Monday, April 6, 2020

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

"You, who quite truly knew him, can quite truly continue in his spirit and on his path. Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you, had wished to happen to you...his influence has not vanished from your existence..."~from The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria Rilke
Reading about the death of a loved one during the time of Coronavirus is difficult. I feel the cold blade of fear which I daily push back down into my subconscious, then "tie my hat and crease my shawl" to perform my tasks and obligations.

Afterlife is the story of Hispanic retired literature teacher Antonia who mourns the loss of her husband Sam. She struggles to understand how to now live. Her sisters are calling her to join them in confronting their sibling's bipolar illness. An illegal immigrant employed by her Vermont farmer neighbor implores her to help him bring his girl to join him.

All these demands! Antonia just wants to tend her own garden and live with her sorrow. But knowing Sam has changed her. His compassion remains an example of how to live in this world. Sam"seems to be resurrecting inside her," and she wonders, "is this all his afterlife will amount to? Saminspired deeds from the people who love him?"

Antonia's mind is filled with the books she loved and taught, including Rainer Maria Rilke. Last year I had read The Dark Interval which shares Rilke's letters of condolences. Alvarez's novel embodies Rilke's philosophy.

Against her nature and inclination, Sam leads Antonia to risk becoming involved in the lives and problems of other people. "Living your life is a full-time job," a sister justifies. Isn't that the truth? Then, a therapist reads Rilke to the sisters: "Death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves."

Antonia's students always responded to Rilke's poem 'Archaic Torso of Apollo" which ends, "you must change your life." It is a line that has haunted ever me since I first read it. The question, Antonia wonders, is how and when do we change it?

It is a question to be asked over and over. There is no end to such a consideration. We read a book and what we learn reminds us that we must change our life. We see a work of art, Rilke his Greek torso, Antonia Landscape with The Fall of Icarus, or when hear a symphony, or observe a beautiful spring flower or a deep woods filled with birdsong--

All the world is life-changing if we allow ourselves to truly live and open our senses and hearts and minds. To be alive is life-changing. To die is life-changing.

Antonia accepts the challenge to be Saminspired.

Alvarez is a brilliant writer who has combined a deep reflection on existence with timely questions. There is no better time for this message.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

The publisher blurb offered,
Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?
Read an excerpt from Afterlife

Read Alvarez's essay Living the Afterlife

by Julia Alvarez
Algonquin Books
Pub Date April 7,  2020
ISBN: 9781643750255
hardcover $25.95 (USD)

Sunday, April 5, 2020

COVID-19 Stay-Home Life

Pooh Bear and friends in our window for the children to see as they walk by
Life during a pandemic--you know what it's like. You are living it.

Here is it Palm Sunday, which means it's been twenty years since my mother's passing, but I struggle to keep track of time.
a neighbor's Easter egg tree
Social distancing has broken bonds we need more than ever.

I haven't seen my quilt friends for three weeks. One gifted member has suffered a stroke, another lost a grandchild. Snow Birds are unable to travel home from Florida and other states.

Our library book club was cancelled. We were to Skype with Angie Kim about her book Miracle Creek this month. The spring book sale is cancelled. And the city community center's annual spring rummage sale. Both are major sources of funding.

We had tickets to two concerts for the Detroit Symphony--cancelled. All the arts community will be struggling with lost revenue.

It's been almost a month since I saw my fitness coach. She had a week off and then the fitness center closed. Doctor, dentist, and hair appointments were cancelled. My husband had to put off shoulder replacement surgery.

My entire family last gathered on February 2 to celebrate my husband's 70th birthday. The following day we dined with my husband's brother and sister-in-law.

March 12 we last saw our grandpuppies. A week ago, our son and his girl came by and talked to us from their car in the driveway while we stood on the front steps. He sends me pictures, instant messages, calls once a week.
Our grandpup Ellie with spring flowers
Mid-March we made our last shopping trips. Two weeks ago, my husband did a curbside pickup for flour and yeast at Gordon's Foods. He buys in bulk as he bakes all our bread.

We walk the neighborhood for thirty minutes every morning around 8:30 am. It is still cold and we bundle in heavy coats, hats, scarfs. We rarely see another person at this time, or even cars on the road. This Sunday morning we looked down Main Street and there was not a car to be seen within a half mile either direction.

