An Uncomplicated Life — Book Review

9780062359940Having a child with a disability is like having a life coach you didn’t ask for. You realize that perspective is a blessing that ‘s available to anyone who seeks it. Or has it forced upon him. The miracle of an imperfect child is the light she casts on your own imperfections. After a time, she will teach you far more than you will teach her, and you will discover that “normal” comes in a sliding scale.

The words “miracle” and “blessing” in the same paragraph may raise red flags for some readers, but An Uncomplicated Life is not a sentimental story about saintlike parents and an angelic child. It’s a father’s honest, heartfelt, and nuanced account of “building a better Jillian” — and in the process, building a better Paul Daugherty. (“No one has ever accused me of being nice,” he claims.)

The day Paul and Kerry Daugherty’s daughter, Jillian, was born was “the last bad day” in the Daugherty family’s life. Paul, a sports columnist for the Cincinnati Post, was covering the World Series in San Francisco when his wife called with the happy news that Jillian had arrived. Paul and Kerry experienced the “dark kaleidoscope of human emotions” that day when they learned that Jillian had Down Syndrome.

The Daughertys determined before even leaving the hospital that “Jillian’s potential would not be tethered to anyone’s preconceptions.” Their mantras become “Expect: Don’t Accept”, “Nothing is Definite”, and “Let Jillian be Jillian.” When Paul questions their decision to fight the school system to keep Jillian in a traditional classroom, wondering if they were expecting too much of their daughter, Kerry reminds him of their guiding principles.

Kerry, ironically, is an employee of the school district that the Daughertys battle for years in order to ensure that Jillian receives the education to which she’s entitled. Readers will sympathize with Kerry and Paul as they spend Jillian’s high school years trying to “locate the elusive, happy middle between learning and learning under budget.”

Paul Daugherty

Paul Daugherty

Jillian brings laughter into her family’s life, and her father includes many charming and funny anecdotes that illustrate her headstrong and independent nature. Daugherty, a journalist who cranks out newspaper articles and columns every day, is a talented storyteller, and his anecdotes about Jillian’s escapades and triumphs are a joy to read. Daugherty takes pains to portray Jillian as an individual, not a stereotypical Down’s syndrome child. Often, Daugherty writes, people are patronizing and saccharine in their descriptions of Jillian, as if she were a “golden retriever”.

There’s an edge to Paul Daugherty, and the Daugherty household is like any other household — far from idyllic. The Daughertys’ approach has required sacrifices, and Paul — who can be a harsh self-critic — is frank about the resentment he sometimes feels. He knows, for example, that his dream of retiring to play golf in South Carolina probably won’t happen.

Expanding Jillian’s dreams means constricting our own. This isn’t a complaint. It’s not bitterness. It’s just a fact. Her goals tug at ours. They are not compatible. Our lives are less separable than the lives of typical parents and their grown children . . . Sometimes, I resent that.

Daugherty is also candid about the pain he and Kerry feel when Jillian is excluded from school or social activities. Although she is never treated unkindly, the fact remains that she is different from her peers. Jillian joins the JV dance team, and is able, for the most part, to keep up with her peers. But is she really part of the team?

Jillian’s dance teammates treated her like the rest of typical peers did: Arms-length pleasant. They didn’t mind having her on the team. But I don’t think they relished it ether. They included her in team functions . . . After practice or games they went their ways, and Jillian went home. We didn’t know if the girls hung out together after practice. We never asked.

Daugherty doesn’t dwell on his occasional feelings of anger or frustration, but chooses to focus on the enormous gifts Jillian has brought to his family. Although his family’s story is unique, any parent will identify with his experiences. All parents learn from their children. Jillian’s life may be less complicated than most others — including the lives of her parents and older brother– but its clarity of purpose inspires those she comes in contact with “to do better, to be better”.

In the bookstore, I’m frequently asked to recommend “feel-good” books that are “uplifting”. I’m often at a loss, since I find most books that fit that description to be unbearably hokey. For whatever reason, I gravitate toward books about war, family dysfunction, illness, and tragic events of all kinds. So it was truly a pleasure for me to read a well-written book that inspired me and made me think.

