November 2015 Reviews

A Place to Belong by Phyllis Campbell. Copyright 2002.

 

Jill, a high school student, loses her vision after a brain tumor is removed. Her mother and stepfather send her from her home in Washington to live with her paternal grandmother in rural Virginia with whom she’s never had contact. With the help of Susan from Come Home, My Heart, she learns Braille and other basic adaptive skills.

She also develops a bond with Ben, a little boy who was traumatized by his father’s death and a friendship that could turn into romance with his older brother. In the end, after Jill learns why her father was never in contact with his parents after marrying her mother, she helps rescue Ben when he falls in a hole. She then decides to attend the Virginia State School for the Deaf and Blind and go on with her life.

I like the stark contrast the author illustrates between opinions of those with disabilities. In the small town where Jill’s grandmother lives, most of the people accept her like they would anyone else, despite her blindness. On the other hand, Jill’s mother and stepfather think she should have a private tutor and not associate with others blind or sighted.

I also like the way Phyllis Campbell incorporates characters from a previous book. However, I noticed one problem. In Come Home, My Heart, which I’m assuming is set in the 1980’s, Wanda, Susan’s adopted daughter, was only nine years old. In A Place to Belong, she appears to be only in high school when in 2001, she would have been in her twenties. As a child, Wanda suffered from epilepsy, but I doubt that would have slowed her learning, especially since she’s able to drive Susan everywhere.

Otherwise, I think this is a great book, especially for teen-agers. I hope young people reading this will gain more of an understanding of what it’s like to lose your vision. To learn more about this and other books by Phyllis Campbell, go to http://www.phylliscampbellbooks.com/ .

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Friendships in the Dark: A Blind Woman’s Story of the People and Pets Who Light up Her World by Phyllis Campbell. Copyright 1996.

After reading Come Home, My Heart and A Place to Belong, I wanted to read this author’s memoir which talks about her life and the animals who shared it with her. She starts by describing what it was like to be five years old in 1943 on a farm in Virginia, the fear of her older brother going off to war, how her older sister, also totally blind, taught her to read Braille, and the animals on the farm with whom she developed a close bond like Sly, the old dog and Mouser, a kitten who met a tragic end.

She then goes on to talk about the years she attended the Virginia State School for the Deaf & Blind with her sister, how her first year was marred by illness, her music lessons, and learning to walk with a cane. During this time, her family moved from the farm to a house on the grounds of a nearby mental hospital where her father found a job.

She talks about her life in the 1960’s after graduating from high school, her mother’s death from cancer, her father’s stroke, her brother getting married, living with her older sister in an apartment until she, too, got married, and eventually, her own marriage to a sighted man who worked various jobs. She then describes acquiring a guide dog in the 1970’s and how she and her husband bought an old fixer-upper in the 1980’s. She describes the myriad of animals in her life including but not limited to Buttons, the pooch her family owned when they lived on the mental hospital grounds, Miss Muffett, the cat she and her sister owned in the apartment together, her guide dog Lear and a cat she called Lady Gray who came with the old house she and her husband bought in the 1980’s.

For the benefit of those not familiar with blind people, she describes Braille, the process of walking with a white cane, and what it’s like to train with a guide dog. Each chapter begins with a quotation, some of which are from the Bible, and she occasionally shares how God answered her prayers and gave her the courage and strength to do certain things.

Having read other tales of not-so-pleasant experiences at state schools for the blind, I braced myself for more stories of horrible bullies, sadistic house parents, and bad teachers, but I was pleasantly surprised. Mrs. Campbell spoke with nothing but fondness for other students, teachers, staff, and even the superintendent. She even describes dogs and cats the school acquired while she was there. In fact, she loved school so much that when she became ill during her first year, she hated staying in the infirmary and begged to be allowed to return to classes. I laughed at her many anecdotes involving animals like the time the superintendent’s dog kept following her and her mother home from the school. I was moved to tears when Lear, her faithful guide, needed to be put down after almost twenty years of service. I recommend this book to anyone curious about blindness who likes heartwarming stories involving relationships between humans and animals. To learn more about Phyllis Campbell and her books, go to http://www.phylliscampbellbooks.com/ . Other reviews of this book can be found at http://www.brettbooks.com .

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Bark by Lorrie Moore. Copyright 2014.

 

The stories in this collection have nothing to do with dogs or trees. In “Debarkation,” a divorced historian ends up in a relationship with a divorced pediatrician who seems more interested in interacting with her teen-aged son than him. In “The Juniper Tree,” a woman visits the ghost of a friend who just passed away, or does she? In “Wings,” a musician at rock bottom in her career returns to the town where her grandmother used to live, befriends an elderly neighbor with a terminal illness, inherits his house when he dies, and turns it into a sort of Ronald McDonald house. In “Thank You for Having Me,” a motorcycle gang crashes a wedding. Other stories deal with such topics as divorce and mental illness.

