read for its more character-driven focus. Jill is a less than reliable narrator due to her traumatic brain injury and amnesia, a key factor that makes for some captivating reading, as you question her every thought and sense of self. Interspersed between chapters of Jill’s narrative, the author has shrewdly added police transcripts, Facebook comments, text messages and blog posts that offer numerous points of view and give the reader an array of perceived truths to parse through, making an already nebulous situation all the more murky and adding to the tale’s suspense.

While some may take issue with the use of amnesia as a plot device I found it to be pure genius on the author’s part, as it added such a suspenseful dynamic to the mystery. Angel or vixen, victim or villain, the truth of Jill depends on each person’s perception and adds another facet to the mystery given her own self-doubts. As Jill struggles through her recovery, both she and the reader labor with the question of how you grasp the truth when even your memories can’t be trusted? Are we editors of our own memories and truths, unable or unwilling to believe that we are the kind of person capable of unspeakable evil?

With Malice was a twisty and satisfying read with a compelling mystery, which on a more thought-provoking note raises the question of the link between truth and memory and our sense of self, and what remains of both when memory is lost.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Better Late Than Never

This post title could not be more apropos, as it pertains to both the title of the show about which I want to rave, ooh and aah, and heap well-deserved praise on and also the very poor timing of my share, since next Tuesday is its season finale (boo!).

Better Late Than Never on NBC is a reality-travel show featuring the epic adventure of a lifetime undertaken by four American icons: Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz from Happy Days), George Foreman (Olympic gold medalist and world champion boxer), Terry Bradshaw (Hall of Fame NFL quarterback) and William Shatner (aka Captain Kirk from Star Trek), and last but not least, comedian Jeff Dye, their gopher, tour guide and all-around comportment sensei as they travel the exotic sights of Asia. Let me tell you that while enjoying the beauty of Asia is cool, it is the incredible camaraderie, friendship and fish out of water hilarity captured on screen between these crotchety, yet lovable old farts that makes it worth its weight in gold. From eating some unexpected (to say the least) delicacies at a hole in the wall joint in Tokyo, to visiting a geisha house and samurai school in Kyoto, to nearly causing an international incident in Korea, you will be utterly charmed and enchanted by this unlikely bunch of travel buddies.

I love this show and I just know you will too. Honestly, this is easily the best show on TV right now and if you don’t agree, well, you’re just nuts. No really, it’s OK if you disagree with me; I can’t force you to be right, but do yourself a favor and hit up OnDemand, Hulu, NBC or wherever else you can find it. You will laugh like there’s no tomorrow, you’ll laugh like nobody’s watching; heck, you’ll laugh so hard, tears will run down your leg. (A little too much? Well, you get the idea. It's HILARIOUS!)

PS. On the off chance (like one in a million, Lotto winning odds chance) that NBC reads this post, please, please, please let there be a Season 2! I'm not ready to kiss my five new favorite men goodbye just yet; not with so much more of the world left which they can conquer.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

Humor is subjective; an art, not a science and one in which a joke that has me ROFL, makes you frown instead. It's a "you like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto"-type a thing, much like what I think will be reader's reception to The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer. Schumer's brand of humor, bold and more than a little naughty, undoubtedly inspires a wide-ranging spectrum of sentiment from fans and non-fans alike, from hate to love to somewhere in between, so her collection of essays (not a memoir) on subjects as varied as her dad, being a stand-up comic, new money, and being an introvert, to name a few, will do the same.

As I said, the book isn't a memoir, as Schumer is quick to point out from the get-go, “I’ll write one of those when I’m ninety” she says, adding that at 35 she’s not memoir-worthy. I'll confess that other than a hilarious YouTube clip of her on Ellen where she mocked the size of her arms ("Like in LA, my arms register as legs.") and an equally funny appearance on the Golden Globes, I didn't know much about Amy Schumer before reading this book. I've never seen her stand-up or her movie Trainwreck, and since I don't have cable (I can hear your gasp from here), I've never seen her comedy show. So, with that said, what did The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo teach me? Well, Schumer adores her siblings, loves her dad who is battling MS, has a complicated yet loving relationship with her mom, loves her success and everything it entails including celebrity, fame, and money, is in an ever-evolving relationship with wine (or booze in general), and most importantly, for Amy no topic or four-letter word is taboo.

