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Friday Reads: The Dirty Life by Kristen Kimball

I have a secret obsession with farming. I have no delusions that I could actual be a farmer -I keep a small garden in the summer months, but I’m not a morning person, and prefer to keep my fingernails clean. However, I love to read tales of those who decide to take the plunge and live off the land. My latest foray into the realm of the modern homesteader was The Dirty Life: A Memoir of  Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball.

A New York City journalist, Kimball heads to rural Pennsylvania to interview an organic farmer about food trends. Despite her big-city lifestyle, she falls in love with the farmer and his dream of community-supported agriculture. Soon she’s traded her studio apartment in the East Village for a ramshackle house upstate, sans electricity, while she and the farmer search for land upon which to build his bucolic vision. She ditches 90% of her belongings, begins raising chickens, and gets engaged on a mountaintop. And that’s Chapter 1.

The rest of the book spans the first year of Kimball’s life with the farmer, as they find their land and begin the process of creating a self-sustaining farm, planning their wedding, and convincing their new community of the value of local, organic food. It’s full of the pastoral details I adore in print (but would run from screaming in real life I’m sure!): misbehaving roosters, tomato plants as tall as trees, Amish auctions, and a runaway team of horses. Kimball’s training as a journalist serves her well; I could smell the dirt and the vegetation and the life on the farm. As a good book should, it made me sad when I reached the last pages, but I’ll tuck it onto my bookshelf, knowing that I can visit the farm any time I want.

Kimball, Kristen. The Dirty Life: a Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love. New York: Scribner, 2010.
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Friday Reads: Solo by Kwame Alexander

Written in free verse, we meet Blade, who is almost 18, and the son of a famous rock star. His father is now more famous for his crazy acts while drunk or on drugs. His older sister is still supportive of their father, but not Blade, not anymore. On the day of his high school graduation, when he was ready to address the students and parents, his father created a spectacle by running a motorcycle into the stand. That evening his sister reveals that Blade was adopted.

And in no time he is on his way to Ghana, to find his birth mother.  She is from the U.S. but is working in Ghana, to make a difference.  Blade has much to sort through— the death of his adoptive mother when he was about 10, his father’s behaviors, his girlfriend cheating on him, meeting his birth mother, the people he has met in Ghana, and his nightmares that won’t let go.  A look at the cathartic moments in the main character’s life, and what it reveals of his true self.  Amazing.

Alexander is one of my favorite authors, and this title is one more of his I greatly enjoyed.

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Friday Reads: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

With the recent release of The Dark Tower movie, I decided to finally start reading the Stephen King series that the movie is based on.

So far, I’ve only read the first book in the Dark Tower Series, The Gunslinger. I really liked the feel of the book, which was a mixture of locations – western? but with magic? far into our own future after a major unknown apocalypse? alternate history? parallel universe? Unfortunately, by the end of the first book, you still don’t know exactly where or when you are.

So, of course now I’m hooked and have to continue reading to find out what’s really going on. Why is Roland, the last Gunslinger, chasing the Man in Black? Who is the Man in Black…really? What is the Dark Tower? Who is this strange boy Jake, who seems to know a lot about our reality and time, but seems to have some memory loss? Does he belong in this realm or ours?

Although it is the first book in the series, The Gunslinger was a bit disjointed in introducing the characters, location, and plot. It felt like you should already know something about this place before reading this book, but you don’t. And it has an almost annoying ‘non-ending’, in that its tale isn’t resolved, so you do have to continue with the rest of the books to get the full story. Good job on sucking us in, Stephen King!

Luckily, I was able to finish the book before I saw the movie. It was very interesting to match up the parts of the movie that came from the first book in the Dark Tower series. But, I did know that there were also parts of the movie that were pulled from other books in the series, so I kind of got some spoilers, but I don’t think any of them have ruined my desire to keep reading.

I know the movie has received some bad reviews. But, after my reading of The Gunslinger, I think there is so much to the world of the Dark Tower, that it is just too difficult to squeeze it all into one film. That’s why I’m glad that there are talks about a TV series being done. I think that will do a better job of representing the books.

I recommend reading the books and watching the movie. They are both similar and different from each other, and I enjoyed them each for what they are.

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Friday Reads: Important Artifacts… by Leanne Shapton

This is a story about a relationship coming together and then falling apart. It’s a very unusual book by Leanne Shapton, with a very long title: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.

The story is told through the format of an auction catalog, and items are presented in the order they would have mattered in the relationship—a pair of vintage salt and pepper shakers given as a gift, a pair of snowshoes worn on a winter vacation, leftover jars of homemade jam that the couple gave out as holiday presents. Often the items are accompanied by pictures of Lenore or Harold wearing or using the item. Some ephemera, such as opera programs or wedding invitations, bear scribbled conversations between the couple, and these are very telling. Also illuminating are the inscriptions inside the books given to each other as gifts.