To read more reviews of An Uncomplicated Life, check out TLC Book Tours.

Watch the Youtube book trailer, with photos of Jillian and her family.

10+ Books to Read This Spring (Or Later)

9780374171339Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Only three more days until the official first day of spring. I actually went outside without a coat yesterday. Winter was a great reading season, but there are so many wonderful books to read this spring I can hardly keep track of them all.

Yes, there is one book written by an Irish author on my list of 10 books to read this spring — A History of Loneliness, by John Boyne. I’m sorry I didn’t include Boyne in my post on Irish authors last March, because he’s a spectacular writer whose books run the gamut from a children’s book about the Holocaust (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) to a ghost story for adults (This House is Haunted). In A History of Loneliness, Boyne explores the life of an aging Irish priest confronting his past and the scandals rocking his beloved church.9780062333001

If you’re in the mood for something lighter, The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson, might fit the bill. I can never resist any book about bookselling, and Swanson’s debut novel — which is on the March Indie Next list — sounds enchanting. It’s about Kitty, a struggling,single bookstore owner who dreams every night about being Katharyn, a married woman with a house and a loving family. Eventually she begins to wonder which of her lives is real. One of my colleagues read this book and enjoyed it, but thought the ending was a little “sappy”. So consider yourself warned — but sometimes I’m in the mood for a sentimental book. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry could certainly be described that way, but I think you’d have to be a real cynic not to love that book!

Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s first novel, is certainly not sappy. Sue Boucher of the Cottage Book Shop says it’s “creepy . . . but kind of perfect.” Essbaum is not your everyday writer of psychological thrillers — she’s published four collections of poetry. The “hausfrau” of the title is Anna Benz, a modern-day Anna Karenina and expatriate housewife in Zurich who “will provoke strong feelings in readers well after the final page”, according to the starred Publishers Weekly review.

9780812993158I’m reading The Dream Lover, by Elizabeth Berg, and absolutely loving it. The novel is an exploration of new territory for Berg, who has never written historical fiction before. She delves into the heart and mind of writer George Sand, born Aurore Dupin, who was the first female bestselling author in France. In an interview with Nancy Horan, which appears at the end of the book, Berg says that “George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream like her; then I thought, to dream like her . . . I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.” I am similarly captivated by Berg’s marvelous book, which will be out on April 7.

inside-the-obriens-9781476717777_lgAlso due on April 7 – Inside the O’Briens, by Lisa Genova, which I think is her best book yet. Genova is enjoying newfound popularity because of the success of the movie based on her first book, Still Alice. The story of a loving family in crisis, Inside the O’Briens focuses on Joe O’Brien, a tough Boston cop who is devastated when he learns that he is suffering from Huntington’s disease — and that his four children may have inherited the disease from him. I would like to ask readers a provocative question, though: when is a novel literature and when is it propaganda? I don’t mean propaganda in the negative sense of the word, but in the sense that the purpose of the book is to promote a cause.

I don’t read many self-help books, but every so often one really resonates with me. Usually the ones that do are books that combine self-help with business or psychology. (Greg McKeown’s Essentialism is a perfect example.) Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin, was entertaining to read and also packed with helpful tips for developing good habits — and breaking bad ones. (Just don’t ask me how successful I’ve been in putting those tips into practice.)

9780062273475The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer, by Roseanne Montillo, is reminiscent of The Devil in the White City. It’s the true story of a 14-year-old Boston boy who preyed on children in the late 19th century. The criminal investigation raised legal and medical questions that are still being debated today. The  book is particularly fascinating in light of the current trial of the Boston marathon bomber.

Mary Norris, author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (due April 6), is much more than a copy editor; she’s a delightfully wicked and witty writer. Norris has been on staff at the New Yorker since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. The New Republic describes “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” as “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.” I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides. By the way, a truly awful article in the Wall Street Journal on March 13, entitled “There is No ‘Proper English'”, says “. . . you may use ‘they’ as a singular generic pronoun; you may say ‘between you and I.’ The pedants’ prohibitions on constructions like these are not supported by the evidence of general usage.” What would Mary Norris say? Or my grandmother, for that matter?