While personally I'm not much of a cusser, I'm not offended by it in comedy and I must admit my funny-bone can be easily tickled (and was in this book) by a well-placed four letter word or other form of potty or juvenile humor, but others might feel otherwise. My issue with the book wasn't the NSFW topics or language, it was that many of the essays or chapters just weren't THAT funny. The only chapter in which she made me literally laugh out loud was the one titled "dad." Poopy pants does it for me I guess. A smaller gripe with the book is that Schumer gets a little preachy on serious subjects such as gun control and body-shaming of women, and though I get they're important to her, given the construct of the book and the topics for the other essays (such as "An Open Letter to My Vagina" and "Times It's Okay for a Man to Not Make a Woman Come During Sex") these conversations seemed a little out of place in this book.

Long story short, if you're looking for a laugh out loud read this isn’t quite it. Books have a way of revealing hidden truths about authors though, hidden nuggets of insight they might not have even wanted to share and The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo does just that. Despite her plans to the contrary, Schumer’s debut is really more memoir than comedy book and more than chuckles it offers real insight into the person behind the public persona, like her or not.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sausage Party

Breaking every law of nature, rule of common decency and political correctness, Seth Rogen has managed to do the impossible – transform a seemingly cute animated cartoon into a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, raunch fest, that is – and here’s the most amazing feat of all – hilarious! As a simple word of warning before you buy your ticket, I’ll echo Winston’s “Brace yourself Effie” (obscure movie reference free for your pleasure). Yes, for all their look of wide-eyed innocence each one of Shopwell’s residents is as brash and offensive as Andrew Dice Clay during his prime and sure to shock even the most hardened cusser among you. This ain’t for the faint of heart. Pardon my grammar.

Sausage Party is the story of a sausage named Frank (Seth Rogen) and the love of his life, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a hot dog bun, and a host of other foods that reside at Shopwell’s supermarket, who see human shoppers as gods, whom they hope will buy them and take them to “the great beyond.” Every day the foods start the day with a hymn to the gods; a song so embarrassingly irreverent and crass that you almost feel guilty laughing. To give you an idea of the hijinks in this song alone, well, a Hitler-like jar of sauerkraut hates the ‘juice.’ Are you still with me? Well, if the thought of racist jokes still hasn’t deterred you and I’ve piqued your curiosity, here’s a link to the entire song (The Great Beyond). You gotta admit, it’s catchy.

Back to the story, Frank and Brenda’s plans for happily ever after are spoiled when a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to the store and battling PTSD shares the truth of the horrors inflicted by humans on foods in The Great Beyond. After a Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach-like scene where lives are lost during a shopping cart collision, Frank is determined to get to the truth and following the advice imparted by Honey Mustard before his death he visits the liquor aisle and the wise Firewater (Bill Hader) looking for answers that could ultimately save all of Shopwell’s residents.

While I blushed and cringed at countless parts of this movie, I confess that I chuckled, cackled, and downright laughed out loud at countless more; in all honesty, it was filthier than I expected, but also funnier. For all its lewdness, in moments it was sweet and moderately thought-provoking, but without a doubt clever and original – though definitely not a movie for everyone, and especially not the kiddies.

Monday, August 29, 2016

You Will Know Me

If the Rio Olympics non-stop coverage of the “Final Five” wasn’t enough and you’re still jonesing for more yurchenkos and floor exercises, you might want to check out You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, the author’s latest mystery set amidst the cutthroat world of girl’s gymnastics.

From the publisher: "How far will you go to achieve a dream? That's the question a celebrated coach poses to Katie and Eric Knox after he sees their daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful, compete. For the Knoxes there are no limits--until a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community and everything they have worked so hard for is suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself irresistibly drawn to the crime itself. What she uncovers--about her daughter's fears, her own marriage, and herself--forces Katie to consider whether there's any price she isn't willing to pay to achieve Devon's dream."

While an engaging read, You Will Know Me didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. The plot was compelling, the characters well written, but though the writing was taut and the storyline fraught with a tension that early on kept me curious and turning the pages, the suspense never crescendoed and instead remained at a singular flat note; interesting but by no means ‘thrilling’. As for the mystery itself, well, it wasn’t much of one, especially given the heavy handed foreshadowing employed by the author at various points. In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that that my lack of enthusiasm for the book is in part due to my dissatisfaction with the tale’s resolution. What can I say, the real world is far from perfect, so when it comes to literary fiction I want my romances to have happy endings and in mystery/thrillers, my bad guys to get their well-deserved comeuppance.

