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Slow Down, Be Still: A Week of Bed Rest and Unexpected Joys

Bed Rest, slow down and be still

Taking time to do nothing often brings everything into perspective.      – Doe Zantamata

… So does a trip to the emergency room, or three trips to the emergency room within a week. The past two weeks have been much different than what I had imagined. I spent this past week on prescribed bed rest, which meant I had ample time to Slow Down and Be Still.

What began as an unexpected, important, routine outpatient surgery turned into a first trip to the emergency room a week later, a second trip two days after that, and a third thirty-six hours after that, along with another surgery. Once I left the hospital for the fourth time on the last day of 2017, I rolled out with orders for a week of bed rest.

Bed Rest

The truth is I’m no stranger to bed rest. About twenty years ago, when pregnant with my oldest, I was put on bed rest for fifteen weeks for a myriad of reasons. In my twenty-something self, with no children to chase after yet at that point, I didn’t have many other things I had to do besides rest in bed. I spent days reading, writing, and planning for the baby to come. That said, fifteen weeks was a very long period of time, but I made it and my oldest was born at full-term. A blessing.

Bed Rest, slow down and be still

At this point in my life, I have three teenage sons who need rides to activities and food in large quantities, a house to care for, animals to tend, and a job to do as a marketing director every day. Bed rest had a completely different meaning for me this time.

3 Unexpected Joys of Bed Rest

Time

Be still. – Psalm 46:10

I rarely have time. Minutes on the clock often feel like sand in a sandstorm, gone before I even sense it is there. It turns out the long stretches of silence and stillness were therapy. The year was busy. To be still for days in a row was an improbable and unexpected gift, a time for my soul to stretch and soothe and enjoy being slow and still.

Books

I don’t have a television in my room, nor do I watch many movies or shows. Instead, I prefer books. Luckily, I had stocked up on great books. Or, looked at another way, I hadn’t read many books in the last few months of 2017. Bed rest was a perfect time to prop back with a great book. I read 4 in 4 days. 3 of them were excellent:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

An excellent novel set in 1980s Cleveland, Ohio, about families, the quest for perfection, and the way art impacts our lives, by a writing acquaintance I met at Muse in Boston a few years ago. I loved her first novel Everything I Never Told You, and knew I would love Little Fires. I did.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

An incredible multi-generational saga about a family who emigrated from Ireland and settled in Dorcester, Massachusetts. The layers upon layers of story in this novel and the real-to-life characters will stay with me for years to come. I loved this novel.

Turtles All the Way Down by John GreenTurtles All the Way Down by John Green

Highly anticipated, from the author of The Fault in Our Stars, and creator of Crash Course, which my kids all love. Turtles All the Way Down is set in Indianapolis, and is the story of Aza, who suffers from debilitating anxiety / obsessive disorder. Turtles is my favorite of Green’s work so far, and I have already loaned my copy out. Definitely recommend — the voice is unforgettable.

Family and Friends

To say that I tried to manage everything alone is completely incorrect. My family and friends helped with everything. They brought flowers and meals and hugs. They sent gift cards for meals, took down Christmas decor and stowed it for next year, fed the animals and cleaned up messes, shoveled snow, and picnicked with me on the bed. We played board games and watched old home movies. We talked and shared and slowed down together. It was one of the biggest gifts I have ever received — the gift of time and care and love. I especially owe a huge thank you to my oldest son, who managed pretty much everything. I am blessed.

Now, the week has passed and I am released to begin normal-ish life. I am moving slower than I have in twenty years. And that is okay by me. The time has restored me to what is most important.

I hope I don’t speed up, in a way. Slower living is a gift, one which I am very grateful to have had. I am thankful for the wonderful people in my life, and I am thankful to be alive.

Have you ever been on bed rest? What did you do to pass the time?

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Must-Read Memoir: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I might know a thing or two about being a hillbilly. Much of my growing up took place in the Ozarks of Arkansas catching crawdads and eating black-eyed peas at school lunch, and my parents live in the mountains of rural Tennessee. So, when I had dinner recently with a longtime friend in New York City, and one of the first things she said was, “I think you would love the book I just read,” I knew I had to read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

The book, subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is set in Middletown, Ohio, a town so close to where I once lived that my house had a Middletown zip code. Middletown is known for being the home of AK Steel, a large steel plant whose chimneys and plumes of billowing smoke could be seen many miles away. AK Steel and other once-thriving manufacturing plants in the area caused a mass migration of thousands of families from rural Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 40s with the lure of a better life – a stable job which paid well, along with the rest of the family and friends who would move alongside them. What resulted is an entire area built upon the families and culture uprooted from the hills of Kentucky.