Our characters have tastes refined enough to pass judgment on, without having to feel mean about it.  These are the sort of things people buy selectively when they have more taste than money—shoes from Prada and Louboutin, toiletries from Chanel and Kiehl’s, clothes from Sonia Rykiel and John Galliano. Even the second-hand items are of good provenance—an Elsa Schiaparelli coat from a shop in Greece that someone may have said once belonged to the famous Maria Callas (someone else may have believed it—I’m reminded of the scene in Desperately Seeking Susan where the vintage shop owner tells Roberta that Susan’s jacket once belonged to Jimi Hendrix).

Each object could be expounded upon, so I’ll go for those porcelain poodles on the cover, given to Lenore by Harold. It’s been made clear in the book, previous to arrival of these dogs on page 68, that Lenore wants a dog—and that Harold doesn’t. Who thinks it’s cute to buy someone little dog figurines, as a gift, when that person really wants a real live dog, and might be thinking they’re actually going to get a dog for a present instead? Someone in touch with the recipient’s tastes but not their desires. Yes, a dog is horrible gift, and yes, Lenore had no reason to expect a dog was a possible gift. But I know how dog owners think, and it occurred to her that she was going to get a puppy as a present, and she would have taken that puppy as a good sign about their relationship. This is a good example, then, of what was wrong with this relationship: a couple that likes the same things (objects) but doesn’t love the same things (experiences, pursuits, achievements).

This is a very unique way to tell a story, especially a love story. It’s a comment on commercialism, on aspirational consumerism, on the expression of identity through objects. But beyond that, it’s engaging—we really do get a sense of these people, and we care about them, just based on photos and descriptions of their possessions.

Shapton, Leanne. Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009. Print.
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Friday Reads: The Country Club Murders by Julie Mulhern

I’ve been trying to read more mysteries lately and it seems as though I’ve really been missing out on some things. The Deep End was one of those books that I saw on Amazon for $2, bought on a whim, and got hooked.  This is the first book in The Country Club Murders series by Julie Mulhern. The sixth book in the series, Cold as Ice, was just published October 17th.

Set in 1974 Kansas City, MO, the book begins with Ellison Russell, a rather successful artist, who goes out for an early morning swim at the local country club, only to bump into the dead body of Madeline Harper (who happens to be her husband’s mistress). She would be the prime suspect for Madeline’s murder except that Ellison’s husband, Henry, has disappeared. Murder, blackmail, an overbearing mother, and country club secrets all surround Ellison as she tries to discover who the killer is while protecting her teenage daughter, Grace.

Mulhern does a good job at developing the mystery and the characters. In the beginning, Ellison seems like a fairly defeated character. She has her art, but is just waiting for Grace to graduate high school so she can divorce Henry. Throughout the book though, she starts to stand up and stop caring what her mother (or fellow country club members) think. Funny. Easy to read. Not quite a cozy mystery, there’s a bit of an edge to it with the slight references to Henry’s affairs. Borderline cozy?



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Friday Reads; Nevernight by Jay Kristoff


Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff is dark fantasy, set in a world of manners reminiscent of 1700s Europe, and all that is bright and dark in that world.  A gritty place of revenge by an underdog who should not be able to succeed, a school for assassins, a city built of the bones of a fallen god, where there is literally rarely a true night of darkness. All this makes the discord between the main gods seem…anticlimactic, normal or even anticipated.  And of course, forbidden magic just to makes things more interesting.

Mia Corvere is ten when her father is part of a failed rebellion. He is hanged before her eyes.  All of her family is dead or imprisoned, and she narrowly escapes death more than once, before becoming an apprentice assassin. Mr. Kristoff creates a very human character in Mia, and despite all she’s been through, and all she’s done, she’s still human. Both she, and her sidekick are smart mouthed, wry, and funny. Mr Kindly, a not-cat, shadow creature, has limitations, but aides Mia throughout.  The author also contrasts the narrative of her early days with her teen years going to the Red Church of the Goddess of Night and Murder.  The entertaining narrative is also accompanied by footnotes! And yes, please read the footnotes! Not only do you get back story, such as the dirt on the argument between the Goddess of Darkness and her Three eyed Husband of Light, but also more humor.  Mia isn’t a hardened assassin, nor an action figure killing machine–(although, of course, to go through that punishment and keep on going….only in fiction & the movies!).

There is a lot going on in the book, who is the fallen god, really? Where did all the suns come from? Why do the shadows have such power, and whose side are they really on? While Mr. Kindly seems to be Mia’s familiar and friend, bonded at an early age, will he always be there for her?

