Furious Hours- Harper Lee And Casey Cep

I devoured Casey Cep’s new book, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee. I find it to be exciting, informative and full of Alabama history. Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for New Yorker and the New York Times, came to Monroeville, Alabama in 2015. A lifelong fan of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, Cep wanted to investigate a “lost” book Lee supposedly had written about Willie Maxwell, a real life serial murderer. The book was entitled, The Reverend, and Lee did extensive research over a number of years on this case. Lee had done much of the research and editing for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood of which she was never credited. Capote chose to write his crime story as a “non-fiction novel” which made Lee question the integrity of the story. She knew she didn’t want to use the same format, but how to structure the story gave her fits for years. Cep says these issues confront every writer of a crime story, “Perennially we wonder about the popularity of true crime, or the ethics of reportage, or the use of dialogue. These are controversial, open-ended questions that come up all the time…Somewhere along the way it became very clear to me that I was writing the book she never would: a book that had her in it, about her process, her mind, what made her interested in this case, and what made it hard for her to finish” (Adam Morgan, 2019).

Cep writes Furious Hours in three parts which build on each other. It begins with the story of Willie Maxwell, his upbringing and military career, his three marriages, the suspicious deaths of two of his wives and numerous family members, and his insurance scam aided by lawyer Tom Radney. The reader gets a sense of small town eastern Alabama in the middle of the 20th century, the racial strata, the poverty, the heat, the food. The second section is about Tom Radney, privileged small town lawyer who had his eyes on state politics in Montgomery. Radney not only represents Maxwell in his insurance scam, he represents Robert Burns who guns down Maxwell at the funeral of 15 year old Shirley Ann Ellington. It is as convoluted as it appears. The third and last section is on Lee herself which corrects some longstanding details of her family and personal life as well as her dedication in researching this case.

This is what I found fascinating. Everyone knew Maxwell was the murderer of all these people he was collecting life insurance money on, but the exact causes of death were rarely determined making it hard to convict him. The community was afraid of him, many suspected voodoo was involved, the law enforcement personnel were frustrated, the new forensic lab at Auburn University was limited by what poisons could be tested, the county coroner was trained as electrician. It was a helluva mess if there ever was one. The community breathed a sigh of relief the day Robert Burns gunned Maxwell down in front of 400 funeral attendees. Radney defends Burns on a case of temporary insanity, and then it’s the County DA who is frustrated.

Cep says, “I am a creature of place. I think there might be some people for whom Furious Hours is a boringly thorough look at place, people who just want the action and don’t need to know whose family did what two generations ago. But for me, it feels like the necessary way to make you really feel the world.” Agreed. And there were some in my beloved book club who felt the book was “tedious”, “like a term paper.” I, however, gobbled it up in a weekend, texting my history-loving son twice telling him to get the book. There are people alive today who feel Lee wrote the entire manuscript of The Reverend” and still hope it will turn up one day. And that would be fine with me!

Cep’s quotes from “Reimagining Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel: An Interview with Casey Cep- Adam Morgan, Longreads, May 2019.

RIP Molly O’Neill- Food Columnist and Writer

While reading Molly O’Neill’s delightful anthology of American cooking I saw she had passed away from cancer at the age of 66. This sad news made her book called American Food Writing all the more special. The book features “over 250 years of American culinary history.” At the beginning, Molly writes that we Baby Boomers think we are the first generation to become foodies. She writes, “We are not, of course, the first. Culinary reform of one sort or another has a long and continuous history in America, and from early on. American writers have seen food as a window into the wider culture- a sign of our values and our ideals, a measure of our civilization. What is distinctive about American food writing is how constant and close to the surface is its sense of moral struggle. The tussle changes form…” She goes onto to speak of how good the Puritans ate while preaching against the sin of gluttony. And today, the tussle is over denouncing chemical additives and processed foods. America started out as a farm to table country and here we are again celebrating locally grown food, preferably organic. Thoreau writes that we should eat by the seasons, and during the dog days of summer that includes lots of watermelon! Walter Berry says “to eat responsibly is to live free.” And Mr. Berry lists for the reader the ways to do this. Alice Waters, as a pioneer of the farm to restaurant movement writes that “we are utterly dependent on the health of the land, the sea, and the planet as a whole, and that this search for good ingredients is pointless without a healthy agriculture and a healthy environment.” Agreed.

