Book Review: The Tilted World

The Tilted World

The Tilted World, co-written by man and wife team, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, is not only a gripping story of Mississippi bootlegging, but is also a revealing true account of the 1927 massive 27,000 square-mile flood.

Dixie Clay Holliver, married to slick Jesse Holliver, still grieves over the death of her infant son. Dixie Clay is not only married to a bootlegger, but, unknown to the townspeople, she makes the best moonshine in the county. Jesse is in complete control of the business and is commonly credited for making the contraband.

When Federal agents Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson arrive in the town of Hobnob, Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents, they come upon a crime scene and find an abandoned baby boy. Ted, who was raised in an orphanage, feels compelled to find a home for the little boy. He learns that Dixie Clay recently lost her son and he rides out to her house to deliver the baby. As Ted and Ham continue their investigation, they uncover more than they bargained for.

Have your umbrella and waders handy when you read this novel. Knowing that the flood portion is based on actual events makes this story even more powerful. By the end of the book I felt saturated, not only by the awful weather, but by the unique story of intrigue, murder and moonshine.

The Terror of a Coup d’etat

Village women & childrenThe attempted military coup in Turkey this past week reminded me of the terror we experienced during an attempted coup while we served in Gambia with the Peace Corps. Following is an excerpt from my memoir TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps:

Mortars thundered close to the house where 118 of us sought refuge. A particularly loud and close-sounding explosion made us jump and the house shudder. Not for the first time, I thought, Is this the end?

My Peace Corps supervisor Meri Aimes and I crouched under a small table with space only for the two of us. Others scrunched in where they could find room. My husband, Bruce, safely tucked under the desk he’d converted to a radio station, clutched the radio mic.

True, it was the American Ambassador’s house, but, though nice, it wasn’t the grand residence usually associated with a high-ranking officer’s home. At four thousand square feet, the concrete house wasn’t particularly large, not for this many people at any rate.

Our group of leaders had taken over the ambassador’s bedroom as a sort of headquarters, since the ambassador himself was “detained” at the US Embassy in Gambia’s capital city, Banjul. Families occupied the other two bedrooms; otherwise, people squeezed in where they could.

Meri’s eyes were huge. Her African American face was always expressive, but never more so than just then.

“This isn’t looking good, is it?” I said, trying to sound calmer than I felt.

Meri looked at me like I’d just made the understatement of the year. “Not really, no.”

“I’m wondering if Bruce and I will ever be able to get back to our village.”

“Right now I’d say it was doubtful.”

We both instinctively covered our heads at the sound of a close-by explosion. I broke out in sweat.

“I need to tell you something.”

Meri’s raised her eyebrows in question.

I waited until another flurry of rifle shots subsided. “We have about twenty-five hundred dollars buried in our chicken coop.”

“You what?”

“Well, what else can you do with American dollars? You can’t put it in a Gambian bank, we couldn’t keep it inside–we’ve already had our place broken into. We were converting our Gambian money into American cash so we’d have it when we left.”

Meri nodded. “You guys will probably be evacuated, but George and I likely will stay to get things wrapped up.” George Scharffenberger, Peace Corps Director, and Meri Aimes, Assistant Director, were the two highest ranking Peace Corps staff in the West African country of Gambia. We were lucky they were both with us, safe. For the moment, at least.

Meri touched my arm. “I promise I’ll do everything I can to recover your money. Draw me a map showing me just where it is.” She shook her head. “Only you and Bruce would think to hide money in a chicken coop.”

A runner, gasping for breath, banged on the bedroom door. “Someone is coming!” Bruce sprang out of his shelter and, quick and smooth with practice, dismantled the radios, forbidden to us by both the rebels and nationalists. He stuffed them into boxes kept under the desk. Within seconds he crawled back under the desk, cramming himself in front of the boxes. He was good. I was so proud of him.

Bruce’s and my eyes locked. As we had joked many times in the past two years, we silently asked, “Whose idea was this anyway?”

Tom Mosier, head of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Gambia, and George Scharffenberger came out from their safety places to greet our visitor. “Stay right where you are, folks,” Tom said, his voice tight.

