The tipping point

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Photo by Kathy Kieliszewski

In my inconsistent pursuit of living my best life, this is a great article: 3 important questions you need to ask yourself to pursue the life you want. I struggle with all three.

An insightful article for parents of boys (of which I am one): Ending sexual violence by raising better boys.  With the times being what they are,  we can’t have enough conversations about this.

Love, love, love this shop: Lily & Val

Maybe I should stick with this meditation thing. “Ultimately, there is only one thing that creates tension: wanting things to be different than they are.” Note to self: Remember this.

When my motivation is lagging, I love to check out The Cut’s How I Get It Done. If these women can pack achievement/exercise/social life/family into their busy days, surely I can. This one’s a hoot. I want to hang out with Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

The hype about these cookies is well-deserved. Amazingly soft brownie cookies loaded with sprinkles from How Sweet Eats. I love the How Sweet Eats blog and the recipes I’ve tried have been so flavorful and spot-on delicious, but the cookbooks intimidate me. Not sure why.

 

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The tipping point

Recommendations, reminiscences, and other things on my mind.

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Courtesy of one of my favorite blogs: http://www.classygirlswearpearls.com

On the menu this upcoming week: I recently took a cooking class at Sur La Table and realized, perhaps was simply reminded, that I enjoy taking the time to cook a meal that doesn’t come together in a hurried 30 minutes. Perhaps, for starters, Chicken Francese or Chrissy Teigen’s Sleeptime Stew Cream Cheese Smashed Potatoes from her new book (which is also a hilarious read). (To my friends who await a Michaywe jaunt, her Everything Bagel Cream Cheese Breakfast Bake will be for breakfast!)

And how amazing is this! The New York Public Library (that I, sadly, have yet to visit) has 17,545 menus dating to 1846 to explore.

The only reason I miss my former 2-hour daily commute? Audiobooks. I’m listening to this one right now — LOVE IT and love the narrator — because I “read” Robert Galbraith’s other three that way. A good excuse to put in the time at the gym. Here’s an interview with Galbraith, a.k.a. JK Rowling.

Leon Bridges? Why has it taken me so long to find him? Am I the only one who wasn’t clued in?

Schadenfreude. I finally learned how to pronounce it and hope to put it in a sentence soon (ha!). Second most interesting word I looked up this week: trope.

Fall. My favorite season. I’m pretty sure I would make a great New Englander — high-strung, serious, preppy. It would be a dream vacation to hit Vermont and the rest of New England during peak leaf-peeping season. Here’s a guide.

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Courtesy of http://www.classygirlswearpearls.com

For all the times I find other things to do instead of going to the gym, I should at least try to put in the strength training at home. Here’s a guide I find helpful. I’m also inspired by the NYT running guides, but sadly anything beyond 3 miles is just not going to happen.

 

 

The tipping point: Recommendations and reminiscences

Jeep Grand Wagoneer 1989

And now for something a little different: Recommendations, reminiscences, and ruminations. Random thoughts and burning questions. This that have so interested me, inspired me, or irked me that I have to share.

I can totally relate to this: The Art of (Bad) Running

If you’re looking for a soft, cake-like chocolate chip cookie, this is where it’s at.

“The Great Believers” — LOVED this. This was historical fiction (a genre I love), but with a setting and characters with whom I’m not familiar (gay men and their loved ones in Boystown dealing with the AIDS crisis when it first struck in the 1980s and its aftermath). So many beautiful moments about what constitutes family and the search for love. And, Yale, especially when he’s standing in front of his dream house and thinks of what might have been.

Does anyone else miss the old J. Crew? The one from the late ’80s and early ’90s? This and this have me reminiscing and thinking I need to shop here more often.

I will never tire of seeing late ’80s-early ’90s Jeep Grand Wagoneers.

For an easy, packed-with-flavor, restaurant-quality dinner, you can’t go wrong with roasted lemon chicken.

I wish someone would have shared this information with me when I was in college.

Love your wine? No need to panic. I’m going to stay calm.

I love a good awards show. The Emmys are on Monday. Fingers crossed “The Americans” takes home a few statuettes. If you haven’t watched, get on it.

Why do teenagers leave empty boxes in the pantry?

 

7 amazing books to add to your TBR list

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So far, 2018 has been a memorable year for books. I suppose, if we were being generous, February could still be considered the start of a new year.