The anthology consists of recipes, essays, exposes, recollections about past food experiences. Take Mobile’s Eugene Walter who reminisces about trying to find okra in the most unlikely places around the world in order to make gumbo, unlikely places like the Aleutian Islands during the war when a pilot found him a can of okra in Canada, in Paris in a grocery off Boulevard St. Germain. He gives the recipes for these improvised gumbos. Walter writes that people are always asking what exactly is a gumbo- “…it’s not a stew, not a ragout, it’s uniquely and incomparably gumbo! It is as dark and as thick as river mud, unctuous, spicy, and satisfying.”

Also included is Thomas Jefferson’s 1780 recipe for vanilla ice cream, and a heartwarming story of Walt Whitman taking 10 gallons of ice cream into a Civil War hospital full of wounded soldiers. Whitman writes that many of the men had never tasted ice cream, especially those from the South. There is an essay by a Frenchman from the 1790s who kills his first American wild turkey and his recipe of how he prepared it for guests. Pehr Kalm from Finland came to America in 1748 and writes about having what we call coleslaw made with shredded cabbage and an oil and vinegar dressing which is also how my mother made it. Kalm also talks of being advised to eat raw oysters only in the months that have an “r” in them. Some things never change! Speaking of oysters, MFK Fisher writes an essay of oysters and New Orleans cooking, how Antoine’s invented Oysters Rockefeller in 1889. She gives us Antoine’s recipe, as well as her recipe for Oyster Catsup which we would call a Sherry Vinaigrette. We have George Washington Carver’s recipe for Purée of Peanuts, which we would call peanut butter. I could go on and on. There is an entry by Frederick Douglas on being terribly hungry as a slave boy which will break your heart. Also Mrs. E. E. Kellogg gives her recipe for Bran Jelly to serve with cream or fruit juice- because thanks to the Kellogg family, America learned the importance of “the role of grains and the regulation of bowels.” Their cornflakes proved to be more popular than her bran jelly.

If you love to read, love to eat, then read this book. If you love to read, love to eat, and love to cook, then definitely read this book. It’s a joy.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters

In The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal, a dying mother’s request to have her ashes scattered in India leads three estranged sisters on their unlikely adventures across their mother’s homeland. Rajni, Jezmeen and Shrina are British-born Punjabi sisters who do not get along and have virtually no communication with each other. Rajni, the archetypal older sister is a control freak at work and home; Jezmeen is the middle sister always vying for attention and is a self-destructive celebrity wannabe; and Shrina, the youngest is conflict averse and people pleasing, which means she is controlled by her mean mother-in-law and husband in her traditional arranged marriage. If this trip sounds like a nightmare in the making, it is. None of them want to go, but they feel obligated to honor their mother as she has requested with the sisters taking a spiritual pilgrimage to some of the Sikhs most important sites and scattering her ashes as well.

The novel is a dark comedy with a good ending. It is a bit of the Keystone cops, especially in scenes where Jezmeen is not with her sisters. Trouble follows her around like her shadow. The underpinnings of this story is the Indian culture, specifically the violence towards women, the rape culture, and the shame-based/honor-based element of their society. Jaswel makes no attempt to white-wash the misogynistic patriarchal worldview of India that causes gender inequality and violence. The rape culture is rooted in Indian culture which was made evident to the world in 2012 when a female student was gang-raped to death on a public bus. This incident caused outrage in India and around the world. Rape is the 4th most common crime against women in India and most go unreported. Women are advised not to travel alone, not to go out at night and to dress very modestly- both citizens and tourists. These facts are woven into Jaswel’s story line. The author is a self-described social justice advocate who uses literature to highlight injustices. And she does it very well.