9780525427209When George Hodgman lost his editorial job in New York, he returned to his hometown of Paris, Missouri (“population 1,246 and falling”) to care for his 91-year-old mother. Hodgman’s honest and affecting portrait of their relationship, Bettyville,  moved me both to laughter and tears. As Hodgman told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, “a good part of my role is to just do little things that make her as happy as possible all along the way – every day.”

I have been hearing amazing things, including lots of comparisons to The Goldfinch, about A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. Publishers Weekly says that the 700-page “epic American tragedy”, which covers 30 years in the lives of four college friends, is:

. . . a novel that values the everyday over the extraordinary, the push and pull of human relationships—and the book’s effect is cumulative. There is real pleasure in following characters over such a long period, as they react to setbacks and successes, and, in some cases, change. By the time the characters reach their 50s and the story arrives at its moving conclusion, readers will be attached and find them very hard to forget.

And because it’s too hard to stop at 10, please indulge me while I mention three more new spring books I’m excited about: What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas, a lovely collection of essays that follows  A Three Dog Life; At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen (author of Water for Elephants), historical fiction that takes place in the Scottish highlands during World War II; and The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer (author of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier), the chronicle of a California family, spanning five decades.

For more lists of great books to read this spring, check out the lists at The Broke and the Bookish.

The Tusk That Did the Damage — Book Review

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That is because of the tusk, the boy said, his eyes watering. It was the tusk that did the damage. What if I return it? Can’t I reverse the curse?

Oh my sweet stupid son, there is no reversing a curse, everyone knows that. But who says we cannot turn this curse into a blessing?

Tania James, The Tusk That Did the Damage

In the 1990s, a rogue elephant terrorized the countryside of northeastern India, killing 38 people. At first, journalist Tarquin Hall thought the reports of the elephant’s vengeful and cruel behavior were “implausible”:

"Babar is riding happily on his mother's back when a wicked hunter, hidden behind some bushes, shoots at them."

“Babar is riding happily on his mother’s back when a wicked hunter, hidden behind some bushes, shoots at them.”

Elephants do not breathe smoke and fire, they are not gods, and they certainly do not go around in the middle of the night knocking down people’s homes and singling out particular human beings for premeditated murder. Elephants are kindly, intelligent, generally good-natured creatures, like Babar and Dumbo.

Hall wrote a book, To the Elephant Graveyard, about the Indian government’s hunt for the murderous elephant and the changing relationship between human beings and elephants caused by the destruction of natural habitats. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tania James explains how Hall’s book provided inspiration for The Tusk That Did the Damage, her novel about elephant poaching in southern India:

9780802138354I was reading a nonfiction book called To the Elephant Graveyard . . . and it makes mention of a real-life elephant that used to bury its victims. The elephant would carry the body for miles beforehand, and in some cases, if people tried to take the body away, he would bring it back. Or he would guard the burial site . . .There was something kind of human in its madness, I guess, and I know this is kind of a human-centric way of thinking about it, but there was something recognizable about that madness that made me want to know where that elephant had come from. I wanted to know the tipping point that led to a life as a violent rogue elephant.

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10 Questions for Thomas Christopher Greene, Author of The Headmaster’s Wife (Plus a Giveaway!)

Headmaster's Wife-2

Paperback cover

Booksellers often fall in love with a terrific new book, only to find that the hardcover version is a tough sell. We console ourselves by saying that the book will really “take off” in paperback, and very often that’s true. Certain books, through a combination of serendipity and quality, sell enormously well in hardcover for years without being released in paperback. (Think of Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Unbroken . . .) But most paperback releases are scheduled for 9 to 12 months after hardcover publication, depending on sales. Some of those paperbacks do sell much, much better than their hardcover versions, especially those that appeal to book clubs.