The rest of the day we stay home, in the house or in the yard. There is spring cleanup to do, the rain barrels to set up, bird baths and lawn furniture and a wind chime to put out.

We read. I write reviews. I play the piano and sew a bit. My masks are quite awful. I will try a new pattern.

We make soups for lunch. We make comfort foods for dinner.
Chicken noodles with dumplings
We watch an hour or two of television in the evening. We found a British YA series that has no doctors or death in the stories. I spend too much time surfing social media, playing iPad puzzles and games.
part of our Imperfect Produce delivery
Our son encouraged us to subscribe to Imperfect Produce last winter. Now we are grateful for weekly orders of fresh produce.

It took days to find an Instacart opening, but I got an order in for delivered groceries and supplies to come next week. Two weeks ago, my husband ordered toilet paper through Amazon; it is to come next week. I ordered new ink cartridges for my printer, and medicine I need, and the eye drops and mouthwash that help my Sjogren's syndrome symptoms, all to be delivered.

I ordered books. Nguyen Phan Que Mai was author host last week for the American Historical Novels Facebook page, talking about her first novel. She was such a lovely person and her story compelling. I ordered her novel The Mountains Sing from Algonquin books.
And with it, Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life by Marta McDowell, to be part of my reading on Dickinson.

The mail lady has only been working three hour days, delivering packages and the rare first class bill or letter. She told us she will use her time off and stay home for three weeks.

We have two police cars that patrol our two-mile square city. One stopped to talk, saying he was impressed by our determination to walk every day so early.

On our walks, when we see the trash and recycling and yard waste collectors we greet them and thank them, hope they stay safe.

Every few days we place a delivery order from one of our local independent restaurants. We don't need the food. We don't want to lose these businesses that make our downtown vibrant. Our favorite restaurant closed weeks ago and is not delivering. The owner, an immigrant, is a wonderful man and the restaurant was always filled to capacity. He recently remodeled; he told us his customers deserved an attractive environment.

The elementary school across the street has been closed for weeks. Even the marquee sign is now dark. The playground, like those in the parks and other schools, and the skate park and stadium and tennis courts and baseball diamonds, is closed. Usually we see children playing all day long and after hours and on weekend. Just before lockdown, the teachers had a parade through town to wave at their students, with the police and fire department escorting them.

Detroit has been hit hard by the virus and the hospitals are struggling. My brother's girlfriend, a nurse, was told to stay home for a week; she works in colonoscopy which is elective and tests have been canceled. The hospitals are losing money without tests and elective surgeries. Supplies are running out. Three Detroit nurses died of COVID-19 last week.

My brother is a Ford engineer and has worked from home for several weeks. He was told to take next week off. He and his girlfriend seek out hidden places to walk as the county and state parks are full of people.
An undisclosed Michigan Lake, photo by my brother
Later in the day, after the temperatures rise, families are out walking or biking, couples walk their dogs, people jog. We watch out the window.

Children leave chalk messages on the sidewalks. Picture windows are filled with signs of support or have Teddy Bears or Christmas candle lights. Yard signs send messages of care.

The grass is green. The robins are back. The sparrows have claimed the bird house for their nesting site. We saw a bunny in the yard. The daffodils will soon bloom. Buds are on the flowering trees.

Spring with its new life and beauty will be a stark contrast to the news filled with human suffering.

In today's Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom shares his COVID-19 story. He writes,
"...if all we do is swim in those sad waters, we will lose sight of any shore. We will drift into people we don’t recognize, and do things we never thought we would do.
"Our humanity will be what saves us in this pandemic. Small acts. Like the people who leave toilet paper on their porches for delivery workers. Or the sewing machines now humming to stitch masks. Or the folks who serenade one another across apartment house balconies.
"One thing. Find it. The one positive. The one joy you’d forgotten about. The one part of the day that brings you peace. And cling to it..."
Read it at

Stay inside. Stay safe.

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

These five women...all pushed the boundaries of scholarship, of literary form, of societal norms: they refused to let their gender hold them back, but were determined to find a different way of living, one in which their creative work would take precedence.~ Francesca Wade, Square Haunting
Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade links writers H.D., Dorothy Sayers, Virginia Woolf, Eileen Power, and Jane Ellen Harrison through their time residing in London's Mecklenburgh Square. They were born in the late 19th c. and by full adulthood saw a changed world that allowed women to vote and the opening of professions to women.They defied the narrow role assigned to women to become masters of their craft.

