Blog Book Marks

May Book Marks

The month of May is chock-a-block with good things.  Mothers Day… OK, I lied, I’m not a fan of this manufactured day of worship. Every single day should be mother’s day in my book.  What’s this once a year malarkey?

About this time in May there’s usually a hint of sunscreen in the air.  It’s the official kick-off to outdoor grill season and you can smell the first tendrils of summer.

May is also flowers on full tilt and that blossomy, fresh cut grass scent in the air.  The sunsets are later, the days are longer, which leads into Memorial Day, where we honor those who have served and fallen.  This day is always more than just a chance to eat wieners and burgers.  It’s a time to reflect on the service and sacrifice that is the strong backbone of this country, the reason we enjoy freedoms so many others do not.

I’m not going to get all sappy here, but its important to reflect, especially those of us not in military families, about the very small percentage of our population that serves today and what we owe our military families when they come home in need of our assistance as they transition back to civilian life.

There are many wonderful organizations that stand ready to assist our veterans and families.  Bob and I are proud that the Bob Woodruff Foundation helps connect veterans to resources that include mental health, re-employment, support for the caregiver or so many other areas.

You can show your gratitude this Memorial Day for our service members and make a donation at bobwoodrufffoundation.org-donate.

And lastly, this month’s featured independent book store is Scattered Books (scatteredbooks.com) in Chappaqua, New York.  They setup a table of great reads to support the Irvington PTSA when I spoke there a few weeks ago.

This shout out is for all of the indie book store owners who pack the back of the SUV and head to some good cause or fundraiser, give a percentage to the event and promote books and authors everywhere!

Memoir:

Beauty in the Broken Places:  A Memoir of Love, Faith and Resilience by Allison Pataki

Full disclosure, I’m connected to this book not just because I know and love this author, but I wrote the forward.  Allison Pataki and I are twinned both in friendship and experience.  When my husband Bob was injured in Iraq in 2006, I lived through many of the same emotions and experiences that she describes in this honest, gorgeous and sometimes gut-wrenching book.

An established, best-selling novelist, Pataki is a beautiful writer.  But this book is a departure for her, intensely personal, part memoir, love story, diary and a manual of the grief/gratitude seesaw that comes with any hard journey.

The story begins when Allison’s 30-year old husband Dave has a stroke on an airplane as they are headed to a “babymoon” in Hawaii.  In one instant, the happily pregnant couple’s lives took a very different direction than the one they had planned.  In the absence of being able to do anything else, Allison did the one thing she knew would save her.  She opened her laptop and began to write letters to him.  “Dear Dave,” she began, retelling the story of their life, the things she wanted to say to him, the ending she wanted for them both.

The book flips back and forth from their first meeting in college to the present, where their future together hangs in the balance.  There is faith, friendship, the true north of family and more than a dash of miraculous. The result is this brilliant, engrossing and ultimately hopeful book.  Oh, and spoiler alert, expect a happy ending.

Memoir:

The Seasons of My Mother- A Memoir of Love, Family and Flowers by Marcia Gay Harden

Few bonds are as deep, meaningful and yes, fraught, as the one between mother and daughter.  This wonderfully warm and insightful memoir is a love story from a daughter.  It is also a shot across the bow at the demon Alzheimers, the thief who steals the past and present from our loved ones and as it steals them from us.

Oscar-award winning actress Harden uses the metaphor of seasons to organize her life and relationship with her mother, a proud Navy officer’s wife who raised her children all around the world.  While stationed in Japan, her mother discovers “Ikebana,” the Japanese art of flower arranging.  It becomes both her escape and creative outlet while logging the long, sometimes interminable hours raising young children.

What makes this memoir so poignant, especially as a daughter whose father passed from Alzheimers, is that you are immediately confronted with the stark, angry fact that this disease has stolen the seasons of her mother’s life.

Harden deftly criss-crosses back and forth in time retelling her story, largely through the intersections with her mother.  This beautifully rendered portrait of mother and daughter oozes with love, a dash of regret, nostalgia and devotion.  The book is the gift of a daughter restoring her mother’s memory and honoring her incredibly rich life.

This passage touched me, “Memory becomes an adventurous companion, and is our GPS confirming our place on our life map.  At some point these stories become vessels that transcend time and space.  They are handed down to our children, and our children’s children, and so become the atoms that bind our past, present and future…At least, if Mom could remember, she would feel pride at what an amazing mother she was and what a brilliant star navigator.”

Non-Fiction:

Birds of a Feather – A True Story of Hope and the Healing Power of Animals by Lorin Lindner

Animal lovers understand the benefits of owning a pet, the unconditional love that can sometimes be inconsistent in our human offspring.  In the past decade of war, we’ve seen how service dogs and horses can provide healing therapy and support for those suffering from PTS, anxiety and depression.  But who ever imagined that a cranky old parrot could be a secret weapon in helping military veterans heal from their wounds of war?

This gem of a story takes place at the Los Angeles VA, a sprawling campus where the Serenity Park bird sanctuary was founded for abandoned, homeless and abused parrots, cockatoos, Macaws and other exotic birds.  I was fascinated to learn what social animals these birds are, craving contact and conversation like any human. Little understood by their owners and often bought on a whim (one abandoned bird was purchased to match the drapes) they can also live for decades.  The vast majority of these birds are ripped from their mothers at too early an early and often smuggled to the US where they are shut in tiny cages, neglected and sometimes  abused.