I’ve just so loved the seven (!) books I’ve read so far that I wanted to share my recommendations.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward: This gorgeously written National Book Award winner is a Southern gothic story of family threaded through with death and the remnants of violence. I loved the imagery of light vs. dark. As a parent, the novel was painful to read. As an English major, I wanted to write a paper. Jojo is being raised by his loving grandparents and shoulders the responsibilities his drug addict mother, Leonie, and imprisoned father abandoned. Leonie and Michael are devoted to each other and drugs. There isn’t room for more. Leonie sets out on a road trip with her children and an addict friend to pick Michael up from prison. Ghosts unable to break from their earthly ties haunt Leonie, her children and her parents. The multiple narrators shed light on the characters and their heartbreak. All the characters struggle with the need to belong, to be wanted and to be cared for.

“The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dionne: Helena was born the daughter of narcissistic, violent man and the teenage girl he kidnapped. Growing up, she has no idea there is more to the world than her isolated, incredibly rustic U.P. home. She also has no idea her adoring father isn’t who she thinks he is. After layer upon layer of manipulation and lies are revealed, Helena and her mother escape their U.P. heaven/hell, an event that sends her father to prison. Now an adult, Helena discovers her father has escaped and it’s up to her to track him down and put him away for good. This is a fabulous read, especially for Michiganders. Dionne juxtaposes her narrative with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” the tale of a girl who must choose between the good and evil sides of herself.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin: If you were told when you were going to die, would it affect how you chose to live? Four siblings visit a mysterious (and not wholly believable) psychic in 1970s New York as children and their lives are forever changed by what they hear. Was the psychic right or were her predictions at the core of self-fulfilling prophecies for the siblings? On a whole, the family’s story is pretty sad. The reader is left wondering if the fate of the family would have been the same had the siblings not been given those dates? “Thoughts have wings,” says the guilt-ridden Daniel, the oldest who orchestrated the visit to the Romani fortune-teller that set the siblings’ futures into motion.

“The Final Girls” by Riley Sager: Three girls each survive mass murders. Now, one by one they are being picked off. Just what happened that night to the latest survivor (who can’t remember important details of the attack on her and her friends as they partied at a cabin in the woods) and whom can she trust? Great plot twists.

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng: Having loved (all caps, exclamation points) “Everything I Never Told You,” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Ng’s follow-up. It doesn’t disappoint. In a planned neighborhood in Cleveland, there were rules and “everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lies on the inside.” The Richardson family — long a symbol of this belief system — benevolently takes a new tenant and her daughter under its wings. Mia and Pearl harbor secrets and unconventional ideas that change the Richardsons. Without meaning to, Mia and Pearl fuel the fires of discontent lurking beneath the surface.

“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn: Of the many books recommended for fans of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on a Train,” this one absolutely lives up to the hype. An unreliable (but sympathetic) narrator with a predilection for film noir (a plot strand is straight out of “Rear Window”), prescription drugs and copious amounts of red wine, psychologist Anna Fox is homebound by agoraphobia. Her human interactions consist of consulting “patients” online, flirtations with her basement tenant and spying on her neighbors. As she gets more and more involved in what she thinks she sees across the street, the pace picks up and nothing is as it seems. It’s no surprise this is being turned into a movie. Please read the book first.

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee: This page-turner of a Korean family saga spans the 20th Century. The novel digs deep into the effects of war, separations, scandals, tragedies, and sacrifices on the individual. Rising above everything, though, is a commitment to family and country. In the end, the characters find that you can’t escape who you are.

 

My favorite books of 2017

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While I didn’t top last year’s 37 books, I read far more in book form and listened far less on audio in 2017. The end of my 2-plus-hour commute helped with that.

So, for 2017, I read 36 books with two being on audio. In comparison, of 2016’s 37 books, 15 were on audio. I’m taking this as a victory. For 2018, I am going to try to focus more on nonfiction and new writers.

Without further ado, my favorites of 2017:

“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen: A beautifully written and insightful autobiography.

“Jane Steele” by Lyndsay Faye: A retelling of “Jane Eyre” with a decidedly darker heroine and delicious writing. For more on Faye: http://bit.ly/2nxuP3N

“Did You Ever Have a Family?” by Bill Clegg: A haunting story of a family tragedy and its aftermath.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte: I cannot believe it took me so long to read this. Loved, loved, loved it. For more: http://bit.ly/2CoEH7y

“Marlena” by Julie Buntin: I’m so glad this has raked in the accolades. If you’ve ever been a teenage girl — or if you’ve ever wanted to understand the drama and the push and pull of female friendship — give this debut a try. It is fabulous. For more: http://bit.ly/2tXXNJ8

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gaasi: Gorgeously written, this story of two half-sisters who never knew each other traces the slave trade and its devastation in Africa, Europe and America. The novel comes full circle after following generations of the families through 300 years of history.