I'm 0 for 2 when it comes to this author, as I had a similar experience with her 2014 novel, The Fever; another edgy teen-focused mystery that was all the rage at the time. Though I can wholeheartedly concede that Abbott is a good author with novels featuring intriguing plots and nuanced three-dimensional characters (with a special gift for writing angsty teenage girls that are the perfect mix of wide-eyed innocence and lolita-esque menace), there's been just that little something (je ne sais quoi) missing in each story that's kept them at blah and shy of BLAM.

You Will Know Me’s window into the high-pressure, high-stakes world of gymnastics was definitely intriguing, but on the whole, I felt the author didn’t quite stick her landing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Kind Worth Killing

I'm always leery when any book is touted as the "next" anything. The next Gone Girl or the next Girl on the Train seem to be the go-to comparisons lately for any twisty, page-turning suspense thrillers. Sadly, the comparisons usually fall short, but The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson, deserves every complimentary comparison and word of praise for as they say in Boston, the book was wicked good!

From the publisher: “On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning and mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing very intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage that’s going stale and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him… But their game turns a little darker when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.” After all, some people are the kind worth killing, like a lying, stinking, cheating spouse. . . .Back in Boston, Ted and Lily’s twisted bond grows stronger as they begin to plot Miranda's demise. But there are a few things about Lily’s past that she hasn’t shared with Ted, namely her experience in the art and craft of murder, a journey that began in her very precocious youth. Suddenly these co-conspirators are embroiled in a chilling game of cat-and-mouse, one they both cannot survive . . . with a shrewd and very determined detective on their tail.”

The Kind Worth Killing was an enthralling and addictive read. A twisty tale of lies, revenge, double-crosses and murder. The pacing, plot and writing were perfect, with the cherry on top of this confection being the amazingly layered and complex characters. The book offers no real hero/heroine in the lot, they’re all pretty awful human beings, but as far as captivating – well hat’s off to Lily, a sociopath for the ages that inspired equal parts fear and reluctant admiration.

Other than the tale’s twists and surprises which abound, The Kind Worth Killing also parallel’s Gone Girl in its unforgettable delivery of a wonderfully wicked female character. Gone Girl’s author Gillian Flynn once said “Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women… Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? ... I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains… I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women.” In Lily Kintner, author Peter Swanson delivers in spades.

Ingenious, engrossing and more than a little chilling, The Kind Worth Killing is a page-turning must read with a killer ending.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Invisible

"To love someone is to see a miracle invisible to others." - Francois Mauriac

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Aunthood & Me

A dear friend at work sent me a belated Happy Auntie’s Day message on Monday, along with a link to a great New York Post article. The article entitled “the most undervalued women in America are childless aunts” focused on the countless women that fill this role in a family and the pivotal function they play to the vitality of the family as a whole in both the dedicated time, positive influence, emotional connection, and financial gifts shared with their nieces/nephews. I must admit that both receiving the email and reading the article were wonderfully validating. Here was someone that understood how important this role was in my life and an article that acknowledged the value I brought to my family's life.

All of us can agree that motherhood is a life-affirming role, and also one not all women are blessed with experiencing for any number of reasons. I myself haven't been blessed with a child of my own; at this point in my life I should probably say WASN’T blessed with a child, since that seems more reflective of the fact that at 48 it’s not ever going to happen, as opposed to HAVEN'T with its implied ‘yet.’ Nonetheless, I do feel like God blessed me with the next best thing - to be an Aunt – for it has been and continues to be one of the most joyous, rewarding, fulfilling, and awe-inspiring experiences in my life.