Sita, the mother is a practicing Sikh, and I learned a great deal about the religion while reading this novel. It is the major religion in Punjab, India and is based on the sacred writings of Guru Granth Sahib which stresses faith, unity, selfless service, equality, and meditation on the one creator. Sita has requested her daughters to fully experience all the components of Sikhism. This becomes a little difficult because the sisters are all hiding some secrets from each other. The reader learns the extent of the secrets as the sisters do, all the while trying to get along, honor their mother, and participate in the rites of the religion, hence the dark comedy description. And you have to laugh in spite of yourself.

Grieving and Rabbit Cake

I don’t know how I missed this poignant 2017 novel entitled Rabbit Cake, written by the University of Alabama alumni, Annie Hartnett (MFA in fiction). Set in Freedom, Alabama not far from Auburn, the eleven year old protagonist Elvis Babbitt is trying to figure out life. Her mother has accidentally drowned while sleepwalking or sleepswimming in the river as the family refers to it. But it doesn’t quite make sense to Elvis. Her mother was an excellent swimmer. Furthermore, Miss Ida, her mother’s longtime psychic predicted her mother would take her own life one day. Thus begins, the story of grief and the healing that time can bring as told from Elvis’s perspective. As a very bright little girl, Elvis reports things to the reader that she always doesn’t always understand. You see her wrestling with situations that she doesn’t yet have the maturity to fully comprehend. Elvis grows up fast because of the dysfunction caused by familial traits of mental illness. One reviewer writes, “To write from a child’s perspective with such a believable balance of earnestness and skepticism, emotion and logic is a feat that few have accomplished.” Hartnett partly bases Elvis on herself as a kid, mixed in with Harriet the Spy and Ramona Quimby. Writing about the love of animals that Elvis shares with her biology professor mother is also based on Hartnett’s love of animals and kindness towards animals.

The central theme is how people grieve differently. My own extended family is experiencing this as well as we come upon the second anniversary of the premature death of my younger brother. Often grief shows up as a little quirky as with Elvis’s dad who wears her mother’s clothes and lipstick around the house. With the exception of this, Mr. Babbitt has the most “normal” route to healing. He is in grief counseling, he learns to be a hands-on father, he even meets a nice lady friend. Lizzie, the older sister, however struggles with mental illness, struggles with violence and the same sleepwalking as her mother. Fortunately Lizzie doesn’t swim in her sleep, but she cooks and eats- and sometimes gets violent when Elvis tries to prevent her from hurting herself. Lizzie ends up being hospitalized several times as she becomes more self-destructive. Elvis fears being like her sister. She is smart enough to know that sleepwalking and suicidal tendencies can be genetic.

Elvis is fortunate to have her school counselor, Ms. Bernstein to help her through the grieving process. Elvis approaches her grief in a very rational way. The counselor gives her a timeline of grief which Elvis uses as her stability. There is hope that the pain and all the questioning of whether it is really an accident or is it suicide will ease over time. Elvis also snitches the DSM FOR KIDS reference book from Ms. Bernstein’s bookshelves. She refers to this book many times in an attempt to understand what is happening in her family. And she is just a kid- trying to muddle through a nightmare situation the best way she knows how. Ms. Bernstein tells Elvis she is not responsible for her sister’s poor choices and that Liz is hindering Elvis’ grieving process. The counselor says, “Siblings of the mentally ill often ignore their own problems, and you’ve been conditioned to believe your needs are not important.” She tells Elvis’s father that Elvis needs some fun extracurricular activities. He signs her up to volunteer at the zoo. This becomes a lifesaver for Elvis. The zoo vet, Dr. Rotherwood takes Elvis under his protective wing.

The Boston Globe calls the book “darkly funny and soulful…unpredictable story of healing.” Darkly funny and soulful- an excellent way to describe this wonderful little book. It’s a great choice for an upcoming vacation.