The door opened and a tall African man strode in. He was probably an officer in charge; he reeked of authority. We couldn’t tell if he was a nationalist or a rebel from the local security force, Field Force they called it, which, together with disgruntled leftists, had started the coup several days earlier. He was a big man and to me he looked sinister. My stomach clenched. His black face glistened with sweat. He carried a rifle and wore a hand gun at his side. His eyes darted around the room. “This is good. Stay under cover. I have ordered that this house is not to be hit, but you never know…”

He nodded to Tom and George, and left. No one spoke until we heard a soft knock on the door. He was gone. Bruce sprang up and reassembled the radios just as a signal was coming through. He brought the mic with him back under the desk.

“Candyland, Lollypop. Candyland, come in. You guys okay?”

Bruce responded, his rich voice calm. “Lollypop, Candyland. Yes, we’re okay. One of the local officers just paid us a visit and…”

An explosion, even closer this time, drowned out his voice.

Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry


A.J. Fikry’s world plummeted into a life of despair when his wife died. When the novel begins, A.J. is drinking heavily, has no friends, is rude, and lives without direction.

His bookstore on Alice Island, Rhode Island, has suffered its worst sales year ever. To make matters even worse, his prized possession, a rare collection of Edgar Allen Poe, is stolen.

When A.J. suddenly becomes the adoptive father of Maya, his life turns to one of responsibility, of love and humor. When a publisher’s rep, Amelia Loman, first calls on A.J., he treats her rudely, but as his life and responsibilities evolve, so does his attitude.

Each chapter begins with a short synopsis of a well-known book. Through these short brief reviews we learn more about A.J. and how the literature he reads relates to his own life.

I loved this book, loved the humor, the very real circumstances of second chances and of taking risks when befriending people. Author Gabrielle Zevin has a way of reaching into the heart, making readers care about these characters and their community.

To learn more about this best-selling author, visit

Book Review: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis


Edward Sheriff Curtis, a grade-school drop-out, started his career in Seattle where he opened a photography studio. He was drawn to an old Indian woman who, by law, wasn’t even supposed to live in town, even though the city was named after her father, Chief See-ahlsh. Although often tormented by rock-throwing school boys and barely tolerated by Seattle citizens, Princes Angeline, the name given her because her real name was unpronounceable, refused to leave. Curtis finally talked her into letting him take her photograph at his Seattle studio. The photograph, taken in 1896, is remarkable in its detail.

Edward Curtis’s ambition was to produce a 20-volume publication of Native American communities in the early 20th Century. Even today, the logistics of such a project would be daunting, but considering the hardships involved—difficult travel, language barriers, bulky equipment—it was a remarkable achievement. In quest of his project, he enlisted the help of the day’s big thinkers, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Even so, he was constantly plagued by lack of funds. He received no personal pay for his life’s work; all monies went into the production of the publication.

Curtis spent three decades documenting the stories, rituals, and even some languages of more than eighty North American tribes. It took tremendous energy. The title of the book “Short Nights” hints to this–Curtis rarely slept. The “Shadow Catcher” was the name Native Americans gave to him.

The undertaking influenced Curtis profoundly. He became an outraged advocate of the American Indian’s plight: the broken treaties, missionaries “misguided missions,” the deplorable treatment of innocent women and children by the U.S. Army.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis features many of the Curtis photographs, and they are stunning. The limited 20-volume publications, The North American Indian, produced between 1907 and 1930 are highly valued today and are considered a “literary, artistic, historical masterpiece.” In appearance and texture, the books are among the most luxurious ever printed.

Author Timothy Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times and best-selling author of seven books, has written a riveting biography. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a well-told story of Edward Curtis, a remarkable man who has enriched our understanding of the Native American.

Book Review: Ankle high and Knee Deep

Ankle HighAnkle High and Knee Deep: Women Reflect on Western Rural Life is an engaging collection of essays written by ranch women, cowgirls, and farmers. The anthology, edited by Gail L. Jenner, offers a candid look at rural life, its tranquil beauty and its messiness. This anthology is about lessons learned, sometimes the hard way.

