Saturday, November 29, 2014

With Open Hands

Title:  With Open Hands
Author:  Henri J. M. Nouwen
Publication Information:  Ave Maria Press. 1972 (first edition). 125 pages.
ISBN:  1594710643 / 978-1594710643

Book Source:  I read this book based on the recommendation of a friend who was kind enough to lend me her copy.

Favorite Quote:  "Ultimately, I believe what is most personal is most universal."

Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen was a Dutch-born Catholic priest who wrote over 40 books on leading a spiritual life. He was ordained at the age of 25 and then complemented his religious training with training in psychology. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame and the divinity schools at Yale and Harvard. He culminated his career working with a Canadian community to support those with intellectual disabilities. He died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 64. Even today, his work is widely used by Catholic and Protestant clergy.

With Open Hands was Henri Nouwen's first published book on prayers. It was originally published in Dutch in 1971 and translated into English in 1972. It begins with the image of clenched fist; goes through the ideas of prayer with silence, acceptance, hope, compassion, and criticism; and ends with the image of open hands. The central concept is that through prayers and the ideas of silence, acceptance, hope, compassion, and criticism, an individual progresses from fear and clenched fists to the hope and faith of open hands:

  • Silence both from the distractions in our world and from the thoughts and emotions within our own hearts and minds.
  • Acceptance of our own vulnerabilities and of all others leaving no room for prejudice.
  • Hope in someone and something no matter what as different from a wish for a specific something or someone.
  • Compassion for ourselves and for others as we realize that we are not alone and that we are all the same.
  • Prophetic criticism as we venture into the unknown and become open to new answers.

The best way to describe this book is that it is a framework. It is a framework to show the necessity of prayer in our lives and to show the characteristics by which we should approach prayer. As such, it presents a broad, general paradigm. The ideas are presented in short reflective writings, most of which bear reading more than once. In that respect, the structure of the book is similar to books of devotionals or daily readings.

The book, however, does not go beyond the framework. The metaphor of the clenched fists and open hands repeats throughout; the image anchors the book. That image will stay with me for a long time.  The text, however, is very general and gets more and more so towards the end of the book. The book presents no guidelines for application and no other stories to ground it. If you are looking for a how to guide, this is not it. It is a gentle reminder and a gentle nudge towards a set of guidelines for living.

The book is, of course, based in Christian theology. However, it provides no Biblical references - actually no references to religious texts at all. The idea of prayer as living open to what comes your way is spiritual in nature and can be applied across different religious lines. The belief in the need for prayers and in living open to life is one shared by many, many traditions around the world. The value of the book lies in what an individual can use and apply in his or her own life. As with other books in this genre, take what works for you and leave the rest. Take the framework and look for more details elsewhere.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Title:  Vintage
Author:  Susan Gloss
Publication Information:  William Morrow. 2014. 320 pages.
ISBN:  006227032X / 978-0062270320

Book Source:  I read this book based on the cover and description.

Favorite Quote:  “Happy endings aren't just for fairy tales and massage parlors.”

Vintage, the debut novel by Susan Gloss, is a predictable, feel good story about women. It is about finding friendship and new beginnings.

Violet Turner owns and operates a vintage clothing store, Hourglass Vintage, in Madison, Wisconsin. This store is her dream. It takes a divorce and a move for her to pursue her dream, but she gets there. Every piece of clothing she has in the store has a story. Every patron has a story; they come together with Violet's story to create a tale of friendship and women supporting each other.

Amithi Singh, an Indian American, comes into the store to sell some of her clothes. She is getting older. Her children are grown. Her husband is not the man she thought he was. The store provides her with an outlet and friendships that are hers and not defined by any family role as the rest of her life has been.

April Morgan comes in to try and return or resell a wedding dress after her hasty engagement is broken off. She is eighteen, unwed, and pregnant. An internship at Hourglass Vintage becomes her stability at a time when life is challenging.

The three women find friendship, and each finds a new beginning at Hourglass Vintage. Along the way come hardships - angry ex-husbands, business concerns, money concerns, illnesses, and more. Along the way also come relationships - both old and new.

What I like about the book is that the main characters come from different cultures, different ages, and different walks of life. Despite their differences, they find common ground and friendship. Although the characters are not fully developed, that feeling of support and friendship and that feeling of commonalities overriding differences anchors the story.

One disconcerting note in the book is how quickly a relationship for one of the women progresses. It goes from reconnecting with someone from a different time in life to a first date to a sexual relationship almost instantly. That aspect of the book seems very rushed. I like the idea of a new beginning in terms of career, friendship, and independence. A new relationship is unnecessary to that new beginning.