As most or some of you know, I've been blessed with two nieces and three nephews by my two brothers. I’ll admit that while I love all of my nieces and nephews deeply, I do have a special bond with the two youngest, the infamous knuckleheads that are at the forefront of my daily thoughts, worries and prayers and regularly mentioned here. I was just out of puberty and on the cusp of becoming a self-absorbed teenager more focused on pimples, Regents exams, and the lack of invites to the prom when my older, by 12 years, brother had his kids. So while I loved kids then as much as I do today, my nieces and nephews especially, my nurturing or mothering gene hadn’t really kicked in yet. With my knuckleheads on the other hand, well, they entered my life 16 and 18 (almost) years ago respectively and have been the sun around which my heart revolves ever since.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said having nieces and nephews completely silenced the nagging toll of my biological clock, especially in my younger years while the clock still actually ticked, now it’s either gone digital or run out of batteries. It’s pretty quiet in there. I would have loved to experience the miracle of pregnancy or to experience that undoubtedly soul-stirring moment when a small, more perfect version of yourself and the man you love looks at you and utters the word Mom. The dreams were sweet; Noah and Noelle, those would have been their names, and I, of course, would have been the most perfect of moms – patient, understanding, loving, forgiving, cool (not sure how I would've pulled that off since I've never been cool a day in my life, but it's a dream people) and a wiz on homework, mending broken hearts, and motivational speeches. But alas, it was not to be. Luckily, though I didn’t get to experience the above, the dreams were replaced by a reality just as sweet.

Thanks to my knuckleheads and my sister-in-law and brother who have kindly shared them with me, I got to change poopy diapers, soothe fears, read bedtime stories, wipe tears and boogers, watch cartoons with warm little bodies snuggled by my side, attend special friends breakfasts at school, organize Easter basket scavenger hunts and exploding watermelon experiments, participate in dance-offs (a sight to behold), sit through choir recitals, cheer at baseball, basketball, and what seems thousands of soccer games, help with school projects and studying for tests, share and help instill in them my love and trust of God, anxiously sit in waiting rooms during surgeries for ear tubes, removed adenoids and a broken ankle (God willing the last), sit in judgment of new girlfriends (all totally unworthy), help with college essays, and now worry about driving, college and the unknowable (but hopefully bright and happy) future. Most importantly, I got to love wholeheartedly and unconditionally, and was (am) loved in return.

In short, aunthood, it's the best, I love it! Much like parenthood, aunthood doesn't come with a how to manual, but if you're new to the role, I found you'll never go wrong if you rely on this quote as your guiding principle, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” Be that person.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rio or Bust!

As we bask in all of the sweaty, unbearable glory (horror) of the dog days of summer, I’m looking forward to only two things: fall and of course, the summer Olympics. Yeah baby! Yup, the countdown is on folks; we’re only 10 days away from Rio 2016. USA’s team of Olympians features 555 athletes of which 364 are rookies making their Olympic debut on the world stage; each ready after years of hard work and sacrifice to take that all important last step towards making their dreams come true. While California is the most represented state with 125 athletes, as a proud New Yorker I’m thrilled to say that we’ve contributed 30 gritty and tough as nails athletes of our own ready to make us all (New Yorkers, Alabamians, Alaskans, Arizonan, …heck Americans) proud.

I’ve posted my sentiments on the Olympics in years past, so I’ll undoubtedly be repeating myself, but I’ll say it nonetheless, I love the Olympics. I love the athletes and the dedication, integrity and never say die attitude for which they stand; I love the opening ceremony and the feeling of collective pride we all get to feel for our respective athletes; I love the underdogs, longshots, dark horses, and Cinderella stories that help fuel our own resolve and strengthen the hope and faith we have that all our dreams are possible; and I love the fact that for a short period of time, we can put aside our gripes and differences and stand shoulder to shoulder as Americans – not Republicans or Democrats, Whites or Blacks, Catholics or Muslims or any other number of labels which sometimes separate us - rooting for other members of our American family.

Every Olympics we’re offered new heroes to cheer and goose-bump inducing memories to store in our collective memory banks, none more special than those times when we beat the odds and can write our own chapter in history. And though we cheer for our own with heartfelt chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, we’re always willing and eager to embrace other athletes that embody the purest essence of the Olympic spirit. What could be better than the best athletes in the world, striving to be the best they can be, competing in the spirit of fair play, and ultimately helping to bring all of us – all nations – together in peace?

I honestly can’t wait, so on Friday, August 5th – the night of the Opening Ceremony, I’ll be ordering a pizza, pouring myself a cold drink, and sitting on the edge of my seat ready to erupt into loud and proud cheers for all the athletes of the world, though maybe just a little bit louder when the stars and stripes enters the building.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Man Called Ove

As Shrek once wisely said (yes, I’m quoting a fictional green ogre), “ogres are like onions” in that they have layers. The main protagonist in A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman might not be green, smelly or live in a swamp, but he’s every bit the bad-tempered ogre at the book’s onset until the author slowly peels back the layers and reveals the incredible beating heart and inner beauty of this grumpy, complex, yet lovable hero.

