Book critic

Book shelves in coffee shops, Little Free Libraries, rummage sale that advertise books. They are hope dashers. Hopes Dashed on the Parkway. There, that’s a great name for a penny romance. I bet I can find a copy of it in the local coffee shop book shelf. It’s written by Catherine Coulter, I think. Or is it Nora Roberts.

For those of us who enjoy a nice novel, who enjoy browsing books stores and libraries, who love cracking open a lovely piece of fiction, we cringe whenever we pop open the neighbor’s Little Free Library door. Regret at the Library Door. There’s the name of another pocket book to read while walking on the treadmill at the gym.

You’ll know how to spot one of these pocket books. They are mass market paperbacks that are approximately 4×7 inches. They usually have a busy cover; warm, pastel colors; and are well worn and well loved. Based on my mother’s habits, these books were passed from friend to friend in a plastic grocery bag, read, and passed to the next friend.

Box of disappointment

My mom loved Mary Higgins Clark and probably read all 51 of her bestselling suspense novels. Not sure she bought any of them new. All were paperbacks. Do Higgins Clark or JD Robb ever get published in hardcover? They must but seeing one is a rarity. What are the steps for Nicholas Sparks to go from the supermarket shelf to the free giveaway? How many years does it take?

If you think I’m unfairly picking on the romance genre, I’ll concede that Dan Brown, Brad Thor, and Stephen King are not immune to this congenial brand of recycling. Nor are the popular series and trilogies: Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight are popular in these outlets. But even when you see them you think, “C’mon, been there done that.”

Some say publishing books wastes trees. But when you open a Little Free Library to find Moon Over Mist, Secondhand Bride, 18-year-old paperback children’s books, The Migraine Cookbook, and the copy of Dr. Spock that survived the movie Raising Arizona, you’re witnessing the worst waste of 2x4s, plexiglass, roof shingles, and anchoring cement.

All of this criticism comes from my admitted deep sense of snobbery, pretentiousness, and other keen senses that prevent me from enjoying things I deem below me. This highhandedness mostly pertains to books and food in my case. That said I don’t understand why you’d build one of these book nooks or have a bookshelf in your shop and have the most undesirable of books for people who like to read. People browsing these sites are looking for a satisfactory read, a book to add to their Goodreads list. Not a let down.

Step up your game, people. I’m not Looking for Love or Terrified in the Daylight, nor do I need Dr. Oz’s Insomniac’s Guide to Good Health. I’m not looking for Faust or Kafka; I’m looking for something good enough to give at least three stars and to recommend to my sisters.

U2 Can Enjoy the Psalms

My first dip into the Bible was Psalm 23. It starts with “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I discovered its comfort when I was a kid wracked with irrational fears and anxieties. Goodness and mercy following me. Restoring my soul. Not fearing. Yes, please!

Although filled with thous and shalls, the language did speak to the needs of the human and the help and comfort of God.

Not all Psalms are like the 23rd. And not all translations are the same.  Here are two of Psalm 23’s verses from the Message Bible:

“You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies.                                You revive my drooping head, my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.                                  I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.”

The band U2 plays a beautiful, haunting song called 40. They close every concert with it. “I will sing, sing a new song…” It’s Psalm 40. The lead singer Bono frequently reads a passage of Psalm 116 from the Message at the beginning of concerts.

“What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation – a toast to God! I’ll pray the name of God; I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people.”

I found this interview between Bono and Eugene Peterson, who paraphrased the Bible into the “accurate, but readable”  Message translation. They met at Peterson’s home in Flathead Lake, Montana in 2015.  They both share their love of the Psalms and its impact on their prayer life, artistic life, and ability to be real before God.

Peterson says as a boy of 12 he read the Psalms with confusion because his religious tradition said every word in the Bible was the word of God literally and you didn’t mess with it. But he was reading about God keeping his tears in a bottle and being a rock.

“I learned what a metaphor was not by knowing the name but just by observing the Psalms,” he said, adding that he learned “imagination was a way to get inside the truth.”

