September Reviews

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naiomi Jackson. Copyright 2015.

When I read a review of this author’s debut novel in the August 24th issue of The New Yorker, it sounded like an interesting read, and it was. During the summer of `1989, two girls from Brooklyn, Phaedra, 10, and Dion, 16, are sent by their mentally unstable mother to Barbados to live with their grandmother in a small community called Bird Hill. Accustomed to their mother being gone a lot and caring for her younger sister, Dion resists her grandmother’s regimen of attending vacation Bible school and church and doing chores. On the other hand, Phaedra embraces her new life and takes an interest in her grandmother’s career as a midwife. Both girls make friends and become involved in the community.

After their mother commits suicide, their estranged father comes to Barbados. Wealthy, with a woman, and a resident of Florida, he wants the girls to live with him. Phaedra doesn’t trust him and wants to stay with their grandmother. Dion wants to be with their father, but after he and others brutally beat someone she knows who is homosexual during a festival, she realizes he’s not the man she thought he was and returns to her grandmother’s house, more than willing to live her new life.

This book brought back pleasant memories of my own grandmothers who each cared for me for a short time when I was Phaedra’s age. It’s a coming of age novel, but I recommend it to anyone of any age.

***

My Home Away from Home: Life at Perkins School for the Blind by Robert T. Branco. Copyright 2013.

Years ago, I reviewed Deliverance from Jericho by Bruce Atchison, about this author’s mostly negative experiences at a school for the blind run by the Canadian government. Robert Branco gives a more positive account of the eight years he spent at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, from 1969 to 1977. After spending five years in a public school sight-saving class, he started at Perkins when he was twelve and graduated at the age of nineteen.

Like many such institutions, Perkins had its darker side: sadistic housemothers, bullies, and policies and methods of instruction and discipline that didn’t make sense, but the author also shares more pleasant memories of field trips, singing in the chorus, learning to play the piano, taking classes in science, math, and Spanish, sports, and other events. He also shares how blind kids, like their sighted counterparts, got involved in sex, drugs, and other illicit activities. Closer to the end of the book, he touches on adaptive devices in the 1970’s such as the Perkins Brailler, Optacon, and abacus and explains how changes by a new administrator, who was also blind, made Perkins less institutional. He also describes his training in the use of the white cane and daily living skills.

One thing I didn’t like about My Home Away from Home is that it reads more like a textbook than a memoir. I would like to have seen more dialog and action punctuating the narrative. Nevertheless, the story held my attention, reminding me of my own experiences at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind. I definitely recommend this book to parents and educators of blind children.

***

Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Copyright 2014.

In this novel, 40-year-old Ajay reminisces about life after his family’s immigration to the U.S. from India in the late 1970’s. Two years after they settle in New York, his older brother Birju, after diving into a swimming pool, suffers a serious head injury that leaves him brain dead. After Birju spends two years in a nursing home receiving unsatisfactory care, the family buys a house in New Jersey, and Ajay and his parents become full time caregivers with the help of aides who are hired when the family can afford them.

Despite his responsibilities, Ajay manages to get excellent grades in school but is isolated from other kids in elementary school and junior high. In high school, he acquires a girlfriend. The stress of caregiving drives his parents to fight and his father to drink and eventually check himself into a New York hospital for treatment and start attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after he’s released.

Birju’s condition, Ajay’s grades, and the father’s alcoholism bring the family a lot of positive and negative attention from other Indians in their community who feel Birju could be healed, alcoholism is a dreaded disease, and intelligent people should be worshiped. Ajay’s acceptance to Princeton only makes matters worse. Nevertheless, he goes to college, graduates, and becomes a successful investment banker, eventually managing to pay for round-the-clock care at home for his brother. He then meets a girl and realizes he’s in trouble.

Having been a caregiver, I found myself relating to this story more than most people probably would. Fortunately, Bill could still talk and feed himself and was alert most of the time. Birju couldn’t do anything except breathe and perform other bodily functions. Although he received plenty of sensory stimulation at home, it was hard to tell how aware he was of what went on around him.