It would have been a grand experiment if AK Steel and other Rust Belt plants had continued to thrive, but they haven’t. In 2004, the management locked the doors of AK Steel in Middletown, Ohio, which sent a ripple effect into the surrounding area.

Middletown is no longer a prospering community. It isn’t a town to go to during the day, and especially not at night. The author illuminates the interesting phenomenon that many in Middletown have not moved or moved on as a result of the downturn, but instead blame the government, or the school, or someone else as the reason for their misfortune. Vance doesn’t spare details, insights, or pieces of his story–he observes those who work the system with food stamps, and those who have become centered on less-desirable activities like drug abuse to fill their time. His mother became part of that system through the years, a revolving door of abuse, neglect, men, and drug abuse.

How did J.D. Vance survive, then, and find his way out of the system that has failed families repeatedly through the years? His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw.

Central to Vance’s story, Mamaw and Papaw came to Middletown young and in love, however ill-prepared for the demands of living far from family and their roots. They struggled, Papaw battling alcoholism and its affects while working at AK Steel. That said, Papaw and Mamaw found their way eventually, and by the time their grandson, J.D. came along, he remembers Papaw being proud of his hard work. “Papaw would stop at a used-car dealership whenever he saw an old Ford or Chevy. “Armco (AK Steel) made this steel,” he’d tell me… Despite his pride, he had no interest in my working there. “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” he once told me.”

Mamaw is perhaps the most memorable character I’ve read this year. She cusses constantly and is meaner than anyone else J.D. knows. Without her presence in his life, J.D. would not have been able to write the book. He would have still been fully immersed in Middletown, a participant in the perpetuation of the cycle of the working white class and the poor in spirit in America. This is where the power of Vance’s story lies, in the gap between where his roots are and where his wings take him.

Hillbilly Elegy is part riveting memoir, part direct social commentary. It reminds me of The Glass Castle and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings–painful yet joyous, and certainly important.

In literature, an elegy is a “poem of serious reflection, a lament for the dead.” To me, though, Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a mourning for what has passed, but is more a dive into the author’s understanding of from where he has come and how it has and will continue to shape him into who he is and will become. That, to me, is what we universally seek – to understand, and be understood.

 

I’ve posted this review as my latest recommendation at GreatNewBooks.org, the place to go to find great books. Please venture over and sign up to receive GreatNewbooks weekly recommendations directly to your inbox by clicking here.

Have you read Hillbilly Elegy? What did you think? I’d love to hear …

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Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I am always on the lookout for a great new book – whether it’s at the bookstore, through a Goodreads email, or when friends talk about books they love. This time around for my recommendation at GreatNewBooks.org, I went back and forth on several books, especially one that is an important recent book, which I read, but honestly did not love. For weeks I have scoured shelves and lists to find a book to recommend, and then I landed on Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, a first-time author. I bought it and devoured all 486 pages. It was that good.

Lilac Girls is the story of three women of different nationalities and circumstances throughout the decades during and beyond World War II. And though Lilac Girls travels through a dark part of history, the story is luminous.

The novel opens with a character named Caroline, set in New York City in 1939. A former Broadway actress, almost forty-year-old Caroline works at the French Embassy. Because of the year, we know what is coming—the Nazi invasion of Paris. Caroline cares about several things: a French actor Paul Rodierre who is speaking at the embassy gala, orphans in France who she often sends care packages to, and trips to Paris with her mother.

Next, we meet Kasia, a teen involved with the Girl Guides in 1939 Poland. But innocent life as she knows it ends as the Germans and Russians invade Poland, and Kasia and her friends become involved with the Underground. One wrong move lands her along with her mother, sister, and friends on a ride via train boxcar to a reform camp in rural Germany, Ravensbrück.

Then we meet Herta, a German doctor-in-training, with her mind not made up about where to stand with the new regulations about various races in Germany. When her father dies from disease, she is forced to work in her uncle’s butcher shop instead of what she has been trained to do. When a position opens for a doctor at a reform labor camp called Ravensbrück, she takes the chance to escape her awful family situation and work at what she thinks she wants to do.