This is definitely an adult book with blood, gore, murder, sex, etc.  It is not Hogwarts. The reading may be slow for some, but if you got through Tolkien, this is no challenge.

And it’s only the first part! Godsgrave, is book two of the Nevernight Chronicle, to be finished in a third book.

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Friday Reads: Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who would never read a book calledPaperbacks from Hell - cover Satan’s Pets and my kind of people.  For the latter, Paperbacks from Hell is a delight, a treasure trove of unseemly old horror novels from the days when skeletons were popular cover models and literally any animal could be cast as a monster.

Grady Hendrix is building quite a name for himself as a genre fiction standout.  He wrote Horrorstör, history’s greatest novel about a haunted furniture store.  And then he wrote My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which he describes as “Beaches meets The Exorcist, only it’s set in the Eighties.”  So we’re all pretty lucky that he found the time to compile this book and document the explosion of paperbacks that followed Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty’s surprise success.

It’s a long trek from Rosemary’s Baby & The Exorcist to Viking mummies & psychotic cows, and Hendrix navigates masterfully.  If the only noteworthy thing about a book is a shark/grizzly bear fight, that’s all that’s mentioned.  More worthwhile works get lengthier treatments and Hendrix maintains his sense of humor throughout.  I suspect that it’s probably more enjoyable to read his witty synopses than most of the novels they describe.  For example:

“[T]hough we all feel sympathy for the yeti who hates snow in Snowman, how many ski instructors will we allow him to decapitate before we hire a bunch of hunters and Vietnam vets to go after him with crossbows armed with tiny nuclear arrowheads?”

Yes!  The proceedings are organized topically, so we spend time with killer clowns, critters, toys, Santas, and skeletons, the last being my favorites due to their assorted jobs.  Even in this tiny niche of publishing history, there’s a lot of diversity and the only thing that really unifies these books is that they are all better than Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

I’d recommend reading this in print, as it’s the best way to experience the garish covers that are reprinted here, and I’d also advise keeping a notebook handy—this book almost doubled my “to-read” list.  A wildly fun read that’s perfect for pumpkin season.

Hendrix, G., & Errickson, W. (2017). Paperbacks from Hell: the twisted history of 70s and 80s horror fiction. Philadelphia: Quirk Books.

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Friday Reads: A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara

Image result for a little lifeI read A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara all day and all night for a full weekend. After I returned it to the library I lay awake thinking about the characters in the story and what it all meant. While reading, I had to physically put the book down and take a break from the progressively horrible life that was inflicted on the main character.

This book is written from the rotating point of view of Jude and several of his close friends. Jude doesn’t talk much about his past to his friends, but the reader is made aware of the damage inflicted upon him by the monsters in his past. You, dear reader, will barely be willing to believe the words on the page.

So why do I like this monstrosity of a book? The answer lies in the pure, face slapping truth in the book. Many books are about a character living through hell and learning to heal on the other side. This book is a reminder that not everybody makes it through to the other side. Bad things happen and sometimes there is nothing that can be done. Life is not all sunshine and happiness.

In A Little Life, Jude is nearly suicidal throughout most of the book. His friends care deeply but have no idea what to do. It is dark, gritty and unbearable at times. It is ‘set the book down and go to your happy place’ unbearable. Now think about this: the reader can set down the book and escape to safety. But there are people in the world who have no safety zone. Their world is so dark it would make no difference if they never opened their eyes.

Most people have never lived through hell. That is good. But for those who did, this book is a reminder that there are two options in life: you can close your eyes and stop breathing, or you can stand up and fight. Jude is partially on the way to healing at times, but there are entirely too many demons from the past waiting to drag him back into the shadows.

Jude’s story is not only for the downtrodden. A Little Life is also for the people who care about the downtrodden. If you have ever watched someone try to crawl out of the sewage rot that was their childhood, this book is for you. Read about where Jude’s friends went wrong. Read about how silence kills. Read about how it is not your fault if they slip back and drown in their own sewage infested mind. Healing is a choice that not everybody makes. Some people get out, but some will not.

This book is dark and only gets darker as you turn the pages. Many of you will hate and loathe this book. Most probably will not make it from cover to cover. That’s okay. This book is not for everybody.

But I need to tell somebody about this book. I hope this book reaches into a dark pit of misery and let’s somebody know they are not alone. I hope this book makes at least one person stand up and say ‘no more’. The demon does not get to win. Take control. Pack your bags and get out. With time and distance, the past loses power. Every time you stand up and speak, the past loses power.

It takes a few minutes to curl up and die. Survival takes a lifetime.

