Tag Archives: life’s lessons

Heaven

Proof of Heaven: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett (William Morrow; $14.99; 336 pages)

Grief never ceases to transform.

proof-of-heaven

Mary Curran Hackett has drafted a stirring and remarkable, life-affirming novel.   This is the story of a very sick and courageous five-year-old boy, Colm, who suffers from a rare disease that will kill him within two years.   He knows this and wants simply to see the father he’s never known before he departs this earth.

Colm’s mother, Cathleen, is an intensely religious Irish-American Catholic woman who will do anything to extend her son’s life, although she knows that “if her son were a dog, they would have put him out of his misery already.”   This includes taking him on a pilgrimage to the Abbey of San Damiano in Italy in the hope that Colm will be cured by a miracle.

Colm was one of a kind.

Colm’s disease is idiopathic, meaning that its origins and treatments are unknown to the medical world.   Colm suffers strokes  which put him into a condition of appearing to be dead before he returns to consciousness.   Colm believes that he has literally died on at least one or two occasions, and comes to accept that there’s nothing waiting for him after his death.

Colm (pronounced “calm”) is quite reminiscent of the character Tim Farnsworth in the novel The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.   Farnsworth comes to give up hoping that the medical profession will save him, and he remains – despite having a wife and family – ultimately alone in his struggle against a unique, crippling disease.   Colm also thinks of himself as being alone, despite the smothering efforts of Cathleen to protect him, until a potential savior – a physician – arrives on the scene.

Dr. Gaspar Basu is a man who lost a son at an early age in India, and comes to love Colm as a type of replacement for his late son Dhruv.   Dr. Basu also comes to fall in love with Cathleen.   And so, he installs a pacemaker in Colm’s chest – in the hope of preventing further near-death experiences for Colm and agrees to accompany Colm and Cathleen on their journey to Italy.   Dr. Basu also joins with Colm’s uncle in supporting Colm’s efforts to find his father who was last known to be living as a musician in Los Angeles.

…by Colm’s seventh birthday he hadn’t had any other near-death experiences after leaving Italy.   To Cathleen it was a sign that God was answering some of her prayers.   Colm may not have been physically healed, but at least he hadn’t died again.   Perhaps the worst was behind him.   Perhaps the miracle took…

proof-of-heaven-rear

The other details of the story should be left for the reader to discover.   Kudos to Hackett for presenting a real world, gritty, yet soaring tale in which humans must make their own choices between hope and hopelessness (in a spiritual sense).   And rest assured that  once you’ve finished reading Proof of Heaven you may well look at life and its inevitable conclusion in a new way.

He had loved her.   She had loved him.

It was enough.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. 

“…it was the tale of one boy’s search for heaven that brought me to tears.   I loved this book.”   Shelley Shepard Gray, author of Christmas in Sugarcreek

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Goin’ Back

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway; $14.00; 336 pages)

The Stuff That Never Happened, written by Maddie Dawson, is a fascinating story that presents a realistic view of the challenges and trials of love, passion, and loyalty within a long-term, modern-day marriage.

The truth is much more complicated.   The truth is that I’m actually in love with another man.

Annabelle shares the story of her lovely life raising her children in New Hampshire amongst her loyal, dedicated husband Grant, while building lifelong memories with family and friends.   Yet now that the children are grown and gone and Grant is distracted and distant as he dedicates all of his time to writing a novel, she consumes her times dreaming of a man from her past.   Then, by chance, she comes across her former lover and has to  make the decision of whether to stay with the man she married, or take a chance with the one she desires.

Maybe we’re all dreaming of a person from the tantalizing past who sits there, uninvited, watching from the edge of our consciousness, somebody you find packing up and moving out of your head just as you’re waking in the morning, and whose essence clings to you all day as though you have spent the night with him, wandering off together somewhere among the stars…

Joseph’s Reviews recently interviewed the author and after reading her responses, I found her to be down to earth, warm and fun.   Her story is told in a similar light-hearted tone with elements of humor and wit intertwined with enjoyable eclectic characters and flowing dialogue.   I felt the same connectedness reading about Maddie Dawson as I did with her main character, Annabelle.

The deep characterization of this novel highlights the themes of passion, love, dedication and forgiveness that bring the characters to life and challenge the reader to wonder if the grass is truly greener on the other side and whether the consequences are worth the grazing.