From there, the story unfolds, weaving between the three very different characters in very different situations. Each chapter ends and propels the reader to the next, as each situation seems impossible and each character true. The lives of the characters collide in an unexpected way. Kelly explains in the Author’s Note at the end that two of the main characters were based on real people, as well as the operations performed in portions of the story were true.

One aspect I appreciate in Lilac Girls is the way the author humanized Herta and her choices (or lack of them). It would have been easy to villainize Herta, but instead the author painted Herta as fully three dimensional, portraying Herta’s situation and acts as a normal human being forced into a terrible environment.

The character of Kasia also surprised me. As the years pass, she must deal with her deformities and experiences from Ravensbrück as Poland falls into Russian hands and Communism. One thought-provoking statement lingers in my mind, on Kasia’s struggle in the years beyond the concentration camp: “I’d survived Ravensbrück. How could ordinary life be harder than that?”

The relationships in Lilac Girls make the story indelible, the love and struggles between sisters, mothers and daughters, and the men they love.

“I caught a glimpse of Paul in the crowd and felt a rush of retrouvailles, another one of those words that do not translate in English, which means “the happiness of meeting someone you love again after a long time.””

After recently living in Prague for four years, and after touring Terezin and hearing local stories from the same era, I am impressed with the amount of research Kelly did in the writing of Lilac Girls. Details fill each page, clearly only discovered through passionate research and authentic interest.

In the end, the theme that spoke to me most clearly was one of overcoming the past. When we can walk through impossible trials hand-in-hand with those we love, and recount those histories together later, we can move on in forgiveness, which is triumph—letting go of what tortured us for too long and reaching for the good that lies ahead. For no matter how hard our paths may be, there is always still hope. In reading Lilac Girls, it is impossible not to find hope, too.

Lilac Girls is a beautiful rendering of a period in history that must not be forgotten, and is one great new book I highly recommend.

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5 Favorite Books of 2016

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. —Frederick Douglass

I believe that one of the best ways we can live well is to read, and read a lot.

Given my love of reading and books, I read a lot. When I’m in the middle of a book I can’t put down, I walk around with my book, and tote it with me everywhere until I can finally turn the last page. In recent years, I’ve had less time to read as many books as in years past. But it doesn’t mean I haven’t read good books. If anything, I’ve learned I make less time for books I don’t enjoy. Ones that don’t catch me in the first sample pages are books I put down for good.

As the years go by, I’m reading a greater variety of books, and, inspired by my friend Nina Badzin, have been setting reading goals for myself for at least the past 7 years.

Why do I make books a priority? Because I strongly believe that books help us to grow, to understand others, to walk around in others’ shoes for a while and see the world through different eyes. That, over movies and other forms of immediate entertainment, is what makes novels, and books, special. They let us enter the head of another person and experience their world, their choices, their motivations. These literary experiences make life richer, fuller, and open doors, I believe, to a better world.

It’s true. I have some definite favorites. I find many of the books I want to read from multiple book resources: Goodreads, Shelf Awareness, GreatNewBooks.org, Twitter, and through reading friends whose opinion and taste I get and trust.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2016

Georgia by Dawn Tripp Georgia by Dawn Tripp

I remember the first time I came across Georgia O’Keeffe in high school art class. Her paintings of Southwestern-themed landscapes and cow skulls made an impression, but the color-saturated forms of her flower close-ups are images I can still see in my head. Her work is unique, brilliant. I love her poppies, their gigantic shapes and ripples and forms. Every time I see a Georgia O’Keeffe, I pause. I guess that would make me a lifelong fan.

When Dawn Tripp’s Georgia hit the literary scene, I saw the cover and immediately loved it. It is the perfect art for a novel based on Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, and probably will be my favorite cover this year. But for the story, I wasn’t so sure. I don’t often enjoy autobiographical historical fiction, as the voices imposed on the characters tend to be indulgent of the author’s obsession with a particular person of the past. I hesitated to begin Georgia for fear the novel would take me down roads I didn’t want to go with Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist. I didn’t want the novel to be a romanticized version of her life. Georgia O’Keeffe expressed herself and her life on her own terms. I didn’t want that to change in my mind.