Although I found these stories intriguing, the author’s nasty habit of including too much back story and description caused my mind to wander, and I must admit I dozed once or twice. Lorrie Moore is an award-winning author of other books with outlandish titles such as Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? To order her books, go to http://www.amazon.com/Lorrie-Moore/e/B000APWFEY .

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Crossing the Plains with Bruno by Annick Smith. Copyright 2015.

 

In this author and filmmaker’s memoir, she describes a road trip she took with her dog Bruno about ten years ago during the month of May. She drove from her home in Montana to visit her mother in Chicago and back. Along the way, she provides histories of landmarks and shares memories they evoke of her life growing up in Chicago, her marriage to Dave Smith, their life in Seattle and California, her husband’s sudden death after they’ve settled in Montana, and her filmmaking career.

After arriving in Chicago, she talks about the time she spent in the senior high rise apartment building where her mother lived and at the family’s lake side cottage about eighty miles away. She describes visits from family and friends during that time and shares more memories such as her parents’ divorce and reconciliation and her father’s affair with a teen-aged girl.

She then describes the trip home, a bit rushed because her partner Bill Kitterege’s brother just passed away, and she was anxious to get home to meet his family before they returned to Oregon. Nevertheless, she takes time to reflect on more landmarks and share more memories like the time she came to Montana to research the film, Heartland, based on the true story of a pioneer woman in Montana during the earlier part of the 20th century. She also touches on her relationship with Bill Kitterege, her dog Bruno, and other animals.

This book brought back some fun memories for me, especially of traveling with our Irish setter Clancy when I was a teen-ager. When Annick Smith described sneaking Bruno up a back staircase at an inn where no pets were allowed, I was reminded of many times we did the same thing with Clancy. Like Bruno, Clancy loved to run alongside a creek or river, jump in and swim for a while, then get out and shake himself all over you.

I was also amused that Annick Smith read to Bruno at night from a book called Dog Music which consists of poetry about dogs. This seemed to calm Bruno, especially after he had a bad dream. The author’s appreciation of literature is reflected in the pages of this book which would make a great Christmas gift for anyone who likes to read and travel and loves dogs. To learn more about Annick Smith and her books, go to http://www.amazon.com/Annick-Smith/e/B001IXRWQ8 .

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Note: Speaking of Christmas, next month, I’ll be doing my book reviews a little differently. As you know, I normally review books I’ve read in a given month at the end of the month. However, if you’re like me, by the end of December, you’ll be sick and tired of Christmas so instead, I’ll review holiday books as I read them so you’ll have a chance to read them before you get sick and tired of the holiday season. At the end of December, I’ll review any other books without a holiday theme. You’ll see my regular Tuesday posts, and these may consist of book reviews, depending on when I finish a book. If I finish a book later in the week, I may post another review. If you’re hanging on my every word, you might want to subscribe by email so you don’t miss anything. Happy holidays, and happy reading.

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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

Order from Amazon

Order That’s Life from Finishing Line Press.

October 2015 Reviews

Talking with Kids: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Blindness by Brian K. Nash. Copyright 2011.

In this short memoir, the author describes his experiences as a public speaker during the 1980’s to kids in a Kansas City elementary school during an entire day, starting with the first grade class and moving up to the sixth grade by the end of the day. He starts the book by relating how silly questions asked of blind people like “How do you brush your teeth?” made him want to educate others on blindness. He describes how he touched on different topics in each class including Braille, guide dogs, and adaptive devices. He relates anecdotes from his childhood he told the kids like the time when he was about six and tried cooking bacon on the stove and got distracted by a phone call from a classmate and burned the bacon like any sighted kid would do. He describes the kids’ fascination with his Braille watch and talking calculator and how they enjoyed playing with his guide dog when he allowed them to do so.

He also describes eating lunch in the cafeteria with several teachers and the school social worker. During the meal, he related more anecdotes like the time when he, as an adult, was barbecuing outdoors and got distracted by the antics of neighborhood dogs like anyone with good eyes might do. This amused everyone except the social worker who told him that his blindness wasn’t funny, that he acted irresponsibly, and that she hoped he would be a better role model for the children. At the end of the book, like any sighted guy, he expresses regret that he neglected to get a particular female teacher’s phone number.

My late husband and I have each given presentations on blindness to children of all ages but never for an entire day as Brian Nash did. However, I gleamed some ideas I might use the next time I’m asked to give such a presentation. For example, when Nash was asked how he could tell the difference between candy bars when he ran a vending stand, he gave the teacher a $5.00 bill and asked her to buy a bunch of candy bars from a nearby machine. He then demonstrated to the children how he could tell one bar from another by its shape and size. He gave the candy to the teacher to be handed out later. I wish I had the forethought to do something similar years ago when a kid asked me how I could tell the difference between a bag of potato chips and a can of pop.

I recommend this book to anyone curious about blindness, especially people like that social worker who have such blatant, negative attitudes about disabilities. Brian Nash has written several children’s books and one other adult nonfiction book. To learn more about him and order his books, go to http://www.dvorkin.com/brianknash/ .

