Saturday, October 28, 2006


I finished Nancy Pinard's BUTTERFLY SOUP the same day that Buffalo was hit by what is being called the "October Surprise Storm" as if it were a game show prize. Fortunately, where I live, we were only out of power for 12 hours, while some in the heart of Buffalo were out for 12 days. But that time spent powerless gave me extra time to consider Nancy Pinard's second book (Shadow Dancing being her first). And consider it I did. The characters have yet to leave me.

Butterfly Soup is peopled by a very engaging cast. Although there are many aspects of the book to love--like the fine writing, the study of our human obsessiveness, the unflinching examination of the frailty of the body, the damage that secrets can do, and the many lyrical descriptive passages--it was the characters I most adored.

Rose Forrester opens the book for us, and even though we "intimately visit" with her husband Everett and her teenaged daughter Valley in successive close-third-person chapters, it is Rose and her big secret that drives the story. Fortunately, it isn't a secret from us, the readers. We learn right off that Rose's daughter Valley is actually the product of a brief fling with a high school heartthrob who has just returned to the same small town where Rose lives with her husband and daughter-that-isn't-his.

There are a number of flashbacks that give us backstory, but the bulk of the story takes place in the present tense on a crazy weekend that for Rose begins with a Saturday morning phone call from the town gossip who tells her that Rob McIntyre (Valley's real father) is back in town. Rose dresses, jumps in her car, and drives into town to see for herself. From there, her disparate emotions gradually merge into an all-consuming religious-inspired exile. When Rose makes an impulse purchase of a used nun's bed (auctioned off in the grocery store parking lot of her home town), the bed (placed in her downstairs office) becomes a makeshift sanctuary that shelters her from what she knows will be the inevitable repurcussions from her sixteen-year-old sins.

Everett's secret is a recently diagnosed medical condition that threatens to render him physically helpless in a few years. Already his legs are going numb and disobeying what his brain commands. To avoid acknowledging his body's impending self-destruction, Everett takes off on a Saturday adventure: an attempt at parasailing that has disastrous (although somewhat humorous--and familiar--for those of us who have ever thought we were still young enough to try something rash) results. Along the way he finds a beagle dog that helps to keep the whole story turning in her own right (and has her own secret, too, as it turns out) and a woman who first makes him question his marriage and then helps to reassure him of the value of said marriage.

Valley is a wonderfully rendered teenaged daughter. As a mother of two of my own, and a former teenaged daughter myself, I can tell you that Valley's depiction and deceptions are spot-on. She sneaks out that same crazy Saturday that her family seems to be self-destructing and winds up on a deserted road with a juvenile delinquent (appropriately named Snake) who happens to be a charge of Rob-the-heartthrob--MacIntyre.

All of these twists combine to create a dizzying plot of secrets-kept and secrets-revealed while life and limb hang in the balance for more than one of the protagonists. The ending? You'll have to read the book yourself to get that--I'm no spoiler--but I can tell you that the final chapter of the book seamlessly weaves together a puppy, a quilt, a belly tattoo, a box of chocolates, and Sister Mary Theresa's bed.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


"Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man
will not himself find peace."

-Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, and musician (Nobel 1952)

Monday, October 16, 2006


The cover of Ellen Meister's debut novel has a Lichtenstein-inspired tongue-in-cheek rendering of four women standing before a backdrop of Suburbia, USA. The woman in the foreground has a thought-bubble that reads, "A MOVIE STAR IS COMING TO TOWN AND MY FRIENDS WANT TO DATE HIM!"

But the thought-bubble should read, "A MOVIE STAR IS COMING TO TOWN AND MY FRIENDS WANT TO SHTUP HIM!" Because--let me just tell you now--in Applewood? There's a whole lotta shtuppin' goin on.

Not that there's anything wrong with shtupping...I'm just saying.

Seriously, I had so much fun reading this book. The main characters are likeable and quirky, with real lives and families, real faults and longings, that make you see them as full, complete people and not the cardboard cutouts so many authors working in similar genres have produced. (And, actually, I'm not even sure what I mean by "similar genres," since I have to say that even though a hot pink cover has become synonymous lately with a "chick lit" label, this novel is not your traditional chick-litty book. It's full and rich and generously sprinkled with emotional, humorous, sexy surprises.)

And the minor characters delight as well: the husband, who, following a drug-induced stroke (more or less of his own making) is left impotent and yet perversely sexually uninhibited; the private investigator who is an emotionally sensitive wreck; the alcoholic blues-singing mother who keeps trying to upstage a talented daughter who could care less about being upstaged; the womanizing best-male-friend-cum-almost-lover; the evangelical-pure-on-the-surface, animal-in-bed widower who is also Applewood's most eligible bachelor; the smooth-veneered catty PTA maven who has her own dirty little secrets; and, of course, the infamous roving rock that has spawned so much trouble. (Do rocks spawn??....if they do anywhere, it would be in hyper-fertile Applewood.)

What? You've never heard of Applewood Rock? Why, it's right up there with Plymouth Rock, people. Wars have been started over lesser objects. But don't believe me: get the book, slip between the covers, and have the time of your life. This is a seriously funny, engaging, endearing read.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


What I feel most compelled to say in awe of Roy Kesey's talent, is that I read his entire book in one sitting. One! Honestly, I couldn't put it down. Maybe that just illuminates my own obessive tendences, but I gluttinously devoured NOTHING IN THE WORLD, cramming it all in as fast as I could and then licking my fingers when I was done.

NOTHING IN THE WORLD lures you in innocently--and lyrically--enough. The first paragraph is lovely, placing the reader solidly in Josko' world, which manages (like so much of Kesey's work) to feel both familiar and exotic, no small feat:

"The white stone walls of Josko's house were tinged with gold in the growing light, and the only sound was the sharp ring of his father's pick glancing off the rocks in the vineyard. Josko ran to join him as the sun slipped into the sky, and they worked together without speaking, his father freeing the rocks from the soil, Josko heaving them to his shoulder and staggering to the wall they were building to mark their property line to the east."