Ponderings: As an alumni of the University of Alabama, let me brag a minute on the MFA in Fiction program. In a podcast, Hartnett talks of her admission process to the program. The school only admits a dozen or so students into the program each year. She says only two students were from the state of Alabama. The “rest were from all over.” The university flew her to Tuscaloosa to visit the campus so she could see herself there. As a resident of Massachusetts, Hartnett seeing the campus at Alabama was a “smart move” for the university. This book was her thesis.

Nazi Hunters Hunt the Huntress


Kate Quinn’s new novel The Huntress lives up to the hype. I couldn’t put this book down and read much too late for too many nights! It is well-researched historical fiction, and I learned something new about Russia’s role during World War 2. Russia had female bombing pilots dubbed The Night Witches by German soldiers. One of the main characters is a Nazi hunter who was a Night Witch. Nina Markova steals the show in this story! She is tough as nails and is a very wounded soul. Being born and raised in eastern Siberia by an alcoholic abusive father gave her the survivor skills which enabled her to be the only person known to escape being killed by the Huntress, Lorelei Vogt, aka Anneliese Weber, aka Anna McBride. Nina’s part is to identify the Huntress when Ian and Tony locate her. The Huntress is a composite character based on two real Nazi women who were tried for crimes following the war.

But I get ahead of myself. It’s the 1950s, and many in the western world thought the Nuremberg trials took care of enough Nazi war crimes. The new fear was Stalin and communism. Yet to Ian Graham, it was not enough. He is tracking the Huntress because she executed his younger brother after he escaped a Nazi POW labor camp. It’s personal for Ian, and it becomes personal for Tony Rodomovsky, his partner and translater. Tony recruits Nina to help them only to discover there is weird history between Ian and Nina. Their relationship offers some hilarious moments in the story.

So how does Lorelei Vogt become Anna McBride? To sum it up, she marries an antiques dealer Dan McBride in Boston as an attempt to disappear and become untraceable. This would have probably worked except Dan’s teenage daughter Jordan intuits that things are not as they seem with her new stepmother. Thus begins Jordan’s snooping around and discovering some information about the new Mrs. McBride. What complicates this relationship is the woman shows up with a young “daughter” name Ruth who is obviously fearful of her “mother.” Jordan, who is an only child falls in love with Ruth and is determined to protect her. What further complicates this relationship is that Anna is a good mother to Jordan who lost her biological mother at a young age. Jordan struggles with her conflicting emotions about Anna. And the reader does too. I wanted Anna not to be the Huntress because I kind of liked her even though she certainly was a mysterious character who obviously was hiding something.

Kate Quinn weaves these story lines together seamlessly. There are two strong female protagonists and a strong female antagonist. Quinn does a good job fleshing out these female characters. They are as different as they can be, and yet all three of them are fully developed. I wanted more about Nina- hopefully she’ll show up in some capacity in a future book of Quinn’s.

The true story of Night Witches is a fascinating aspect of this book. From 1942-1945, the Night Witches flew 23,000 sorties, dropped 3000 tons of bombs and 26,000 tons of incendiary shells. The small wooden/canvas planes originally built for training and crop dusting could only carry two bombs at a time so the pilots flew 8+ missions every night. The pilots also dropped ammo and supplies to Soviet troops on the front line. The little planes were hard to shot down by German bombers because they were slow and beneath the stall speed of the German planes. The Russian pilots would cut their engines and glide to their targets. The German soldiers thought the planes sounded like brooms sweeping across a floor, hence the name Night Witches. Two heroes of this regiment, Major Marina Raskova and Major Yevdokiya Bershanskaya were portrayed in the story. Twenty six of the pilots were awarded the highest military medals in the USSR following the war. Be sure and read The Author’s Notes at the end of the book before starting so that you recognize what a great research Quinn did.

Broken Wheel Learns to Love Reading!