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Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Copyright 1945.

This modern classic novel gives us a glimpse into the lives of an English Catholic family during the earlier part of the 20th century between the two world wars. The family lives in a country estate called Brideshead, and the older son’s name is also Brideshead. There’s also a younger son, Sebastian, and two daughters, Julia and Cordelia.

The story is told from the viewpoint of an outsider, Charles, who befriends Sebastian at Oxford. Sebastian turns out to be an alcoholic, and when the family tries to confine him for treatment, he disappears. Charles leaves the university and becomes an artist, traveling all over the world, marrying, and having a couple of kids.

Ten years later, he meets Julia on a ship returning to England. She’s also married, but they have an affair that lasts a couple of years until they decide to divorce their spouses and marry. Then Julia’s father dies after a long illness, and she tells Charles she no longer wants to marry him because he’s not of her faith. In the prolog and epilog, the military has commandeered Brideshead during World War II, and Charles, now an officer, returns with his company.

I found this story intriguing and sad. Since this is a classic, I hate to say anything negative, but the narrative is often bogged down by too much description and back story and not enough conflict. I must admit that because of this, I dozed off once or twice while listening to this excellent recording of the book produced by Hachette Audio and narrated by actor Jeremy Irons. If I wasn’t curious to see why the Brideshead estate held such significance for Charles, I probably wouldn’t have finished the book.

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Lost and Found in Cedar Cove by Debbie Macomber. Copyright 2013.

This is actually a short story that is part of the Rose Harbor Inn series. I downloaded it from Audible, but it’s also available on Kindle. Several months after widow Jo Marie opens her bed and breakfast in the fictional town of Cedar Cove, Washington, she makes plans with her handyman Mark to build a rose garden.

While they’re outside looking for the perfect spot for it on her property, her dog Rover wanders off. Jo Marie is devastated. She lost her husband in Afghanistan, and now her dog is gone. The ending is predictable, yet happy.

Some might argue that this tale doesn’t have enough conflict. This may be true, but who says you have to have a lot of conflict in fiction? There’s enough in the world as it is, and I think it’s nice to escape to a place where lost dogs are found in a timely manner.

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Come Home, My Heart by Phyllis Campbell. Copyright 1988.

Susan, an obstetrician, loses her vision after a brain tumor is removed. She is left to cope with sight and career loss plus reactions of her fiancé Eric who thinks she should let him and his mother take care of her. She refuses to do this, and after going through a rehabilitation program, she moves to a poor rural community in Virginia where she works as a social worker at a medical clinic. The remarkable ending nearly moved me to tears.

This is a sweet story. However, although the author is blind and did a great job portraying Susan’s feelings after she loses her vision, I found her portrayal of sight loss and adjustment to be unrealistic. Take for example a scene in the hospital. After Susan’s surgery to remove the tumor, she receives a visit from Ann, a counselor from a local agency that serves the blind. The reader learns that Ann is also totally blind, but she doesn’t appear to use a cane or dog. It seems to me that Susan would hear the cane tapping or rolling on the floor or the jingle of the dog’s harness as Ann walks into the room. She would also hear the cane bumping against things as Ann tries to find a place to sit or Ann telling the dog to find a chair. However, Ann just walks into the room and sits down as if she were fully sighted.

I was also disappointed in the way the author skims over Susan’s rehabilitation which takes approximately six months. It’s bad enough to lose vision you once had, and it takes a lot of courage to leave familiar surroundings and travel to a place unfamiliar to you when you can’t see. I would like for the author to have shown more of Susan’s struggles with adapting to the rehabilitation center’s way of life, learning to walk with a cane, read Braille, and prepare a meal. She could have created more conflict by having Eric continually badger Susan to leave the facility and marry him. I realize this would have made the book longer, but it might have created a better story. As it is, Susan appears to breeze through the program with flying colors and little contact with Eric, and the social worker position at the rural health clinic seems to fall right in her lap.

I also have a hard time believing Susan’s acceptance by virtually everyone in the small community where she works after her rehabilitation. It’s probably true that some people may wish to unveil their problems to a blind social worker, but there should have been a few nay sayers. Granted, one man, not realizing she’s blind, asks her what kind of doctor she is when she trips over a patient on the floor during an emergency, but he’s the only one. When I worked in a nursing home, one of my many bosses couldn’t work with my disability. Something like that would create more conflict and make the story more interesting. It also would have been nice to show Susan interacting with others in the community besides the patient involved in the emergency and her family, the staff at the clinic, and the nearby handyman and his family.

It’s nice once in a while to escape to a world where everything’s easy. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is otherwise. It’s hard to get back on your feet after losing sight you once had, and even in the 1980’s, it was hard for blind people to find work. However, despite the book’s downfalls, Come Home, My Heart is a heartwarming tale to be read during the holiday season since it ends with a Christmas miracle. For more information about Phyllis Campbell and her books, go to http://www.phylliscampbellbooks.com/ .

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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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Order That’s Life from Finishing Line Press.

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