I do enjoy the descriptions of the vintage items in the book. I don't know if the descriptions are historically accurate, but I enjoyed the idea of the pieces having history. Perhaps, the descriptions are based on the author's experience in the industry. According to her website, Susan Gloss heads an online vintage shop, Cleverly Curated, which has been in business since 2012.

According to an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Susan Gloss sees a parallel between the story of the women in the book and the setting of a vintage store. She states that she likes the idea that everything has a story and that everything can have a second chance. This idea applies to both the vintage items in the book and the women themselves. That theme presents itself again and again throughout the book.

The book proceeds predictably to a predictable ending. The book makes for an easy, light vacation read.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Little Humans

Title:  Little Humans
Author:  Brandon Stanton
Publication Information:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2014. 40 pages.
ISBN:  0374374562 / 978-0374374563

Book Source:  I read this book because I love Brandon Stanton's work! I have followed the project for a while and was looking forward to this book.

Favorite Quote:  "Little humans can be tough ... super HERO tough!"

Little Humans is a picture book with the quality of images expected from the Humans of New York (HONY) project but targeted for a picture book audience. As such, it does not have the narratives associated with each picture or the depth associated with the daily blog postings. If that is what you are expecting, you may be disappointed. If you take this book for what it's intended to be, it is delightful picture book with beautiful, diverse portraits and a positive message for children.

HONY creator Brandon Stanton was not a photographer. He got his first camera in January 2010 while he lived and worked in Chicago. In July 2010, he lost his job. Over the next couple of months, he slowly travelled from Chicago to New York, taking pictures all the way. Upon his arrival in New York, his thoughts were, "What struck me most were the people. There were tons of them. And they all seemed to be in a hurry."

Over that summer, he took over 600 portraits in the city. His intent was to create a photographic census of New York City. The plan was to take 10,000 portraits and plot them on a map of the city.

He had a blog and some visibility. A friend, then, introduced him to the power of social media, creating a Facebook page. This was followed shortly by a Tumblr blog.

The project then expanded to include interviews and short statement from the person/people pictured. In a Mashable interview, Brandon Stanton had this to say about the progression: "It went from photography to pictures of people; from pictures of people to portraits of people; from portraits of people to captions with the photograph. It went from captions to stories to where it is, fully formed, today — which is these very deep interactions with strangers on the streets." ("The Human Behind 'Humans of the New York," October 2013)

With the power of social media, the project has gone viral. As of today, the Facebook page has almost 11 million followers! This number stood at 8.3 millions in October 2013. In December 2013, Time Magazine named Brandon Stanton to the list of 30 Under 30 People Changing The World. In fall 2014, he was part of a 50 day tour in partnership with the United Nations. He captured and shared images from many countries including Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Vietnam, and Mexico.

The project is being incorporated into teaching curriculums. It has also spurred many many similar projects all over the world, from San Francisco to Sydney, from Pakistan to the Fiji Islands. A project has even begun around the fictional world of George R R Martin's Game of Thrones series.

What amazes me about the overall project is:
  • The diversity that the project encompasses - race, religion, age, economics, and along every other line.
  • The very personal nature of the portraits and stories - Many of the stories that accompany the portraits on the blog are intensely personal. What is it about this storyteller and about this project that enables people to share the information? This book does not include these stories, but that is not the intent of the book.
  • The viral growth of the project - over 11 million followers in a few of years and thousands of comments on every Facebook post.
When the first book Humans of New York came out, I instantly picked it up and loved it. It has everything expected from the blog. I looked forward to this book coming out.

This is a picture book with the same quality of images. It brings the images into a context appropriate for a picture book audience. This book includes a diverse set of images. However, instead of a story behind each picture, it includes an original picture book narrative - all about the joys and concerns of being a child who may be little now but who can do big things.

As with the project as a whole, I love the diversity represented in this book - something particularly difficult to find in picture books. I love that underlying that diversity of race, culture, religion and interests is the commonality that children are children the world over. They want to be loved. They want to play. They want to be seen for the unique individuals that they are. They are full of joy sometimes in the most adverse of circumstances. What a delight to find that in a book for children.

This book does a beautiful job of capturing both the diversity and the universality of childhood in a way that is easy to share to with children. I cannot wait to see what this project brings next!

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Worn Stories

Title:  Worn Stories
Author:  Emily Spivack
Publication Information:  Princeton Architectural Press. 2014. 200 pages.
ISBN:  1616892765 / 978-1616892760

Book Source:  I read this book because I appreciate the idea that objects - in this case, clothing - hold memories.