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Friday Reads: Figures in Silk, by Vanora Bennett

Figures in Silk, by Vanora Bennett, once again falls into my favorite genre to read: historical fiction.  It is a glimpse into early Tudor history: not into life at court itself, but rather into the way that the political machinations affected and disrupted the lives of London’s ordinary citizens and particularly its powerful merchants.

The year is 1471.   Edward IV, who won the throne with the help of his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is restoring law and order after the long years of war during the War of the Roses. Under Edward IV, life in England begins to improve. Business is booming once more and the printing and silk industries prosper in London.


When silk merchant John Lambert marries off his two beautiful daughters, their fortunes are forever changed. Elder daughter Jane Shore begins a notorious liaison with the king while industrious and clever Isabel finds herself married into the house of Claver, a wealthy silk dynasty. Fate delivers Isabel a challenge when her new husband is killed and she is forced into apprenticeship to her mother-in-law, Alice Claver.

Isabel is already an accomplished embroiderer of silk in her own right, but it is from Alice Claver that Isabel learns all there is to know about the silk trade and its’ purchase from Italy, Persia, Spain, Tunisia, and beyond. Isabel learns to make her way in this new world of silk and forges a contract with her sister’s lover, King Edward IV.  This new contract allows Isabel to bring silk production to London for the first time, and to hopefully break the monopoly that Venetian silk makers have over the silk trade.

As Isabel grows in power, and her plan for a silk industry run by Englishwomen is set into motion, the political landscape shifts in dangerous ways.  One sister will fall as the other rises and choices must be made that will change their lives forever.

If you enjoyed Vanora Bennett’s first novel Portrait of an Unknown Woman, you will definitely enjoy Figures in Silk!

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Friday Reads: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is on a short list of my favorite authors. I adore his #1 Ladies Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street, and Corduroy Mansions series, and when I visited Edinburgh a few years ago I made sure to visit 43 Scotland Street (there is no 44) and the Cumberland Bar just around the corner. I was delighted to be in the world of Bertie and all the adults he endures.  Smith writes some standalone books too, and for me those have been hit and miss. My Italian Bulldozer is not part of a series and would be a wonderful way to introduce yourself to this author if you haven’t already made his acquaintance.

The title alone promises humor in a picturesque setting. Paul Stuart is a food and wine writer and his girlfriend of four years has just left him for her personal trainer. Paul’s editor, Gloria, sends him to Italy for personal respite and time to work on his next book featuring Tuscan cuisine. As a result of a rental car snafu, and a short bout in jail, he ends up borrowing a bulldozer. This slows him down considerably but it soon becomes apparent how handy a bulldozer can be in certain situations! The cast of characters he encounters are the true talent of Smith’s writing: the woman whose car is upended; the man who needs assistance digging a ditch; and anonymous townspeople who “borrow” the bulldozer from its public parking space. This small community is one that keeps track of everything and everyone and Paul quickly becomes a part of the comings and goings.

After rescuing the young American college professor in the upended car, there is chemistry between the two writers. Enter the ex-girlfriend, who shows up to apologize in person, with Gloria, the editor, arriving close behind. The events that follow may be predictable but I was more than pleased with the ending. I began thinking that I need to plan to a trip to Italy and wonder if these idyllic adventures really can happen in rural parts of the country as they have in so many of my favorite movies and books. This is a quick read and one that would be perfect to take on vacation, not terribly taxing and satisfying for all the senses.

Smith, Alexander McCall. My Italian Bulldozer. Pantheon; First American edition. edition, 2017

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Friday Reads: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Until recently, I rated Mansfield Park as my second least favorite Jane Austen novel. For the record, Northanger Abbey is my least favorite of Austen’s completed works. I did not care for Mansfield Park because of Austen’s depiction of Fanny Price. Fanny is a poor relation taken in by her wealthy uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. When Fanny first arrives at Mansfield Park, she is a scared and lonely ten year old. In many ways, she remains a frightened child, prone to low spirits and headaches. I disliked Fanny because she rarely offers an opinion or speaks her mind, is often judgmental and bursts into tears much too often for my liking.

Throughout the novel, we watch Fanny’s family ignore her needs while assuming they know what’s best for her. Unlike many of her other characters, Austen allows Fanny to seethe with frustration, resentment and disappointment as they place their well-being before hers. While outwardly agreeable and meek, Fanny reveals she can be neither when refusing to marry the well-off Henry Crawford. Later the rightness of her decision is revealed when Crawford seduces and runs off with Fanny’s married cousin, Maria.