Many of the essays reminisce about childhoods on a ranch or farm, sharing the joy of riding horseback in wide open spaces. Along with the joy comes the hard parts, the endless chores, the hardships, the doing without when that year’s crops or stock doesn’t bring the hoped-for price.

Several stories delve into experiences with horses and how they become an integral part of rural lives. Through the years horses have been the constant source of pleasure as well as of necessity.

The book is divided into sections: Fortitude, Horse Sense, Community, Self-Reliance, Memory, Resilience and Lessons. Ankle High and Knee Deep offers stories rich in inspirational experiences The collection isn’t all pleasant—real life never is. The stories shared are from the heart, memories and current experiences of life passed on from generation to generation.

Toward the back of the book a section about the contributing authors and photographers reveals the lives of those who have participated in this fine collection. These brief biographies reinforce the heart of the book.

Photographs throughout the book help the reader feel what the words portray.

This is an excellent read written by women who have lived what they write about. I highly recommend this anthology of life in rural America.

Book Review: Detroit: An American Autopsy

Detroit 2Charlie LeDuff returns to his hometown as a journalist for the Detroit News. Once the richest city in America, Detroit has plunged to one of the poorest. In its heyday, it was the vanguard of the automobile industry. Today it leads the country in crime, unemployment, illiteracy, and foreclosures.

LeDuff paints a vivid picture of empty factories which are routinely burned for their copper. Whole blocks of what was decent neighborhoods are now decaying or gutted- out houses. Crime is rampant; systems put into place to protect the public are corrupt.

As a newspaperman, LeDuff attempts to uncover what destroyed Detroit. He talks to city officials, to homeless squatters, to mothers whose children have been murdered or died of overdose. He befriends firefighters, pointing out their worn-out equipment, the holes in their personal protective gear. He talks to police, some of them good, some on the take.

LeDuff’s writing is tough—no tip-toeing around issues for him. He dives into the heart of a problem and sifts through the ashes to root out the truth. His writing style is caustic and revealing, funny, and honest. He gives specific examples of corruption and ineptitude, and backs up the charges with facts. This is the work of an investigative reporter at the top of his game.

Detroit: An American Autopsy was an eye-opener for me. I knew the city was a has-been, but I had no idea of its depth of despair. I’ve never been so thankful to live in the Northwest; never so grateful not to live in Detroit. This is a memorable work, a suspenseful chronicle of decay.

To learn more about this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Detroit: An American Autopsy, visit

Book Review: Not My Father’s Son

Not my fathers son

Alan Cumming, stage, movie, and television actor has written a revealing memoir about his often-time abusive childhood and how it has affected his adult life.

Born in Scotland, Alan lived with his mother, brother and brutal father. During their childhood both boys were physically and verbally abused, but it seems most of his father’s wrath was taken out on Alan. Their loving mother was verbally abused and treated with disrespect.

The book toggles from his childhood in Scotland in the 1960s to 2010 while he appears in the British television series Who Do You Think You Are. The show is delving into Alan’s ancestry, learning about his maternal grandfather, whom his mother never knew. Alan learns his grandfather was a World War II hero who later died a violent death.

Along the way, Alan learns that the man whom he believes to be his father, may not be. This uncertainty brings anxiety, but as a professional actor, he performs in the series as he is expected to do.

I found Not MyFather’s Son an honest accounting of the effects of an abusive childhood. Cumming’s truthful approach to sharing it is filled with wisdom and observations that show insights and deep compassion. I also enjoyed glimpses of Scotland of yesterday and today.

This is a compelling memoir, often depressing, but painfully honest. It is a story driven to find the truth about his grandfather, his father, and himself.

Book Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things


Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, co-authored by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, is a startling and sometimes gross observation of hard-core hoarding. I’m not talking about messy housekeeping, or a house with clutter, I’m talking about hoarding to the extreme. Stuff piled almost to the ceiling. Floors littered to the point that people have to walk across piles of stuff to get from room to room.

