Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls (A Review)

Like many other Liz Gilbert readers, I couldn’t wait for the release of the novel City of Girls. Whenever Liz mentioned City of Girls on Instagram, she said it was going to be lighthearted and fun; she said it was going to involve theatre and showgirls; she said it would involve plenty of sex.

City of Girls has all of those elements and much more. The novel is written from the perspective of Vivian, a woman in her nineties, who looks back over her life from age nineteen and on. She writes about arriving in New York City in 1940 and experiencing a very different kind of life from the one she had previously known: sheltered, stuffy, unimaginative. She gets to know all sorts of colorful characters and lives wild and carefree for a time.

As the story unfolds, she makes and loses friends, survives scandal, lives through WW2, fashions a successful and creative career for herself, and, as she lives all these experiences, she learns to know who she is.

I loved the descriptions of old theaters and night clubs, the fashion of the various decades in which Vivian lives, the energy of New York City and how it changed over the years. Overall, the tone is positive, light, and joyful. But, if you’re worried, as I was, that the book is just fluff, think again. There is substance here. There are passages that I will read and reread. Oprah read one during her interview with Liz Gilbert on Super Soul Sunday. And here is words of wisdom from Vivian’s aunt, Peg, that resonated with me: (on page 327)

“You must learn in life to take things more lightly, my dear. The world is always changing. Learn how to allow for it. Someone makes a promise, and then they break it. A play gets good notices, and then it folds. A marriage looks strong, and then they divorce. For a while there’s no war, and then there’s another war. If you get too upset about it all, you become a stupid, unhappy person—and where’s the good in that?”

So, am I going to recommend this novel? Yes! If you’re a reader of fiction, add this to your TBR. Buy a copy or place a hold at your library, but definitely read it. Particularly, I think it’s an important read for women because it’s a story of strong women who lived unusual, successful, and satisfying lives.

And when you read it, comment here, send me an email or DM me on Instagram and let me know what you think!

Bird Therapy (Book Review)

Nearly every day I read articles about mental illness, burnout, and the stress of modern life. And do you know what almost always makes the list of ways to relieve or remedy the symptoms? Time spent in Nature! Time spent out-of-doors, away from screens surrounded by sky and trees, near bodies of water, in the company of birds and other wildlife will do much to calm the mind, relieve tension and stress, and leave one with an overall sense of wellbeing.

In Bird Therapy, Joe Harkness shares his personal story of living with OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression, and how he manages it with hours outside birdwatching. Let me just say that even though the book begins with his mental state in a dark and dangerous place, the book doesn’t stay there and doesn’t focus on his illness. It’s a positive read about how much his life has changed for the better because of what he calls “Bird Therapy”.

If you’re like I was before reading this book, you might tend to think birdwatching is for retired, elderly people or just for super nerdy types. But the author became a birdwatcher as a young man, so the book is written with a youthful voice full of energy and enthusiasm.

In each chapter, he shares a different glimpse of his birdwatching journey, from his very first attempts to connect with other birders, to setting up his first bird feeders in his back garden, to finding a patch to call his own. He describes experiences of rare bird sightings, interactions with other birders, regular visits to his patch, and what it is like to birdwatch in different seasons. At the end of each chapter, he shares a list of helpful tips for people who would like to begin the birdwatching adventure.

An interesting and positive aspect of this book is that it’s published by Unbound, a crowd-funded indie publisher.

If you or someone you know struggles with mental illness, you would benefit from reading this book. Also, if you’re curious about birdwatching, especially about how to get started, read this book. After reading Bird Therapy, I am paying closer attention to the birds all around me, and am spending more time outside every day. Published on June 13, this book is recommended reading! One last note: you might want to check out Joe’s blog, also named Bird Therapy, about his birdwatching experiences.

I received a free e-copy of this book from Net Galley, but all opinions are completely my own.

3 KidLit Favorites From Childhood

My mom has told me many times how I would wake up early at six months old or so, she would place me in my playpen with a pile of magazines and picture books, and then she would return to bed. When she came to check on me, I would be happily leafing through the pages–not eating them or tearing them up.