The last time I read Mansfield Park, I discovered there was more to Fanny Price than tears and moral rectitude. I still found her annoying, but I realized that Fanny enjoys the small pleasures that many of us take for granted. Walking with her cousin Edmund or listening to her brother’s stories fill Fanny with joy – she genuinely enjoys these moments. Her brother William’s impending visit, an outing to a neighboring estate and attending a ball thrown in her honor; all reduce her to tears. Yes, she is overwrought. I can’t imagine being so caught up in the moment that I weep with happiness. Yet, there is something appealing about Fanny’s willingness to embrace each and every moment life gives her. Perhaps this is Jane Austen’s greatest lesson.

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

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Friday Reads: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie

I am currently listening to the audio edition of You Don’t Have to Say you Love Me, a memoir by Sherman Alexie, written after his mother Lillian’s death in 2015. In it he wrestles not only with grief, but also with the regret, guilt, and bitterness that characterized his relationship with her.

Born in 1966, Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His family was poor, his dad often drunk and absent, his mother sober but sometimes cruel, and “On the reservation, violence [was] a clock, / Ordinary and relentless.” This is the formative experience that shapes all Alexie’s writing, but his power as a storyteller is his ability to craft a narrative both culturally specific and universal.

Speaking of the narrative, it is definitely not straightforward, and possibly not for everyone. The audiobook is read by Alexie, himself, which is a positive. He is known for his dramatic readings and has won slam poetry championships, so it’s doubtful any other narrator could own the material as he does. It has the feel of performance art, shifting seamlessly from prose with the texture of dramatic monologue, to poetry, to “rez accent” dialogue (Alexie recounts a conversation he once had with a white girlfriend, who said his mother had a “fancy accent.” When he tells her “[r]ez accents are the opposite of fancy,” she counters: “But rez accents make everything sound like music.”)

The stories Alexie tells aren’t presented chronologically, and even their authenticity is sometimes in doubt. In the first chapter alone there are multiple instances of family members questioning each other’s memories of how and if things happened. “You’re always making up stuff from the past,” his sister tells him. Even a writer friend teasingly accuses Alexie of being “the unreliable narrator of your own life,” for allegedly inventing a conversation between the two (about, of all things, storytelling and truth) and including it in the first chapter of his memoir. This is actually a perfect setup for Alexie’s subsequent examination of his relationship with his mother, a woman who told “many clever and clumsy lies,” as well as some that resonated with spiritual truth.

And that’s the thing about this memoir. Even if the anecdotes Alexie shares didn’t happen exactly as he remembers them, and even if one’s own life experiences and circumstances differ significantly from Alexie’s, the conflicted parental relationship he struggles with is recognizable and relatable, albeit uniquely described. That’s why I have appreciated this memoir so far and look forward to finishing it, though I don’t anticipate a particularly happy ending or any real resolution.

Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017.

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Friday Reads: The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola has been on my reading list for the past few years. I’m now glad that I finally got around to reading it. It’s a delight. From what I knew about the book – not much – I expected it to be quirky, and it is, and in a good way.

The setting is the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair (The Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition). The book is a love story populated with some of the most unusual and colorful characters imaginable. At the center is Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, and a hopeful romantic. The object of his affection is the enigmatic and beautiful Cecily, an actress in a traveling troupe who plays Marie Antoinette in a fair horror show. And there is William Wakefield, a wealthy Omaha tycoon and fair investor who disrupts the Ferret and Cecily relationship.

Schaffert has an incredible imagination. His characters are finely developed, described as an endearing band of thieves and drunkards. Schaffert’s research for all things surrounding Omaha’s exposition in 1898 is thorough and admirable. He clearly did his homework and wrote his book with highly detailed descriptions of the society, culture, styles, and life near the end of the nineteenth century.

Schaffert’s fascination with the Wizard of Oz is notable and noted, mentioning such in the book credits.

Authors always earn my appreciation when they describe libraries and librarians in a positive light. And Schaffert does. He also gives recognition to a good number of Omaha librarians in the book credits, along with many others who contributed in one way or another to his research, writing, and eventual publication.

The Swan Gondola is Schaffert’s fifth novel. His earlier novels include the critically acclaimed Devils in the Sugar Shop and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God. In addition to national recognition and awards, Timothy received the 2003 Nebraska Book Award (fiction) for his The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters.

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Friday Reads: Raven Rock

I had high expectations for Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die. I became interested in the book after listening to an engaging interview with the author, Garrett Graff, on NPR’s Fresh Air. Unfortunately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good stuff here. But generally I found the middle part of the book to be a repetitive bore. Raven Rock picks up during World War II, when the U.S. was heading full throttle into the atomic age, with Harry S. Truman President of the United States. While there are many facets to Raven Rock, Graff primarily describes the aftermath of the atomic bomb deployment prior to the cold war, subsequent U.S. government preparations for doomsday, and other disaster planning. The book provides a chronology by each president after Truman. I found the first few chapters to be of interest (Truman and Eisenhower), then the beginning of aforementioned lackluster, drawn out, and sleepy sections, then heating up again around September 11, 2001 (Bush 43).