I love books. I love bookstores. I love books about bookstores. I’ve just finished a cute story about a fictional broken down town called Broken Wheel in Iowa. Yes, it was named after a broken covered wagon wheel that caused some pioneers to stop and eventually settle in this flatland soon to be covered in corn rows. This debut novel entitled The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is written by Swedish writer Katarina Bivald. One of the main characters is also Swedish, Sara Lindqvist, a young book nerd who recently lost her job in a bookstore in Sweden. She has just landed in Iowa to finally meet her book-loving pen pal, an elderly lady name Amy Harris. Sara finally arrives at Amy’s house as the last of Amy’s funeral crowd is leaving. What- Amy has died?? Yet, the folks of Broken Wheel have been expecting Sara to arrive. They embrace her in their close knit community, and she experiences a love and an acceptance she didn’t have at home. Thus begins the story of Sara opening the first bookstore in Broken Wheel using all of Amy’s books. It’s a funny madcap plot for two reasons. First off, Sara is on a two month tourist visa to the US and is forbidden to work, and the whole town wants Sara and Tom, Amy’s nephew to fall in love, an idea to which they are definitely opposed or are they….?

The whole community and Tom help Sara open up Oak Tree Bookstore even though they try to tell her that Broken Wheel is a dying community, plus no one reads in Broken Wheel anyway. But Sara’s enthusiasm is contagious and wins over the most reluctant people. Sara has a firm and clear vision of what she wants this bookstore to look like. “The deep sunshine-yellow counter was the first thing you see when you entered the shop. Sara thought that it made it seem like you were stepping into some kind of magical shop. What, she asked herself, wasn’t possible with a yellow counter?” Tells you a lot about Sara, doesn’t it?

Sara loves paperbacks and loves the idea that Penguin began publishing small paperbacks in 1935, and it started the Armed Forces Book Club so that during World War 2 soldiers could have little paperbacks to slip into their pockets. “…it said something about the power of books. Not that they could somehow lessen the pain of war when someone beloved had died or create world peace or anything like that. But Sara couldn’t help thinking that in war, as in life, boredom was one of the greatest problems, a slow, relentless wearing down. Nothing dramatic, just a gradual erosion of a person’s energy and lust for life. So what could be better than a book? And a book that you could fit into your jacket pocket at that.” Tells you a lot about Sara, doesn’t it? How can you not love her?

Speaking of love, there is a lot of love going around in Broken Wheel. To be a dying broken down community, there are deep friendships, budding romances and forgiveness going all around. To doesn’t feel like a broken down town after Sara arrives and falls in love with Tom- I mean falls in love with Broken Wheel!

The Far Field in the Himalayas

I decided to read The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay in part because much of the setting is in Kashmir, a region in the Himalayas. I vaguely knew the area had ethnic-religious conflict, and I saw this as an opportunity to discover its history. It was a good choice on my part. The narrator is Shalini, a millennial woman from a privileged background in Bangalore, India. Shalini is college educated, emotionally wounded to the point of being callous towards others, terribly naive and ignorant of the ways of the world. She self-medicates of street drugs and alcohol, acts out in a variety of emotionally unhealthy ways, is distrusting and emotionally shut-down. The novel feels like a sad family epic because the wounds from her upbringing cause disaster to innocent families in Kashmir. Shalini’s very presence threatens the security of the families who take her in and whom she grows to love. A blurb from the publisher says, “With rare acumen and evocative prose, in The Far Field Madhuri Vijay masterfully examines Indian politics, class prejudice, and sexuality through the lens of an outsider, offering a profound meditation on grief, guilt, and the limits of compassion.”

Shalini’s mother is a mentally-ill and mercurial woman who can go from loving to brutally caustic in seconds, hence causing turmoil and chaos within the home. The only time she ever seems semi-normal is when Bashir Ahmed, a traveling salesman from Kashmir stops by with his wares. Shalini begins to look forward to his visits because she sees a totally different woman in her mother. After her mother commits suicide, Shalini impulsively strikes out for Kashmir to find Bashir Ahmed. The reason for this poorly made decision is slowly revealed over the course of the story. What happens in the meantime is Shalini arrives in this region without any plans on how to find Bashir. What complicates her poor choices is that the Indian army occupies this region of Kashmir, and the families who take Shalini into their fold are Muslim who suffer discrimination, heavy taxes, harassment from the Indian army. Muslims who are active in the militias against the Indian army are subject to torture and imprisonment. Many are abducted and just disappear. So it’s into this climate of fear and distrust, Shalini shows up. Ron Charles of The Washington Post writes, “Vijay draws us into the bloody history of this contested region and the cruel conundrum of ordinary lives trapped between outside agitators and foreign conquerors.”

