Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Guide to Life in Space from Tim Peake

It is amazing to consider that since 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space that only 545 people have reached Earth's orbit. Tim Peake is one, having been on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015. His book Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space is as close as most of us will get to knowing what it is like.

When Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff, he was talking about the first American astronauts who had come up from the ranks of pilots. Today's astronauts need very specific skills, including being good at language, since being in the ISS requires knowing Russian.

"NASA astronaut and ISS commander Scott Kelly told me that it is only the first ten years of studying Russian that are difficult."

The most important trait needed to be an astronaut is character and drive. Mike Massimino also wrote about that in his memoir Spaceman.

Peake wrote this book to answer the questions people ask all the time about being space. Chapters include Launch, Training, Life and Work on the ISS, Spacewalking, Earth and Space, Return to Earth, and Looking to the Future. There are great illustrations, diagrams, and color photographs.

I can't imagine living in 'a tin can' for months. And yet this is what today's astronauts do. And sharing that space with other people.

Okay, perhaps I can imagine that but I really can't imagine spacewalking. Leaving the 'safe haven' of the ISS for a black vacuum where temperatures can go from frigid to boiling in minutes, unprotected from various flying space stuff. One wrong move and--well, watch the movie Gravity and skip the happy ending. Peake notes it is actually quite easy to fall off the space station. The danger is palpable.

All this while wearing adult 'nappies'.

But other things can go wrong, too. In 1965 a Soviet astronaut was in space when his suit ballooned and stiffened. His hands and feet slipped from their places, and the only thing he could do was depressurize his suit. He was suffering from decompression sickness when, with much struggling, he entered the airlock.

Peake was part of a team to repair the ISS solar panel, restoring its electric power. Being in space gave him "the sensation of being a microscopic spectator in an immeasurably vast universe. It was, at the same time, the most astonishing and humbling experience of my life."

This is a great book for inquisitive minds, from the young to us older folk who grew up with the Space Race.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space
by Tim Peake
Little, Brown and Company
Hardcover $26.00
ISBN: 9780316512787
Publication Date: October 17, 2017

See the book trailor at:

from the publisher:
What happens when you sneeze in space? Was it fun to do a space walk? How squashed were you in the capsule on the way back? What were your feelings as you looked down on Earth for the first time? Were you ever scared? Where to next-the Moon, Mars, or beyond? 
Based on his historic mission to the International Space Station, Ask an Astronaut is Tim Peake's guide to life in space, and his answers to the thousands of questions he has been asked since his return to Earth. With explanations ranging from the mundane--how do you wash your clothes or go to the bathroom while in orbit?--to the profound-do humans have a duty to explore the unknown?--all written in Tim's characteristically warm style, Tim shares his thoughts on every aspect of space exploration.  
From training for the mission to launch, to his historic spacewalk, to re-entry, he reveals for readers of all ages the cutting-edge science behind his groundbreaking experiments, and the wonders of daily life on board the International Space Station. 
We invite the public to join us in submitting new questions using the hashtag #askanastronaut, and the most exciting will be answered by Tim in the book, along with illustrations, diagrams, and never-before-seen photos.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Read Aloud Classics: Peter Pan

Growing up I was always excited when the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan came to television. I loved the story and the songs and seeing people fly.

In Sixth Grade I found James Barrie's Peter Pan in the library. My heart ached for Wendy when she realizes she was too old for Neverland, knowing I was on the cusp of growing up myself. And I did not like the idea one bit.

I have been enjoying the Moondance Press Read Aloud Classics series which presents classic literature packaged for preschoolers ages 2 to 6. My own love of the classics came from the Classics Illustrated Comics, which inspired me to read the novels by junior high. The idea of introducing characters and story lines to even younger children is brilliant. Perhaps children will have cozy memories of the stories and when older will want to read them in their original form.

The newest volume in the series is Peter Pan. The illustrations by Victoria Tentler-Krylov are beautiful, with lots of colorful detail, interpreting the magic and adventure of Neverland.

Barrie's story is retold by Charles Nurnberg. The basic story we all know and love is presented. 

Peter entices Wendy and her brother to Neverland where they will have adventures with mermaids and pirates, Indians and the Lost Boys. After rescuing Tiger Lily from Captain Hook Wendy decides it is time to return home. She invites the Lost Boys to come with them and be adopted. 

Leaving the underground hideout they are captured by the pirates. Hook sneaks into the hideout and leaves "something in his water that will make him sick." And of course, Tinker Bell drinks the bad water and get sick. Peter asks, "Do you believe in fairies? Do you want to save Tinker Bell's Life? If so, clap your hands three times."

I can imagine sitting with a tot on my knee, clapping our hands together. Perhaps this one moment most of all captures children's imaginations: the empowerment of saving Tink's life is just so wonderful.

Peter saves Wendy and the boys by fighting the pirates. A frightened Hook jumps into the water where the crocodile is waiting. "And that was the end of Captain Hook."

Peter declines staying with the Darlings as it would mean growing up.

As a child the dream of staying a child forever was dear and precious. Who wants to leave a time when believe you can fly and  on a summer's day playing in the wading pool you imagine yourself a mermaid?

Childhood also has its fears and frights. There are pirates to battle and crocs that threaten. In Peter Pan, children always win and the dark and ugly parts of life are vanquished.

Learn about other books in the series:
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Around the World in 80 Days

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Read Aloud Classic: Peter Pan
J. M. Barrie, retold by Charles Nurnberg
illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov
October 17, 2017
ISBN 9781633222229, 1633222225
Hardcover  28 pages $17.95

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf

Writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney were teaching in Japan when they met. They immediately connected and soon were regularly meeting and critiquing each other's writing.

As they collaborated on writing A Secret Sisterhood, they found happiness in spite of the stress. Their unfounded feared was that their 'bond between equals' would be threatened if one achieved success before the other.

When Margaret Atwood offered to write the forward for the book, it was proof that women writers do forge friendships of encouragement and support, in spite of historic stereotypes.