Bono knew of the Psalms as a child too but in the context of hymns in his Church of Ireland upbringing. He found “rawness and brutal honesty, explosive joy and deep sorrow and confusion.”

Peterson originally began translating the Psalms for a certain person hoping for them to realize praying isn’t necessarily being nice before God but honest, which people find a hard thing.

Dishonesty, on the other hand, in Christian art is alarming to Bono. He wants to see more vulnerability which is being porous to God, and is a good thing.

“God wants truth. It’ll set you free and blow you apart,” he said noting that he’s suspicious of Christians who lack realism in art, in life, and in music.

“Feelings are perfectly normal, and you have to let them out,” Bono said. He gave the example of David who danced naked with joy before the troops even though it irked his wife.  He thinks abandonment is an important feeling to get out.

According to Peterson finding a way to cuss without cussing is important and says the imprecatory psalms found a way to do this. He stresses the need to find “some way in context to tell people how mad we are.”

[Imprecatory psalms seek God’s righteous judgment on evildoers and seem to contradict the whole message of the Bible. Knowing the futility of judging others, you might scratch your head at the alarming requests of these psalms. But it’s a raw, honest way of asking to be delivered from evil.]

Bono isn’t disturbed at the Old Testament: “I don’t see God as a violent God but I think the world is a violent place and it does reflect that. It’s terrifying but real.”

The video of Bono and Eugene Peterson takes a little more than 20 minutes.  Below is U2 performing 40 at Red Rocks outside of Denver.

Good grief

January’s unexpected death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter accident brings up a lot of thoughts about unexpected deaths. Then about expected deaths. Then grief.

Lots of people died the same day as Kobe and his daughter. They will be just as missed by their families and friends. But because Kobe was a public figure, and outstanding athlete who brought joy to a lot of people with his remarkable talent, his life did stand out more in the public sphere. And so does his tragic death, on his way to coach his daughter’s basketball game, doing what he loved with one of his beloved daughters. He was thrilled to be a girldad.

My mom died unexpectedly. She was a few weeks shy of 83. She took the “easy chair way to heaven,” the simple, pain-free death. She didn’t feel good, sat down to rest, and slipped away. The medical examiner thought the heart attack probably took her right away. My dad, who died of cancer 17 years earlier at 65, suffered and fought and came to grips with his death.

I know which way I would chose to die but I know I don’t have that option. I do know that the grief for that unexpected loss of my mom was more difficult. With my father’s death, I comprehended that discordant phrase you hear at funerals, “It’s a blessing.”

Everyone deals with the grief of death, whether it’s expected or not, whether you left


Learn from others, but adjust to your needs

things unsaid, whether you have regrets. GriefShare is a network of support groups that helps survivors deal with this tricky thing. I’ve seen posters for Grief Yoga classes. People journal, people pray. People find creative outlets like making posters of things they love about the one they lost. Some doubt everything they’ve ever believed and have to make peace with the new life they have.

There are as many ways to grieve as there are people.  It, however, is not an easy undertaking and can take years or a lifetime. Grieving also takes time and there isn’t a normal timetable for it.

In 1969 Elizabeth Kubler-Ross broke into the art of grief writing On Grief and Grieving. She introduced the five stages of grief and loss: denial and isolation;  anger; bargaining;  depression;  acceptance. Grievers do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them. But the five steps brought into light a process for a task that is very important.

I sometimes accompanied my mom and grandma in the spring to the cemeteries where the family lay in rest. They’d plant flowers in May and tidy up the area. In the fall, they’d reverse the process. It was a tradition.

Some of my siblings go out to our parents’ grave and put tokens on the marker. They’ll plant and tidy up things too. And talk to them.

I know a young mother who goes to my mother-in-law’s cemetery marker and talks to her as a way of settling and comforting herself even though they aren’t related and never met.

There is one way I don’t find productive. My city has several of these homages to their

Maintained since 2014

Created in February

Almost a decade ago

dead relatives on the spot closest to where they died. These places are fastidiously and seasonally maintained.  The place where your son’s motorcycle crashed into a pole ending his troubled adulthood seems a place you come to terms with not glorify.