The region of Kashmir is in the Himalayas and shares borders with India, Pakistan and China which all have a military presence in this beautiful area. Kashmir is an ancient center of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is conquered by Muslims in the 1300s and then eventually by the Sikhs. The Sikhs lose it to the British in the mid 1800s. In 1946, the Crown divides up the British Indian Empire into Pakistan and India. Thus begins decades of border skirmishes, four wars and military occupation. The “Line of Control” is a military de facto border that divides Kashmir into parts of India, Pakistan and China. Kashmiri Nationalists, who are primarily Muslim want their own autonomy, and there is ongoing insurgency and terrorism against occupying armies. This is such a beautiful area of the world with the incredible Himalayan mountains and valleys. And yet like so many other beautiful areas it is marred by violence and chaos.

Vijay writes with sensitivity and knowledge of this region. She was born in Bangalore, India and studied English and Psychology at Lawrence College. She has a MFA from the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa. Vijay volunteered as a teacher in Kashmir and writes with an understanding of the social-ethnic-political violence in this region. I finished this book with an awareness of the human cost of this ongoing conflict that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Vijay writes that books can “cross cultural boundaries. All I’m doing is trying to give these people a life…” And she does so, beautifully.

The Gulf of Mexico- an American Sea

For most of this winter, I have been reading The Gulf- The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner and a fascinating story of the history of the Gulf of Mexico. Beginning with European explorers discovering the Gulf and its indigenous peoples and ending with contemporary times, it leaves no stone left unturned in recounting the history of the Gulf and how it “empowered a growing nation.” As as resident of the Gulf Coast, this book truly enlightened me, but this is not a prerequisite to loving this book and learning American history from this perspective.

A couple of stories in the book fascinated me. One is the story of Walter Anderson, the eccentric artist from Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I have heard his story and seen his museum, but I’ve never heard about how the US military used Anderson’s beloved Horn Island as an ordnance dump during WW2 or why he refused rescue by the Coast Guard from Horn Island as Hurricane Betsy approached. His art demonstrates his incredible love and appreciation of the flora and fauna of the Gulf. Upon his death, Anderson left twenty years of journals about his experiences and hundreds of paintings and sketches.

Davis not only tells the story of Horn Island through Walter Anderson, but he has a whole chapter on the barrier islands of the Gulf. Barrier islands are “a distinct part of Gulf geography”, and there are numerous barrier islands along the coast. There are at least 20 of these islands off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, nine off the panhandle of Florida and forty-one off the Florida peninsula. They constantly shift and change with the water and wind currents, especially during hurricane season. Davis writes, “In 1848, Petit Bois was anchored east of the Mississippi-Alabama border; a century later, it was one mile west of the border.” These islands made the initial cartography of the coastline difficult for many decades. These early explorers were never quite sure about the actual shoreline with the islands, bays, and inlets so prevalent along the shifting Gulf Coast. It’s not like having the distinct coasts, of say, the Dover Cliffs or the rocky shores of Maine. I learned the Chandeleur Islands were declared a federal bird refuge by President Teddy Roosevelt. Padre Island off the Texas Coast was was considered by US military as a possible site for the first nuclear explosion during WW2. The navy was already using the island for bombing practice. Local newspapers had to warn beach-goers to stay out of the water. These kind of facts aren’t found in traditional history books!