I look forward to reading future novels from Maddie Dawson.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On a Carousel

To Begin Again: Stories by Jen Knox (All Things That Matter Press, $15.99, 139 pages)

Jen Knox, author of the memoir Musical Chairs, has crafted a selection of short stories about life’s small and big surprises.   These tales remind us that life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

Knox can write:  “…when Wallace would glance over at his son, he saw, finally, the boy’s ability to appreciate the silence as much as he did, and he knew that the boy was learning, finally beginning to understand how important it is to be still.”   And the best of the stories (“The Probability of Him”) call to mind Maile Meloy and Alethea Black.   Some of the stories (“The Millers,” “Cheers”), however, go  nowhere.

This is a themed compilation about life’s lessons.   What seems to be missing is the overall message that the reader is supposed to take away from the experience of reading them.   I felt as if I had listened to a concept record album, with a few excellent songs, many average ones, and a handful of throw aways.   This raises another issue with Knox’s writing.   While she has a uniquely strong voice, it’s never a singular one.   If this were music, I’d say that some of the songs were too loud, some too soft and what was missing is the pleasing mid-range tone that the human ear desires to hear.

Perhaps To Begin Again is the writing exercise that Knox needed to undertake before tacking a debut novel.   If so, this reader believes that she has the potential to deliver one of general interest; although, there will be those who will continue to find her view of life a bit too harsh and gritty.

If you like reading the works of a writer who has not yet been toned down by the publishing industry, you may well enjoy the stories in To Begin Again.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   To Begin Again is also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.   “…a unique collection of stories that urges us to examine the complex wounds and wonderments of the human experience.”   Beth Hoffman, author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re conducting the first part of an interview with Maddie Dawson, author of the novel The Stuff That Never Happened.   Kimberly Caldwell (KC) asks the questions in this stage of the interview.

1.  KC:   The Stuff That Never Happened is about a woman who weighs the allure of an old lover against the solid dependability of a marriage she seems to be outgrowing.   Where did the idea for the novel come from?   Is it autobiographical?

MD:  I suppose in some senses, all novels have autobiographical elements in them.   Authors are always using their own experiences as springboards for the torture we put our characters through.   That being said, nothing specifically about Annabelle’s situation is anything like my life.   But I was once in love with a man who, while not precisely married, had little children and a complicated life with the mother of those children…  and we had a crazy, up and down relationship for a long time, with lots of drama and thrills and chills until the day we finally broke up for good.   And then one day, fifteen years later, I got on a train and there he was, in a nearly empty train car, and we had a two-hour ride together.   It seemed almost pre-designed by a kindly universe to give us a chance to look at what had been, to compare our lives – and to reflect about what it had all meant.

Frankly, it didn’t mean very much.   (Real life can be so boring sometimes.)   He was as impossible as I remembered, vague and noncommittal, and just as infuriating to talk to as he ever was.   We parted, both of us grateful, I think, that things hadn’t worked out for us way back when.   Still, it got me doing that thing I’ve been doing my whole life: thinking how much more interesting things might be if life was a novel.   After that, it seemed everywhere I looked everybody had a what-if person tucked away, someone to think about when real life seemed unsatisfying.

And so the character of Annabelle was born, a woman who married too young to Grant, a man she barely knew, and who then fell in love with someone else during the first year of her marriage.   After a time apart, Annabelle and Grant manage to reunite and go on to have a happy life together, raising children and creating a stable life and community in his home town in New Hampshire.   They make a pact never to speak about Annabelle’s betrayal again, to pretend it just never happened so that they can go on.

What I was mostly interested in exploring in this novel was what came next for Annabelle and Grant: the stuff that came after the kids leave home, after their family responsibilities are over.   It’s then that the cracks in their marriage really become apparent.   Grant realizes the sacrifice he’d made in his career to stay married to Annabelle and feels compelled to catch up; Annabelle realizes that she’s stifled in a life that no longer seems to need her, and she senses Grant’s long, leftover anger.

But what is one to do?   Are we just supposed to settle for living with past memories, or do we still have a life ahead of us to create?   After twenty-eight years together, is it even possible to start over?   To me, that’s when the story really begins: with Annabelle’s realization that she doesn’t know anymore what she owes herself and what she owes Grant and her children; what she will lose by remaining unhappy  in her marriage, or by venturing out into the unknown, or traveling back to the past.