Now imagine what happens when the broken birds meet the skeptical veterans, many of whom are homeless, fighting addiction and battling their own demons from war?  The author, who is a psychologist, creates a program where the veterans care for the birds.  And this is where the two parts of the story join together.  It’s the very act of caring for the parrots, feeding them, building the habitat, developing trust, that allows the men to find purpose in helping another living thing come back to life.  My son’s girlfriend picked up this book over a weekend and would not put it down.  The story gets under your skin and you’ll never look at a parrot the same way again.

Fiction:

You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac

Ready to stack you pile for summer reading?  Don’t wait that long. This debut novel reminded me of a Jo Jo Moyes character stumbling into “A Year in Provence.”  Set largely in the French countryside, single mother Laura takes her son to stay with his father at his sumptuous new Chateau hotel.  The journey is full of conflicts for Laura, the trepidation she feels about seeing her old (still sexy but completely unreliable) beau, the sense of duty to reunite her son with his Dad, and the fact that her mother is very ill back home in England.  She feels guilty for leaving, but also must confront a truth about herself she isn’t ready to face.  It’s the real reason she has come to France.

Scenes of the gorgeous countryside, food, wine, the inevitable sexual tension with her ex, and the jealous new woman in his life are beautifully written with a balance of dialogue and description.  The pivotal sex scene is a masterful, classy payoff without getting all Fifty Shades of Grey and the ending delivers a sweet, satisfying finish without a saccharine overload.  This book has you rooting for the protagonist from the start and is that much needed reminder that joy can be found even in the not so joyous parts of life.

Fiction:

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

Imagine a prickly person, a control freak of a woman who doesn’t respond in the expected way to love, kindness and camaraderie.  Naturally, she raises and nurtures cacti, and I think the metaphor is obvious. This is a woman who turns to the personal ads to find a relationship that involves a contract, including the agreement to never become emotionally involved.  Now, imagine that in the course of one week her whole, carefully curated world unravels with her mother’s unexpected death and the news that she is pregnant.  Add to this a fractious family life, a distant and alcoholic father, a deep buried family secret and a ne’er do well brother with whom she is locked in a serious battle over the will.  For anyone who loved “The Rosie Project” or “A Man Called Ove,” here is your next good read about life’s curve balls and learning, at the age of 45, that even the prickliest of cacti can be coaxed to bloom.

Fiction:

All The Ever After’s- The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller

Every story has two sides and this fantasy fiction re-telling of Cinderella comes down squarely on the sympathetic side of the stepmother.  For all these years we believed the Disney tales of child abuse, witchcraft and faeries at work when it came to poor Cinderella.

 In the recent genre of books that re-imagine the classics, (ala “Wicked”)  this story is a wonderful romp through the premise that the stepmother actually wasn’t evil at all.  And how about the real story behind the glass slipper?  I’m not about to blow the surprise.  What of the cruelty of the ugly stepsisters?  Turns out they were victims of some bad gossip and rumors.

“Ella” is actually kind of a callous ditz, bumbling into marriage with the prince.  But I don’t want to give too much away.  The story was conceived when the author became a stepmother in real life and was forced to deal with some of the aweful stereotypes associated with this relationship.

Readers who love some whimsy and fancy with their period pieces will enjoy this story.  And the best part?  Maybe it’s not always the mother’s fault!

Fiction:

Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

Fans of “The Rosie Project” have been waiting for this book, a collaboration between the author and his wife.  Set during the annual pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain, Zoe and Martin are two separate lost souls who have decided to walk the famous route with thousands of other strangers as they wind through quaint towns, seaside villages and other beautiful vistas.  Zoe is a California artist, mourning her husband’s death and Martin, a native of England, is bruised and broken, navigating a messy divorce.  Yes, you can see the metaphor here, the nugget of the tale is the journey and the intersection of both stories as they draw strength and solace from each other and undergo a transformative experience.

Memoir/Non-Fiction:

Chasing Hope – A Patient’s Deep Dive into Stem Cells, Faith, and the Future by Richard M. Cohen

As a life-long journalist, Cohen has been telling stories for decades.  In his third book, he delves into his own story with a brutal honesty about his journey with MS.   I met Richard a number of years ago and I also know his wife Meredith Viera, one of the most relentlessly upbeat individuals in the news business (not easy to find.)  I’d been warned by someone, after my husband’s injury and recovery, that Meredith had no interest in discussing caregiving and never to raise the subject with her.  The implication was that she didn’t want to be defined by that role, which I understood and respected.

So it was an incredible relief to read Richard’s honest and unflinching portrayal of the intermittent frustrations and frictions even in the best of marriages and especially when life doesn’t follow the script.  He so beautifully articulates the reality of disappointment, fatigue, love, devotion and difficulty when the balance in a marriage see-saws and one person struggles with health issues. The way in which he writes about how they achieved their easier peace and  way forward was simply beautiful.

Richard makes it plain that he is not an optimist.  He is mystified by the concept of blind hope, faith and all the other ancillary forms of magical thinking.  This book is his quest to understand “hope” in its many iterations. He interviewed my husband Bob and me for the book and while we come a little too close to “sainthood” with his rendering, I am grateful for his probing questions.

I loved Richard’s honest, friendly curmudgeon dialogue with the reader.  He refuses to whitewash the hard, crappy parts about living with a chronic disease.  The narrative moves from his diagnosis, to his fortitude in living with the disease and resisting help, to a frightening moment as a parent where he must concede that the disease was gaining on him.  His journey to the Vatican to discuss stem cell research and a trial treatment is the fulcrum moment he must open his heart to the possibilities that hope is more than a four letter word.

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