Bringing that grief out of the cemetery and onto the roadways for all to see seems a step beyond healthy grief. I lose the connection to a therapeutic endeavor when you memorialize the public place of death. But I admit that I could be wrong. Quite a few people do it.

Grief is complex; that’s my point. But you should do it the best way you can. It’s good for you.

Ode to the Yellow Brick Road

Reading Me:Elton John Official Autobiography has drawn me back to a time and a place, and the demise of this great rock ‘n roll album.

The time was the early 1970s. The place was the dining room of our turn-of-the-century Dutch colonial house on Carlisle Ave. That’s where the seven of us lived in a balance between goodnatured chaos and palpable friction.  In the dining room was a large table,  the hutch, the never-played piano, the sewing machine, and the record player. Our ironing board and a laundry basket of needed-to-be-folded clothes often held court there too.

I would lay on the floor and listen to my older siblings’ albums. In 1973 when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came out, I turned 9 and had three older siblings who were 16, 15, and 13. They bought the albums that weren’t jazz or Rosemary Clooney.

I would lie close to the record player so I could move the needle over the songs I didn’t like as much rendering it impossible to fold any laundry. In my hand were the album liner notes so I could follow the lyrics, most of which were over my head because they were written by British men and not my demographic.

We – actually my oldest sister Colleen – owned both of Elton’s 1973 albums: Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Don’t Shoot Me featured

elderberry wine
Don’t Shoot Me album liner notes

Daniel and Crocodile Rock, Elderberry Wine, Blues for Baby and Me, and the best album liner notes ever created. It was a booklet with the lyrics and cool pictures of Elton and the band. The Don’t Shoot Me album cover was laid out like a movie poster. Something about the song Daniel moved my 9-year-old self in a deep way. It gave me a sense of love and loss that I hadn’t yet experienced. And in Crododile Rock when Susie went and left him for some foreign guy, I was pretty bummed.

Elton was a big deal for a while in our house. When Someone Saved My Life Tonight was released, I was one of a few 10-year-olds singing “you almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear, you nearly had me roped and tied..” Not all the adults were thrilled about it but I understood the meaning on only a superficial level. It was comparable to  the innuendo in some of the TV shows we watched: Love, American Style or Hollywood Squares. Just like I understood Paul Lynde was charming and funny, I knew Elton John’s songs were telling a story. I didn’t get what I wasn’t meant to get.

But back to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; it was a double album and I loved the first one. We all did. Especially my dad. My dad played songs he liked repetitively and repeatedly  tediously. It was frequently troublesome because any of his five children could be called upon at anytime to pull up the needle on the record player to restart the song. And even a good song played ad nauseam is irritating. (Ask any of us about Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder album.)

My dad eventually commandeered Yellow Brick Road. And as much as my dad loved it, my mom did not. “John, stop playing that song about the prostitute around the kids!” she lamented when Sweet Painted Lady took its turn at being overplayed.

No song pleased him more than Bennie and the Jets. B-b-b-bennie! When I hear that song and tell my kids or friends that my dad loved that song, doesn’t convey the obsession properly.

So picture this: the fateful afternoon in that dining room when Colleen, attempting to sew yet another fantastic ’70s fashion statement, clashed with the PBR-laden Bennie and the Jets maniac. He played the song so many times in a row that my sister, frustrated that her sewing puzzle wasn’t fitting, got up and removed the vinyl from the turn table and smashed it over the vacuum cleaner. Smithereens. And silence.

It was over. For that album anyway. There were still more songs for him to ruin. He hadn’t discovered Billie Joe’s Stranger yet. Or Manhattan Transfer’s Brasil. The songs are countless. And every time he overplayed a song, it was like my dad was was saying, “I’m still standing.” (Better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid.)



Book review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

bookWars leave scars. Tragedies leave scars.