I think one of the challenges for Graff was getting his hands on information that wasn’t classified. This might explain why the reader has chapter after chapter devoted to the 50’s and 60’s time period, yet less than 2 pages devoted to President Clinton. Raven Rock, named after the massive Raven Rock Mountain Complex (also known as Site R), is an underground military nuclear bunker carved into the area’s greenstone granite, and located about 6 miles north of Camp David. It is basically an underground city, complete with offices, communications centers, bomb blast doors, dining facilities, an infirmary, bathrooms, etc. Speaking of Camp David, Graff provides an interesting narrative about the history of it (formerly known as Shangri-La). One of the appealing aspects of Raven Rock is these sorts of anecdotes, and I wish Graff devoted more attention to them. A few highlights include Graff’s descriptions of code names used for government officials and their family members, and the challenge to deciphering them on radio transmissions. Example: “Volunteer will reside at VALLEY for an indefinite time. I repeat: VOLUNTEER will reside at VALLEY for an indefinite time. VICTORIA requests that VENUS will go to VALLEY with agent” actually meant that Lyndon Johnson (VOLUNTEER) will reside at his private residence at The Elms (VALLEY), and Lady Bird (VICTORIA) requests that Luci (LBJ’s daughter, VENUS) will go to The Elms (VALLEY) with an agent. Also, the fact that up until at least 1910, tourists could sit at the president’s desk in the White House, and as Vice President, Lyndon Johnson’s phone number was listed in the phone book. Another anecdote describes a curious exchange between Chief Justice Earl Warren and officials who distributed a Mt. Weather entrance ID card to him but not Mrs. Warren. In our self-centered world of today, you have to appreciate the Chief’s returning the card, sarcastically saying:

“Then I suppose I should call my wife and say, ‘Honey, there is an atomic bomb attack to be made on Washington, and I am flying to safety in Appalachia. Sorry I don’t have time to come home and say good-bye, but it was nice to have met you.'”

Raven Rock is one of a number of emergency operations centers for the government, along with Mount Weather in Virginia, and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. But Graff’s Raven Rock is about much more than the construction and maintenance of these facilities; it’s about government disaster, succession, and “COG” or continuity of government planning — the principle that government continues to operate in the case of a catastrophic event. Granted most of this centers around the cold war, but on September 11, 2001, it took a much different turn. As Graff points out, September 11 exposed a clustered mess of communications problems and other assorted government disarray. Graff also devotes quite a bit of attention to the nuclear “football”. While the football doesn’t explicitly contain launch codes, “one military aide compared it to a Denny’s menu. You can go through and point at different pictures and that’s the type of nuclear war you would order. …”

All in all, Graff provides an interesting narrative of how the government’s plans have evolved over time to adequately handle these sorts of real and potential doomsday type disasters. Graff points out some of these failures along the way, but also interesting facts that most readers likely are unaware of. Just skip the middle third of the book.

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Friday Reads: “New Prairie Kitchen” by Summer Miller. Photographs by Dana Damewood.

It seems like the best cookbooks are the ones that tell a story—in addition to sharing great recipes and scrumptious photos. Recently I’ve been reading the stories, trying the recipes, and gazing at the photos in New Prairie Kitchen by Summer Miller. The author, a young mom and freelance writer from the Omaha area, explored restaurants and farms within a 200-mile radius of Omaha and brings us stories of real people who grow, prepare, and serve real food for their families and friends. The author says that the book “…pays homage to the outstanding and innovative chefs, farmers, and artisans of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. They have shared some of their favorite recipes here, organized by season and focused on regionally sourced meat, poultry, game, and produce. Profiles of these exceptional people are nestled throughout the book.” I love the stories and photos, and I’m loving the food, as well.

After perusing the New Prairie Kitchen recipes, I went to the Farmer’s Market and bought a 4 pound pork shoulder roast from a local producer that was perfect for trying the Spice-Rubbed Slow-Cooker Pork (Kevin Shinn of Bread and Cup in Lincoln, NE). What could be simpler than a spice rub and a slow cooker? I did have to add some liquid to mine since my slow-cooker must be a little on the hot side, but after 6 hours the roast was juicy and fragrant—and I shredded it apart with two forks just like the experts on the cooking channel on TV. I should have made a YouTube video. Next, my backyard bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes inspired me to make Tomato Chutney (Sean Wilson of Proof in Des Moines, IA) and Tomato Marmalade (Clayton Chapman of The Grey Plume in Omaha, NE). Both are delicious on bread and cheese—and as a bonus, I got to use some of the garlic and jalapeño chilies from my garden too. And I’m not done yet. I’ll be making the Black Walnut and Clove Muffins (Maggie Pleskac of Maggie’s Vegetarian Café in Lincoln, NE) for the next Nebraska Library Commission potluck—and more.