From the publisher: “Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time? Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.”

A Man Called Ove was a charming, poignant, and moving tale that will definitely go on my list of favorite reads for the year. This feel-good story was the first novel from Swedish author Fredrik Backman, which along with his two newer books, has been translated into English for our reading pleasure; and what a pleasure it was. Long story short, this is a story of love in which the reader slowly learns of the past joys, heartaches and losses that shaped Ove’s life. It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Ove’s beauty, though at first hidden like the sun behind clouds, becomes blindingly apparent as no beauty shines brighter than that of a good heart.

As I’ve fessed up in the past, I’m a sucker for a good love story, and this one was a doozy. The author did such an amazing job in conveying the depth of Ove’s love for his wife Sonja, and in so doing equally conveyed the extent of Ove’s sense of loss. Ove and Sonja, two new names to add to the list of epic literary love stories, sharing the kind of love that forever separates your life into before and after he/she came into it. (“Ove had never been asked how he lived before he met her. But if anyone had asked him, he would have answered that he didn’t.”). Alternating between past and present, the wonder of the tale is that love in all its power and beauty is found not only in Ove’s past, but also his present, and serves to save him yet again.

A Man Called Ove is a truly wonderful book that speaks to the healing power of love and friendship. A memorable story and character that will make you laugh, and harkening back to my onion analogy, make you shed more than a few tears.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Currently.

Excited… for the weekend and my knucklehead's 16th birthday.

Feeling…like the heat is between OMG and WTF. So ready for autumn!

Enjoying…my condo’s central air.

Hoping… for a short summer.

Thinking…I want to move to Alaska.

Listening…to Joey + Rory Hymns CD. Timeless beauty that can touch the weariest soul.

Reading… a lot.

Watching…America’s Got Talent and $100,000 Pyramid.

Loving…Breyer’s black raspberry chocolate ice cream. Luscious goodness in every spoonful.

Needing…to exercise.

Eating…as my Saturday morning treat, an egg white veggie flatbread and a jelly donut from DD, because even breakfast should include dessert.

Drinking…French Vanilla Swirl iced lattes from DD (whole milk, extra sweet please).

Wanting…to magically lose weight without diet and/or exercise or a million dollars, because then I won’t care if I’m 20 pounds overweight.

Enjoying…time with my knuckleheads as college drop-off day draws ever near. Tearful sigh. :o(

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Street Cat Named Bob

"Everybody needs a break, everybody deserves that second chance," proves true for both human and animals alike. A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life by James Bowen is a feel good memoir about a struggling street musician and his feline guardian angel and how they saved each other.

From the publisher: “When street musician James Bowen found an injured cat curled up in the hallway of his apartment building, he had no idea how much his life was about to change. James was living hand to mouth on the streets of London, barely making enough money to feed himself, and the last thing he needed was a pet. Yet James couldn't resist helping the strikingly intelligent but very sick animal, whom he named Bob. He slowly nursed Bob back to health and then sent the cat on his way, imagining that he would never see him again. But Bob had other ideas.”

Sweet, charming and heartwarming, A Street Cat Named Bob, is an uplifting book that reminds us that when it comes to helping us through our struggles, God does indeed work in the most mysterious of ways. As a recovering drug-addict fighting for survival on a daily basis, James finds a kindred spirit in the slightly battered stray that fortuitously comes into his life. Like too many members of our society that for any number of reasons fall through the cracks, James and Bob were invisible to everyone but each other, yet as they earned each other's trust and friendship an unbreakable bond was forged. Even though the hopelessness James felt during his worst days was slowly abating, each day was still a struggle to leave the fog of heroin, booze and petty crime far in the past. But in caring for Bob, James gave his life purpose for someone needed him; they needed each other.

Truly as if heaven sent, Bob proved a life-changing force for James; filling his days with hope, joy, friendship, and love. Though James is our narrator (a truly amazing feat if it had been Bob), I have to admit that the story touched me most because of Bob’s role in it. I’m always amazed and humbled by the beauty and goodness of animals, especially those rescued from hardship, that despite past hurts and fears sometimes suffered at the hand of us supposedly more evolved humans, find it within their little (too big for their body) hearts to love and trust again so unconditionally. It's truly one of life's greatest mysteries, though maybe not, because in all honesty I do think they are heaven sent. A gift to see us through our darkest days, our loneliest nights, our deepest fears and to bestow upon us a love, of which given our human frailties, we could never be truly worthy.