Favorite Quote:  "The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone - in all these are encoded the stories of our lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we've worn."

"Our clothes are full of memory and meaning. That's why we all have garments - hanging in our closets, shoved in the backs of drawers, and boxed up in garages - that we haven't worn in years but just can't part with. And then there are the clothes we wear every day, whose stories are still unfolding."

That is the premise of this book, and it is such a true one. I have my father's winter hat and scarf. I have a scarf hand embroidered by my grandmother. I have the sweater my mother knit. So many memories and so many stories. Memories and stories that are special to me. maybe only to me. Memories and stories that may be lost once I am no longer here to remember. What a wonderful idea to capture these stories and preserve them.

Capturing such stories is what this book and the author's website Worn Stories does. The book consists of images of about 70 pieces of clothing followed by a short essay on the significance of that item to the person - the story behind it, if you will. The essays are either written by the individual or "as told to the author". The stories included are from a diverse and eclectic set of individuals including:
  • Susan Bennett, the original voice of Apple's Siri
  • Rosanne Cash, singer and song writer
  • Dapper Dan, fashion innovator from Harlem
  • Heidi Julavits, a professor at Columbia
  • Piper Kerman, who gained recognition for her memoir of her year in prison
  • Marcus Samuelsson, chef and restaurateur

The collection of items is just as eclectic, ranging from a tie to Converse sneakers, from a leather belt to a floral dress. The stories travel through time and space, ranging from New York to Alaska to World War II Poland. Some are reminders of a big moment in life, and some of the ordinary moments that ultimately make special memories.

Some items like the vest made for a wedding, the sash with badges earned as a Girl Scout, and leg warmers worn before a performance are reminders of a time in life. Some items like the shoes worn to walk the Great Wall of China, the white coat with memories of growing up in a family business, and the T-shirt bought to beat the city heat are reminders of a place. Some like the torn sweatshirt worn at the hospital keeping vigil, the blue oxford shirt that seemed a uniform, and the tie hand made with love are reminders of a special person.

As with books that represent collections of stories, I did not read this book through from start to end. It sat on my nightstand for a couple of weeks, and I found myself savoring an essay here and there. Each one stands alone. The book can be read from end to end, or flipped open to read just one essay. Some may strike a chord, and some may seem ordinary.

Either way, the truth holds. We all have such stories of our lives in our closets. What is yours?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World

Title:  Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Author:  Ella Frances Sanders
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2014. 112 pages.
ISBN:  1607747103 / 978-1607747109

Book Source:  I received this book through the Blogging for Books program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Language wraps its understanding and punctuation around us all, tempting us to cross boundaries and helping us to comprehend the impossibly difficult questions that life relentlessly throws at us."

Lost in Translation is a collection of over 50 words that have no direct counterpart in English. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam Webster Dictionary include about half a million entries for words in the English language. Still, some words from languages across the world have no direct English translation. They can be explained and defined in English, but no one English word captures the entire meaning.

Each word in this book is discussed on two pages. Each discussion includes:

  • Word spelled phonetically in English in all caps and different fonts to stand out
  • Definition in an outline script like font
  • Language of origin
  • Part of speech
  • Short note that further explains the word
  • Beautiful and colorful illustration of the word

I wish that this book included two more things. First, I wish I could hear the word being spoken. I realized that is an impossibility in a physical book, but perhaps some online resources in addition to the book could be made available. The book includes the phonetic spelling, but I would love to know how the word is correctly pronounced.

Second, I wish the book included the word written in its language of origin. Many languages like Japanese, Arabic, and others use a script completely different than English. It would be wonderful to be able to enjoy the written language in addition to the word.

The fonts and colorful illustrations give the book the look of a picture book, which is a delightful way of sharing languages with a child. However, this book has so much more substance than a picture book. It is definitely a book for adults, but lends itself to being easily shared with children, even young children.

The range of languages in this book is also delightful. The book has words from commonly recognized languages such as Arabic, French, and Japanese. It also has words from remote, little known languages. For example, the Wagiman language is a nearly extinct language from Australia. Yaghan is the language of the Yaghan people, an indigenous peoples of Chile. Nguni Bantu are a group of languages spoken in Southern Africa. What a delightful introduction to the linguistic history and variety in our world.

Most of the words in the book describe concepts rather than an object; words for concrete objects typically have a one-for-one translation between languages. Many of the concepts illustrated are emotions, which makes sense because after all feelings are sometimes the hardest thing in the world to put into words. As the book says, "If you take something away from this book ... let it be the realization (or affirmation) that you are  human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and with feelings."