The ending left a lot to be desired. I would like to have known how much longer Birju lived after Ajay became a successful investment banker. What happened to his parents? Did they stay in the house in New Jersey or move elsewhere after Birju died? It’s a good idea to leave some things to the reader’s imagination, but I can only imagine so much.

***

Silver Linings by Debbie Macomber. Copyright 2015.

This is the fourth in the author’s Rose Harbor Inn series. Jo Marie, a widow and the owner of a bed and breakfast in Cedar Cove, Washington, has four guests: two women attending their 10th high school reunion, and a newlywed couple on their honeymoon. Her love/hate relationship with the handyman, ongoing throughout the series, takes an unexpected turn.

Kelly and Katie hope to settle the score with past high school flames at their reunion and end up getting more than they expect. If you read Starry Night, you may remember Finn and Carrie, the newlyweds. After traveling across the country on their honeymoon, they spend one night at Rose Harbor Inn before returning to their home in Alaska. Unlike previous books in the Rose Harbor Inn series where issues are resolved during one weekend, Silver Linings spans a longer period of time from September till January, leaving the reader wondering until the end.

I like the way Debbie Macomber introduces characters from past books. First of all, there’s Finn and Carrie, so much in love with each other, a stark contrast to Kelly and Katie’s love gone awry. Later, Jo Marie receives a postcard from Roy and Maggie. In Love Letters, they’re the couple who came to the inn to resolve their marital difficulties and are expecting their third child. As usual, the ending leaves us waiting with baited breath for the next installment.

***

Abbie J. Taylor 010Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

Front Book Cover - We Shall OvercomeWe Shall Overcome

Cover: How to Build a Better Mousetrap by Abbie Johnson TaylorHow to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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August Reviews

Country by Danielle Steel. Copyright 2015.

This story is about seizing the day. In San Francisco, Stephany Adams, a stay at home wife and mother, discovers her successful lawyer husband, Bill, has been cheating on her. She decides to stay married to him for the sake of their children, but it’s a loveless relationship. Seven years later, her children have left home with two employed and one in college overseas. At the age of 52, Bill has a fatal heart attack while skiing, and everything changes. Stephany must deal with grief and her children’s anger at her for being alive while their so-called idyllic father is dead.

Several months later after a weekend with friends in Santa Barbara, Stephany is driving home when by accident, she ends up on the road to Los Vegas and decides to go there. After a night spent playing slot machines, she decides to drive to the Grand Canyon, a place where she’s never been. There, she meets country singer Chase Taylor. She follows him back to Vegas, attending several of his concerts, then accompanies him to Nashville.

Still reeling from her husband’s death and not used to being independent, Stephany needs to figure out who she is and what she wants to be. For the time being, she’s willing to be with Chase in Nashville while he’s recording another album and getting ready for more performances. After visiting her son in Atlanta and her daughter in New York, she returns to San Francisco and carries on a long distance relationship with him. Later, he comes to San Francisco, and she goes with him to Los Angeles where he meets with record company executives. While there, the press catches them together in public, and their photo appears in tabloids and on YouTube. Stephany’s family and friends are shocked, and Stephany still doesn’t know whether she belongs with Chase. She eventually figures it out, as they seize the day together.

Having once wanted to be a singing star, I’ve always been fascinated with their lives. After reading Willie Nelson’s and Linda Ronstadt’s memoirs, I believe Danielle Steel’s depiction of such a life is realistic. I downloaded this book from Audible, and the male narrator with a southern twang does an excellent job, especially with the voices of Chase and other male characters.

Reading books like this helps me put my life in perspective. I was also widowed at an early age, and before that, I cared for my husband who was totally blind and partially paralyzed by two strokes. All the while, Bill was there for me, and I always felt loved.

That wasn’t the case with Stephany. Even before she found out about her husband’s affair, he rarely spent time with her and the kids, although after his death, the kids wanted to believe he was a terrific dad. I think that is worse than what I went through.

Here’s an interesting irony. Stephany’s first husband’s name was Bill, the same as my late husband. Chase’s last name was Taylor, the same as my husband. How about that?