The tendencies of hoarding often appear to be a narrow aspect of OCD (Obsessive- Compulsive Disorder), though not treatable by medication. It’s a condition where people value possession over use. Hoarders have lost the battle of mind over matter.

Hoarding seems to be carried out largely in secret; hoarders tend to be ashamed of their disorder. Marriages break up because of it; children are resentful and ashamed to bring their friends home.

Stuff delves into the psychology of what compels compulsive collectors to create unlivable conditions. Why would anyone collect stacks of newspapers, or scraps of paper with notes that no longer have meaning? Why would anyone scrounge through other people’s trash and take home useless, broken objects? It isn’t uncommon for a hoarder to fill up one living space and move on to another, only to start again. Some people rent storage units for the sole purpose of storing seemingly useless stuff.

Hoarding can be dangerous when the stuff hoarded attracts insects, rats and mice. When the results of hoarding invade other people’s living space, public health often intervenes, but the real problem isn’t solved. Even after a home is cleaned and truck loads of stuff hauled away, the hoarder will feel invaded and simply start in again—often with a vengeance.

With each chapter, Stuff delves into individual case studies, people afflicted with different types of hoarding and their out-of-control behavior. It’s a fascinating study and I came away with a deeper knowledge of the condition, and an appreciation for professionals who serve in this capacity. The book has a “Finding Help” section that contains valuable information to assist hoarders and their families.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things is an intriguing read. Hoarding is a growing problem in our society and this book offers a very readable look at the reasons and ramifications of this unfortunate disorder.


Book Review: Love is a Canoe

Love Is a Canoe

Love is a Canoe’s structure featuring a book within a book delves into marriage, love and need, three staples of life not necessarily related. The novel, written by Ben Schrank, is a complex, fun read.

Marriage Is a Canoe, published in 1971, was a huge success, a self-help book still cherished several editions later. In the book, twelve year old Peter spends a summer with his happily-married grandparents who pass on to him life-long lessons in leading a good, loving life. Many of these discussions take place in a canoe as grandfather and grandson fish in a lake. Decades later, the author Peter Herman is convinced by the original publisher to hold a contest in which he would interview a couple in need of marriage counseling. The winners of the contest would have an all-expense paid weekend with the author, and hopefully gain insights and wisdom about their marriage.

Emily is a devoted fan of Marriage Is a Canoe and as she witnessed her parents’ rocky relationship, she clings to the loving principles of marriage discussed in the book. Emily and her husband Eli’s marriage is faltering. Emily submits an essay as an entry to the contest, hoping that a discussion with her idol, author Peter Herman, will help Eli’s and her marriage.

The publisher of Marriage Is a Canoe, Ladder & Rake Books, sponsors the contest to beef up sales. Ambition at times gets in the way of reality and this contest is not going as planned.

Love Is a Canoe is a compelling read. My one regret is that I didn’t create a list of characters when I first started the book. There are many people to keep track of, including two people with the same first name. The novel contains many truths about love and marriage, love without marriage, and love despite marriage.

Book Review: The Pecan Man

The Pecan Man

Author Cassie Dandridge Selleck’s southern voice is so captivating I imagined sipping sweet iced tea with Miss Ora as we sat on her front porch.

The Pecan Man (pronounced Pee-can) is a name given by the neighborhood children to an elderly black man in the small Florida town of Mayville. The novella takes place 30 years earlier in 1976 and is told by an elderly woman, Ora Lee Beckworth. In her mid-fifties at the time of the story, recently widowed and childless, Miss Ora hires the Pecan Man, whom she calls Eddie, to mow her lawn and tend her flower and vegetable beds.

Blanche has been Miss Ora’s housekeeper for years and the two women have formed a strong bond. Blanche, the mother of 5 and also recently widowed, crosses from the “colored section” of town six days a week to clean and cook for Miss Ora. One day a violent tragedy occurs to Blanche’s youngest daughter. In an effort to protect the little girl, lies are told, lies that perpetuate until truth and lies form an impenetrable web that send an innocent man to prison.

I was captivated by this novella. The author, a native of Central Florida, uses the dialect of the area with ease, giving the book an authentic flavor of place. I highly recommend The Pecan Man.