This book makes a great gift for anyone who loves words and language. It's definitely got a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Swift River

Title:  Swift River
Author:  R.C. Binstock
Publication Information:  R C Binstock Books. 2014. 364 pages.

Book Source: I received this book from the author free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "The trivial gradation of my losses over time is a game, a purposeless folly; in the end it doesn't matter. A life begins and goes one and at a certain time is over. And then it simply never was."

Quabbain Reservoir makes the list of the largest reservoirs in the United States. It is also one of the largest bodies of water inland in Massachusetts. A dam on the Swift River forms the reservoir. Built in the 1930s, the reservoir is the water supply for Boston and a number of surrounding communities. The project was approved in the 1920s and completed in the late 1930s.

The reservoir name originates from the name of a hill and a lake that existed in the area at the time. The names for those come from the Native American name meaning "place of many waters." Today, most of the land around the reservoir is restricted to protect the water supply. As such, it has become a preserved area, home to a wide variety of wildlife.

The darker side of this story is that four towns - Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott - were disincorporated and destroyed to allow for the construction of the reservoir. The people of these four towns fought the construction, taking the case all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. They lost.

The government offered some compensation for the land. Some residents took it and left. Some chose to stay until the bitter end, when properties were taken by eminent domain, which gives a government the right to take private property for public use, with compensation to the property owner.

Buildings in the towns were torn down. Cemeteries and memorials were moved to different locations. Holes for the cellars and roadways, however, remain. Even today, it is possible to follow a road right to the edge of the reservoir waters.

This book tells the story of one family - one girl in particular. In 1927, Polly McPhee is eleven and two thirds years old.  The fate of her home, her family's farm, and her town has already been decided by powers well beyond her control. Her parents make the decision - also beyond her control - to stay on the farm while they can. They do not sell. They refuse to sell even as others take the government compensation and leave to start new lives elsewhere. Others leave before the destruction of the towns starts, but the McPhees stay and watch the towns dismantle. Polly stays. "Who knows what put us off at first? Maybe we just couldn’t bear it. And after a while, you know the way—you don’t do something and don’t do it and don’t do it and it doesn’t take long before you can’t anymore. Because you didn’t before. Seems like a problem you could fix by just getting up your nerve but it isn’t that easy. I’m pretty sure you know the way.”

Polly's story really takes two paths. One is the coming of age story of a young girl - the dreams, the choices, the loves, and the losses. The other is of a life lived surrounded by impending doom. As the losses in Polly's life mount, her life becomes a metaphor for the towns themselves. People leave. People die. Places are destroyed. Piece by piece, things are lost, never to be regained.

This book is her diary - a first person account as she grows from child to woman and as her home is destroyed from town to nothing. Periodically, short sections interrupt Polly's musings. These sections are also first person narratives, but with no identification as to the person. Some can be inferred from the context; some not. These details seem to be just one more loss in a backdrop full of sadness and loss.

Polly to some extent reminds me of the protagonist in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Regardless of  the choices - even the self destructive ones - Polly makes, I care for her and for what happens to her. I find myself doing a lot of research on the Quabbain Reservoir and the construction project and trying to find information on what happened to the residents.

We know what happened to the towns, but what of the residents? As if this were a true history, I want to know what happens to Polly after the book ends. I hope that she is okay and has found joy and contentment in her life.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Great Gatsby

Title:  The Great Gatsby
Author:  F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publication Information:  Scribner. 1925 (original publication). 180 pages.
ISBN:  0743273567 / 978-0743273565

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Favorite Quote:  "And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy."

Do an Internet search for "Great Gatsby," and you get millions of hits. Books upon books have been written about The Great Gatsby. Many consider it to be F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest novel. The Modern Library has ranked it second on its list of the 100 best novels. On the competing Radcliffe Publishing Course's list of the 100 best novels, it ranks first. It is required reading in many English courses, and has been deemed a "classic" - something judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind (dictionary definition of classic).

An interesting side note - F. Scott Fitzgerald commission artist Francis Cugat to create a cover for the book as he was writing it. The cover art was completed before the text of the book. The eyes on the cover show the reflection of a naked woman. Some sites state that the reference in the book to the billboard for optometrist Dr. T. J. Eckleburg is an homage to how much Fitzgerald loved the artwork.

What more can be said that hasn't already been said in the 89 years since the book's original publication? Yet, heated debates continue everywhere book lovers meet - from reader discussions on book sites to erudite academic halls. Books about this book are still published - the most recent one I found was published this September! That truly is the magic of this book. Decades later, we are still puzzling over what the book means and who the characters are; each reader walks away with their own interpretation. Each interpretation seems viable.