2.   KC:  How did you decide how to present the story?   When you began did you know what Annabelle’s decision would be?

MD:  Ha!   What an interesting question!   As it happens, I didn’t know what Annabelle’s decision would be.   Sometimes I thought she would stay with her husband, but there were times I was sure that her old lover had been the right one for her.   For a while, when I was writing, I thought maybe she’d end up with neither of them – a woman alone making her way through the world.   I just kept writing, sure that one answer would emerge.   And as happens in novels – unlike real life – things finally seemed to settle themselves clearly in one direction over the other.   I’ve heard from lots of readers who have said they were so relieved at the way it turned out, but I have one dear friend who says she still wishes Annabelle had made the other decision.

As for the presentation of the story, I wrote it in two periods: the past, 1978-80, when Annabelle and Grant first met as students at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and impulsively married and moved to New York, and then in the present, 2005, when their lives are settled in New Hampshire and their children have left home.   I wanted to tell it this way because both time periods were equally compelling to me.   I didn’t want to simply tell the 1970s stuff in flashback, but to let the events unfold as part of the main story.

3. KC:  What makes novels about other people’s relationships compelling?

MD:  I think we’re all hungry for details of other people’s stories.   And, let’s face it, romantic relationships carry an extra wallop of mystery to them.   How many times do you look at couples you know and think, “What in the world can they possibly see in each other?”   Perhaps we’re trying to answer that mystery at the heart of ourselves: why am I with this particular person?   Will we be able to last?   Do we have it better or worse than other people?

In novels, I think, relationships make sense.   They have reason and nuance, and we can peek in other people’s insides and compare them to our own.   I love riding around in someone else’s head for a while.   It helps me to understand myself much better.

To be continued… (In the concluding section of this interview, we have four additional questions for Maddie to answer.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I’ll Just Hold On

Musical Chairs: A Memoir by Jen Knox (All Things That Matter Press, $16.99)

Jen Knox’s first book Musical Chairs is difficult to describe.  

What is the likely fate of a young girl who comes from a family with a history of runaways, mental illness, and substance abuse?   It is more likely than not that their adolescence will be rife with incident, but to succumb to all three and then manage to out-do the rest by becoming a stripper on top of it?   That is the unlikely, but true, story of Jen Knox.

Readers seem to gravitate toward memoirs, especially in recent years, and especially if they tell the story of overcoming difficulties such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and the like.   Those people will like this book, although it is difficult to figure out exactly why someone would want to expose themselves to this type of content.

What is admirable about this effort is the objectivity with which the author portrays the events of her life.   She does not try to blame others or elicit pity for herself.   This third person telling of a first person story, while unique, may leave some readers wanting more:  more of the inner thoughts, the perceived reasons behind the behaviors, the emotional reactions that have undoubtedly surfaced upon reflection, etc.   In this way the book may fall a bit short.

There’s a sense of rushing through some of the events in the author’s life.   The book is sparse (176 pages) and takes the reader through a decade.   It causes one to wonder if there’s more to the brutal vignettes outlined in these pages that the author has yet to quite work through.

The book is written in three sections:  Runaway, Dancer, and The Education.   The reader learns of some of the encounters with shady characters during the dancing era; follows the author through a variety of dead end jobs and temporary residences; and, eventually, learns more about her mysterious grandmother and catches glimpses of the relationship between her and her eventual soul mate, Chris.

This is a solid first effort, if not a great one.   Several episodes of the author’s life seem to cry out for more detail or explanation; although this may be intentional.   In fact, it appears that Knox wanted it this way.  

Many readers may want more, and some will be disturbed enough as it is.   Most will be happy that the author’s life has come together.   Ms. Knox should be.   The vast majority of the people who find themselves in similar shoes are not so lucky.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author.   Musical Chairs is also available in Kindle and Nook Book editions.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One Fine Day

One Day: A Novel by David Nicholls (Vintage, $14.95, 448 pages)

David Nicholls’ novel One Day was recommended by my friend and colleague Joseph (the passion and dedication behind Joseph’s Reviews) who shared that this book was “just about the best love story I’ve ever read.”   So with high expectations I sat down and finished the novel over the course of “one day” without disappointment.

Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew meet on their college graduation day.   Although their backgrounds are far from parallel and they have nothing in common when it comes to their future plans, they make a commitment to a lifetime of friendship.   Following a failed attempt at a romantic interlude (that we discover toward the end of the story), Emma continues to hope that the relationship will evolve into more than friendship as Dexter desires Emma but finds distractions in just about every woman he encounters.   The reader witnesses the ebb and flow of their relationship as Nicholls presents a synopsis of their lives written on the same day each year over a 20-year time span.