“Beartown” by Fredrik Backman: A violent act tears apart a small, struggling town united in its adoration of its promising youth hockey team.

“Mischling” by Affinity Konar: I’m drawn to books about World War II and the Holocaust, especially those dealing with the human impact and lesser-known heroism. But lately it seemed like the books I had chosen were lackluster. Not this one. The heroines of the novel are twin girls saved and ruined at Auschwitz by Dr. Josef Mengele. This historical fiction is also about the costs of forgiveness and revenge.

“The Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom: A white servant girl from Ireland finds herself cast with slaves on a plantation and later as the mistress of the house. It’s a story of families, the ones you make and the ones you’re born into, and loyalty. If you liked “The Invention of Wings,” you’ll like this.

And the biggest surprise was how much I liked “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” by Matthew Sullivan, a recommendation from my independent bookstore. I figured it to be a light story about quirky characters who frequent a bookstore. It’s so much more: a  murder mystery, a story of friendship, a heartbreaking search, and the damage families can do. The characters were mostly compelling and there were enough twists to make this a page-turner.

What were your favorite books of 2017? I’m always looking for great recommendations.

 

Saul Black thrillers: Not for the faint of heart

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Fans of Gillian Flynn and Karin Slaughter: Get to know Saul Black.

Dark, gruesome, creative, twisty, his two novels — “The Killing Lessons” (2015) and “LoveMurder” (2017) — won’t disappoint.

“The Killing Lessons” introduces us to Detective Valerie Hart, who, like most interesting characters, is flawed and complicated and often unlikable. Two psychopathic predators (one haunted by the abusive Mama Jean, the other a poseur tagalong who wants a friend) leave a trail of bodies — most of them abducted, tortured women left with objects inside of them — and a lone survivor: A 10-year-old girl who holds the key to finding them. There’s a rhyme and reason for the murdering pair’s madness and as Hart slowly unravels the mystery, it’s a race against time.

Hart returns in “LoveMurder.” Six years have passed since Hart helped put the mesmerizingly smart and beautiful Katherine Glass in prison for a series of gruesome torture murders. But her partner in crime was never found and now he’s back — his style tweaked a bit — and he’s letting Hart know it. The detective, struggling to commit to a future not tainted by the worst of mankind, knows the only way to solve the cryptic puzzles the killer sends her in the mail is to go toe-to-toe with Glass.

Hart and Glass are drawn to each other, which scares the detective and amuses the convict. The verbal interplay between the two is great. Hart — and her colleagues and family — fear the collaboration spells nothing but trouble.

Valerie thought of her grandfather, the last member of her family for whom the Devil was a real entity. What had he said? First the Devil lets you know there are terrible things. Then he tells you which room they’re in. Then he invites you in to look. And before you know it you can’t find the door to get out. Before you know it you’re one of the terrible things. 

There is witty repartee between Glass and Hart. Glass cajoles, flirts, ridicules, condescends and verges too close for comfort.

“I’m not saying we’re the same,” Katherine said. “I’m saying we’re close. You see the world for what it is and do everything you can to make it otherwise. I see the same world and do everything I can to make it work for me. We’ve both looking at the same blank canvas. It’s just what we paint on it that’s different.”

The killer’s MO is personal for Hart, but she wonders if survival would be worth it to the victim:

Weren’t there things you’d rather not survive? Weren’t there things that someone could do to you that would leave you so changed, so unrecognizable, and so immune to love that you’d wish you hadn’t survived?

It’s a story of love and betrayal, God and the devil, truth and lies, life and death. Just like Glass and her Man in the Mask, from whom hope “was their aphrodisiacal drug of choice,” pleasure and pain are intertwined.

The best part: Huge twists that I didn’t see coming (and I’m usually really good at predicting whodunit).

The writing is clever and creative, the crimes brutal and unnerving. An abducted woman, thinking back to what Bede, a monk in 8th-Century England said about life:

A little bird … flying through the night flies in one window, through the bright hall, and out the window at the other end. It takes no time at all, just a second. That’s your life. You’re the bird and the world is the feasting hall. You have to make sure you see everything. All of it, as much as you can. You’ve got a moment, that’s all.

 

 

 

The lost girls: ‘Marlena’ and ‘The Girls’

Julie Buntin and Emma Cline immerse the reader in the female teenager psyche. I highly recommend these debut novels.

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“We all want to be seen. ”
― Emma Cline, The Girls”


Female friendship is fraught with opposites: loyalty and betrayal, love and hate, envy and sympathy, ego and insecurity, and power and submission.