Each woman's life and career is illuminated through their shared experience in one place. Their time in Mecklenburgh Square was pivotal to their development.

I was familiar with Woolf, knew the work of Sayers and a bit about H.D., but Power and Harrison were unfamiliar. How sad! Harrison broke through the gender barrier to become a professional scholar.  Her research impacted the Imagist writers and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Power was a fashionable and attractive academic of economics. I realized that I had read her book Medieval People several times!

I was fascinated by these women and their stories. Wade delivers a compelling narrative that combines insight and significance and good story-telling.
...real freedom entails the ability to live on one's own terms, not to allow one's identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.~ from Square Haunting by Francesca Wade
I was given a free ebook by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

from the publisher:
In the early twentieth century, Mecklenburgh Square—a hidden architectural gem in the heart of London—was a radical address. On the outskirts of Bloomsbury known for the eponymous group who “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles,” the square was home to students, struggling artists, and revolutionaries. 
In the pivotal era between the two world wars, the lives of five remarkable women intertwined at this one address: modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. In an era when women’s freedoms were fast expanding, they each sought a space where they could live, love, and—above all—work independently. 
With sparkling insight and a novelistic style, Francesca Wade sheds new light on a group of artists and thinkers whose pioneering work would enrich the possibilities of women’s lives for generations to come.
Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars
by Francesca Wade
Crown Publishing
Tim Duggan Books
Pub Date April 7, 2020
ISBN: 9780451497796
hardcover $28.99 (USD)

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Johnny One-Eye : A Tale of the American Revolution by Jerome Charyn

"Where should I begin my unremarkable life?"~Johnny One-Eye
Johnny One-Eye proclaims to have led an unremarkable life.

Don't believe it.

Born John Stocking, age uncertain, as is his sire; son of Gert, madame of Queen's Yard, and raised with her nuns; King's College educated and former classmate of 'Ham' Alec Hamilton; lost an eye serving under Benedict Arnold; employed and threatened by patriots and redcoats alike; a scribbler, a pirate, an innkeeper, prisoner, changeling, divil---and "a man who hid beneath a madrigal of words."

"Are you soldier or civilian?" the general asked John when they first meet. John is bound and with a rifle against his side, caught in the act of adding a purgative to the general's soup.

"Both. I'm a secret agent," Johnny quips.

Major Treat, Washington's chief of intelligence, calls Johnny a frog "who leaps back and forth between the royals and us." Which makes him a brilliant character to bring readers behind the scenes, patriot and British.

Johnny is buffeted by the shifting tides of war, depending on which army is in control of New York. He is only loyal to the people he loves.

John loves the king for his education at King's College. He loves Benedict Arnold, even after his acts of treason. He loves Gert. He loves George Washington who finds solace with his beloved red-haired Gert--and in games vingt-et-un at Queen's Yard. And sometimes he finds solace with Johnny, a tenuous connection to Gert.

Most of all, Johnny loves Clara, a foundling octoroon who is more than a nun for hire, even more than an Aristotle-reading uncommon beauty. Imperious and defiant, Clara dominates unforgettable scenes, including ministering to the African soldiers abandoned by the British after the battle of Yorktown.

Charyn's war novel takes readers through history in the style of the 18th c novels with stories adventurous and bawdy, panoramic in scope. Yes, it is "rollicking" and "picaresque" as the cover contends. Perhaps it is this time of Covid-19, but I also felt the hangman's noose and cold rifle against my ribs, the losses and the desperation.

Like so many civilians caught up in times of war, Johnny serves at the pleasure of those in power. He is surrounded by men desperate to gain advantage over the enemy. Everyone can be forced to become a spy--an orphan boy, a desperate widow, an octoroon whore.

I think of my own ancestor conscripted into the Confederate militia although he came from pacifist Swiss Brethren who did not believe in oaths to the state. Or my German nationalist Baptist great-grandfather who left Russia to escape serving in the czar's army. The winds of war drove my husband's Palatine ancestors to leave their once verdant homeland, some to England and America, and some to Poland then Russia and finally to America. My ancestor's grave marks him a Revolutionary War veteran, but he was conscripted. We little people are nothing but chaff buffeted by the wind.

Our true stories are about who we love.
This 'tale of the American Revolution' includes all the history I have read, Benedict Arnold despised as a traitor by patriots and loyalists alike, John Andre and Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton and Peggy Shippen and the British generals and admirals appear.