Jane Austen was mythologized into a happy spinster who hid her writing and relied only on her sister for support. Suppressed was her friendship with her rich brother's impoverished governess Anne Sharp, an amateur playwright.

Charlotte Bronte's friendship with boarding school friend Mary Taylor had its ups and downs, but it was Taylor who inspired Charlotte to travel abroad to continue her education. The intrepid Taylor became a feminist writer.

George Eliot, living 'in sin' with a married man, corresponded with clergyman's daughter and literary sensation Harriet Beecher Stowe. Over years, their closeness was stressed by life events, yet their regard for each other as artists prevailed.

Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are remembered as rivals, their mutual regard and friendship overshadowed.

A Secret Sisterhood was an interesting book about the "rare sense of communion" between literary friends. One does not need to be well informed about the writers discussed for enough biographical information is included to understand the friendships in context of the authors' personal and professional lives.

I enjoyed the book and learned something about writers I am quite familiar with and a great deal about those I knew little.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf
by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Oct. 17, 2017
ISBN: 9780544883734
Hard cover $27.00

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Homeschooling Days

Our son's senior year photo
The decision to homeschool our son was monumental and yet the easiest decision to make. I later realized that from the beginning I was teaching our son at home. Reading, craft activities, nature studies, museums, games, educational magazines, and making up stories were part of our daily activities.

One day while driving in the countryside he asked me what the road signs said. I explained the no passing and passing zones. He started reading the signs and telling me, "You can pass now." He's been a back-seat driver ever since!

So, we knew he was reading before he started kindergarten. At Kindergarten Roundup he was put in Pre-K. He came home from Pre-K disappointed, and asked when he was going to learn "real science."

In Kindergarten he was inattentive. The teacher asked me to come to class and observe.

Hillsdale was a rural community with a good deal of poverty. The classroom was geared for children who did not come from enriched lives. The teacher read a book, explained the book, told the students how to draw a picture relating to the book. And after that, she discussed the book again. After the first reading, Chris lost attention. He whipped off his drawing and went back to wandering around. I saw that he was bored.

First Grade was promising at first. The young teacher was resolved to challenge our son and keep him busy. Day after day when we picked him up from school she complained about his lack of attention. The school assigned an aid to offer our son special one-on-one activities, mostly reading on a higher level.

We went to a family counselor who told us that our son needed to be in "his proper peer group." He encouraged us to have the school test him.

The principal agreed to the testing, but warned that jumping grades was rarely successful. In October of his First Grade year Chris underwent testing. The principal was surprised by the results. Our son was reading on a Fifth Grade, second semester level and had the math skills of a Second grader. We agreed to jump him to Second Grade after winter break. At first, he was to spend only half days in the new class. But once he was there, he would not leave. He knew it was where he belonged.

His Second Grade and Third Grade teachers were great, and he worked hard to stay in the top of the class. He encountered teasing and rejection at first, but in Third Grade that was all behind him. The teacher was great; he sent home weekly letters to parents, took the class on a nature walk, and taught special units on interesting subjects like Great Lakes Shipwrecks. Our son made friends and joined Cub Scouts and Little League.

Then we were moved to Lansing. It was a very different environment from that of a small town.

The Fourth Grade teacher was not as interactive with parents as we were used to. In fact, she seemed detached and burnt out. He was in a pull-out program for the gifted, but the program did not give him what he needed, and it made him a target for teasing. There were not enough math books for the students and they could not be taken home to study.

Our son tried to make friends, using techniques that had worked for him when he jumped from First to Second grade. But the cliques were set and closed. Our son also had to deal with a very different social atmosphere than the small town he had known. The school included kids from the upscale neighborhood we lived in, and from the poor neighborhood just south with many children from troubled families or with fathers in jail.

Our son was depressed. We found a family counselor who spoke with our son privately. The counselor suggested homeschooling to our son at that time, as had the counselor in Jackson, MI who had encouraged the academic testing.
Chris and his friend 'pigging out'
Fifth Grade went better, with a more involved, positive teacher. Our son met another new boy in school and they became best friends.
Chris and Marianna, his exchange student sister
When Chris was in Fifth Grade we hosted an exchange student. Mariana was the oldest daughter of my high school exchange student sister, Elina. The first months they got along quite well. But when Chris and Mariana went trick and treating an argument broke out. Suddenly they were acting like a 'real' brother and sister! Before long they were fighting like real siblings, vying for my attention.

Sixth Grade brought a school change to junior high school. At first everything seemed to be going great. Chris was in a group of boys and they had a lot of fun. But when he had classes with older kids they made him uncomfortable. He asked me why they were allowed to wear clothing with bad messages and allowed to use foul language. He encountered problems with teachers who insisted on his writing reports by hand; his fine motor skills were not good and writing was hard. He wanted to use the computer and type his reports.

One day our son corrected the social studies teacher who said WWII started in 1942. That's when America entered the war, but Chris knew the war started in 1939. The teacher did not like his correcting her!

A boy was bullying our son, and one day Chris picked up a stick to keep the the boy away. There was a no-violence policy and the boy turned our son in; he ended up in detention after school, removing graffiti from the walls.

After the Columbine school shooting, mimics were everywhere. One day our son didn't want to go to school because of rumors that a boy had threatened to bring a gun to school. He was literally afraid.

Our son's MEAP score took a dip and his grades were slipping. Chris asked us if we would homeschool him. Two counselors had said he was a good candidate for homeschooling.  A science teacher told us about his daughter who had 'dual exceptionalities', being both gifted and learning disabled. He was wary of our taking on homeschooling.

I found a distance school for gifted children out of Chicago that provided oversight, curriculum ideas, records keeping, and testing for homschooling. We signed up beginning in Seventh Grade. We took our son to a local testing service and discovered his strengths and weaknesses in learning and his I.Q. score. The school counselor advised us on courses and curriculum and handled paperwork and records.

That first year involved adjustment. I was suddenly our son's mother and teacher and friend. He wanted me to keep the roles separate. I saw everything as a teachable moment.