The Great Gatsby is not a plot driven book. It is the depiction of characters and a depiction of the times. The world is the decadence and lavishness of the Roaring Twenties. The essential story is of Jay Gatsby's longing for Daisy Buchanan. They knew each other once, but now Daisy is married to another man.

James "Jimmy" Gatz is from the family of a poor German American farmer scraping a living in North Dakota. Jimmy Gatz reinvents himself into Jay Gatsby and whole-heartedly pursues his dream of wealth - a wealth that Daisy Buchanan is born into.

Jay Gatsby is an almost mythical character. He is the epitome of the self-made man. In the Urban Dictionary, the term "gatsby" is synonymous with extravagant, cool, and stylish - definitely the public image of Jay Gatsby. In the book, he cultivates an aura of mysteriousness around himself. Many flock to his home for the lavish parties. Yet, very few know him. Rumors fly, ranging from deeming him a financial genius to him being a crook.

To me, Jay Gatsby is a sad character. He is handsome and wealthy. He is surrounded by people. He lives a lavish lifestyle. Yet, at the end of it, he is alone. No matter how much wealth he accumulates, he seeks what he cannot have. The question is what does he want? Is it Daisy? Is it the self-assurance of those born to the society and the wealth? Is it acceptance? Is it the belief that he has reached his goal of success? I have my thoughts and interpretations, but I wish I knew for sure. Alas, we never will, and that is why we still continue to talk about this book.

The narrator Nick Carraway is an outsider, on the periphery of this world. Part of it to some extent, yet able to offer some commentary. Through his eyes, we get the public version of Jay Gatsby - what he chooses to show. This narration style never completely pulls back the curtain on Jay Gatsby's motivations and emotions. The book never really reveals who Jay Gatsby is; that is the mystique of the book. I am left wondering about who Jay Gatsby truly is and what makes him tick.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Glassblower (The Glassblower Trilogy Book 1)

Title:  The Glassblower (The Glassblower Trilogy Book 1)
Author:  Petra Durst-Benning (Author), Samuel Willcocks (Translator)
Publication Information:  AmazonCrossing. 2014. 496 pages.
ISBN:  1477820272 / 978-1477820278

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "We don't always find happiness where we expect it. Sometimes we have to approach it the long way around ... And sometimes happiness is somewhere else entirely."

The Glassblower is the story of the three Steinmann sisters - Johanna, Ruth, and Marie. They have survived the loss of their mother. Joost Steinmann runs a glassblowing business, and his daughters work with him. The death of their father, however, leaves them at a crossroads. How will they survive? What will they do? Johanna wishes for independence. Ruth wishes for love and marriage. Marie wishes to draw and paint. The paths they take lead them to joys and sorrows and to directions they never envisioned.

The most fascinating part of the book for me is the history. Apparently, blown glass ornaments were invented in the town of Laschua, Germany in the nineteenth century - the setting for this book. Frank Winfield Woolworth, the founder of the FW Woolworth Company, was responsible for bringing these glass ornaments to the United States in the 1880s. He enabled a huge expansion of the industry and made a fortune selling the ornaments. FW Woolworth features in this book as it tells this history from the perspective of its very personal impact on one family. A few key names and terms in the book and a little research reveal this history.

The descriptions of glassblowing in the book are also fascinating. The book seamlessly weaves them through the actions and conversations of the characters. For example, did you know that silver nitrate, a corrosive and potentially toxic substance, was used in a solution to coat the glasswork before painting? Short term exposure to silver nitrate is not dangerous; however, long term exposure to a concentrated solution can cause burns and eye damage. Did you know that glassblowers made prosthetic eyes and that people would travel great distances because of the reputation of the glassblower? The eyes were custom made for each person - blown, painted, and fit individually. Although no longer made from glass, prosthetic eyes are often still referred to as "glass eyes" because of this history.

My least favorite part of the book is unfortunately the sisters themselves. The characters do not seem to evolve through the book; they appear the same from beginning to end. The premise of three young women surviving and defining their own way in what is still a male dominated society and profession is a positive one. Unfortunately, the focus of the book is not their endeavors in that profession. It is more about their relationships with the men they encounter along the way. Warning:  this book does include some sexual scenes including a rape and abuse. These descriptions are not necessary to the book. Enough obstacles exist - the death of their father, economic hardship, the difficulty of living as independent women at that time. The gratuitous sex scenes and the focus on those relationships are unnecessary. Without these scenes, the book would get a higher rating from me. The book does eventually get to independence and the business endeavors of the Steinmann sisters, but not until much of the way through this almost 500 page book.