Though a simple tale, A Street Cat Named Bob reminds us that we’re never truly alone, that like the song says “the sun will come out tomorrow,” and that animals can make the best of friends.

PS. By the way, Bob is coming soon to a big screen near you. Here’s a link to the film's trailer.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Geeks

I'm not a music buff; I'm the geek with WCBS 880 news on my car radio, but I heard this on Good Day New York today and fell in love with both the catchy tune and inspired lyrics. Enjoy!

Friday, July 1, 2016

It's Okay to Laugh: (Crying is Cool Too)

I have a confession, I’m an easy crier; it’s a curse I tell you. Much like my laughter comes easy, so do my tears. A sad movie is a given, if you make me really angry – then too, but heck even a sappy happy ending causes equal waterworks. I was ashamed of myself recently when I got teary-eyed during a stupid commercial. It wasn’t even that Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial (I change the channel as soon as I hear the song’s first chord or else I’ll be blowing my nose for the next half hour); it was for Lowe’s – the home improvement store. I wanted to slap myself, but in all fairness, search for Lowe’s “Home Love” commercial and tell me if that doesn’t give you the feels. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to make me cry, so when you give me a beautiful love story, one involving soul mates somehow finding each other in this great big world whom life in all its capriciousness separate, I’ll give you a puddle of my tears on the floor. It's Okay to Laugh: (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort is a beautifully written memoir guaranteed to make you do both.

From the publisher: “Twenty-seven-year-old Nora McInerny Purmort bounced from boyfriend to dopey “boyfriend” until she met Aaron—a charismatic art director and comic-book nerd who once made Nora laugh so hard she pulled a muscle. When Aaron was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, they refused to let it limit their love. They got engaged on Aaron’s hospital bed and had a baby boy while he was on chemo. In the period that followed, Nora and Aaron packed fifty years of marriage into the three they got, spending their time on what really matters: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, each other, and Beyoncé. A few months later, Aaron died in Nora’s arms. The obituary they wrote during Aaron’s hospice care revealing his true identity as Spider-Man touched the nation. With It’s Okay to Laugh, Nora puts a young, fresh twist on the subjects of mortality and resilience.”

This was an amazing read; funny, poignant, and real. I don’t know if it’s permissible to be heartbroken over a lost love that isn’t your own, but I was. In reading Nora and Aaron’s story, I fell in love with them, I fell in love with their love story, because this book is just that – as Nora eloquently states “it’s not a cancer story, it’s a love story. With some cancer.” Honestly, it seems they shared the kind of love to which the rest of us aspire, and while their tale of love and loss could be maudlin or melancholy, it is never that. It is sad at times, heartbreaking at others, but also beautiful, uplifting and inspiring.

Nora is an amazing author – funny, witty and brutally honest. Her humor breathes life into every moment she shares with us. Yet in her grief she generously reminds us of how darn lucky we are. How even in times of tragedy and heartbreak there are blessings to be counted. Nora reminds us that it’s okay to laugh, or cry, or rage at whatever raw deal life puts before us, but to have faith that in the end everything will be okay.

It’s Okay to Laugh reminds us that life can be so stupidly unfair yet so amazingly beautiful (like a beautiful rose with some sucky thorns). So read this book and when life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show life that you have a thousand reasons to smile and remember to H.O.P.E. (hold on, pain ends).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Being Mortal

Benjamin Franklin astutely said "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Thankfully modern science has altered the course of human life, helping us all to live longer, delaying the inevitable. In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, the surgeon and author asserts “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine…We think it is to ensure health and survival. But really it is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.” Being Mortal is a book about the experience of mortality in today's society. Relying on anecdotal evidence from doctors, patients, health care providers and families, as well as his own personal experience with the death of his father, Gawande highlights how people experience the end of their lives – from the elderly in nursing homes forced to give up their privacy and autonomy, to seriously ill patients who face their waning days living through painful treatments that drain both their body and soul.