I was in my second year working from a home office for Jostens. So I was working 30 hours a week and homeschooling and a homemaker and a minister's wife! Gary's flexible schedule meant he could teacher several subjects, including logic and mathematics. I oversaw history, science, English, Latin, and gave I Chris piano lessons.

We decided not to continue with the oversight school for Eighth Grade. Jostens wanted the Office Manager to be available more hours and they wanted me to be more active in outside and inside sales. I quit the job to homeschool full time.

We joined a homeschool group. Every fall they had a series of Field Days with games and learning activities at a park.

While some moms organized and ran the activities, along with older homeschool students as helpers, the rest of us moms visited.
The Moms
Our family was concerned that our son would not be in 'the real world,' but even the homeschool group had differences in religious and political thinking that involved getting along and respecting others, as did our church.

The homeschool group sponsored educational trips, such as visiting the local GM plant, the Lansing State Journal, and the Kalamazoo Air Museum. We took advantage of classes that taught art and pottery. I offered classes to the homeschool group teaching some basic needlework skills including coloring on fabric and Redwork quilting.

I loved teaching. I loved relearning. I loved researching curriculum and setting lesson plans. I focused on curriculum to suit his learning style. We did hire a tutor for Algebra II and a mathematics review to prepare for standardized testing. By Senior High, our son could determine his own elective subjects and set his own plans.

Since the whole family was writing, we would read and critique each other. We were sure our son was going to be 'the writer' in the family. Both Gary and I had written as kids, and of course Gary wrote sermons and articles in his work and I wrote poetry and short stories for myself.

Homeschooling was efficient time-wise. Our son was able to complete his school work in four days. Gary had Fridays off, so we would schedule family activities for Friday afternoons, going to movies and dinner, taking day trips to museums, or having a family game and pizza nights. Homeschooling made us a closer family.

A homeschool group member, Jacob, organized a role playing gaming group which met at our house. Friday evenings brought a troop of boys coming in the front door, saying 'hi', and going to the finished basement for a few hours of gaming.

Chris and Gary had been playing the Magic:The Gathering card game and even taught me. So when Chris got to college, the first thing he did was to join the Alternate Reality gaming club. He made friendships there that have lasted to this day.

We made sure our son took the PSAT test available through local homeschool groups, and the ACT and the SAT.
Sunday School class play
Angel Alert Christmas Play
Our son was active at church and in community volunteering. He worked at the Lansing library resale store, and all summer volunteered as a counselor in training at the Woldumar Nature Center. His Senior year, he won a Target scholarship for college, based on his volunteer work.
The Youth Group raked leaves at the homes of the elderly
During our son's junior and senior year in high school I was the Senior High Sunday School Teacher. I had a great deal of fun. I think the kids did, too.
Senior High Sunday School Class kids hanging in the Youth Building
When it came time to apply to college he decided to apply to Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Allendale, MI and Albion College, a small Methodist liberal arts college with scholarships for clergy children. We visited other colleges as well, including Alma and Western.

With his applications I submitted a summary of the entire homeschool records, including course descriptions with texts and reading materials. Albion College told us he was already working on a college level. He was accepted by both schools.

He was leaning toward Albion, which was close to Lansing and smaller. We suggested he visit each school again, this time to sit in on a class. Albion suggested he would have a lot of experience in journalism and the school paper there. He sat in on a literature class. But when he sat in on a writing critique class at GVSU he came out excited. That was what he wanted! And he accepted GVSU.
My homeschool mom friends 
Chris graduated a few weeks before we were moved again. The Bishop had informed Gary at the last moment that he was needed elsewhere. There was to be no questioning or disputing the move.

Our son at his graduation party with church friend Stacy
I had planned to return to work full time after our son graduated, sure I had contacts for good jobs. While homeschooling I worked several part-time jobs including a temp editing job, filling in when the church secretary was on leave, and scoring standardized tests for the Educational Testing Service from home. I continued to hone my desktop publishing skills through volunteer work as the quilt guild newspaper editor as as a school records keeper.

We thought we knew what our future was going to look like, but in the itinerant ministry, you can never be sure about anything.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Heart's Invisible Fury by John Boyne

A novel can be transformative, for it has the ability to condense our experience and reflect what we knew back in a way that we recognize as true while enlarging our understanding and engaging our heart.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne tells the life story of Cyril Avery, spanning seventy years between 1945 and 2015. It is the story of a young man growing up, a good but passive man who is not allowed to be a real son, an honest friend, who makes mistakes and survives horrible losses. In the end he discovers his true identity and is able to rectify relationships.

The story has its terrifying and violent moments. The dark humor brought out-loud laughter. And it has sorrows that brought tears to my eyes.

It is a compassionate book. It is a work which unsparingly attacks hypocrisy and double standards in society and the church. The worst people can do, the violence and hate crimes and prejudice is all revealed. As is forgiveness, understanding, and the vision of a state of being that will recompense our earthly losses.

I was totally unprepared for this book when I chose it as my Blogging for Books read. It was one of those happy accidents of a book finding its right reader.

The novel opens in Ireland at a time when the church controls social mores and with a harsh hand ferrets out illicit sexual activity, unwed teens and homosexuals especially.

Cyril Avery, 'not a real Avery' his adoptive father reminds him, was born to an unwed mother who was rejected by her family and parish. His birth came in a moment of terror. His self-absorbed adotpive parents gave him a home but no affection, yet he loved and accepted them. His childhood and university friend Julian was beautiful, brash, and self assured. Julian, like his father and like Cyril's father, was sexually promiscuous from an early age. He became the secret object of Cyril's affection, which Cyril does not reveal until the morning he was to marry Julian's sister.

"What was I even doing here? Years of regret and shame began to overwhelm me. A lifetime of lying, of feeling that I was being forced to lie, had led me to a moment where I was not only preparing to destroy my own life but also that of a girl who had done nothing whatsoever to deserve it."
I recalled a minister friend from long ago, smart and fun and capable, and his wife who like me was an English major at university. At annual conference we would met up and talk. Years passed and the wife was expecting their first child. The husband told her that he was in love with someone else and that he was gay. Our denomination would not appoint a homosexual, and to this day will not appoint a homosexual unless they are celibate. So, he had married a woman he loved deeply, and pretended to love her sexually as well. It was devastating, the wife faced with raising a child as a single mother, the husband waiting to hear if his career would be taken away. What that taught me was not to hate my friend but the evil that forced him to deny who he was, unable to live honestly and wholly.