According to its description, the book is part one of a trilogy. I did learn while reading this book, but will probably not read books 2 and 3 as the history in the book proves more interesting than the characters. I don't need to know what happens to the sisters next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Dear Committee Members

Title:  Dear Committee Members
Author:  Julie Schumacher
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2014. 192 pages.
ISBN:  0385538138 / 978-0385538138

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "You and I are both in the business of believing in, and promoting, things that don't yet exist. The leap of faith:  it's equal parts wishful thinking, vicarious ambition, and bullshit, and yet..."

Jason T. Fitger is a Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University, a small liberal arts school. He spends a lot of time writing recommendation letters for students and colleagues. This book is an epistolary tale told through the letters he writes during the 2009-2010 school year.

A web search for "letter of recommendation" results in over 28 million hits - how to ask for them, how to write them, what to do with them. Letters of recommendations (LORs) consume a lot of time and energy! As Jason Fitger says in one of his letters, "Suffice it to say that the LOR has usurped the place of my own work, now adorned with cobwebs and dust in a remote corner of my office."

The dictionary defines a letter of recommendation as "a formal letter that explains why a person is appropriate or qualified for a particular job, school, etc." Jason Fitger's letters range from emails to online forms with limited space to write. The people for whom he writes these letters range from students, former students, colleagues, and even his ex-wife. The nature of the recommendations ranges from acceptability for admission to a program of study, grants, writing residency programs and, of course, jobs. The recipients for these letters range from scholarship programs, universities including his own, employers, old colleagues, and even his ex-wife.

Mind you, these are not letters you actually want sent on your behalf. They are a medium through which he expresses himself - sometimes without any of the filters that should enter into such a task. Through these letters, we learn about Jason Fitger's shambles of a personal life, the precarious position of the English Department at Payne, the sad status of his own writing, his disillusionment with the functioning of academia, and his unedited thoughts about the individuals who have asked for recommendations.

Through the epistolary format, a more serious story does develop leading to an ending I did not expect. The story develops around one of his students, Darren Browles. Several of the letters center around trying to solicit support for this struggling author. The parallels are clear. In Darren Browles, Jason Fitger perhaps sees his own younger self. He wants Darren to succeed, in a way that perhaps he himself never did.

Jason Fitger is not a particularly likable man. He has destroyed relationships in his life through his own actions. He is disillusioned and sarcastic. His letters can be downright scathing. I don't want him to write my recommendation letters, but the satire and humor in them is entertaining to read.

This book is pretty short, at under 200 pages. The entire story is told through these recommendation letters. Some of them are really funny, but read all together, the book appears to get a little repetitive despite its short length. Yes, the academic world has its foibles. Yes, the English Department at Payne needs help. Yes, Jason Fitger's track record in relationships is pretty abysmal. What else remains to be told?

I read the story straight through as any other fiction book. It probably lends itself better to being read a few letters at a time. That way, the humor and the satire stand out rather than the thought of having read that a letter or two ago.

My recommendation: A funny read if taken in little doses at a time.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Contract

Title:  The Contract
Author:  Derek Jeter with Paul Mantell
Publication Information:  Jeter Publishing. 2014. 176 pages.
ISBN:  1481423126 / 978-1481423120

Book Source:  I read this book because it is Derek Jeter's first venture after his retirement from New York Yankees.

Favorite Quote:  "You just stick to your dream, and keep working hard toward it. Never mind what anybody says about it being 'realistic.' It's realistic as long as you're working to make it real."

Guest Post - An Eleven Year Old's Perspective

The Contract by Derek Jeter is the debut book for newly retired baseball player Derek Jeter. He has stepped off the field and into publishing. His debut book, The Contract, is about his own early life. From the school yard to the baseball fields.

It was Derek's dream to grow up and become the shortstop for the New York Yankees. He worked with his parents to form a contract saying that:

  • He would do all his homework.
  • His grades in school would be the best he could do.
  • He would practice baseball.
  • He would do all his chores.

If he did all that, he would get rewards like going to a Yankees game.

I read this book because it was about Derek Jeter. I thought this book was very well written and entertaining. The book is very relatable because it is about his childhood. I can relate to things like chores, arguments, fairness, and fun.

This book is also about the sport of baseball. He spends time playing and practicing. I like baseball, especially the New York Yankees, and I like reading about it.

The book talks about Derek Jeter's dream and how he works toward it. It doesn't seems like everything goes his way or that everything is perfect. It was is realistic because he has challenges in his way just like the rest of us.

I recommended this book for people who like baseball, especially the New York Yankees.