Perhaps you loved books at a young age too, and if you did, you probably have favorite stories that your parent or grandparent read to you over and over. My earliest book memory was of a hardcover edition of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I loved that book to pieces, literally.

Like countless other young children, I found the words comforting, and Clement Hurd’s illustrations of kittens, mittens, and a cow jumping over the moon fascinating. The quiet old lady whispering hush was a mysterious figure in my two-year-old mind. Saying goodnight to all the things in the nursery was a ritual that I looked forward to; each familiar phrase soothed and lulled me closer to sleep.

The second book that I loved as a kid was Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban. Have you read the Frances series? If not, go check them out at your library or purchase a few. Frances is an adorable, precocious young badger who, just like a young child, is learning to share, how to be a friend, that bedtime is non-negotiable, etc.

In Bread and Jam for Frances, she is being super picky and phobic about trying anything new. So her smart mother decides to give in to her and let her eat the only thing she wants–bread and jam. Morning, noon, and night. This works out well for a while, until Frances gets tired of the same thing and begins to hanker for what everyone else is eating. If you’ve never read these books, go get them. They’ll make you smile, and if you have small children around, they’ll love them too.

Another favorite book is part of a series: George and Martha One Fine Day written and illustrated by James Marshall. The George and Martha books are all HILARIOUS!!! George and Martha are hippo friends who get into awkward situations, play tricks on each other once in a while, learn about life and friendship, but are always there for one another. The illustrations will have you laughing just as much as the stories will. I read these books to my kids and they loved them too!

What are some of YOUR kidlit favorites?

Two British Mystery Series To Read This Summer

Last Friday, Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs Darcy shared an article from The Guardian about thrillers by women. In it, I found a few new-to-me authors I wanted to check out. After doing some reading on Amazon and Goodreads, I selected the first in Ann CleevesVera Stanhope mysteries, called The Crow Trap, and the first in Elly GriffithsRuth Galloway mysteries, called The Crossing Places.

There are several similarities to both series that helped me choose them:

1. They are set in the North East of England–Vera in Northumberland and Ruth in Norfolk.

2. They both feature women as the main characters; Vera Stanhope is a detective inspector and Ruth Galloway is an archeologist who is often asked to help in murder investigations.

3. Both women are independent, strong, quirky, middle-aged, and not beautiful by traditional standards.

4. The settings, both in rather remote places, are dark and atmospheric, the murders well-planned and the mysteries will keep you guessing until the end.

5. Both authors weave writing about local natural history, birds, and other local wildlife into the books.

I had watched some of the Vera Stanhope series on PBS a while ago, but never thought to look into the books the series is based on. I listened to The Crow Trap on audiobook and loved the narrator, so I’ll definitely be continuing the series in that format.

Vera, in character and looks, is unusual for a DI (as I mentioned earlier), but her sad, lonely past and present, excess drinking, and tendency toward brooding thoughts are on par with plenty of male detectives in other series. Her way of catching possible suspects off guard by pretending to take them into her confidence with warm, friendly chat is unique among the British detectives I’ve read. She’s likable, with all her rough edges and insecurities about her size and appearance, and she’s wily and always gets her murderer in the end. The latest in the Vera Stanhope series was published in 2017: The Seagull. Have you read it yet?

Because I simply could not wait for the library system to bring The Crossing Places (the first in the Ruth Galloway series) to my local library, I bought it for Kindle and read it two sittings. Ruth lives in a cottage near the Norfolk coast with salt marshes nearby. The changing seascape, the wind, the darkness and the isolated quality of her home makes me jumpy just reading about it. She works at a local University and helps the police in their investigations; the fact that she digs up bones for a living does help with the dark, creepy feel.

As often happens to main characters in mysteries, Ruth had a few brushes with death in the first book because she got too close to the truth; those scenes had me on the edge of my seat! I bought the next two in the series for Kindle as well: The Janus Stone and The House at Sea’s End and look forward to gobbling them up. And, if you are lucky enough to have discovered this series years ago and are all caught up, the new release in the series is The Stone Circle.

(Like I mentioned earlier, I am thoroughly enjoying the Vera Stanhope audiobooks. If you’ve never given Audible a try, now is a really good time! You can get two free audiobooks just for trying Audible free for 30 days.) 