The book might also provide a little tourism boost. The food sounds so good, it makes me want to hop in the car and go out in search of the places where other people will make this yummy food for me. Maybe a trip to the Back Alley Bakery in Hastings, NE is in my future?

To find out more about this Nebraska Book Award-winning cookbook and the “foodways” of the Great Plains, see Summer Miller’s blog at

Review by Mary Jo Ryan.


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Friday Reads: Confessions of a Domestic Failure by Bunmi Laditan

While my summer reading list was often full of nonfiction, despairing memoirs, and dystopian nightmare scenarios, sometimes I just need to escape into a quick summer beach read. In this case, my interlude came in the form of “mommy lit” – stories about mothers of young kids; sleep-deprived mothers who are running on coffee and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets; moms who love their little ones dearly, but occasionally fantasize about long-ago child-free spa weekends – you know, someone I can relate to.

If you aren’t familiar with Bumni Laditan, she’s the creator of The Honest Toddler, a blog-turned-book written in that voice we all secretly think belongs to our own children. Confessions of a Domestic Failure is Laditan’s first novel, and it centers around Ashley Keller, a newly minted stay-at-home-mom (by way of corporate layoff).

Ashley is smart and resourceful – she was an ace at her marketing job before the layoff, and she can fashion an emergency diaper out of items in the backseat of her car – but she is also failing spectacularly at creating the blissful family life she thinks is expected of her. Her house is a mess, she hasn’t lost the baby weight, her daughter rarely makes it out of pajamas (so much for all those cute baby clothes!), and she is struggling to be supportive of her husband’s decision to quit his own corporate job to start a new company.

Ashley is determined to be a Pinterest-perfect mother with an Instagram-worthy home and a huge circle of supportive mommy gal pals… if she can ever peel off her Cheerio-crusted yoga pants and find the energy to shower. Laditan perfectly and hilariously captures the isolation and exhaustion of new motherhood and the pressures social media creates to project perfection.

Ashley is offered a chance to compete in a “Motherhood Better” competition held by superstar mommy-blogger Emily Walker. She stumbles through each challenge, and madcap antics ensue – from accidentally mooning the other competitors during a live video conference, to lying her way into a breastfeeding support group (though her daughter takes formula) while trying to make mom-friends, to nearly setting her house ablaze while “crafting”. But somehow she makes it to the finals and gets to meet her idol Emily. Will she win the contest and push her jogging stroller into the sunset… or will the pressure of domestic perfection cause her to crash and burn?

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Friday Reads: Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase (8th grade) wakes up in the hospital and remembers nothing of who he is, or his family—the group of people standing around his bed looking at him. He remembers how to walk, talk, eat, read, all the daily things we all do, but nothing personal about himself. His school is unfamiliar, but as he walks down the hall he notices students cringing away from him. Slowly he begins to discover that he has been the reigning bully, and not only that, he has encouraged his former two best friends to do it too. As the 8th grade team quarterback, he ruled the school. But now he is repulsed by who he was. How did he get that way when now his impulses are to be friendly and helpful? And what should he do now?

This is a fascinating look at human behavior, our inner selves vs. our outer selves, and how we may end up so far from where we were meant to go.  The author is known for his humorous books, but this one takes a more serious, and intriguing path.

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Friday Reads: Finders-Seekers

I’ve always been a scifi/fantasy fan, and The Ghatti’s Tale: Book One: Finders-Seekers, by Gayle Greeno, has a little of both. Mostly fantasy at the time of the story, but scifi in the past.

Over 200 years ago, colonists from earth came to the planet Methuen. Most of their technology has been mysteriously destroyed over the years. During their time on the planet they have developed a new ability – telepathic bonding with the native ghatti.

The ghatti are race of large cats on Methuen who can speak telepathically to humans, if they choose to bond with them. I wish I could talk to my cats, in any way at all. Would make my life so much easier!