Two recent books dig deep into girls and their need to belong. “Marlena” by Julie Buntin takes place in the not-so-distant past in a fictional town based on Petoskey in northern Michigan. Buntin nails the us vs. them, the mansion vs. trailer undercurrent. “The Girls” by Emma Cline, a favorite from 2016, is stunning in its imagining of just what would lure girls to a Manson-like cult in the late ’60s.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. The writing, the characters, the immersion into the female teenage psyche.

Both Catherine (trying to reinvent herself as the more risky Cat after moving away from all she knew in Pontiac) in “Marlena” and Evie in “The Girls”  are lost. They are children of divorce whose parents are absent — physically, economically, emotionally or all three. The girls’ mothers are struggling to find themselves, Cat’s mom in a dead-end town with few options and Evie’s stylish mom trying to break out with a career when women were just starting to look beyond the home. The fathers are on the fringes.

Evie says of her mother: “There are ways I made sense of my mother later. How fifteen years with my father had left great blanks in her life that she was learning to fill, like those stroke victims relearning the words for car and table and pencil. The shy way she looked for herself in the oracle of the mirror, as critical and hopeful as an adolescent. Sucking in her stomach to zip her new jeans.”

Cat and Evie are desperate to fit in, to feel the pull and security of a friend. They have drifted from their other friends. They are easy targets for girls they wouldn’t normally be drawn to. Both become accomplices to girls who are worse off than they are — underfed, without direction, neglected, victims of sexual abuse. But to each girl, they are stronger together.

In “Marlena”:  “Together, we had power.… Nothing could hurt us, as long as we weren’t alone.”

“I felt a grateful wonder at the fated-ness of our friendship.”

Cat and Evie are prey to girls eager to feel power and influence. Suzanne, a motherly figure and favorite of Russell (think Charles Manson), knows just how to lure Evie in.

“Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.”

The attention doesn’t go unnoticed by Evie: “I was already starting to understand that other people’s admiration asked something of you. That you had to shape yourself around it.”

Evie and Cat are on the edges of violence. Close but never consumed. They are leery but thrilled by the danger.

Both writers craft beautiful sentences and infuse their characters with empathy. For example, Buntin writes of the cold winter sky: “The sky had turned hard and nickel gray, a color that, if you knocked on it, would make a tinny sound.”

One thing I loved about “Marlena” was the imagery of houses and home. Marlena stores her drugs in a little pin shaped like a house. When her lost pin is returned to her, damaged but repaired, it’s the beginning of the end. It’s the only home she’s been able to count on. While Cat believes her rundown trailer is “unutterably pathetic, the sum total of my family’s failures,” the motherless Marlena finds solace in it and in Cat’s mother. Marlena’s barn of a house reeks of rot and decay and the malevolence forged by her violent father who runs a meth lab in the woods.

The NY Times review calls Marlena and Cat’s friendship “a collaborative work of imagination.”

Marlena romanticizes Cat’s life in some ways because it’s something she’s never known. In her reminiscing, Cat wonders if her memory is accurate or romanticized by Marlena’s death and Cat’s regret:

“Why do I keep doing this? Making her out to be more than she was, grander, omniscient even, lovely and unreal. She could be such a bitch. She could sense what you hated about yourself, and if you pissed her off she’d throw it back at your face, she’d make sure you knew she thought it, too. Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I’m trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fists, and the quicker it all escapes.”

Both Cat and Evie return to the past that they can’t quite leave behind by the emergence of people who remind them of what was and could have been.

Suzanne keeps Evie from being swept up in Russell’s actions (as if she knows Evie isn’t of that world and was just tagging along) and the latter spends decades wondering what she would have done if she would have joined the others. She’s adrift and stunted.

“Only after the trial did things come into focus, that night taking on the now familiar arc. Every detail and blip made public. There are times I try to guess what part I might have played. What amount would belong to me. It’s easiest to think I wouldn’t have done anything, like I would have stopped them, my presence the mooring that kept Suzanne in the human realm. That was the wish, the cogent parable. But there was another possibility that slouched along, insistent and unseen. The bogeyman under the bed, the snake at the bottom of the stairs: maybe I would have done something, too. Maybe it would have been easy.”

Both are unmoored by the sense that they were left behind. Cat says: “I made it out, just like I wanted, and not once have I stopped looking back.”

After Marlena dies (no spoiler here), Cat struggles for decades with her grief and sense of guilt, that she didn’t notice or heed what she should have. She refuses to let herself off the hook:

“I’ve never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you’re irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena’s case, the person you’ll never have a chance to be.  … Let the record show that I was smarter than I looked. And anyway, I touched.”