***

Another Chance at Life: A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Journey by Leonore Dvorkin. Copyright 2009.

This is a short but to the point account of one woman’s experience with breast cancer. As the author states in the beginning, it’s for women who may develop breast cancer later in life. If you’re a man, you might want to skip this one.

Leonore Dvorkin starts by explaining how she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 and her decision to have a mastectomy. A resident of Denver, Colorado, she talks about traveling to Kansas City to visit her family and her mother and sisters’ wish that she would just have the lump removed simply because it was what they would have done. She also touches on her family’s reaction to her novel, Apart from You, before it was published in 2010. She discusses how she and her husband bought a Polaroid camera and took pictures of her naked body the night before her surgery.

She describes what it was like to have the breast removed, assuring readers that such surgery for the patient is nothing more than having a good night’s sleep. She knew what to expect since she had numerous surgical procedures in the past for varicose veins and other difficulties, and she touches on those. I was amazed to learn that HMO’s normally expect a mastectomy to be an out-patient procedure. Afterward, the patient is monitored for a few hours for complications and then sent home. In Leonore Dvorkin’s case, because she suffered from nausea as a result of morpheme she was given for pain, she was allowed to spend the night. I’m so thankful I don’t use an HMO for insurance, but it’s possible that nowadays, things may have changed. I hope I never have to find out.

Leonore Dvorkin then goes on to describe her recovery at home and the relief she felt upon learning she didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy. She talks about difficulty sleeping as a result of prescribed pain medication and a shoulder injury that made her rehabilitation more difficult. She touches on how her husband cared for her, not just after the mastectomy, but after other operations she had beforehand.

Several months after the surgery, she was ready to return to her job tutoring foreign languages at a Denver college and resume teaching weight training classes in her basement. She describes how she went to a store in Denver and bought a prosthetic breast and a mastectomy bra. In the end, she explains her attitude and how reducing stress and changes in diet and exercise made her feel better and gave her more confidence. She also discusses how she will age gracefully. This book includes appendices with resources and information about her particular type of breast cancer.

I like this author’s attitude. She doesn’t take cancer lightly but doesn’t wallow in self-pity or poor self-image either. I especially liked the way she describes how a prosthetic breast fits into a mastectomy bra and gives advice on how to buy and use them. I hope I never get breast cancer, but if I do, after reading this book, I hope to be able to deal with it and move on.

***

Apart from You by Leonore Dvorkin. Copyright 2010.

This novel, set in the 1960’s, depicts love and betrayal among college students. Elizabeth and Allan attend a university in Bloomington, Indiana, and are engaged. They endure a period of separation while Allan goes home to live with his parents and work for a year before returning to school. During the spring semester of that year, Elizabeth falls in love with Brian, a teaching assistant who was her instructor the previous year. She moves in with him and doesn’t tell him the truth until five weeks later when he proposes to her. The ending is predictable.

Breaking with conventionality is the book’s theme. When Elizabeth and Allan part, they agree to date and sleep with others, although they’re in love. Being old-fashioned, I believe that if you truly love someone, you shouldn’t even think about dating someone else. I almost decided not to finish the book, but the story is entertaining, especially when a former girlfriend of Brian’s and a former boyfriend of Elizabeth’s appear briefly. The scenes on campus brought back pleasant memories of my own college days, although they were in the 1980’s with a more modern culture.

This book contains explicit descriptions of love making, another thing I could have done without. In this case though, the erotic scenes effectively illustrate the irony of the fact that to Elizabeth, Brian is merely a distraction until she and Allan can be reunited. This book is probably more suited to young adults than old foagies like me, but I enjoyed reading it.

***

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. Copyright 2014.

This is a collection of whimsical short stories. In the title piece, a writer, considered lazy because of the use of too many contractions, is denied a writing prize. In another tale, two neighbors with the same last name are at odds over a rug. A third story takes the form of a letter to the manufacturer of frozen peas in which the writer complains about the picture on the front of the package.

Some stories are translations while others appear to be inspired by dreams. Some are humorous, others serious. Some stories left me feeling like I wanted to know more. This collection grew tiresome after a while so I didn’t finish it.