"I can't excuse my actions," Cyril tells Julian's sister years later, "but I didn't have the courage or maturity to be honest with myself, let alone anyone else."

And I recalled another friend, a young man grappling with his sexuality during the early days of AIDS, whose self loathing and fear of family rejection kept him not only closeted but even dating. In these days, a woman told me she hated picking up a phone that had been used by another gay friend,  an otherwise intelligent woman.  Boyne's book addresses this too, as Cyril volunteers to visit AIDS victims and experiences the hatred and blame put on gays for the disease.

Near the end of his life, Cyril meets his birth mother and learns his story. "Maybe there were no villains in my mother's story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing."

His mother looks at her home village's graveyard and says, "All these people. And all of that trouble. And look, they're dead now. So what did it all matter in the end?" She wonders, "Why did they abandon me? Why do we abandon each other? Why did I abandon you?"

Why do we allow ourselves to be led into hate and violence? How can we look at a son or daughter, a friend or schoolmate, and allow some idea to alienate us, so we do not see the person we know but a vision of something frightening?

In the flawed, humane, and tempest-tossed Cyril perhaps we will recognize we are all fallen creatures tyring to just get through life, hoping for a moment's affection and love.

I received a free book through Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Heart's Invisible Furies
John Boyne
Hogarth Books
$28 hard cover
ISBN: 978-1-5247-6078-6

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Welcome Home Diner: A Taste of Detroit

I was attracted by the cover, and then intrigued by the story line of The Welcome Home Diner, which is set in a nearly abandoned East Side Detroit neighborhood.

Cousins Addie and Samantha are part of the influx of idealistic young people flocking to the city with visions of being part of its comeback. They buy a long abandoned diner and serve up locally sourced foods, using heirloom recipes from their Polish grandmother.

The book is packed with Detroit references from the Packard Auto Plant to the Detroit Zoo, the Eastern Market to Holiday Market.

The characters are optimistic and excited about Detroit's future, and happy to be part of its transformation. They hope that the Welcome Home Diner will become a neighborhood gathering place. But the locals are fearful: gentrification brings higher taxes, and those who have stayed can't afford to pay them.

Addie and Samantha both struggle with guy problems that require a need for self-understanding and personal growth. What they learn is good advice for all.

They take huge risks beyond investing in a decimated neighborhood. They hire an escapee from human trafficking and a young man whose tragic teenage mistake landed him in prison.

Behind the hard work, flirtations and commitment issues, and endeavoring to bring locals into the diner and not just suburbanites, they are being stalked by an unknown person who is trying to destroy all they are building.

I don't read a lot of 'women's fiction' or romance or 'foodie' books with recipes. This novel certainly will be enjoyed by readers who love those genres. I do read books that incorporate social and political issues into entertaining stories. This book certainly hit that mark for me.

Book Club Discussion Questions are included as well as recipes, including Greens with Turnips and Potlikker, Cabbage Rolls,  Lamb Burger Sliders, Ginger-Molasses Bundt Cake with lemon Curd, and Heartbreaker chocolate chip cookies! Yum!

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Welcome Home Diner
by Peggy Lampman
Lake Union Publishing
ISBN: 9781542047821
PRICE $14.95

Author Peggy Lampman was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama but attended the University of Michigan, After working as a copywriter and photographer fin New York City she returned to Ann Arbor and opened a specialty foods store, the Back Alley Gourmet. Later, she wrote a food column for the Ann Arbor News and MLive. Lampman’s first novel, The Promise Kitchen, published in 2016, garnered several awards and accolades. She is married and has two children. She also writes the popular blog

From the publisher:
Betting on the city of Detroit’s eventual comeback, cousins Addie and Samantha decide to risk it all on an affordable new house and a culinary career that starts with renovating a vintage diner in a depressed area of town. There’s just one little snag in their vision.

Angus, a weary, beloved local, is strongly opposed to his neighborhood’s gentrification—and his concerns reflect the suspicion of the community. Shocked by their reception, Addie and Samantha begin to have second thoughts.

As the long hours, problematic love interests, and underhanded pressures mount, the two women find themselves increasingly at odds, and soon their problems threaten everything they’ve worked for. If they are going to realize their dreams, Addie and Samantha must focus on rebuilding their relationship. But will the neighborhood open their hearts to welcome them home?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I will admit, I have not read Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, and I am not a fan of books or television series about witches. Except for Bewitched, which I loved, but I was eleven years old then.

Consequently, I did not know what to expect when the publisher offered me The Rules of Magic based on my having read the author's previous books Vinegar Girl, the Hogarth Shakespeare series version of The Taming of the Shrew, and her historical novel The Marriage of Opposites imagining the marriage of the artist Camille Pissarro's parents. Based on the last mentioned book alone, I have collected quite a few Hoffman books now languishing on my TBR shelves!

What happened was unexpected, for I was instantly in love with Hoffman's language and The Rules of Magic characters. Although the novel is about three teenagers struggling with the powers and limitations of having magical abilities, it is really about universal themes: the power of love, and how we must love regardless of the costs, and that we must embrace who we are.

Franny, Jet, and Vincent are complex characters burdened with the knowledge that they are cursed to bring destruction to the men they love. As they grew up, their parents tried to protect them from self-knowledge, but they recognized they were not like other children. "It's for your own good," her mother told Franny. "What makes you think that's what I want?" Franny counters.

"What is meant to be is bound to happen," and in 1960 the children's lives change when they visit their Aunt Isabella, a contact that "inflame[s] characteristics" which were "currently dormant." And over the summer each child learns their genealogy, their abilities, and about the curse and joy of love.

The book was a joy to read, lovely and moving. I felt a deep connection to the characters.