I’m also fascinated to learn that bathing in the Gulf waters, or as we would say today, swimming was not even considered by beach-goers until the late 1800s. They sat on the beach, they painted on the beach, they fished, but didn’t swim. Americans swam in lakes and bays. They began using “bathing machines” where people would be dunked or immersed in the water, but no frolicking, no body surfing, and certainly no skin showing. These folks would come out of the horse-drawn bathing machines in ankle-length smocks. Lord help- they would have drowned had they attempted to frolic! Slowly beach resorts were developed, and “[M]agazines gave advice on how to properly frolic in the waves and simultaneously declared surf bathing a frivolous trend soon to pass.” Not.

Of course no history of the Gulf Coast would be complete without discussing offshore drilling and the BP disaster, the over-development of the coastline, hurricane preparedness, and the ecological threats. Davis does a great job with these serious topics. He is a professor at the University of Florida teaching history and sustainability studies. His expertise is evident on every page. He accounts for the rise of aquaculture in the seafood industry, non-profit groups forming to bring awareness and protection to our estuaries and Gulf waters, but he also pulls no punches about climate change and industry pollution in our waters and how we can, through our governmental agencies, do more to protect our Gulf resources. This is a must read!

Ponderings: I was in Orange Beach, Alabama with girlfriends the day of the 2010 BP oil spill. It was all over the media, and husbands were calling to inform us. We were drinking coffee in our pjs because it was a dark and cloudy day. Immediately we dressed and headed to the beach after hearing the news. The news of the spill made the day even darker and gloomier. We stood there and wondered aloud about the consequences of the disaster. Would our beach towns become ghost towns? Would our future grandkids grow up frolicking at the beach like our kids had? It was a scary day and a scary few months. It makes me a little misty-eyed even thinking about it now. We can never be too protective of our Gulf resources.

Thank you Alice for recommending this book to our family!

Anne Lamott Discusses Almost Everything

“So what of the only constant is change? Why bother touching up your roots?” Anne

Anne Lamott’s new book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is filled with wisdom, humor and just the right touch of sarcasm as she discusses, well, almost everything. Hope, fear, love, meanness, forgiveness, emotionally healthy eating and drinking, you name it. Y’all know, I love me some Anne! She makes me feel very normal in today’s world that doesn’t always feel so normal. Anne writes, “I have never witnessed both more global and national brutality and such goodness in the world’s response…” Agreed. We have to recognize today’s brutality that shows up in a myriad of ways, but let’s choose to concentrate on the goodness of our fellow human beings. The old bumper sticker from a few years ago that said “Practice Random Acts of Kindness” doesn’t seem so trivial these days. Maybe it needs to be the world’s motto. A plea for our better angels to show forth with glory. It comes down to LOVE which gives us hope and “bridge[s] the high-rises of despair…love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope…we see that our beauty [of creation] is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. We also see love and tender hearts carry the day.”

This love and tender hearts must be for ourselves as well as others. “As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop these things for ourselves, too. While you might think it’s a trick, having affection for one’s goofy, crabby, annoying, lovely self is home. This has been my meager salvation.” Mine too, Anne. Apparently Anne and I both grew up perfectionistic children feeling responsible for our parents’ happiness and the steadiness of our childhood home. She writes, “I had not asked to be given the role of child statesman, of arranging back-channel negotiations between my parents and siblings whenever called on to do so, like Colin Powell in a red plaid kilt. I didn’t know I could turn down the job. I took it on, and I liked it: identity is a posture that we steal and assemble as a protective coating, but it’s also a ski mask, camouflage and protection from the cold.” So we spend our adult lives digging through these identities to discover who God created us to be. For me, it’s been a long and expensive journey of therapy to self-love and self-acceptance AND love and acceptance of family. I agree with Anne when she writes, “…the family is the most incredible, efficient laboratory, in which to work out the major blocks to these [identities], which of course we got from the family in the first place. If we do the forgiveness work, forgiving our families and ourselves, they become slightly less “them,” and we become slightly more “we.” It’s ultimately about reunion.” So worth the journey!