Why did I pick up the book? I read a nice review from a respectable and unswayed source. She wasn’t a friend of the author, and likely chose Georgia because she authentically loved the book – much like what we try to do at Great New Books. I bought the book and hours after getting it home began reading. The first sentence sounded just like an artist: “I bought this house for the door.” I read on, through Georgia’s early beginnings, her poverty, and what drove her to New York City, where she met Stieglitz, who “discovered” her. I didn’t like him. And the more I read on, my dislike for Stieglitz increased. I had to continually ask myself why.

https://www.jenniferlynking.com/2016/03/09/georgia-dawn-tripp-must-read-book-2016/

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towlesa-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles

Here in the United States, it is sometimes difficult to imagine a life much different than what we have the privilege to live. When we are hungry, we go to the grocery store and can choose to buy whatever fresh fruits or vegetables, fresh meats, ice cream, processed chips, water in plastic bottles, etc., that we would like to have. When we need a piece of furniture, we can go to a store, try each piece in their inventory, pay, and walk out with that piece, ready to put where we would like it in our home. What we need can be acquired. What we want also can be, usually, if we have the means. But this is not the way the entire rest of the world works.

A few months ago, a new hardcover book came out on shelves called A Gentleman in Moscow. It is must-read fiction. The cover photograph is apt—a finely dressed man peering out a balcony door and window. What is he looking at?

In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, has been sentenced by the Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest for the remainder of his life to the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. At the time of his sentence in 1922, he was in his thirties. His crime was that he had been born into the aristocracy. Would he be allowed to leave the hotel? No. Never.

With that setup the book begins.

I can say this now that I have finished it – never have I read a more interesting narrator. Never have I loved a main character as much. Never have I hoped more for a character than I have for Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow.

https://www.jenniferlynking.com/2016/11/28/gentleman-in-moscow-amor-towles/

 

It’s What I Do by Lynsey AddarioIt's What I Do

Sometimes, in all the fiction reading, I need to seek out something real–a true-to-life story, one that inspires me, gives fresh perspective, and reminds me of the wider world beyond my current Ohio town. Though it fixed itself upon my reading radar many months ago, I finally picked up a copy of Lynsey Addario’s new photographic memoir, It’s What I Do. It’s a book I now count as one of my favorites, for many reasons, on many levels.

First, if you don’t know of Lynsey Addario by name, you probably know her by her photographs. The subtitle for the book is A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. She has traveled the globe for more than 20 years, photographing locales from as near as New York City and Cuba to Afghanistan, Libya, Darfur, for publications like the New York Times, National Geographic, and Time.

Lynsey’s poise amidst all she has experienced for her work is astounding. She has been kidnapped, fired upon, and mistreated, but focuses on the positive result — gaining empathy for those around her in order to capture images which tell the truth. Her gender provides another obstacle in a world filled with male photojournalists. But Lynsey followed her heart, pursued a career doing what she loves, which is exposing the truth and making headlines real for readers around the world.

https://www.jenniferlynking.com/2016/06/29/its-what-i-do/

 

The First Time She Drowned by Kerry KettlerThe First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kettler

I love finding a book that is impossible to put down, especially when it’s fun to read and the story sweeps me into the pages. But it’s rare to find a book that is not only unputdownable, but also beautifully written, each word and scene carefully wrought. This is the case with The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. From the opening page of The First Time She Drowned, the clean, meaningful writing combined with the compelling story makes for a book that is impossible to stop reading.

Officially a Young Adult book, The First Time She Drowned is about eighteen-year-old Cassie O’Malley as she stands at a crossroads in her life. Since age sixteen, Cassie has lived in an adolescent mental hospital, turned in and left there by her parents for reasons she does not understand. At eighteen, Cassie ages out and is provided the opportunity to attend college, a chance to begin her life anew. Thus, the crossroads. But the outside world is full of unknowns, especially when she hasn’t been given any tools to cope. The characters who enter her life at the crossroads are vibrant and flawed, and play an essential role in Cassie’s emergence.

This is a book for adults and young adults alike, one perfect for book clubs and mother-daughter discussions. It is one for those with painful pasts and difficult upbringings, who will feel lighter and lifted up above the surface, to breathe, if even for the first time.

https://www.jenniferlynking.com/2016/11/09/great-reads-fiction-first-time-drowned-kerry-kettler/

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun book recommendationYears ago, I fell in love with a movie called Out of Africa. It starred Robert Redford and Meryl Streep and was about the relationship of safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen in 1920s colonial Kenya. A woman on their periphery was Beryl Markham, the heroine of a new novel, Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. The cover alone had me, but when I found out it was an extension of Out of Africa, I knew I had to read it.