As do the major moments.

George Washington, his leadership threatened, shocks and softens the hearts of men when he dons his spectacles and admits, "I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind..."

I get a lump in my throat. He was not perfect. But he did forgo personal power for an idea--a country ruled by the people and not a monarchy. A republic, if we can keep it.

"But this war cannot go on forever. One side will win," Johnny says to Mrs. Loring, 'war wife' of General Howe of the redcoats. She responds, "I am not so certain. Both sides might also lose." Johnny considers that perhaps both sides had already lost, "with killing and plunder as a permanent language."

George Washington won the war and a nation was born. At the end of the novel he is lionized, his errors overlooked. But he is a ghost after seven years of war, wandering his farm, peacetime "but a sweet deception."

Johnny survives the hurricane. He gains the reward of true love. It is all any of us really want in this life. Survive the battle anyway we can and cleave to those we love. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow

All any of us want is a little attention, she thought...~from The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow
Poor Mary Bennett, the 'ugly duckling' sister, the comic foil, the forgotten and ignored child! Portrayed in film as squinting, clueless, socially inept, pseudo-intellectual, and plain.

Her story must be depressing. She watches her older sisters marry well for love, and her silliest, youngest sister at least snags a handsome rake. Even Charlotte Lucas gets her ever after--happy to have a home if not Mr. Collins as a mate.

Janice Hadlow's debut novel The Other Bennett Sister channels Austen's character Mary Bennett, imagining a worthy character who lives into a richer life. The novel shows inspiration from Austen's story and themes yet Hadlow develops the story in an original way, true to the historical time and setting.

Themes of self-realization, self-recreation, learning through error, prejudice and pride, sense and sensibility are all a part of Mary's path.

The first part of the book follows Pride and Prejudice from Mary's perspective. Those of us familiar with Austen's novel must be patient; the best is to come. We do learn that Mary had taken to reading theology and philosophy hoping for her father's approval.

After her sisters, including Kitty, are married and Mr. Bennett has passed, twenty-year-old Mary and Mrs. Bennett are dependent on the rich sisters. Miss Bingley takes out her disappointment on Mary with whispered jabs. And the Darcy household is too happy and perfect to easily allow her room. In desperation, Mary turns to the Gardiners. They offer Mary the example of a happy marriage, value her for herself, and provide good counsel.

When Mary is convinced to select a new wardrobe to better suit London society, I loved the descriptions of spotted and stripped and sprigged muslins, the fad colors of coromandel and jonquil, the green dress that will replace the dull colors that had allowed Mary to previously disappear into the woodwork.

In her simple elegance, Mary takes her place in society and attracts the attention of several men. One combines good sense and steadiness with a love of poetry. The other embraces free-thinking and prefers the pursuit of sensation as life's goal.

She meets men with a love of the novel. I love the many references to the literature and poetry that arises in conversation:

William Godwin's Poetic Justice 
Mary Wollstonecraft 
Lord Byron and Shelley
Tintern Abbey and We Are Seven by William Wordsworth; also his Guide to the Lakes
Evelina by Fanny Burney
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson

I loved how the Romantic Era makes its impact on her life with Mary's (unsuitable) beau extolling feeling and sensation and rejecting cultural expectations and values, especially concerning the role of women and marriage as a socio-economic compromise.
Our lives are so brief and yet we spend so much of them obeying rules we did not make.~ from The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow
Mary early prefers the steady man. But his reticence leaves Mary to be persuaded into unwise decisions.
This landscape gives us a proper sense of perspective. It shows us our smallness in the great scheme of things.~ from The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow
The Lakes

The Gardiners take that trip to the Lake District they had once planned for Elizabeth; Mary's preferred beau accompanies them while the other just shows up.

Before she came to the Lakes, she had read a great deal about the subline--sights so extraordinary they could not be adequately described, only felt and experienced. She had never expected to feel for herself such an extraordinary consummation.~ from The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow
...they caught sight of the great lake at Windermere; then they were quiet, for it was a sight magnificent enough to silence anyone.~ from The Other Bennett Sister

The group decides to walk up the second largest mountain in England. It is a rocky climb that will last all day--and threatens Mary's future happiness.
hikers on Scafell
The romance has enough twists and turns for any Austen lover, with the satisfaction of a happy ending. This is not a plot giveaway--any Austen fan fiction must have it's happily ever after.