The Rules of Magic is a prequel to Practical Magic, telling the backstory of Frances and Jet who accept their brother's granddaughter into their home. I found I did not need to know the previous book to understand and enjoy this one; it stands on its own, and without any tedious linkage to the other book.

I received a free ebook from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Rules of Magic
by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster
Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2017
Hardcover $27.99
ISBN: 9781501137471

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

In 1977 when Star Wars IV: A New Hope came out my husband and I were in our mid-twenties. We loved the movie but not as much as the youth we were working with. The teens bragged about how many times they had seen the movie. The movie was more than a hit, it transformed culture.

Fast forward ten or more years, and our son was sick and restless. I brought out the Star Wars trilogy VCR tapes to entertain him. After viewing the first movie, he told me, "Thank you."

The movie is a touchstone for so many who remember when they first saw it as vividly as recalling where we were on 9-11 or the day President Kennedy was shot.

Princess Leia was a different kind of heroine, the kind I had found lacking when I was growing up in the 1950s. In my make-believe play I was always a cowboy because the cowgirls were weak and needed to be rescued. I resented it when Leia was turned into a sex object, barely dressed in that uncomfortable metal bikini.

Later, we were into Joseph Campbell and loved how the story of Luke Skywalker was a secular manifestation of the eternal hero myth.

We were fans of all the Harrison Ford movies-- from Indiana Jones to Witness. But I never idolized Mark Harmon or Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher like many did, or do. Over the years I read about Carrie's books and saw her in a few movies and heard about her personal battles. I'm not really a Hollywood bio book fan, so I did not pay much attention to The Princess Diarist until I read such glowing reviews.

I had requested The Princess Diarist through NetGalley before Carrie's death, based on the reviews I had read. Just last week I was notified that I was granted access to the book.

I always give a new book a glance. Sometimes, I keep reading, hooked. This was one of those times. I read the book in a few sittings.

"...if I didn't write about it someone else would." from The Princess Diarist

Earlier this year on my blog I shared memories of my teen years, drawing from the diaries I kept beginning at age 13. Carrie started writing at age 12, about the time I did. I found myself relating to the Carrie. At age nineteen, she was self-deprecating, uncertain, wanting to appear worldly yet wanting to be loved. How secure could a teenager be when the first thing she is told is to lose ten pounds before filming!

The memoir begins with Carrie retelling her back story, getting the role, and how her affair with Harrison Ford began. Her writing is direct with a touch of humor, and an objectivity made possible by the passing of time. Carrie admits she went into filming hoping to have an affair; there was one boyfriend in her past. Harrison was fifteen years older, and married, and not on her radar although he struck her as the iconic Hollywood star. He made her nervous and left her feeling awkward.

The next section is from the diary she kept during the filming of Star Wars: IV. The diary excerpts offer insight into her nineteen-year-old mind. It is quite heartbreaking and poignant, consisting of poems and thoughts reflecting hard lessons about love. She chose to be with Harrison, but chastised herself for choosing obsession and over emotional investment. There was no future with Harrison, their relationship without real meaning.

Teenage Carrie had great self-awareness about her choices but lacked an ability for self-determination. She has little confidence and feels worthless. She is playing at being someone she is not, and is unable to demand what she needs from the relationship. Harrison has strong boundaries, revealing little; the strong, silent type. Writing keeps Carrie together. When filming on location came to an end, Harrison returned to his family.

Forty years on, Carrie can reflect on her "very long one-night stand" and their one-sided love affair objectively. It's all in the past, she remarks, "and who gives a shit?"

The memoir next shifts to how the Princess Leia role took over Carrie's life and how she coped with the fame and demands it brought: being accessible to fans and signing autographs, listening to the stories of worship, making money off the fans, the endless Comic-Con conventions. Carrie grows old, but Princess Leia does not, and a young fan complained, "I want the other Leia, not the old one." But fans also shared stories that warmed her heart and made her feel good.

I loved the story of people asking her, "Well, you wanted to be in show business," so accept the negative side of fame. That lack of empathy riled me. I was asked a similar question once. I complained about the frequent moves and lack of self-determination that came with my husband being in the pastoral ministry. "You married a minister. You knew what you were getting into," the lady told me. "I was nineteen and had no idea about itineracy," I retorted.

We make decisions at age nineteen feeling very grown up and worldly, and then realize how little we understand about the world, or about ourselves. Carrie didn't set out to become a famous Hollywood actress. And she was not prepared.

Last of all, Carrie ruminates, sobbing, on her iconic role. What would she be if not Princess Leia? "Just me."

Find Carrie Fisher's website here.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Princess Diarist
Carrie Fisher
Penguin/Blue Rider Press
Hardcover $26
ISBN: 9780399173592

Read an excerpt from the book at

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Our Family Hosts an Exchange Student

Mariana, Gary, me and Chris at a church dinner
When I was a senior in high school my family hosted an exchange student from Finland, Elina Salmi. Elina and her brothers were all exchange students, and Elina wanted her children to have the exchange student experience also.
Christmas 1998. My brother, Chris, Gary, Marianna, and Dad.

In spring of 1998 she contacted me. Her daughter Marianna was going to be an exchange student the coming school year. And she wanted us to host her! We said yes.
Chris and Marianna at a church party
Our son was starting Fifth Grade. Marianna was in the senior class at Sexton High School in Lansing. Our church had quite a few Sexton teachers, and many of our youth were students there.
Marianna under the quilt I made her.
Marianna was much like her mother, but with a more pronounced streak of Finnish stubborness. Whereas her mother was the youngest in her family, Marianna was the eldest child. Chris, of course, was an only child so it was an adjustment for him to have someone older in the house. As it should be, before the year was out I was experienced with sibling rivalry, ploys for attention, small fights, and the exasperation of shopping with a picky teenage girl.

Marianna helping with Vacation Bible School, June 1999.
The church embraced Marianna as one of their own. And she made friends with a great group of teenage girls at church. The youth group leaders, Opal and Tim Hanson, were wonderful friends to Marianna.
Marianna with Danielle and Michelle
At Sexton she pushed herself into uncomfortable areas, becoming involved with the school plays.