I’ve written the book recommendation (below), which has gone live this morning at GreatNewBooks.org as well, but here on my personal blog, I have a bit more to say. I love books about women overcoming impossible challenges. Is that because I can identify? I don’t know. But I do know I admire strong women who choose to silence fear.

The original woman I remember admiring for her sense of adventure and complete fearlessness is my maternal grandmother. She grew up in a house full of women, with a few (very tall) sisters and a mother who survived her husband (their father), who died at a young age.

My grandmother decided in her early teens that she would learn to fly, so she took on a job at an amusement park to pay fo

r her flying lessons. Soon, she earned her pilot’s license, and decided to apply for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in WWII. She was slight in build and apparently on the lower threshold for the weight requirement. She once told me that the morning of her physical, she ate 2 bunches of bananas to try to weigh more. Apparently, it worked.

My grandmother did fly for the WASPs, and throughout her life afterward, she continued to do things most women didn’t do. I love her for that, for setting the example that women can do the same things that men can. And why not?

It’s just another reason why I had to read Circling the Sun, because it opens up that world — it surpassed my expectations.

https://www.jenniferlynking.com/2016/04/27/circling-sun-book-recommendation/

 

For more great book recommendations, visit GreatNewBooks.org, where the team is talking about their favorite book of the year this week. Happy reading, and have a wonderful month of December, full of presence.

Please share your favorite books of the year with us here in the comments… Thank you!

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Must-Read Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

a gentleman in moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towlesa-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles

Here in the United States, it is sometimes difficult to imagine a life much different than what we have the privilege to live. When we are hungry, we go to the grocery store and can choose to buy whatever fresh fruits or vegetables, fresh meats, ice cream, processed chips, water in plastic bottles, etc., that we would like to have. When we need a piece of furniture, we can go to a store, try each piece in their inventory, pay, and walk out with that piece, ready to put where we would like it in our home. What we need can be acquired. What we want also can be, usually, if we have the means. But this is not the way the entire rest of the world works.

A few months ago, a new hardcover book came out on shelves called A Gentleman in Moscow. It is must-read fiction. The cover photograph is apt—a finely dressed man peering out a balcony door and window. What is he looking at?

In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, has been sentenced by the Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest for the remainder of his life to the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. At the time of his sentence in 1922, he was in his thirties. His crime was that he had been born into the aristocracy. Would he be allowed to leave the hotel? No. Never.

With that setup the book begins.

I can say this now that I have finished it – never have I read a more interesting narrator. Never have I loved a main character as much. Never have I hoped more for a character than I have for Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow.

The narration flows by swiftly with a *wink, wink* playfulness to it. History of Moscow, Russia, Stalin, USSR, and Khrushchev run in and out of the pages as true events did actually happen within the doors of the Hotel Metropol. And Rostov? Well, he has one of the brightest outlooks in history. When he felt confined, he drank with the janitor on the rooftop of the hotel. When he needed adventure, there was always a certain child or two who would keep him on his toes, get him into mischief, and help raise more than their share of trouble within the hotel. And yet. This story, the characters, the writing – they all add up to make this one of the best books I have ever read. It is brilliant.

Some favorite quotes from A Gentleman in Moscow

“By all accounts, you seem to have reconciled yourself to your situation.” … “As both a student of history and a man devoted to living in the present, I admit that I do not spend a lot of time imagining how things might otherwise have been. But I do like to think there is a difference between being resigned to a situation and reconciled to it.” –page 211

 

“Can you imagine the expression on Napoleon’s face when he was roused at two in the morning and stepped from his brand-new bedroom in the Kremlin only to find that they city he’d claimed just hours before had been set on fire by its citizens?” Mishka gave a quiet laugh. “Yes, the burning of Moscow was especially Russian, my friend. Of that there can be no doubt. Because it was not a discrete event; it was the form of an event. One example plucked from a history of thousands. For as a people, we Russians have proven unusually adept at destroying that which we have created.” –page 290

 

“He had said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” – page 442

A Gentleman in Moscow is a book I savored, tried not to read to quickly so that its charm would not pass me by. It is a novel about enduring difficult circumstances and yet achieving the most unlikely success – still finding joy and contentment. To me, A Gentleman in Moscow is a reflection on all that we have been given, all that we do not have (which likely makes us appreciate what we do have that much more), and the pieces in life which are most important and meaningful.