Hadlow has given us a fantastic read.

I was given access to a free egalley by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

The Other Bennet Sister
by Janice Hadlow
Henry Holt & Company
Pub Date 31 Mar 2020 
ISBN 9781250129413
PRICE $27.99 (USD)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

I was so relieved when Benjamin Dreyer confessed. "When I started out as a copy editor, I realized that most of what I knew about grammar I knew instinctively.”  I was not alone!

He won my heart by adding, "Even now I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I think that the word "genitive" sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don't know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence. I hope I'm not shocking you."

We did diagram sentences in junior 1965... Don't ask me how to do that now.

In school, I often got an A for content and a C for grammar and spelling. I never did learn to touch type with accuracy, and any proficiency I had gained in spelling has disappeared.

I often said that I came out of Temple University knowing how to read intelligently. I was quite unemployable and ended up in customer service and sales.

When I got a job as a copywriter/copyeditor in promotion for a small publishing house (I had worked for a former employee and my new boss thought I had learned her skills through osmosis), I worked hard to correct my errors by reading grammar books. My coworker and I had many heated discussions about how to write; she was a grammar nerd.

Later in life, while schooling our son, my family all were writing and  we would critique each other. I had become a member of the dreaded 'grammar police' and oversensitive to bad writing habits.

I took short-term editing jobs and people hated me. I edited a manuscript for a self-published author who appreciated my insight and gave me double our agreed on price.

Well, that was a long time ago. I had thrown out my ragged grammar books before a move. Now, I needed a refresher course. And hearing so many good things about Dreyer's English, bought an ebook.

What a treasure! So much useful information, shared in such an entertaining way! A joy to read!

I now understand why I never know if I should use gray or grey. My history of reading British writers had me totally confused.

I am very grateful.

Learn more at

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Story of More by Hope Jahren

Having hope requires courage.~from The Story of More by Hope Jahren
Succinct, well organized, and with a powerful narrative that is engrossing and accessible, The Story of More crunches down what I have read in numerous books into 224 pages.

Author Hope Jahren, author of the best-selling memoir Lab Girl, based the book on her climate change classes.

"All of this has convinced me that it's time to bring global change out of my classroom and into this book," Jahren writes in the introduction. "So if you'll listen, I'll tell you what happened to my world, to your world--to our world. It changed."

She starts at the very beginning--the fact that humans are on this earth and that our population is continually growing. Following a logical narrative, Jahren covers how we get our food and our growing energy use and the changes we have wrought on earth.

Along the way she points out that we have enough of everything but it is not shared equitably. Millions live without enough food, clean water and other things some of us take for granted. And millions of us spend money on things we don't need, wasting the clean water and energy available.

Scientists have been aware for nearly my entire lifetime that our dependence on fossil fuels was a problem. We have seen the environmental damage caused by human activity, including factory farms and our dependence on gasoline fueled cars and air travel. We know that the sea level is rising  and glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting.

Jahren concludes with actions we can all take.

First, we must determine our personal values. Learn what you can about what you value. Are your personal activities in line with those values? What about your personal investments--are they in line with your values? How we spend our money and how we invest our money should reflect what we believe. Share your values with institutions to pressure change.

Americans can make a huge impact. Every step we take to limit our energy use and reduce our consumption makes an impact. We can't give up. We can do with less.

Do not be seduced by lazy nihilism.~ from The Story of More  by Hope Jahren
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Read an excerpt or hear an audio excerpt at

from the publisher
Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist, a brilliant writer, a passionate teacher, and one of the seven billion people with whom we share this earth. In The Story of More, she illuminates the link between human habits and our imperiled planet. In concise, highly readable chapters, she takes us through the science behind the key inventions—from electric power to large-scale farming to automobiles—that, even as they help us, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere like never before. She explains the current and projected consequences of global warming—from superstorms to rising sea levels—and the actions that we all can take to fight back. At once an explainer on the mechanisms of global change and a lively, personal narrative given to us in Jahren’s inimitable voice, The Story of More is the essential pocket primer on climate change that will leave an indelible impact on everyone who reads it.

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here
by Hope Jahren
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Pub Date March 3, 2020
ISBN: 9780525563389
$15.00 (USD) hardcover