My review

A young Derek Jeter dreams of being the shortstop for the New York Yankees. Many laugh at his dream and write it off as a dream of a youngster and a dream he'll grow out of. He, however, has the full support of his parents, who teach him that all dreams are possible as long as you are willing to pursue them through your actions.

This book specifically tells the story of one little league season in which Derek faces many challenges - not being recruited to the team he hopes for, not being chosen for the position he wants, viewing what he feels is favoritism towards another player, and trying to balance his love of baseball with the responsibilities in his life like chores and school work.

The question being raised about this book is what if this book was not about Derek Jeter? Then, it's just about a kid who dreams of being a great baseball player - a dream shared by many at that age. Most are not good enough and do not turn that dream into reality. Does that make this book unrealistic? To me, the question is moot. The book is about Derek Jeter, a 14-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion who played seasons with the New York Yankees. Knowing what we know about his history and his career, the book makes sense. The book works.

The biggest positive of this book is that here is someone who knows he is a role model to so many children. Here is someone who is making the conscious choice to use his influence for to positively impact children. As a parent, I can speak about the book to my children in two ways. First, of course, is the content of the book itself. The book is about having dreams, setting goals, and working hard to achieve those goals. Second is the fact of this book and of Derek Jeter's new venture into publishing. Here is an athlete who reached the top of his field and has now reached the end of a career. Instead of regretting that end, here he is beginning a brand new adventure and a brand new career. So, too, life can be for us. The achievement of a goal or the end of a venture can transition right into new beginnings.

So, is the main character, a little bit too perfect? Yes, but it works. For the target audience (ages 8-12, grades 3-7) and because of who the author is, it works.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

J: A Novel

Title:  J:  A Novel
Author:  Howard Jacobson
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2014. 324 pages.
ISBN:  0553419552 / 978-0553419559

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books!

Favorite Quote:  "What divided Homo sapiens from brute creation was the need to apportion responsibility. If a lion went hungry or a chimpanzee could not find a mate, it was no one's fault. But from the dawn of time man had been blaming the climate, the terrain, fate, the gods, some other tribe or just some other person. To be a man, as distinct from being a chimpanzee was to be forever at the mercy of a supernatural entity, a force, a being or a collection of beings, whose only function was to make your life on earth unbearable. And wasn't this the secret of man's success:  that in chasing dissatisfaction down to its malignant cause he had hit upon the principle, first of religion and then of progress? What was evolution - what was revolution - but the logic of blame in action? What was the pursuit of justice but punishment of the blameworthy?"

I chose this book because it has gotten a lot of press as a short-list finalist for the 2014 Man Booker prize. The title of this book is not simply the letter "J." It is the "J" with lines through it. The letter and its usage refers to events of the past that should not be talked about in the world created in this book.

At the center of the book are Kevern Cohen, Ailinn Solomons, and their love story. They live in the small village of Port Reubens, in a dystopian Britain. The mantra of the world is "Let sleeping dogs lie, the over examined life is not worth living, yesterday is a lesson we can learn only by looking to tomorrow." It is a brutal world in which nothing is forbidden per say, but individuals are quietly diverted into acceptable code of behavior. People may harm each other, but then quickly apologize as if that remedies all.

A clear division exists in the before and the after in this book. In between is "What happened, if it happened" - a cryptic reference to a cataclysmic event that forever altered the society described in the book. The story takes place in the after, but the events of the "before" are central to understanding the story. Surrounding Kevern and Ailinn are characters who clearly have an agenda that is not clear to either one of them. This has to do with their backgrounds and their history in the "before." The connection does not become clear until well into the book such that at times, the different sections and characters seem somewhat disjointed. The references don't connect until you understand "what happened, if it happened." Reading the book straight through, that connection comes perhaps too late.

I started reading this book and got lost. I put it aside. I started over. I got lost. I put it aside. I started over. I got lost.

So, I decided to do some background research. This is the first work I have read by Howard Jacobson.   Howard Jacobson is a British author and journalist best known for his comic novels, which often deal with British Jewish characters. He previously won the Man Booker prize in 2010 for his book The Finkler Question. J: A Novel is his thirteenth novel. Having the background on the author helps to better understand the context of this book. The setting of the book is a dystopian Britain with a disturbing history.

I also did some background research on this book, something I normally don't ever do for a book I read. I don't write spoilers, and I certainly try and never read a spoiler. Except for this book. Getting some understanding of "What happened, if it happened" makes it so much easier to follow the story and understand the society and motivations. I won't write the spoiler in this review, but my recommendation - Read some background about the context of this book before reading the book.