If you’ve read either series or have one to recommend, I’d love to hear about it in comments!

Girl, Stop Apologizing! (Book Review)

Have you read anything by Rachel Hollis yet? Have you listened to her Rise podcast? If you’re an entrepreneur–particularly a woman entrepreneur, you need to read this book. If you’re someone who dreams of something more, but is afraid to try, this book is for you. If you have goals, but are in “the dip”, as Seth Godin so aptly named the space and time in between starting and finishing, you need to grab a copy of Girl, Stop Apologizing.

What I love about Rachel Hollis is that she has been at the bottom, but she had dreams and goals like a lot of us do, but she didn’t quit. She didn’t give up. This woman has drive and she knows how to focus on what she wants and does not give up though all the disappointments, all the setbacks, all the negativity that would crush most people. She’s not superhuman, she’s just dedicated, and she shows us how to go after our goals.

There is practical, usable advice in every single chapter of this book, but not one word is dry or boring. You won’t find your mind wandering or read it just because you know you should. Rachel is a great writer! She is hilarious, outrageous, and unexpected.

Another thing I love about her is her honesty. She shares deeply personal, even humiliating stories from her life experience because she wants us to know who she is, where she’s come from, and how she got to where she is now. She does not hold back and because she’s so real, she builds trust with her audience, and makes us listen to what she has to say.

Rachel comes against the patriarchal ways of thinking that have held women back for thousands of years. She addresses downright lies about what women are for, how women should behave or what we should want out of life. It is very liberating, life-giving language that, even in 2019, women (and men!) need to hear.

Her chapter “Choose One Dream and Go All In” or “Ten Years, Ten Dreams, One Goal” is worth the price of the book alone. In this chapter, Rachel explains exactly how to go after your dreams. This is priceless information! Her chapter “Planning”, about reverse engineering your goal, or starting with the end in mind, was another chapter I found extremely practical and helpful.

So, yep, it’s another highly recommended, “You Need This Book in Your Life”, book review. Get it on Amazon or your local bookstore or public library, but definitely put this in your TBR pile for this year!

Bird Cottage, (Book Review)

I just finished the most unusual and delightful book I’ve read so far this year! Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer is a novel based on the life and research of Len Howard. Len was born Gwendolen Howard in 1895 in Wallington, UK. She grew up in a bird-loving, artistic family–her father was a poet and dramatist–and became a violist with an orchestra in London.

After years of a successful musical career, she decided, at age 40, that she’d had enough of city life and that what she really wanted was to live quietly in the country observing and interacting with birds.

She moved to Ditchling in East Sussex, had a small home constructed, which she aptly named Bird Cottage, and lived the rest of her life with birds. The birds learned to trust her, would fly in and out of her house and even roost in her house in nesting boxes. They became familiar enough with her that they would land on her head, shoulders, hands, and feet. A few of them even came to her when she called. Len began to distinguish different calls and songs, and to understand the birds’ behavior through close, careful, continual observation.

Over the years, Len wrote for various nature magazines and wrote two books: Birds As Individuals and Living With Birds. She became more reclusive as she got older because she was so focused on not changing things in the birds’ environment. When guests would visit, for example, the birds were unfamiliar with these newcomers’ gestures and voices and would stay away. This would set back her research for several days.

Sadly, because she was not a trained scientist and she focused on bird behavior and relationships rather than measurable, quantitative observations, none of the scientific journals would take her seriously and publish her research. However, her writings did raise the general public’s awareness to the importance of birds and the habitats they needed to thrive.

What was wonderful about this book was the way the author interspersed chapters about Len’s life, from age ten and onward, with chapters containing fascinating stories about particular bird friends at Bird Cottage. Even though it was fictionalized, it felt as if I was reading a biography.

Whether you enjoy books about birds, nature writing, or people who follow their own path in life, you will absolutely love this book. I highly recommend it!

I received a copy of Bird Cottage from Pushkin Press, but all opinions are completely my own.

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man (Book Review)

We live in a world that makes a fuss over men who run around chasing each other and throwing balls for a living. We make idols of surgically-enhanced actors or actresses in superhero constumes or singers who leave their pants at home when they perform. We love spectacle. We love drama. We love obnoxious, outrageous behavior. But, much of the time, the true heroes are those who live out of the limelight, serving their fellow humans every day with whatever resources they have.