This attention to detail and to the sensory experience of the reader is consistent throughout Roy's book and as I read I was drawn along, unwilling to leave that world that felt so very real to me. Even when the world became darker and more violent, or perhaps especially when the world became darker and more violent, for that is when Kesey's matter-of-fact, detailed style really grabs you by the throat:

"Josko opened his eyes, and the sky was a thin whitish blue. There was the warm salty sweetness of blood in his mouth, and behind his eyes he felt a strange dense presence. He raised one hand to his head. Above his left ear, a shard of metal protruded from his skull. He wrapped his hand around it and ripped it out. Pain deafened him, and strips of sky floated down to enfold him."

Okay, from that point on, I was entirely hooked. My own brain began to throb with a "strange dense presence" and I realized it was Josko in there, Josko in my brain, becoming part of my grey matter creating new peaks and grooves as he becomes a legend in his own country (unknown to him)--a celebrated war hero, first for shooting down two enemy planes with his unit, and then for singlehandedly killing the infamous sniper Hadzihafizbegovic and setting his severed head on a table in a cafe. The trouble is, as Josko moves through the countryside alone, becoming more and more dirty and disheveled (also crazed by the haunting female voice that sings in his head, pulling him along siren-like) he looks less and less like a war hero and he is repeatedly shot at, beaten, even arrested and imprisoned. In prison, in an utterly painful and ironic scene, the soldiers beat Josko most brutally of all because when they demand to know his name, he tells them he is Josko Banovic. Of course you are, says the soldier, and I am Marshall Tito. They kick him for claiming to be a man they have made into legend, a famous hero. We know he is Josko, he knows he is, and yet the soldiers may just kill him for telling the truth which they are certain is a lie.

That sense of tragic unfairness permeates NOTHING IN THE WORLD, absolutely aptly, given that it is a novella that has the fighting between Serbs and Croats as its backdrop. The writing is intelligent, the story is gripping and dark but also funny and redemptive in places, and the ending is perfect. NOTHING IN THE WORLD is a great read--and like nothing in the world I have read before.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I loved so much about Jim Tomlinson's short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind. It was one of those reads that I felt compelled to carefully portion out so as to not have it be over too quickly. I wanted to savor it. I hated for it to end.

The book has a beautiful, poignantly apt cover design with a number of excellent blurbs on the back, but one blurb in particular expressed what I found most to love about the collection. George Saunders wrote, "Jim Tomlinson uses the traditional gifts of the writer--love of place, a keen eye for the telling detail, unflagging interest in the human heart--to bring to life a very specific and eye-opening version of America, particularly working-class, rural America...his care for these people and his generosity toward them are evident on every page."

I have actually put off writing this review for over a week, because what I most wanted to do was point to Saunders' words and shout, "What he said!" But that would do a disservice to all of Jim's hard work and I truly was transported by the very real characters and their situations, so who better to discuss the book than me? I am a product of that "working-class rural America" that Saunders mentions and when Cass (in the the half-title story "Things Kept") says, "When he comes to see Ma, don't matter if it's a hundred degrees, Dale here is wearing long sleeves so she don't see them tattoos he's got drawed on his arms," I KNOW her. She is utterly, absolutely real to me.

And in particular, I was impressed by how the women in Things Kept, Things Left Behind are portrayed. In the reading, I had the sense that, while writing, Jim allowed them to live and breathe. They have flaws and desires and idiosyncracies that allowed me to see and appreciate them, warts and all--like real people. I think that can be difficult enough when we are creating characters; doubly so when we are creating characters across a gender divide. But there is no gender divide in this collection. Men cheat, women cheat, men love obsessively, women love obsessively, both succeed, both fail. It is such an even-handed look at what makes us human.

I am also so grateful that Jim resisted the urge that so many (particularly southern) writers of late have embraced: the urge to gently mock their characters. A fascinating article by Jonathan Dee (in Esquire?) opened my eyes to this, and ever since I have been sensitive to the notion that we, as writers, should respect our characters. As storytellers, you could even say we have a duty to let the characters show us their character, without a wink-wink, nudge-nudge by the author, over the character's head. I have been guilty of this in my own writing, but I have to say it was such a pleasure to read a book of stories in which the characters are allowed to blunder and fumble and generally be human, without commentary (spoken or unspoken) from the author. "They are who they are," Tomlinson seems to say. "I just write about 'em, I don't judge 'em."

And thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Sustainable Seafood Matters

This is taken from a WWF email:

Whether it is sushi, swordfish steak, paella or fish and chips, many of us love seafood.

The trouble is, our oceans are being seriously over fished. So much so, that unless action is taken some of our favourite fish may disappear from the seafood counter and restaurant table altogether.

But it is not just our supper that's at stake. Unsustainable fishing - caused by poor fisheries management and wasteful, destructive fishing practices - is decimating the world's fisheries, as well as destroying marine habitats and incidentally killing billions of fish and other marine animals each year.

Consumer demand for sustainable seafood can act as an extremely powerful incentive for better fisheries management. If you buy, or ask for, seafood that comes from sustainable sources you are helping to protect our marine environment and, at the same time, ensuring that seafood can be enjoyed for many years to come.

So look out for products carrying the distinctive blue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label. This gives you a simple way to identify and buy fish from well-managed sources.

Take a stand against unsustainable fishing and pledge to buy MSC certified seafood here.

Thank you,

WWF International

P.S. Find out more about the unacceptable face of seafood with our
interactive menu (flash required): Clicky