At the end, I finished the final sentence with a satisfied smile. This book is a masterpiece.

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Great Reads Fiction: The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kettler

The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kettler

Recommendation for and also published at GreatNewBooks.org

The First Time She Drowned by Kerry KettlerThe First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kettler

I love finding a book that is impossible to put down, especially when it’s fun to read and the story sweeps me into the pages. But it’s rare to find a book that is not only unputdownable, but also beautifully written, each word and scene carefully wrought. This is the case with The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. From the opening page of The First Time She Drowned, the clean, meaningful writing combined with the compelling story makes for a book that is impossible to stop reading.

Officially a Young Adult book, The First Time She Drowned is about eighteen-year-old Cassie O’Malley as she stands at a crossroads in her life. Since age sixteen, Cassie has lived in an adolescent mental hospital, turned in and left there by her parents for reasons she does not understand. At eighteen, Cassie ages out and is provided the opportunity to attend college, a chance to begin her life anew. Thus, the crossroads. But the outside world is full of unknowns, especially when she hasn’t been given any tools to cope. The characters who enter her life at the crossroads are vibrant and flawed, and play an essential role in Cassie’s emergence.

Difficult memories surface throughout the story, which Cassie has to face, unpack, and try to understand. Through it all, her voice shines and the story unfolds effortlessly.

“Everything I thought I knew about myself needs to be reexamined in light of this new information.”

What becomes clear from the start is the type of psychological and emotional damage Cassie’s parents have done to her. Though her mother left the more indelible marks, her father also is tied to the damage in that he never stepped in to stop her mother. The traditional parental roles which should have been there to love and protect created just the opposite in Cassie’s life. As the reader, I needed to know how Cassie would be able to overcome such insurmountable odds.

Kletter writes with skill about the confusion Cassie has to face. When Cassie’s mother tells Cassie she is unlovable and that her issues are her own fault, Cassie begins to have moments of clarity to see her mother as she is—a mother who focuses on herself and her own needs, sacrificing her children’s safety and sanity, constantly.

The First Time She Drowned is about an awakening, of a human being coming to find that she has worth, that she has something to offer the world even after an entire lifetime of being told that she does not. The story is not unfamiliar to me. I found myself cheering for Cassie as she found her feet and began to stand. I rooted for her when she doubted herself, when she heard the voices and trauma from her past which threatened to pull her back below the surface.

“The sea is the color of metal, the white waves disheveled and sloshing in a tantrum. The ocean calls to me with its baptismal promise. I shed my jeans and sweater. Today I leave my history behind. Make the past the past, as James always said. Today, right now, I start over. A new me. Or something like that…”

It is a story of immeasurable triumph, of coming face-to-face with the things we may believe, which are untrue. Though Cassie’s parents, warped by psychological illness, harmed her for the first eighteen years of her life, Cassie finds hope that through the help of others, she can overcome her scarred past.

It is for books like these that I read. For isn’t it through learning from another’s experience that we can gain insights into our own?

This is a book for adults and young adults alike, one perfect for book clubs and mother-daughter discussions. It is one for those with painful pasts and difficult upbringings, who will feel lighter and lifted up above the surface, to breathe, if even for the first time.

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Great Reads Fiction: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey to-the-bright-edge-of-the-world-by-eowyn-ivey

I became a fan of Eowyn Ivey’s fiction after Jessica Vealitzek recommended The Snow Child at GreatNewBooks.org, which also became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. When I heard about Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, I picked it up soon after its August release. I expected a novel like The Snow Child, but from the first page, Bright Edge is clearly quite different.

The narrative of To the Bright Edge of the World unfolds in a series of letters, historical statements, newspaper clippings, photographs, and journal entries. After reading several entries and pages, I began to understand the context of the story, a fictional unfolding of the historical expedition venturing up Alaska’s Wolverine River into vast, untamed territory in 1885. The story’s letters and journal entries alternate primarily between the expedition leader, Colonel Allen Forrester, and his new wife, Sophie, who stayed at the barracks.

Sophie writes:

“Do you know the precise moment when I fell in love with you? You would probably think it was the evening of the military ball, when you first escorted me in your dress uniform … Yet what of love? That is another, more solid thing; it is not tricked by fine lights or spirits. It is more of earth and time, like a river-turned stone. It began with a walk. Do you remember? …”

The writing and language is beautiful.