Author Nichole Bernier interviewed publishers, editors, authors, and literary agents for an article in The Millions about relaunching books in paperback, learning that “A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.” Melanie Benjamin, whose paperbacks have been very popular with book club audiences, observed that “‘ . . .  almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book.'” M.J. Rose, of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, said, “‘I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got.'”

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Hardcover jacket

The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene — one of my 10 Favorite Books of 2014 – was just released in paperback. The publisher must think that ivy-covered brick buildings appeal to book clubs, because only one minor change appears on the cover: Richard Russo’s blurb has been replaced with a quote from a People magazine review. Too bad, because what Russo says is spot-on: “I read the second half of The Headmaster’s Wife with my mouth open, my jaw having dropped at the end of the first half. Thomas Christopher Greene knows how to hook a reader and land him.”

The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park. As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe. Continue reading

Life from Scratch — Book Review (and Giveaway!)

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.
Oscar Wilde

No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.
Laurie Colwin

6201374Sasha Martin, creator of the popular blog Global Table Adventure, didn’t set out to write a memoir about what she calls her “rough background”. Martin intended to chronicle the four years she spent cooking meals from every country in the world. She envisioned a book filled with “sweet stories about overcoming pickiness”, not one that brought back painful memories of her difficult upbringing.  But when Martin’s editor asked her what inspired her to begin her ambitious cooking project, Martin realized that Life from Scratch was going to be about much more than food:

Every time I tried to answer her, memory pushed me further and further back in time – all the way to the foods and stories of my childhood. Introspection (and lots of tears) brought me face to face with my rough and tumble childhood – the string of foster homes, the painful separation from my mother, and the tragic death of a beloved family member.

Food, specifically cooking with my mother, had been an important anchor early on but as an adult I felt disconnected from that experience. As I worked to build my own family, cooking the world had become much more than trying new food – it became a path towards healing. It was my way of working out what unconditional love and belonging meant. Reflected in the desire for my daughter to love her world, I also saw my own need to love my world and feel loved by it. After a childhood in turmoil I was hungry for peace.

Many of Martin’s early childhood memories take place in the “warm, fragrant space” of the kitchen in a tiny apartment in a working-class suburb of Boston. Martin’s eccentric mother invents creative meals from the meager groceries she’s able to obtain, using every scrap and telling Martin and her brother that “a little mold never hurt anyone”.  I was reminded of Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone, in which she dubs her unbalanced mother “The Queen of Mold”. Martin’s mother, unlike Reichl’s, is actually a good cook, serving delicacies like Hungarian crepes and a 21-layer German Tree Cake. Readers will debate whether she’s a good mother. Certainly, she faces many challenges and makes life difficult for her children — but how much of the family’s turbulence is within her control?

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Life is Short — 9 Books I’m Never Going to Read

My books have been part of my life forever. They have been good soldiers, boon companions. Every book has survived numerous purges over the years; each book has repeatedly been called onto the carpet and asked to explain itself. I own no book that has not fought the good fight, taken on all comers, and earned the right to remain.
Joe Queenan

All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. . . But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.
Nick Hornby

IMG_1221Every now and then, when my bookshelves start to overflow, I get the urge to purge. I never do a very good job. Professional organizers recommend making three piles: “keep”; “toss”; and “donate”. The “toss” pile is usually very small, because I feel terrible throwing away a book unless it is truly falling apart. I can almost always fill a bag with books to donate, but I end up re-shelving dozens of books that a more ruthless culler would donate without a second thought. My rule of thumb is that I feel any ambivalence at all, the book gets to stay. I’m not listening to the advice Marie Kondo offers in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , which is to keep no more than 30 books in a home library and to house that library in a closet.

I’ve realized that I own many books that have survived multiple purges. If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit I will never read these books. They are no longer books to be read; they are decorative objects. The question I’ve decided to ask about every unread book I own is whether I would carry it on a trip. (Keep in mind I have no problem lugging hardcover books wherever I go. I carried In the Kingdom of Ice on a two-week trip to Europe last fall and I was happy to have it with me.)