With this background, I restarted the book. I was able to actually pick up on the references and appreciate the build up once I knew the context. I was able to get through the book because that background is the glue that binds the book together. For me, the book makes a lot more sense and becomes considerably easier to read having that understanding.

However, I still needed more help. Read this book with a dictionary on hand as well as the capability to look up topics. Some terms I looked up just to know what the word exactly meant; the roots of the words give an indication of what the word means, but I wanted a more precise understanding. Words such as psychoaesthetic, neuroticism, insalubriousness, bolshily, anagramatiser, and pissastrope.
Some terms I looked up because they appeared as names or language reference. Terms like Maidenek, Magdeburg, Necropolis, Babi Yar, shlemiel, and Nicht wahr. Having done background research, I knew it could have significance to the understanding of the book. Again, the more I looked up, the more I understood of the book, but I spent a lot of time looking things up.

Bottom line, this book was a lot of work. It took a lot to get through it. I am glad I did because getting through it became a challenge. I am also glad because periodically, through the book are profound statements of philosophy that will stay with me. However, was it really worth it? For me, probably not other than the challenge of it.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hello From the Gillespies

Title:  Hello From the Gillespies
Author:   Monica McInerney
Publication Information:  NAL Trade. 2014. 624 pages.
ISBN:  0451466721 / 978-0451466723

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes I wish everything and everyone would go away. Just for a little while. Not permanently. Please don't misunderstand me. I love my husband. My children. My life here on the station, here in Australia. I really do. But I think if I could press a pause button for a while, have some time to myself, a little peace, a lot of quiet, time to reflect, I would be a much better mother, a much better wife, a much better person. I think I urgently need a little bit of time off from worrying about everything, from being me, all day, every day, months and years on end. Is that too much to ask? Is that selfish of me?"

"Hello from the Gilliespies" is the greeting with which Angela Gillespie starts her Christmas letter. Christmas letters are an annual tradition for some families. They accompany holiday cards and provide details on the happenings in the family over the course of the year. They serve as a vehicle to update other family members and friends. Usually, the letters highlight the positives and the accomplishments in the family.

Angela Gillespie has been doing hers for thirty-three years, starting with the year she and Nick Gillespie married. The letters are a chronicle of their lives together - marriage, life on their sheep station Errigal in the Australian outback, the births of their four children, and then the lives of their children - twins Victoria and Genevieve, Rosalind or Lindy, and Ignatius or Ig.

This year, however, "the words just wouldn't come." Frustrated, Angela pours her heart out in a draft letter. She begins, "It's been a terrible year for the Gillespies. Everything seems to have gone wrong for us." She goes on to outline her worries about Nick, her marriage, and each of the children - from Genevieve's career in Hollywood to Victoria's affair; from Lindy's debt to Ig's imaginary friend. Pages upon pages of her thoughts. Of course, she has no intention of sending it out.

Not surprisingly, things happen, and the letter is inadvertently sent out to the over 100 people - relatives and friends alike - on her list. The repercussions are positive and negative, all coming back to Angela as all the Gillespies gather for Christmas.

A fun set up and a great build-up to the story. Many people can relate to Angela's feelings. "What woman hasn't sometimes wished she was someone else? Or wondered how her life could have been different, if she'd made other choices?" Many often wonder what would happen if the truth - the whole unvarnished truth - was told rather than the highlight reels we find in Christmas letters, holiday cards, Facebook posts, and other such mediums. Most people will never do it, but it's fun to imagine what if.

As expected, reactions from the recipients of the letter range from "what were you thinking" to "wish we had the courage." Reactions from those talked about in the letter also range in emotion and intensity. All manner of reactions to the Christmas letter are present, but very quickly resolved - a little too quickly. Fully developed, the reactions and the characters could have formed an entire book - even a 600 page one.

Instead of fully exploring the impact of the letter on emotions and relationships, the book takes a completely different and unexpected turn. The story remains about family and shared memories and what ifs, but it moves aways from the initial premise of the book - what happens if our completely unfiltered, unedited thoughts are spoken out loud.

Without a spoiler, let's just say the story remains about family and about shared pasts and shared futures. However, the dynamic and the main focus shifts away from the Christmas letter and its ramifications. Financial worries, medical worries, relationship worries, and business worries all play a role. The question of "what if" underlies the entire story but in a completely different way. This second story does not truly need the Christmas letter as the background. It can exist on its own as a book with far less build up.

It's almost like reading two different stories about the same family and the setting.. Both are light and easy reads despite the length of the book. Both are entertaining. Two entertaining stories for the price of one!

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.