The book Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man by Anne-Sophie Constant is the story of a true hero. Jean Vanier was a hero to all the people whose lives he touched through his love, kindness, and practical care. He was a man who quietly lived to serve people whom society would call “the least of these”. He saw each person inside the disability or deformity that would send most of us running in the opposite direction. He saw their worth, and even, their beauty.

Jean was not planning to spend his adult life in this way: he had been in the navy, then lived a very religious life of meditation and prayer, and, for a short time, as a professor.

What changed him was a visit to a care home for those with intellectual disabilities and his interactions with two of the men there. “I heard this mute cry…a cry inviting me to be their friend.” After that visit, he couldn’t stop thinking about those people. So he began to visit the places where disabled people were kept and he was appalled by the miserable conditions in which they lived.

Jean decided to purchase a small house and invite some of the disabled men to live with him. At this point he had no financial plan to support them, but acted out of the impulse of love. And just by being willing to take the first step and reach out to those in need, the rest of what was needed followed. People volunteered to serve, a board of directors was formed, Jean chose the name “L’Arche”, and they began a life of community, of family, in this little home in Trosley in the North of France.

What began as a way to serve the needs of a handful of people with disabilities flourished into a worldwide movement. Today there are 154 L’Arche communities worldwide on 5 continents. When I visited the L’Arche website, with all those beautiful faces, my respect grew even more for Jean Vanier and his life of love and service.

I highly recommend this book, which will be published on August 4th, to those who want to read about people who really made a difference in the world and whose legacy continues to change lives after they’ve passed on. Jean Vanier’s life made a difference to many and will continue to do so for years to come.

I received a free e-galley from Net Galley, but all opinions are completely my own.

Poetry is for YOU (plus, a GIVEAWAY!)

I know plenty of people who are bookworms but not poetry lovers. Maybe they were forced to read poetry written in archaic language when they were in high school and then asked to write a dreaded analysis. That kills it for so many people!

Or maybe they just think poetry is full of flowery language that they can’t understand or relate to. No one wants to feel stupid, so poetry gets shelved along with old yearbooks. Let me just say, this is not the point of poetry at all! It’s not meant to be only for those “brainy, heady types”. Poetry is for everyone!

For me, poetry is a breath of fresh air. It’s a way to connect emotion, intuition, and mystery with words. It’s fluid and freeing and touches me deeply in a way that prose cannot.

For those of you whose interest in poetry has been blighted by education’s withering hand, I entreat you to try this: Go to your local library or bookstore. The children’s poetry is often an easy, accessible entry point. Pick up a book of poetry and open it. If one poem doesn’t appeal to you, turn a few pages and try another one. If that particular poet doesn’t appeal to you, set that book down and reach for something else. If you feel brave, find the grown-up poetry section and repeat.

I promise: there is poetry for you, for where you are at right now, and for the kind of language your heart speaks. You don’t have to decipher the meaning, write an analysis or attempt to understand every line. You just have to listen with your heart and see if the poet is speaking to you.

If you’re brand new to poetry, head to The Poetry Foundation’s website to read more poetry than you can imagine. Here are a few poets you might want to start with:

Shel Silverstein

Mary Oliver

Jack Prelutsky

Maya Angelou

Ogden Nash

Wendell Berry

OK, about the giveaway! **U.S. Residents ONLY** I am giving away a brand new copy of Plough Publishing’s poetry book The Heart’s Necessities to one reader. Read my review here. To enter: 1. Subscribe to this blog. 2. Follow me on Instagram. I will choose one reader at random on Friday May 31st. Good luck, readers!

She’s My Dad (Book Review)

I have to be honest: when the invitation to read this e-galley popped up in my inbox, my very first reaction was that I wasn’t interested. Why? For the boring reason that I don’t know anyone who has transitioned gender, so I didn’t think it was something I needed to read.

My next thoughts countered my initial reaction: I needed to become a more diverse reader. I needed to read more books that were completely outside of my personal experience and outside of my comfort zone. I needed books that challenged my pre-conceived ideas, my natural aversions to certain subjects, my tendency to read about subjects I felt familiar with. So I accepted the invitation to read She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption by Jonathan Williams with Paula Stone Williams.