***

A Perfect Life by Danielle Steel. Copyright 2014.

Since this author’s birthday is in August, I thought I might read another of her books before September. However, this is the first Danielle Steel novel I started and decided not to finish. After the first chapter, I didn’t like the main character, a work-aholic television reporter with a blind daughter she rarely sees because the girl has spent most of her life in a school for the blind.

Others who read the book told me Danielle Steel’s portrayal of blindness is unrealistic and demeaning to those of us with visual impairments, but I didn’t read far enough in the book to determine that myself. The fact that the girl is blind isn’t even mentioned in the first chapter, but knowing this ahead of time made me despise her mother all the more. If I don’t like a main character, I can’t sympathize with her, and frankly, I don’t care what happens.

***

Love Letters by Debbie Macomber. Copyright 2014.

This is the third in the author’s Rose Harbor Inn series. Jo Marie, a widow, has opened a bed and breakfast in the fictional town of Cedar Cove, Washington, and each book in the series tells the stories of different guests who stay at the establishment for a weekend. When they arrive, there is usually some sort of conflict in their lives that is resolved by the time they check out.

This time, love letters are involved in one way or another in the stories that unfold Roy and Maggie’s marriage is falling apart, and Maggie’s discovery that she’s pregnant during their get-away weekend at Rose Harbor Inn doesn’t help matters. Eleanor comes to Cedar Cove to meet a man with whom she has been conversing online and ends up meeting her long-lost father who supposedly abandoned her and her mother when she was a baby. As usual, everything ends happily, and the reader gets a glimpse of what will happen in the next book.

This series reminds me of a television program I watched years ago, Fantasy Island, in which people with conflicted lives travel to a tropical island where there conflicts are resolved through their fantasies. The books in Debbie Macomber’s Rose Harbor Inn series have made me cry and laugh. I can’t wait to read Silver Linings, the next book in the Rose Harbor Inn series.

***

Speaking of love letters, during her introductory letter, Debbie Macomber expresses the hope that readers will come away from this book inspired to write their own love letters. I’ve done just that in the form of a poem dedicated to my late husband. Click on the link below to hear me read it.

***

TO BILL

Honey, I love you, always will.

Even now that you’re gone,

no one will come between us.

I know you want me to be happy,

but I was only truly content with you.

I hope you haven’t found anyone else,

like to think you were pleased with me.

When my time comes,

I hope you’ll be there.

Dying scares me,

but if you’ll take my hand,

as you did on our wedding day,

say, “Hi sweetie, are you nervous?”

I’ll respond as I did then,

“No, now that you’re here.”

***

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15213189/to%20bill.mp3

***

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author

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What I Read in April

Here’s my monthly book review. Because of all the National Poetry Month activities, I only had time to read two books last month. I’m thankful April is over with for this reason. Maybe this month, I’ll have more time for reading.

 

Last One Home by Debbie Macomber Copyright 2015

 

After downloading this book in a recorded format from Audible and hearing this author’s voice reading her letter to readers at the beginning of the book, I finally learned the correct pronunciation of her last name. (MAY-comb-ber) Not only have I read many of her books but I receive her monthly newsletter via e-mail and am kept up to date on what she’s doing with her family as well as with her writing. She’s a grandmother, but after hearing her voice, I find that hard to believe. She sounds so young.

The Last One Home is a touching story of love, betrayal, and family ties being severed and re-connected. At eighteen years of age and pregnant, Cassie runs away from her family’s home in Spokane, Washington, to Florida with the man she thinks she loves who is the father of her child. Twelve years later after escaping her abusive husband with her daughter, she has moved to Seattle where she works as a hair stylist and is accepted into the Habitat for Humanity program where she will help in the building of her own house. She also volunteers at a shelter, helping other abused women fleeing from their relationships. Her family home has been sold. Her parents are dead, and her older and younger sisters live in Spokane and Portland, Oregon, respectively.