Meet Oskar. Son. Grandson. Very intelligent and quirky 9-year-old boy whose dad died in the World Trade Center attack. Knowledgeable beyond his years but still reasons like a child. Devotee of Dad. Loves Mom but sometimes their grief dances collide and they have to tiptoe around each other. Goes on a discovery mission to get another piece of his dad’s life and death.

Meet Grandma. Survived WWII. Survived her lost marriage. Survived death of son. Haunted by things left unsaid. She wants to be loved and needed and Oskar fills that role. Writes her feelings prolifically.

Meet Grandpa. Survivor. Abandoner. He can’t live and doesn’t die and thinks “life is scarier than death.”  Becomes mute. Becomes the Renter. Prolific writer to his son. Selfish. Regretful.

Meet Anna. Grandma’s sister, love of Grandpa’s life. Dead since the bombing of Dresden. Alive in the turn of the century in those who loved her because all the unresolved feelings and words unsaid still haunt them.

Meet Thomas. Father of Oskar. Son of Grandma. Offspring of Grandpa. Dead. Object of everyone’s affections. Ached over. Transitional character who connects two tragedies.

There are other characters:. Mom, of course. Stan the doorman. All the people named Black in the five boroughs. New York City. Family lost in the Dresden bombings. And grief.

Grief drives this book’s plot. So many of the characters lived with secrets. And shame. And regret. This book is a stew of these emotions from all of the characters:

“She let out a laugh, and then she put her hand over her mouth, like she was angry at herself for forgetting her sadness.”

“We were quiet on the car ride home. I turned on the radio and found a station playing “Hey Jude.” It was true, I didn’t want to make it bad. I wanted to take the sad song and make it better. It’s just that I didn’t know how.”

“Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.”

“Grief and loss are probably the most fearful creatures that exist. But loss shouldn’t be a fearful creature. It should be a creature of wisdom. It should teach us not to fear that tomorrow may never come, but live fully, as though the hours are melting away like seconds. Loss should teach us to cherish those we love, to never do anything that will result in regret, and to cheer on tomorrow with all of its promises of greatness. It’s easy and un-extraordinary to be frightened of life. It’s far more difficult to arm yourself with the good stuff despite all the bad and step foot into tomorrow as an everyday warrior.”

“I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots, then you need help.”

“I try not to remember the life that I didn’t want to lose but lost and have to remember”

I said, ‘I need to know how he died.’
He flipped back and pointed at, ‘Why?’
So I can stop inventing how he died. I’m always inventing.”

Grief is real. Grief will kick your butt. Death needs to be grieved so it doesn’t haunt you. It’s a stumbing block, especially when guilt is in the stew.

Grief is such a fascinating subject. The converstations and the thought processes revealed are raw and deep and reveal the characters’ emotional and spiritual state. They seem unable to get out of the cycle of grief. Unable and unwilling. Some seem unable, some seem unwilling.

Everyone handles grief differently. I would join a support group. I would write. I would cry. And I would pray.  I’m sure I would have to overcome some unhealthy obstacles but I can’t imagine letting grief ruin me. Maybe I’m naive.

This is not a book about the aftermath of September 11, 2001 or WWII. It’s a book about how to survive tragedy and how to live again. It’s brought to the reader so poignantly and unfolds in a way to tie characters to each other. It makes you think about life and death and their scars. I recommend it!

I’m Woke and Commercial-free

Waking up is hard to do.

I’m not above trying to trick myself by setting my clock ahead 10 minutes. I’m so groggy in the morning that it takes a while to sink in that I’ve been fooled.

I prefer to wake up slowly, gently, with little birdies lightly chirping in the quiet morning sunlight.

That being nearly always unattainable, I’ve been left to artificial means: alarm clocks.

In high school my mom used to wake me up, which started gently and escalated into annoyed yelling, sometimes culminating into her reaching under the blankets to pinch my toes. It was all my fault, but I still get irritated thinking about it.

On one hand, I really dislike [despise/abhor] these artificial means of waking up. On the other hand, I’m really unimpressed  [uninspired, reluctant] with morning. I don’t have a good attitude. I’m not bright, I’m not chipper. I’m not really verbal.  And I don’t really think a good day should start with torment.