Marianna played the flute in church service.
Marianna played her flute at church
We couldn't travel as much as my family did with Elina, but we did go on local visits such as Frankenmuth, the Potter Park Zoo, the state capital, and to the ledges of Grand Ledge.
Chris and Marianna at Grand Ledge
And my dad and brother took Marianna and Chris with them to the cabin and exploring 'up north.' We also frequently visited Dad's place.
Dad repaired pin ball machines in his early retirement.
Dad and Marianna at Dad's house.

Dad, Chris, Marianna and Tom at Dad's house
Marianna went to Cedar Point with the Youth Group.
Marianna and Opal Hanson
And she went to the prom.
Dressed for the prom: Marianna, right, next to Danielle to her left
We held a big ice cream sundae party at the parsonage.
Boys from the church
Michelle, Danielle, and Marianna

Chris and his best friend
Mariana's senior graduation was at held the Wharton Center.

When packing up, Marianna had accumulated so many souvineers we had to ship a box of her things to Finland.

Back in Finland, Marianna went through her last year of high school and studied in Germany. She held a series of jobs, but when the economy tanked her employer closed.

She became active in a church group where she met a man who became her husband. In 2014 they came to Baltimore to study at their denomination's headquarters and visited us for a few days.
Kimmo Huovila and Marianna's wedding photo
Kimmo and Marianna on their visit, Thanksgiving 2014
Marianna's brother and sister also became exchange students to the U.S., but we did not host them. We thought that Elina's children should experience more than one American family and place!
Mariana's brother was hosted by a Michigan family and they spent a day visiting
with us in Lansing. Marcus with Dad and Tom.
Marianna has traveled across Europe including St. Petersburg and Budepest and she has visited Shenyang, China.
Marianna in China

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Talking with Joan Dempsey, Author of This Is How It Begins

I had the privilege to converse with author Joan Dempsey whose first novel This Is How It Begins was published October 3, 2017.

By sharing the story of Holocaust survivors whose gay grandchild loses his teaching position over his sexual orientation, Dempsey addresses relevant issues: How can conflicting belief systems learn to live together? What does it mean to be protected under the law?

In the novel, we meet Professor Ludka, an artist who hid Jews in Poland under the Nazis, and her Jewish spouse Isaac. Their son Lolok rose to be the first Jewish State Attorney General, a man who championed gay marriage rights. Their grandson Tommy one of thirteen teachers fired on the same day. The only thing the teachers have in common is their sexual orientation. A local popular Christian pastor and radio show host have plotted to make public education a 'Christian friendly' place. But their careful plans go awry as escalating violence against Tommy reaches his grandparents.

Nancy: When I read your blog post about your personal encounter with bigotry I was very moved and sad. Then I thought about how you had to research radical Christian groups for Pastor Royce and Warren Meck, et. al. And your portrayal was generous.

Joan: Thank you. Warren Meck was the most challenging character to write, but I ended up feeling really good about him. So far I am hearing from readers, especially Christian readers, that I did a good job with the balance. That was certainly my goal.

Nancy: He seemed to have a core value that allows self-judgment and to see the evil in violence used for 'righteous ends.'

Joan: Yes, exactly right. Meck has all the right intentions, and I wanted to really get inside and understand him. It was mostly hard because, like any character, I had to find what made him tick.

Nancy: So there is an objectivity in writing when you are delving into a character?

Joan: Yes, definitely an objectivity. I feel it is critically important to understand the characters on their own terms and keep myself completely out of it.

My closest readers told me at some point that he would have a wife and children. And they were exactly right! Once he had a wife and kids, he came fully alive. Before that, he was eluding me. I think he was just waiting for his family to show up!:-)

Sometimes I need to find something we have in common in order for me to understand more deeply, But that's as far as our similarities go. It's simply a way to enter into the character more deeply.

Nancy: So characters are to be discovered, as opposed to being invented?

Joan: I would say characters are equally discovered and invented. It is a rare character that shows up fully formed. I have had several characters who have done that and it's always a gift. Others are harder work and take longer to figure out. For Warren Meck in particular, what he and I have in common is our love of lobbying and legislation.

Nancy: There are a lot of legal discussions going on, which isn't often encountered in fiction that is not 'crime' oriented.

Joan: This novel started out as a political novel starring Lolek, the state senator. I knew I wanted to write about politics of the Massachusetts Statehouse. I was a lobbyist there for many years, and loved that job. So this novel gave me a chance to relive some of that work and those exciting times.

Nancy: That is something I enjoyed about the novel, there are so many 'sides' that are all part of the story: the Polish/Jewish/Nazi experience; Ludka and the stolen painting of Chopin; the legal battle with Tommy and Lolek--it was very rich, but I did not feel it slowed anywhere.

Joan: I absolutely adore looking at all sides of issues. I am a shades of gray kind of thinker. And as a lobbyist, it's really important to understand where everyone is coming from. I was known for being able to bring disparate groups of people together and find common ground, even when it seemed impossible. I loved doing that!

I'm so glad to hear you feel like it did not slow down. With all that legislative detail, it was definitely a concern. Lots of paring back of prose!

Nancy: We need more people like you, especially in religion and government!

Joan: Thank you. It does drive me crazy to see the dogmatic divisions. Politics is not about drawing a line in the sand but figuring out how you can come to some common understanding. I think we forget that at our peril.

Nancy: How long did you spend writing the first draft; how long to edit?

Joan: I revise as I write. So my "first" draft is really more like a 20th! I cannot pinpoint when I finished the first draft. The whole book took seven years to write.

Nancy: Wow, a labor of love for sure.

Joan: Most of that time I was working full-time and writing in the margins. The final year I focused almost completely on finishing the book. And the first year-and-a-half were largely research.

I sometimes wished that I wasn't so dogged on this book. Think of all the short stories I could have written and published in that time! But seriously, I love the form of a novel and loved spending so much time with these characters

Nancy: Did you have the plot outline before you started?