So here are 9 hardcover books I have considered reading many times but I know I will never read. I tried hard to part with at least 10, but I just couldn’t. (I have an easier time giving away paperbacks.) They’re packed in a shopping bag, ready to be dropped at the back door of the Lake Forest Library. This is the collection point for the Friends of the Library annual book sale, and there is a large sign warning potential used book thieves that security cameras are in use. I wonder if some people think that because they’re donating some books, they get to take a few as well. Those people must be even worse at cleaning out their bookshelves than I am!

If anyone thinks I’m making a big mistake getting rid of any of these books, let me know . . .

9780307958341Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
A National Book Award finalist in 2013, Book of Ages came highly recommended from a trusted source — but whenever I’m deciding what to read next, I look at its lovely cover and then choose something else.

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
A publisher sent me Thrive as part of an ill-conceived program called “Blogging for Books”.  I don’t even understand the title. What does she mean by “third metric”? I guess I would have to read the book to find out, but I’m not that curious.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François
I bought this book seven or eight years ago under the misguided impression I would want to spend any time at all (even five minutes) baking bread.  It’s never been opened.

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
This book, about a Nigerian immigrant in New York who returns to his home country, received a lot of critical acclaim, as did its predecessor, Open City. However — and this is a deal-breaker for me — it is about an unnamed character.

The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon
Over the past few years, I’ve picked it up, put it down . . . picked it up, put it down . . . Time for The Love of My Youth to find a new home where it will be appreciated.970b55d1c222cd0f5b577d2f96aab9d5

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
How on earth did I end up with a book about vampires on my shelf, even a supposedly literary one? I did consider keeping The Historian for a minute, because I came across this quotation while flipping through the book: “It was good to walk into a library again; it smelled like home.”

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui
This 750-page book, which was written by Mao’s personal physician, was given to me in 1996. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never read it. Especially since I just skimmed the first chapter and learned more than I wanted to know about Mao’s lack of oral hygiene.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
I’ve had this book so long that the pages have turned yellow. People love this series, I know. I started it, and it’s just not for me; I hate time travel.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr.
I never intended to read this book, but I thought my husband might like it. What was I thinking? He’s not going to read an 864-page “epic biography” of Ted Williams, no matter how good it is.

Oh, and by the way — in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to add that I didn’t personally carry In the Kingdom of Ice through Holland, Belgium, and France. I took every opportunity to sneak it into my husband’s bag. I think he would say that it was worth bringing with us, because he enjoyed it as much as I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Half Brother — Book Review

9780385531955The Half Brother tells a familiar story: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher.  In the beginning of the book, Charlie Garrett is not much older than his students:

Teaching English at Abbott was my first job, right out of college . . . for me the idea of being employed at all, at a job that entailed skill and responsibility, was unreal, ludicrous. The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hand.

Many novels are set at schools, but I’ve read few that capture the essence of what goes in on the classroom as well as The Half Brother. Charlie has received no formal training as a teacher, and is initially terrified of his students. He develops a persona, “a tweedy, knowledgeable, unflappable self”, and discovers that he actually has a gift for teaching:

At the window of my classroom, looking out, I was in the prow of a landship, forging ahead with my new self, built on the scaffolding of these names; then I turned around and my own energy went forth, joined theirs, became something new and larger. I had not expected to feel my own self slowly emerging as I tried to draw out theirs. I had not expected to love anyone, is what I’m saying. Sometimes they looked at me in amazement at what came out of their mouths.

As a new teacher, Charlie is drawn to one of his students, May Bankhead, who is a “faculty brat” — the daughter of the school chaplain. They correspond with each other after May’s graduation, and when she returns to campus several years later to care for her dying father, May and Charlie finally admit to themselves what they’ve always felt for each other.

Later, May becomes a teacher at Abbott herself — and so does Charlie’s younger half-brother, Nicky. Charlie has always been protective of Nicky, who is brilliant, handsome, and popular, yet strangely vulnerable. The inevitable triangle follows– and that’s all that I can tell you about the plot of The Half Brother, because the plot twists — which do not rely on unreliable narrators — are truly surprising. Continue reading