In Being Mortal’s critique of the nursing home system, which comprises the largest part of the book, Gawande examines how the old have to yield all control over their lives in accepting the rigidity of nursing home life; ceding their privacy in shared rooms and all control thanks to set schedules for every activity and hour of their day. While the official aim of an institution is caring and safety, for many of its residents it isn't always what some would call living. Gawande asserts that there are possibly better approaches out there today, and offers compelling success stories of caring innovators that have come up with groundbreaking solutions by thinking outside the box. One such example is a retirement community in the Boston suburbs called NewBridge. While still a nursing home, it’s so different from what we’ve come to expect; instead of housing 60 people to a floor in shared rooms along hospital corridors, NewBridge is divided into smaller pods with no more than 16 people. Each pod is called a household. Rooms are private and built around a common living area with dining room, kitchen and activity room like a home; namely, like the homes many elderly have been forced to give up.

The latter part of the book focuses on terminal patients, end of life care, and how many times medicine fails those it is supposed to help. Gawande discusses how many times doctors, including himself, and patients avoid talking honestly about the choices faced by ill patients near the end. While there is always something more which can be done, the question doctors and patients avoid is whether it should be done. “People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives,” he writes. “If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it’s not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity and extraordinary suffering.” Though Gawande doesn’t offer easy answers on this subject, his wholehearted advocacy of hospice care is readily apparent. In speaking of his own father’s experience with hospice care he states “Here is what a different kind of care — a different kind of medicine — makes possible.”

Being Mortal is a fascinating and eye-opening read. A book that compassionately sheds a light on truths that realistically will impact us all one day, whether directly or indirectly. More importantly it offers a lesson in empathy, for every story shared comes with a name that is or was a living, breathing human being that was sad, lonely, sick, or scared and fighting for their due respect from life and those around them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Redemption Road

At over 400 pages, Redemption Road by John Hart is a literary thriller that reads like a much smaller book as the pages fly by in the reader’s need to embrace a wide cast of vivid and compelling characters and unlock the tale's multiple mysteries. It is an utterly riveting and gripping multi-layered story, beautifully written, where nothing on the page is filler but instead every word serves a purpose.

From the publisher: "Imagine: A boy with a gun waits for the man who killed his mother. A troubled detective confronts her past in the aftermath of a brutal shooting. After thirteen years in prison, a good cop walks free as deep in the forest, on the altar of an abandoned church, a body cools in pale lining. This is a town on the brink. This is Redemption Road."

I loved Redemption Road. This is my first John Hart novel, but it definitely won't be my last. A crime thriller with an emotionally charged plot perfectly paced, dealing with a murder mystery and the always volatile subjects of police corruption and prison abuse. The story is so well-constructed and characters so fleshed out that you feel an incredible sense of familiarity with each; the more you learned about each, the more you wanted to know. Relying on multiple points of view, the plot and parallel subplot develop at a relentless, yet very deliberate pace. With tension, suspense, and intricately woven truths and secrets that are slowly and meticulously revealed, Hart has constructed with the precision of a surgeon with a scalpel and the prose and beauty of a poet, a moving tale about real people who are nuanced, complex and unforgettable.

While the mysteries were relatively predictable, it was the characters that kept me joyfully reading for they were truly memorable in their depth. Like the real world, the good and bad guys aren't easily identified, no white and black hats. Flawed, conflicted, with a history; saved yet lost, loyal yet treacherous, innocent yet corrupted. Using light and shade, Hart has created characters that feel incredibly authentic. Central to the story are Elizabeth, feisty yet emotionally wounded, she’s a good cop accused of the excessive force shooting (18 bullets) of two men caught raping and torturing a young girl, who is left fighting for both her future and her freedom; Adrian, an ex-cop and ex-con struggling for his soul and very sanity; and Channing, a girl trying to piece herself back together after the most soul-altering of experiences. Each is on their own path to redemption, without even knowing it. The amazing thing is that in each wildly different character the reader can find a palpable piece of humanity with which to connect and empathize - one's desperation, the other's fear, love, hate, and/or bravery.

The book's jacket touts John Hart as the one and only author to win back-to-back Edgars (the most prestigious awards in the mystery genre) for best novel. If Redemption Road is any indication of his talent, then it's no surprise why. Redemption Road is quite apropos a story of redemption (duh) that speaks to the strength and resilience of the human spirit to face its demons and overcome, emerging battered and scarred but triumphant.