Joan: No plot outline. I knew that towards the end of the book I would find Ludka crawling through smoke with a canvas under her arm, But I have no idea why. The rest of the plot evolved as I wrote and rewrote.

Nancy: I wanted to mention that early on I noted Ludka had these spiked galoshes. She was so careful about hiding the Chopin. She kept secrets even from Isacc. But I noted those spiked galoshes and then there came the time she went outdoors on the ice without them. That told me something about her. It may be small, but I just wanted to mention it.

Joan: How wonderful that you noticed those galoshes! It's all the small things that add up to a whole novel, and it's a real treat for me to have readers noticing the little things.

Nancy: I thought, so many of these characters had protective secrets. Oskar [whom Ludka had hidden from the Nazis], his son Stanley [who tries to steal the painting of Chopin]. Pastor Royce knowing his followers are using violence. Isacc's needing to pose as a Christian under the Nazis.

Joan: It's funny, because I didn't set out to write about secrets, But that's the magic of fiction. Several readers have mentioned "all the betrayals" and I have found myself thinking, "really?" Ha ha ha! But there you have it. That's what's wonderful about the book getting out into the world.

And of course I do know about all of the secrets and all of the betrayals, but I wasn't so much focused on those. Except of course for Oskar's.

Nancy: Of course under Nazi Germany there was a need for secrets, hiding the Jews, the Chopin, adopting alternate identities. And Pastor Royce and his group had to hide their real motives for firing the teachers.

Joan: Yes, absolutely. You may remember in the opening scene, I wrote that "Ludka was keenly aware of how she appeared to others, not because she was vain or insecure, but because she was long accustomed to the consequences of casting particular impressions."

Nancy: Yes. She and Isacc have a form of PTSD, learned behavior.

Joan: I'm delighted you see all of these connections.

Nancy: I just finished reading The World Spit in Two by Bill Goldstein about 1922 and the birth of Modern Literature, with T. S. Eliot, Woolf, and Forster. And of course, Forster could not be honest about his orientation. Even thirty years ago, twenty years ago, there was pressure to assume a false identity. And so it is wonderful that Tommy is who he is, so healthy.

Joan: There you are! I know. We really have come an awfully long way! And yet... In fact, several agents who really liked the book passed on it because they felt that after gay marriage passed, the dangers would not seem as real. The backlash, against people of color, other religions, sexual orientation. People hate change. And here we are ... they didn't anticipate the backlash!

Nancy: So, seven years ago you would not have anticipated how relevant your novel would be--

Joan: No, I didn't realize quite how prescient I would be. But I did know that bias and prejudice still clearly exist, and likely will never go away. It's so important to be vigilant about this kind of thing.

The Anti-Defamation League has something called the Pyramid of Hate. I will find a link for you. I thought about this a lot while I was writing.

Interestingly, the title of this novel for most the entire seven years I was writing it was Prelude!

But then a literary agent who is a friend told me that was a terrible title and I went back to the drawing board. It didn't take long at all before I came up with This is Tow it Begins. I mean, it's right there in the book, staring out at me!

Nancy: When I was reading the ebook of your novel I was also reading David Samuel Levinson's Tell Me How This Ends Well, in which the near future world is Anti-Semitic. I laughed about how I was reading This is How It Begins and Tell me How This Ends Well at the same time! And both involve gay couples and hate crimes.

Joan: Oh wow! That's fascinating. I just checked it out on Amazon and can tell by the "cartoon" cover that it is a dark comedy. Interesting.

Nancy: What are some of your favorite books? Or, what books made you fall in love with fiction?

Joan: Oh boy! The big question! I fell in love with fiction as a kid. My favorite gifts to get for any event was a stack of books. One of my all time favorites was Harriet the Spy. Like so many other kids of my generation, I was Harriet! I have the notebook and the toolbelt and the desire to spy just like she did. And of course that book is all about learning about other people by spying on them. Which is what fiction writers do.

Nancy: Another thing I have thought about was the role of art in the novel. It brings Ludka back to her home in Poland, and there her illusions about Oskar, the "myth of a man forged from long memory," is broken.

Joan: Yes, her art brings her 'fame' late in life. It brings her home. And most of all it shatters "the myth of a man forged from long memory" as fake.

I was so happy that she came back to her art and began to draw again. I really wanted her to do that, and was so glad when she did. I'd love to see what happens after the end of the book with her drawing! I am not an artist, but I think I might have been one in another lifetime, because pieces of art come to mind fully formed and I just write them down. I love that. Like Alexander Roslin's most famous painting, Prelude 1939. I've had readers Googling it and feeling frustrated that they can't find it! Maybe I should commission someone to paint that painting.

Nancy: And that is where the first title came from--Prelude?

Joan: The first title came both from that painting, and the idea of that bigotry can be a prelude to war. You will see a hint of that on Page 2 in the first full paragraph

Nancy: I like that, bigotry as a prelude to war. And how the students reacted to that painting, what they saw in it, foreshadowed...

Joan: Exactly. The students could see what Roslin intended them to see when he painted it.

You can find Joan Dempsey at

"Beautifully written ... an ambitious and moving debut novel." —LILY KING, author of the award-winning national bestseller, "Euphoria"

“In a time when religious liberty is on trial, [this] is an extraordinarily pertinent novel dripping in suspense and powerful scenes of political discourse … a must-read ....” — FOREWORD (starred review)

“… Dempsey’s fine first novel [is] notable for the evenhanded way it addresses hot-button issues. The result is a timely and memorable story.” —BOOKLIST

“A gripping and sensitive portrait of ordinary people wrestling with ideological passions.” —KIRKUS

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey

"Compulsively readable, This Is How It Begins is a timely novel about free speech, the importance of empathy, and the bitter consequences of long-buried secrets." from the publisher
Only six years ago I saw a Christian church undergo a vicious split. It involved attacking the denomination for a social creed they deemed too liberal and the pastor as heretical for not leading their withdrawal from the denomination. Their main point of contention was over abortion, although they also were vocal about homosexuality.