Her first attempts to re-connect with her sisters are met with apathy. The sisters are still bitter toward her for leaving years earlier and breaking their father’s heart. However, after Karen in Spokane offers Cassie some furniture from her family home, the relationship between the three of them gradually re-develops. Cassie also finds herself falling for the man supervising the construction of her home. This is scary to her since she had similar feelings toward her abusive husband when they first met. She’s not sure she’s ready to trust another man.

As in many of Debbie Macomber’s books, the point of view in Last One Home shifts from that of one character to another. We gain a glimpse into the lives of Cassie’s sisters: Karen in Spokane and Nicole in Portland, Oregon, and sub-plots develop. They’re both married with children, and their lives seem ideal until Karen accidentally finds out that her husband was laid off from his job months after the fact and Nicole discovers her husband has been cheating on her. In the end, all three sisters come together to support each other in their trials and tribulations, and things are looking up.

The only character not given a point of view is Duke, Cassie’s abusive husband. He is eventually imprisoned for manslaughter, and I would have liked to know what he was thinking, but who knows what goes on in the heads of men like that? Do they ever see the error of their ways? This book made me mad, at Duke, at Cassie’s sisters for their closed-mindedness in the beginning, and even at Cassie for not admitting at first that she’d made a mistake when she ran away with Duke. I was glad in the end, though.

 

A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses by Susan Wittig Albert Copyright 2013

 

This is a fictionalized account of the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series, and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, spanning ten years between 1928 and 1938 while they were collaborating on most of the books in the series. Telling the story mostly from Rose Wilder Lane’s point of view, the author gives a brief account of Rose’s life growing up. The family was forced to move from their South Dakota home after Rose accidentally set the house on fire at the age of three by putting too much wood in the stove. They settled on a farm near Mansfield, Missouri.

Rose felt guilty for causing the fire and resented farm life. A free spirit, she finally left home at the age of eighteen and became a journalist, traveling all over the country and overseas, getting married and divorced, and giving birth to a son who died as an infant. She finally returned to the family farm in Missouri in 1928 when she felt obligated to help her aging parents. She built them a separate house on the property, wired both houses for plumbing and electricity, and took over the main farm house.

To tell the truth, Rose Wilder Lane was more her mother’s ghost writer. She never wanted credit for the books. Laura wrote the original manuscripts by hand, and Rose typed them, editing and rewriting as she went along. At first, Laura didn’t like her daughter’s revisions, but after Farmer Boy was rejected the way her mother wrote it, she grudgingly agreed to let Rose do the revisions.

Rose not only wrote magazine articles but also fiction, which her mother despised. This was one of many sources of tension between mother and daughter. Several of her short stories and a couple of novels were published during this ten-year period.

Susan Wittig Albert describes other stresses Rose faced during those years. Needless to say, the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing depression caused financial worries. Although Rose and her mother lived in separate houses, her mother constantly phoned or stopped by for tea, interrupting her writing. Her writer friends often visited or stayed with her for long periods of time, and her mother didn’t like any of them and was disturbed by gossip about them in the small town. Rose also took in two teen-aged orphaned boys and cared for them as if they were her sons. This all became too much for her, and in 1935, she moved to Columbia, Missouri, so she could be on her own. In 1938, she left Missouri for good and moved to New York where she started doing more political writing.

With her daughter’s help, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote eight of the books in the Little House series: Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plumb Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. These books detail her life growing up in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota. After These Happy Golden Years was published, Laura wrote another book on her own, The First Four Years, which details her early life with her husband Almanzo. Since Rose didn’t have a hand in this book, readers were disappointed because the prose wasn’t the same as in the other books.

According to the epilog, Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1958 after being diagnosed with diabetes. Rose Wilder Lane lived for another eleven years. The book also provides a bibliography of material by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and others.

As a kid, I read all the books in the Little House series including The First Four Years. I must have been around twelve when I read that one, and I didn’t notice a difference in the prose, but kids don’t notice these things or care. It’s all about the story.

I also liked the television series, Little House on the Prairie, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story. Melissa Gilbert, the actress who portrayed Laura, wrote a memoir about her experiences called Prairie Tale. I plan to read this book next and will investigate other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.

 

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author

 

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