I found a solution I could tolerate. For years I woke up with the radio setting instead of the alarm setting. I set the radio for the local information station.  Some intelligent, calm people would talk about news, traffic, and weather. No music. No shock jocks.

During baseball season they talk to Brewers’ personnel and game announcers on different days. Same with the Packers during football season, and same with the Bucks during basketball season. All in all, I could wake up without causing much harm to my fragile morning psyche.

But then I started waking up to the Pella lady yelling at Packers broadcaster Wayne Larrivee about windows and attractive financing. Or the Penny Mustard dolts would be broadcasting their special brand of verbal slapstick. Maybe it was one of the Milwaukee Diamond Wars fellas. Or the “creative genius” guy. Or the Glass Doctor figuring to fix my panes, if I’m so inclined. I’m unable to list all the radio pollutants out there, but they know who they are! Don’t get me started on campaign season since I live in a purple battleground state. The result: I couldn’t push the snooze button fast enough because I really can’t do anything fast at 6:30 a.m.

As the unwanted noise amped up, I had to jump ship.

As a result, I’ve found a lovely station that doesn’t ever come in and I tune my dial there with volume at medium to low. When I wake up, there’s a low murmur of static. This station doesn’t even try to tune in itself so my morning static is gentle and clear.

I don’t know the three-day forecast or how traffic is on the inbound bypass, but there’s no yelling, blaring, toe pinching, or commercials.


School Supply Shopping: Load Up on Good Memories

I’m still enticed. Every year. Late summer comes and I see them. School supplies line the School Suppliesaisles of Target, Office Depot, even Walgreen’s.

The aisles of notebooks, pens, folders, planners, backpacks, and crayons kind of get me fired up. It’s a fresh start, new beginnings, a clean slate. I haven’t been in school for a long time and my kids are in their 20s. But when I see those school supplies lined up, awaiting their new home, I tell myself, “You’ve been kind of slacking this summer, getting loosey goosey. You can do better. Buckle down!” And then I may throw a pack of Post-it Notes or new Sharpies into my cart.

I wanted to know what other people thought about school supplies. The responses were as positive as a package of pink erasers.

“Buying supplies makes you feel very productive, but no work is involved so it’s a false sense of productivity,” said A___, a 26-year old grad student.  A___ elaborated: “You get to go and buy new things, and I like to buy new things, but you need to buy them so you’re not feeling guilty.”

A__ is sporting an avocado pencil pouch, and avocado and houndstooth binders as grad school begins. Who can’t succeed with that?

21274-crayon-box-sharpenerWhen asked whether he liked school supply shopping, N__ said, “I don’t. It’s a necessary evil…like all shopping.”  Like most 21-year-old engineering students, N__is a bit of a contrarian but he did soften a bit on the subject. “Yeah, I like it,” N__ said.

Soon N__ will return to college and he’s packing some notebooks, folders, and mechanical pencils. Nothing fancy. He’ll also bring along his cigar cutter, laptop charger, and hot sauce collection. And his sarcasm.

L__ has been out of the school supply shopping business for decades but carries good memories. “It feels good,” L__ said, “I like to get organized.” L__ may have other issues like feeling his life would have more order and discipline if he wasn’t surrounded by less organized minds.

For M__, seeing the school supplies is also a positive vibe. M__, 27, said that she misses school supply shopping. She works in the healthcare field, but still has fond memories of playing store with her sister on the porch after bringing home the load of supplies. It brings back good memories.

My mind rushes back to the ’70s when my school career began. I loved summer more than most things. I resented school’s impostition on my free time. School supplies, however, were a different thing. New clothes. Yawn! It meant new knee highs and blouses for my school uniform. And I didn’t care about who my next teacher would be or who I’d sit next to in class. But school supplies were oh-la-la!

Now for me, school supply shopping surpasses any New Year’s resolution for sheer motivation to be more productive with my time, get back on a routine, get my head in the game. And it lasts longer too. Even if I don’t buy a single pencil.