A majority of the church members left the denomination to start a community church, but first, they tried to take over, then destroy, the church they had been members of for many years. It was shocking how individuals viciously attacked others while
professing a Bible-based faith.

My husband was the pastor of that church. It was that experience that prompted me to request this novel.

This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey was an emotional read, full of believable and fully realized characters, doctrinal idealists and victims of prejudice and hate. I loved how characters showed themselves to be different from what we expected from them.

Art professor Ludka Zeilonka had survived Nazi Poland while saving Jewish children and hiding drawings documenting the occupation. She immigrated to America with her husband Izaac, who became the first Jewish attorney-general in Massachusetts. Their son Lolek is the state's most powerful senator, and his son Tommy is a well-liked high school English Teacher, married to lawyer Richard.

Tommy, along with thirteen other teachers, were all fired on the same day. The one thing they have in common is their sexual orientation. Tommy and his family become the target of hate crimes of increasing violence.

Influential Pastor Royce has an agenda and political ambitions. He is supported by radio host Warren Merck in a campaign to restore America to its Christian roots. They are behind the mass firing of teachers. Politically savvy, their defense is that Christian students feel marginalized and pressured against expressing their beliefs while being forced to accept the 'homosexual agenda' promoted by the fired teachers.

Merck is appalled by the rising violence, Tommy beaten in front of his house and his grandparent's home set on fire.

Ludka and Izaac return to their hometown in Poland, an emotional journey into a past they have tried to forget. Lukda finds the Jewish boy her family had protected and learns his devastating secret.

Ludka suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. What is happening to Tommy is too much like what she experienced in Poland, too much like how the Holocaust began.

The topic of the novel, sadly, is more relevant today than ever: How can conflicting belief systems learn to live together? What does it mean to be protected under the law?

This is an amazing novel.

I received a free ebook from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

This Is How It Begins
by Joan Dempsey
She Writes Press
Publication October 17, 2017
ISBN: 9781631523083

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow

What makes me love a book? Gorgeous writing. Great characters. An intriguing plot. Insights into our common humanity. Historical perspective. Encountering joy and love. Encountering horror, war, and villains. A story line that grabs me so I want to know what happens next.

Some books have one or two of those attributes. To find a book that wraps up all of these things is a happy day indeed. Bradford Morrow's The Prague Sonata offers the whole package.

The story is rich and complex, and full of musical and visual references that made me think, "I can't wait to see the movie."

Protagonist Meta Taverner had dedicated her life to becoming a concert pianist when a fatal accident damaged her hand. Therapy has restored her ability to play, but only with "competence." When Meta performs at an outpatient cancer facility she attracts the notice of patient Irena who summons Meta to visit.

Irena has held the partial score of a piano sonata since her friend Otylie gave it to her to protect during the Nazi occupation of Prague. Irena tasks Meta with returning the score to Otylie, hoping the entire manuscript will be reunited.

Mesmerized by the sonata, and hoping to find the missing sections and perhaps solve the mystery of who composed it, Meta takes up the quest. She puts aside her job and boyfriend to journey to Prague. There, she learns the tragic history of Czechoslovakia under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, encounters threats and intrigue, and discovers love.

The novel expands with reading, moving from the narrow academic world of musicologists to the deprivations of war and the occupation of Prague, to the refugee experience. What starts as a mild mystery turns into a quest with elements of a thriller at the end.

Flashbacks fill in the story. Otylie's father was on leave from The Great War for her mother's funeral when he gave her the piano sonata. He told her, guard it with your own life; one day it will bring you great fortune. He soon after died.

Otylie was grown and newly married when Prague gaves the keys of the city to the Nazis. Otylie wanted to keep the score out of the hands of the Germans so she divided it into three parts, distributing a section to her beloved husband, who was a part of the underground resistance, and another to her dear friend Irena. She kept the first section for herself. At the end of WWII, Otylie's husband is dead and Irena has left the country. Otylie first immigrates to England and then to America.

The sonata's beauty and innovation is amazing. In a copyist's hand, the score appears to be a true antique, but there is no indication of the composer. Is it a lost work by Mozart, or C.P.E. Bach, or Hayden? The score ends with the beginning measures of the next movement, a Rondo.

Thirty-year-old Meta is naive and honest. She is driven by love of music and her pledge to reunite the sonata with it's rightful owner. Her mentor has connected her with Petr Witman, a musicologist contact in Prague who endeavors to undermine Meta; he tells her the sonata is a fake, hoping to get his hands on it. He sees fame and dollar signs. Witman is a man with shifting allegiances, doing whatever it took to stay afloat under the Nazis, the Soviets, and the new Federal Republic. He has no moral code.

Meta is supported by many people in Prague, including a journalist who falls in love with her. On their quest to find the third part of the score, they must keep one step ahead of Witmann. Meta's journey takes her across America, too, pursued by Witman.

I enjoyed learning about Prague and Czechoslovakia. In the 18th c it was the hub of culture and music, a city that loved Mozart. So many brilliant composers are associated with the city.

I loved that music informs the novel and musical language is used in descriptions.  Meta knows that the sonata represents a new chapter in her life. "If her own thirty years constituted a first movement of a sonata, she sensed in her gut that she was right now living the opening notes of the second." Morrow describes the second movement of the sonata given to Meta so well, one understands its "staggering power and slyness," the "quasi-requiem tones of the adagio" followed by the promise of joy indicated in the opening measures of the rondo in the second movement.

When I started reading The Prague Sonata I was unhappy I had requested such a long book. What was I thinking? As I got into the story, I was actually drawing out my reading, unwilling to end the experience too soon. And that's about the best thing a reader can say about a book!

(Read more about Mozart in Prague in Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt concerns Czechoslovakia after WWII. The Spaceman of Bohemia is sci-fi that also addresses life under the Soviets.)

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Prague Sonata
Bradford Morrow
Grove Atlantic
Publication Oct 3, 2017
Hardcover $27.00
ISBN:  9780802127150

“A musical mystery set against the backdrop of a nation shattered by war and loss . . . sonically rich. . . an elegant foray into music and memory.”—Kirkus Reviews