In many ways, To the Bright Edge of the World is a love story between a newly married husband and wife, separated by harrowing experiences. Bright Edge is also an adventure story, both for Sophie and Allen. One traverses the difficult landscape of her inner world through tragedy; one presses through a formidable wilderness. Both are unsure if they will make it.

Ivey’s trademark magical realism surfaces throughout the book in the characters and situations Sophie and Allen encounter, both good and bad. But the force that kept me reading was the calm yet defiant voice of Sophie Forrester.

Stories about strong women always draw me in, and I count Bright Edge in my favorites shortlist. Sophie defies the whispers of the women around her in order to follow her heart — she is curious about the emerging field of photography. She converts her pantry (who needs one?) into a darkroom and stores her food on the kitchen table — permanently. And after months of effort, when she develops the first photograph which turns out as she has hoped, she is hooked.

A quote from the book about one of the whispering women when she encounters one of Sophie’s photographs:

“She studied it for a time, and then looked up from the photograph, as if taking in the house and myself for the first time. “But what of your husband? What on earth will he think of all of this?” It seemed to me a very intimate question, but for once, I knew exactly what to say: “I think he will like it very much.””

For months, Sophie and Allen write in their journals while they are apart, both with the idea that they will read their journals to each other once they are together again. But both have an acute sense that they will not survive. This is the brilliance of Bright Edge: the tension and balance of fear and fearlessness, of love and yet being true to self, of home and of adventure.

The looming fears both Allen and Sophie overcome are remarkable. Allen traverses impassible glacier-jammed rivers and crosses highest Alaskan mountains, all while starving from shortages of food. Sophie battles her struggles from within a comfortable home, while trying to stave off doubts in order for her to follow where her heart leads her.

In our less formidable world, the unknown still paralyzes us. To the Bright Edge of the World shows that in tough times when all seems lost, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep on keeping on and reach for hope, especially when it seems impossible.

*This post has gone live at GreatNewBooks.org for my quarterly book recommendation. For great book recommendations, visit GreatNewBooks.org.

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Inspiration for the Artist: The Gift by Lewis Hyde

A recent oil painting

“The artist appeals to that part of our being …which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring.” – Joseph Conrad

In January, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC, on the art of creative living. I loved it, made notes, shared it at GreatNewBooks.org, and noted one of the books which inspired her: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, by Lewis Hyde.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde

The Gift by Lewis Hyde

At last, I have it on my reading stack. I have begun at the introduction and can hardly move past it, the content is so thought-provoking.

The first concept Hyde mentions: “Works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies,” a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a works of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”

Where there is no gift, there is no art. Of created works, only art endures.

My question has always been, How do we know what is art? Who is to say that a modern painting with colors seemingly haphazardly thrown onto a canvas is more lofty and enduring than a random painting done by a non-artist? Or who is to say one work of fiction is more meaningful than another more formulaic book?

I don’t know the answer. But I think Hyde is on to something.

The next: “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will.”

True. I can’t buy or bargain my way into being Mozart. There is a gift element to his talent, as well as a gazillion hours of hard work.

Inspiration for the Artist

The third big thought of the introduction is: “Inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas… With any true creation comes the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work.” Some element of what has been created does not seem to come from the artist him/herself. The inspiration comes in the act of working.

A recent oil painting
A recent oil painting

I recently worked on the oil painting (16″x24″), above. It has been sitting on my easel for months as I’ve tried to work out what to do with it. It has no less than ten layers of paint on it, all trying to depict what I see.

I don’t think the above painting is a piece of art, but merely something I’ve worked on that expresses something I see. I knew in each version that what I was trying to achieve would eventually come out.

For me, the hardest part of creating is starting at the blank canvas; the next hardest part of creating is not giving up. Now, I feel satisfied with it, though I am not sure exactly why.

“That art that matters to us–which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience–that work is received by us as a gift is received.”

Or, ART matters.

What is it about a certain piece of art that connects with someone deeply? I can read a book or article and, depending on what I’ve experienced, determines how I feel about the piece. I can see a painting and it moves me, or hear a song and it transports me. What is it about art that makes it ART?

I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments…

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The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” ―Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

This summer, I’ve read several books and listened to a few of them on audio (which is a new experience). Reading, to me, is one of the great pleasures of summer.