As much as I loved everything in this book, one of the best topics Anne covers is hate and how easy it is to hate in today’s world. We want to hate people who love the president if we hate him and vice versa. We want to hate people for their prejudices and biases. We want to hate hateful mean people who hurt others. Anne says hate is incapacitating- “when we hate, we can’t operate from our real selves, which is our strength.” These annoying people are “grace-builders” in our lives. Anne says her preacher said “Just don’t let them get you to hate them.” Use prayer as a surrender of our rage and hate- like St Patrick. Anne’s take on the good saint’s prayer is this, “Make me a channel of Thy peace, that where there is hatred, let me sow love, or at least not fertilize the hate with my dainty bullshit.” Amen, Sister, Amen!

We can do this, we can survive and thrive in today’s world of loud mouth bullies, “us versus them” thinking, and fear-based attitudes and policies. We can survive it as individuals and as a nation. We have Anne Lamott to help shine the way through this darkness.

PONDERINGS: My daughter and I are starting a new business which is cutting into my cherished reading time. I’ll go to bi-weekly postings from now on. Hopefully I can keep up with which week I’m on and which week I’m off. Ha!

More Than Words- Finding Your Voice

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.“Parker Palmer- Letting Your Life Speak

I finished this delightful little love story about 1:20 AM and then at breakfast I read my latest blog from Katie Gustafson addressing the process of finding your own voice. Ironically this is the overarching plot of More Than Words by Jill Santopolo. The poignancy of Nina’s process of becoming her own person takes this story from just a simple beach read to a good reminder for us to live the life we are meant to live instead of the life someone else means for us to live. It’s a dilemma we all have to face at some point in our lives in order to live with integrity, right? Nina Gregory is the only daughter of a wealthy hotelier in NYC, and good ole dad has planned Nina’s life to the “nth” degree, her career path- eventually becoming the CEO of the hotel, her husband- which will be Tim of course, etc etc. And good ole Nina doesn’t ever want to disappoint dad so she never questions if she wants to plan her own life. I can’t decide if she is a nine on the Enneagram with her peacemaking and invisibility or a six with her over the top loyalty!

Nina’s mother is tragically killed in a car wreck on Christmas Day when Nina is six years old. Dad devotes his life to his career and Nina giving her all he can. There always seems to be some mysterious guilt coming from dad about her mother’s death. She discovers the reasons a few days after his death from cancer. Nina also discovers some white-collar shenanigans her father committed. Dad tumbles from his pedestal which frees Nina from his emotional grip on her. She begins, as Parker Palmer says, to listen to her life telling her who she really is and finding her voice to express her identity. On her blog, therapist Katie Gustafson writes, “We all fall somewhere on this spectrum of finding our voice. Maybe you have recently unlocked this stunning, shiny voice of yours and you really like using it. The test drive is intoxicating. Or, perhaps you’re  completely shut down, confusing everyone else’s demands and desires with your own. You’re exhausted and maybe even a bit resentful. Either way, the next best step is to slow down, take several very deep breaths, and simply listen. Feel your feet on the floor and your spine growing up from your seat. Notice the sensations inside your body; they’re talking alright. Give the tension a little time-out; you can pick her up in just a minute. This is your true self. This is the space free of ego. This is where, with some practice, your life will speak to you in profound and sweet ways. This is the power of presence inside of you. It’s the magnificent Motherload. Let’s give it a listen.

Nina chooses to “give it a listen” and discovers herself along with the sweet, yet passionate love of Rafael. She also puts together a new family for herself, “a family of choice.” A family who loves just who she is and supports her as she begins using this newly found voice. Lots of us in real life put together for ourselves families of choice, and we have sisters by blood and sisters by choice. You will cheer for Nina because Santopolo fleshes out her character in believable ways. We’ve all either been on the same journey as Nina or walked beside someone who has. It’s a great book for a trip to the beach, but it will give you lots of ponder afterwards.

PONDERINGS: https://katiegustafson.co/ to follow her blog and see the incredible work she does with her online community.