Right away, I realized I did have something in common with the author and his father. They came from an Evangelical, non-denominational church culture that took the Bible as objective truth and considered it the Word of God. This was the culture I was steeped in my whole life until just a few years ago.

This culture said they loved the LGBTQIA community, but because of a handful of Biblical passages, considered the queer lifestyle sinful and wouldn’t allow anyone in the LGBTQIA community to join the church, serve in the church, be baptized, etc. Does that sound like love to you? Nope, I didn’t think so.

This story is centered around an Evangelical thirty-something pastor, Jonathan, and his dad, Paul (also a pastor). Paul comes out to his family and tells them he’s a woman. He changes his name to Paula, begins hormone therapy, and begins to act and dress as a woman: hair, makeup, clothing, etc. He loses his job as a pastor and has to start his life over.

Although the book is interspersed with a few chapters from Paula’s perspective, it is mainly about how Jonathan, as a son, deals with his father’s gender transition, both internally and externally.

He has to grapple with the grief, anger, denial, and the decision whether or not to accept his father as woman. He has to deal with the effects of the rejection his father experiences once his transition becomes public. He has to decide what to do about the church network he’s a part of that does not welcome gay or transgender people. He has to look at the Bible in new ways and think long and hard about theology that he has always believed to be true.

As so often happens when I read or listen to the story of the “other”, someone who seems so different from me, I discovered common ground. In addition to growing up in a similar church culture, I also experienced rejection from the church as a result of my decision to divorce. Whether it was letters and “return to God” messages or the “Great Silence” that accompanied disapproval, disappointment, and an ineptitude for dealing with someone who stepped out of the box, I experienced rejection as well, although on a much less dramatic level than Paula and Jonathan.

I am glad my better nature won the day I was deciding whether to read this book. It has been helpful for me to learn about gender transition and to think about how much of the Christian church has failed to show love, humility, and grace to those it doesn’t have a doctrinal box for. And how parts of the church are showing up and just loving people no matter what. I’m grateful that Jonathan shared the journey of how he dealt with his dad’s transition. If you are interested in transgender issues in the Evangelical church, I recommend She’s My Dad by Jonathan Williams.

What I’m Reading Now

Happy Friday! Here is a list of five books I’m currently reading. I would love to know what you are reading lately!

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man by Anne-Sophie Constant will be published by Plough Publishing House on August 4th. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community in France passed away on May 7th. I’ve read his book Community and Growth, have heard him interviewed on Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast, and have a great respect for him and the work he did. He served those who the modern world often sees as “the least of these”, and I was introduced to him through some of Henri Nouwen’s writings. I’m looking forward to an inspiring read about this modern spiritual giant who has left behind a beautiful legacy.

I am listening to The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton on audiobook. It is read by Joanne Froggatt (Lady Mary’s maid, Anna Bates, from Downton Abbey) and is a gorgeous, intricate, many-layered tale containing murder, mystery, ghosts, and voices from the past and present. I haven’t read a Kate Morton book in several years and am truly enjoying this book!

She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and A Son’s Redemption by Jonathan K. Williams with Paula Stone Williams is an eye-opening, heart-wrenching true story of a Christian minister’s family turned upside-down by the revelation that their father is a woman. Told through the son’s eyes, the story is filled with many references to charismatic 80s and 90s church culture in the U.S., ( with which I am, for better or worse, familiar). I am only about a third of the way through and will give a full review when I finish the book.

I just began reading In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden last weekend. It’s the story of a successful businesswoman in her mid-forties who decides to join a Benedictine order of nuns in Sussex, England. At this stage, she has just taken the train to the Abbey and has been allowed inside. This is going to be a wonderful story, I think. This is my first Rumer Godden book for adults; I’ve only read her children’s books. (My favorite children’s book of hers–and all-time favorite Christmas book is The Story of Holly and Ivy.) She has several titles I am adding to my TBR list…

As so many others are doing because of her recent, untimely death, I am reading Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding Church by beloved writer Rachel Held Evans. Because I have struggled with my relationship to church, I want to read the words of someone who has been there and understands.