Last week, I recommended new historical fiction at GreatNewBooks.org, which I’m sharing here below…

The Muralist The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro

A few years ago, I read B.A. Shapiro’s bestselling novel The Art Forger, and loved it. Earlier this year, Shapiro’s next novel, The Muralist, came out on shelves, and of course I knew I had to read it. It’s that way with writers whose work we enjoy once, we usually enjoy again.

Like The Art Forger, The Muralist is set in the past but also contains a character trying to solve a current day mystery. In The Muralist, Danielle, the great-niece of an artist named Alizée Benoit, tries to determine what happened to her great-aunt in the 1940s when she disappeared.

Danielle uses interviews, books, newspaper articles, and an old unsigned piece of a painting to track Alizée’s disappearance. Throughout the story, in alternating periods of time, the reader meets interesting characters who may or may not have something to do with Alizée’s vanishing.

The art camp Alizée lived and worked around included many now-famous notables including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Lee Krasner. All of these artists form the backbone of Abstract Expressionism, and in The Muralist, their stories merge with Alizée’s.

Eleanor Roosevelt, then the First Lady, also has cameo appearances throughout The Muralist. Her part in the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Arts program, part of FDR’s New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States, impacts Alizée and her group of not-yet-famous friends.

I appreciated the amount of research Shapiro did to accomplish this novel in as much detail as possible. Her real-world characters became more than merely a famous artist name for me, and now live in my mind as multi-dimensional people who struggled in many ways to accomplish their art and create a name.

In the end, the events and happenings merge together from both the present and past stories to form a satisfying ending, and left me with a different and fuller appreciation of the meaning of art and expression over time. Those who enjoyed The Art Forger and historical fiction with modern-day impact will find a great late-summer read in The Muralist.

Have you read The Muralist or The Art Forger? What did you think?

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New Favorite Book: It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

It's What I Do

It’s What I Do It's What I Do

Sometimes, in all the fiction reading, I need to seek out something real–a true-to-life story, one that inspires me, gives fresh perspective, and reminds me of the wider world beyond my current Ohio town. Though it fixed itself upon my reading radar many months ago, I finally picked up a copy of Lynsey Addario’s new photographic memoir, It’s What I Do. It’s a book I now count as one of my favorites, for many reasons, on many levels.

First, if you don’t know of Lynsey Addario by name, you probably know her by her photographs. The subtitle for the book is A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. She has traveled the globe for more than 20 years, photographing locales from as near as New York City and Cuba to Afghanistan, Libya, Darfur, for publications like the New York Times, National Geographic, and Time.

Lynsey’s poise amidst all she has experienced for her work is astounding. She has been kidnapped, fired upon, and mistreated, but focuses on the positive result — gaining empathy for those around her in order to capture images which tell the truth. Her gender provides another obstacle in a world filled with male photojournalists. But Lynsey followed her heart, pursued a career doing what she loves, which is exposing the truth and making headlines real for readers around the world.

Her choices have not come without a price. She says,

“I have been kidnapped twice. I have gotten in one serious car accident. Two of my drivers have died while working for me–two tragedies that I will always feel responsible for. I have missed the births of my sisters’ children, the weddings of friends, the funerals of loved ones. I have disappeared on countless boyfriends and had just as many disappear on me. I put off, for years, marriage and children. Somehow, though, I am healthy. I have maintained warm and wonderful relationships… I struggle to find the imperfect balance between my role as a mother and my role as a photojournalist. But I have faith, as I’ve always had, that if I work hard enough, care enough, and love enough in all areas of my life, I can create and enjoy a full life.”

In the book, I most appreciated Lynsey’s honest account of how she became who she is–her struggles growing up as the youngest of four daughters in a complex situation in suburban Connecticut to her treks up the Himalayas while embedded with American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. She realizes, eventually, that “I was now a photojournalist willing to die for stories that had the potential to educate people. I wanted to make people think, to open their minds, to give them a full picture of what was happening…” People like Lynsey Addario change our world and open us up to boundaries far past our own imagining.

For these, and many other reasons, I will look forward to the upcoming movie based on the book with Jennifer Lawrence starring, and keep It’s What I Do on my favorites shelf and return to it often.

For more, or for an endless list of great books to read, please visit the other site which has my heart, Great New Books.org. Happy reading!