These human-ghatti Bondmates settle disputes using their shared ability to truth-read people’s minds and emotions. However, not everyone may appreciate this involvement in their affairs. In The Ghatti’s Tale, telepathic humans and ghatti are being murdered. One pair of Bondmates, a woman Doyce, and her ghatta Khar’pern, have been chosen to find out who is doing this and why. Doyce has a special interest in the murders, as her intended fiance has become one of the victims.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this story and the characters. This is the first book in the three book Ghatti’s Tale series. Book 2 is MindSpeakers’ Call and Book 3 is Exiles’ Return. And there is a followup 2 books series that continues the story – Ghattens Gambit, made up of Sunderlies Seeking and The Farthest Seeking. So, if you’re like me, and after the first book you have to know what happens next, there’s plenty more to read!

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Friday Reads: Bohemians: A Graphic History by Paul Buhle and David Berger

BohemiansBohemians: A Graphic History is an enjoyable, and flawed, collection of illustrated vignettes about influential people, places and times in the bohemian movement. Beginning in 1850s Paris, and ending in 1950s New York, several different graphic artists take a turn at telling part of the bohemian story. The variety of artistic styles keeps the eye interested, and many of the characters you already know are larger than life—Walt Whitman, Josephine Baker, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and Charlie Parker.

So what is a bohemian? The authors will give you many possible examples, but they will not give you an exact definition, which is appropriate considering that the movement itself encouraged disregarding boundaries and not letting life be limited by societal expectations. You could argue that free love and free thought were important to bohemians, but you’d want to remember those words meant something different in the Victorian era (and even in the United States of the 1950s), when rigid conformity was expected in society and relationships, even more so than today.

I read one review of this book by Joseph Donica in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics that had this great line: “One rarely reads a book that disappoints on several levels and still decides to recommend that book to every likeminded reader he knows.” I think I like the book more than this reviewer, but I have reservations. I think advances in technology had a lot to do with the appeal of this movement—entertainment and communication were changing, and their influence on society can’t be underestimated. (This beginning of this era brings us the invention or accepted use of the telephone, the phonograph, the typewriter, and the camera.) Also, and this might be a critique more of the movement than the book—it’s easier for some people to reject society’s rules and still have a comfortable life, than it is for others. Class, race, and gender power structures still existed in the world, and sometimes the authors don’t give us this historical context—some bohemians sought freedom from, and some sought freedom to. But the stories are definitely enjoyable, and there’s enough of a variety that you’ll find plenty to appreciate even if not every story is to your liking. The graphic novel format works effectively in its portrayal of an array of places and times.

The authors prefer not to capitalize bohemian—perhaps to clearly separate the bohemian culture from the geographic area of Bohemia, which as Nebraskans (familiar with the “Bohemian Alps”) we know is a region of the Czech Republic. Incorrectly thought by nineteenth-century French dilettante historians to be the place of origin of the Romani people (sometimes known as “gypsy” people, a term now recognized as pejorative), the movement took the name because it found the Romani people’s “freedom” to be inspiring. This might seem strange to the modern reader, who knows that the Romani people were persecuted and impoverished, and later almost wiped out completely by the Third Reich. To think of their lives as “romantic” and “free” seems optimistic at best.

Buhle, Paul, and David Berger. Bohemians: A Graphic History, 2014. Print.
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Friday Reads: You Gotta BE the Book by Jeffrey Wilhelm

You Gotta BE the Book“…engaged reading — beyond involving cognitive processes (as the Core and next-generation standards emphasize) — is a deeply emotional, participatory, dramatic, embodied, visual, artistic, psychological, and potentially transformational pursuit. This we must not forget as teachers or as readers, or we will not tap into the immense power of reading, and thus we limit our capacity to be effective teachers or readers.”

Why do some students struggle with reading? Why can’t they “see” the story in their mind or connect with text?  What are highly engaged readers doing or thinking when they read? How is this different from struggling readers and how can they be helped?

While this book isn’t exactly an exciting summer beach read, it’s always interesting to read about reading, I think. First published in 1996, with a third edition published in 2016, You Gotta BE the Book examines Jeffrey Wilhelm’s research in his middle school classrooms teaching his own experiences and through student stories from both engaged and struggling readers.

Wilhelm describes his difficulties trying to teach students who continually insist that they hate reading. They don’t enjoy reading and it’s difficult for them. Working with individual readers at all levels allowed Wilhelm to develop different interventions/strategies which then helped his students practice visualizing the text, creating the opportunities necessary for struggling readers to finally connect with literature in meaningful ways. The book is an interesting mix between Wilhelm’s early reflections as a teacher, the feedback of his students, and reading theory. The visualization strategies and activity ideas, including drama and art, that Wilhelm describes could also be adapted outside of the classroom.

“You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents, Third Edition by Jeffrey Wilhelm (2016)

Also, if you want to read more about literacy theories, this is a good introduction:

Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models by Diane Tracey and Lesley Morrow (2012)

And another related book to add to your list, just because it’s interesting:

Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men by Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm (2002)

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