I enjoyed both characters as the story evolved.   Even during Emma’s continuous search for her life’s purpose and throughout the stages of Dexter’s egocentric lifestyle, I found their relationship heartwarming.   Emma’s ability to see the “real” Dexter and love him desperately even during his destructive phases, and Dexter’s continuous need for Emma’s support without the constant need for her companionship, presents an honest portrayal of the challenges and benefits of long-term friendship.   I enjoyed the cultural references outlined throughout the decades and was amused at the familiarity of the relationships I have with some of my own lifelong friends.   I won’t reveal any more of the details of Emma and Dexter’s story but will assure you that it is unpredictable and won’t disappoint.

Nicholls has great skill in blending humor, wit, devastation, and confidence in his characters and storyline, which he presented through detailed and vibrant dialogue.   I agree with my friend Joseph; this is one of the best love stories I’ve read.   It was an immensely enjoyable read and truly deserves the accolades it has received.   I am also a fan of actor Anne Hathaway so I believe that this wonderful storyline, combined with Hathaway’s talent, will make the movie version (coming out next week) well worth seeing.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “Every reader will fall in love with it.   And every writer will wish they had written it.”   Tony Parsons

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Living in the Past

The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll: A Memoir by Mark Edmundson (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 240 pages)

“Being a Stones lover was about being willing to piss anywhere.   And on everything.”

Based on the original AC/DC-based book cover and the 60s-style journalism used by Edmundson early on, it seems that this is going to be a rock memoir in the style of Chuck Klosterman and Rob Sheffield.   Fortunately, it is not, as a bit of Klosterman and/or Sheffield goes a long, long way.   This is, instead, a true tale of personal growth and what it takes to arrive at a personal philosophy of life.   To be specific, Edmundson writes about “the best moments” in his young life, when he worked as a rock roadie, a cab driver, assistant manager of a movie theater, and small college instructor.  

As a young man and college graduate in New York City, Edmundson was floundering:  “Young people like me want everything, yet…  have no idea just what EVERYTHING is….”   The streets of the Big Apple wound up being the perfect academy for Edmundson, who was to discover that ambition must rest on the attempt to balance personal glory with compassion for others.

The rock and roll lessons can be discarded, as Edmundson came into contact with mega-bands that were a decade or more past their prime.   This is an engaging, yet non-essential, read that may offer younger readers a bit of guidance for the journey that’s still ahead.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll was released in trade paper form on May 10, 2011.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Strange Days

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)

“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”

“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”

If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later.   The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…

Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense.   In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels.   There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.

All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy.   I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta.   As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.

The latter is a key point.   In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident.   We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son.   Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara.   (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk.   How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)

This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before  him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB.   Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that.   The truth is, the typical reader will  not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.

“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”

John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home.   This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 352 pages)

dilloway housewife

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were too old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is, first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Shoko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern California-raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begin to experience serious health problems.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a”Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

One one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and she finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in the nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characters of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort in the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Laugh, Laugh

Populazzi by Elise Allen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, 400 pages)

Populazzi, by Elise Allen, is a cautionary tale about climbing the social ladder at the expense of one’s true self.   Specifically, the social ladder in high school, that petri dish of pain in which only the most popular kids can thrive – or so we think.

When Cara is forced to go to a new school at the start of her junior year, BFF Claudia convinces her to use the experience to test her theory that a girl can work her way up the popularity ladder by dating guys on ever-higher rungs.   The goal is to supplant the reigning “Supreme Populazzi,” Trista, who is known for her (parents’) wealth, lavish parties, and the loyalty she engenders in her ladies-in-waiting.

Cara throws herself into the project, batting away the dreaded social rejects who want to be her friends, and reinventing herself with the clothes, makeup, and demeanors necessary to land the right boy at each stage of the game.

Allen, who also writes for children’s programs on the Internet, DVDs, and TV, gives nods to some of the pitfalls of adolescence, such as pot habits and bulimia; to some of the major sources of pain, such as divorced parents; and to the geeks, nerds, and other “types” who roam the halls of high schools everywhere.   Absent, however, are the self-doubt and the humiliation phobia that might hobble more realistic heroines, and the disadvantages and danger that might challenge more dramatic ones.   Even when Cara gets the slap down of her life, she remains perky and positive.

But this book is a romp, not an exploration of teen angst.   The characters’ cartoonish quality serves to underscore the book’s message.   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group will launch Populazzi on August 1, just in time for rising freshmen to read it before school starts in the fall.   And there will be a test.   Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized