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

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.

Book Review: 365 Days

365 Days

This graphic account of the Vietnam War is told by a physician, a doctor who spent a year assigned to Zoma, an Army hospital in Japan. Author Ronald J. Glasser, M.D. arrived in Japan as a pediatrician, primarily to care for the children of officers and high-ranking government officials. However, because the monthly total of wounded averaged six to eight thousand per month, he was called on to treat the soldiers.

The title of the book, 365 Days, reflects the amount of time a tour of duty was: a year, 365 days. At first Doctor Glasser thought the stories, the war accounts he heard from his patients, were exaggerated, but he began to hear the same stories again and again. They were true, and the horrific accounts repeated themselves over and over.

Each chapter is told from a different viewpoint, vignettes about men who served in different capacities. We learn about the war from young infantry soldiers. We read about the men who operate “tracks,” described as any vehicle that runs on treads rather than wheels. We learn about war through the eyes of the of helicopter pilots who take incredible risks to rescue the injured or drop troops into hot areas, or deliver supplies. We learn from special forces personnel scattered throughout the country what it means to be highly trained, but then find that life in a Vietnam jungle is even worse than the most rigorous training.

We learn from explosive experts the danger they live with at every turn. We learn from young men eighteen or nineteen years old what it’s like to confront civilian villagers who have been trapped in war for years, people for whom survival is chancy at best, yet people who set traps that kill. We see medics who risk terrible danger to save their comrades, to do what they can to patch them up good enough to hold them until they can be flown to Japan, or who at least try to make dying less painful. And finally, we see from a physician’s side of things, the damage wreaked as a result of the terrifying stupidity of war, of trying to put back together young bodies that have been so destroyed, life will never be the same.

365 Days is not a book for the faint of heart; it is written in eloquently horrifying detail. But I still recommend it. It is a haunting tribute to those who served, a book about raw courage. It made me want to do whatever possible to avoid war. The human sacrifice is too great and has too many lasting consequences. There has to be a better way. The book doesn’t offer suggestions for avoidance, but rather the aftereffects when choosing war.

Book Review: Big Magic

Big MagicElizabeth Gilbert shares a unique view of creativity in Big Magic. By living creatively, living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear, we promote within ourselves inspiration to pursue our talents without the worry of having to achieve excellence.

The creative process is both magical and magic. Ideas are constantly swirling around us. When approached with ideas, we have the ability to accept or reject them. Not all ideas are good, or good for us to act upon. But when an idea is introduced and you feel an inspiration, embrace it and do whatever it takes to fulfill your desire to express it. Forget perfection; it can stop you from completing your work. Perfection itself is unachievable.

Author Gilbert emphasizes that an advanced degree in creative writing does not ensure success. She makes this point: “Twelve North American writers have won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901, but not one of them had an MFA. Four of them never got past high school.” In other words, writers should not feel that they need a degree in writing in order to achieve success. What it does take to achieve success is dedication and determination to see your ideas through, to work toward a goal of finishing a project.

Gilbert admits that money helps, but she also says that if money were the only thing people needed to order to live creative lives, then the super rich would be the most imaginative, original thinkers among us. We all know this simply is not true. “The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust—and those elements are universally accessible.”

As a writer, I found Big Magic enlightening and informative. It gave me fresh perspective on the creative writing process. People with other creative endeavors will be inspired by the book, too, and will no doubt recognize themselves in her words. The book is loaded with wisdom and thought-provoking ideas.

To learn more about Elizabeth Gilbert and her work, visit http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/

Book Review: The Man in the Window

The Man in the Window 2

Nancy Pearl, my favorite literary critic, said after reading The Man in the Window, “Here was a novel to love.” And indeed it is. Author Jon Cohen has captured the essence of life in this poignant, funny and often caustic novel.

Louis Malone, now 32, badly disfigured in a fire when he was 16, became a recluse, hidden away in the family home. His world was what he could see from his upstairs bedroom window.

Iris Shuda, an extremely capable nurse, was resigned to never finding love. As Cohen describes her, Iris had been an unappealing baby, and as it turned out, that was her physical highpoint.

Gracie Malone, Louis’ loving mother and a recent widow, is not yet used to living without her husband, and now her son is her whole world.

Widower Arnie Shuda, Iris’ father, is a rough and tumble sort of guy, full of earthy humor. His right hand is a hook and he openly jokes about it.

The Man in the Window develops these four characters with such living force, I felt I knew them, that they were my neighbors. The hospital scenes with Iris are so realistic I wondered how the author knew so much about medicine. But then I learned that Jon Cohen was at one time a critical care nurse.

When Louis falls out of his second-story bedroom window, he and Iris are brought together. And then, along the way, their parents meet.

The Man in the Window is a marvelous, well developed, heart-rending love story. I loved it so much I dreaded reaching the end.

The Blooming Fields of Skagit Valley

Tulips

 

It’s like viewing the perfect mural—row upon row of dazzling color—brilliant red, sparkling yellow, vivid pink, rakish purple. Though picture-perfect, they’re real, these delightful tulip fields of the Skagit Valley. Not only tulips, but daffodils and iris grace these lovely fields. Although Mother Nature dictates the bloom dates, daffodils bloom first, followed by tulips and finally, iris.

Now extended to cover the entire month of April, this year’s 33rd annual Skagit ValleyTulip Festival also features, in addition to viewing the blooming fields, a packed schedule of events including art shows, wood crafting events, barbecues, quilt walks, and walking tours.

Since the mid-1930s, spring-time visitors to the Skagit Valley have marveled at the striking beauty of tulip, daffodil and iris fields. Northwest Washington, particularly in the Skagit Valley, has become world- famous for its seasonal showcase and for its commercial bulb production. Washington Bulb Company, the nation’s largest tulip, daffodil and iris producer, makes its headquarters in Skagit Valley.

As it happens, the Northwest has perfect bulb-growing climate with cool moist winters, which encourages root growth. Also, relatively cool spring and summer weather helps control diseases common in hotter places. Another factor is well-balanced, level and well-drained soil.

A favorite local story tells about the local gardener who thought he would buy his bulbs that year from the source, Holland. You guessed it. When he received his bulbs from Holland, the package label said the bulbs were grown in the Skagit Valley!

Those who are returning to enjoy the springtime hues will notice that those fields seen last year frequently will not have the same crop this year. That is because flower bulbs, like many other crops, must be rotated to preserve the soil and reduce pest contamination. The flowers rotate to their original field about every five years.

Tulip Festival maps are available at many Skagit Valley stores, but it isn’t necessary to have a map to enjoy the blossoms. Signs indicate the “Tulip Route,” or you may simply drive along until you see a field. If there is a pull-off, park and enjoy the view, or even walk along designated paths. Remember, for some traffic on the road, it’s business as usual and drivers aren’t expecting sudden stops. Also, this is a busy time of year for farmers and heavy equipment will be moving about, so please be patient.

The Skagit Valley growers ask for your cooperation in touring the fields. Be aware that only certain fields are open to visitors. Always observe private property; please don’t trespass to get a picture. Enter only those fields with signs posted that visitors are welcome. NEVER pick a flower—cut flowers are available for sale at various stands.
Two local growers encourage visitors to stop: Roozengaarde and Tulip Town.

Roozengaarde has a three acre display garden with an authentic Dutch windmill. Bulbs and cut flowers are available for purchase—stroll the gardens to find your favorites. At Tulip Town, in addition to the tulips fields and purchasing opportunities, visitors will enjoy more than 100 exquisite tulip arrangements, live music, food, and horse-drawn wagon rides through the tulip fields

Splendid opportunities await eager photographers. Early morning or late afternoon give the best light for picture taking. For really spectacular pictures, include landscape attractions, such as barns or snow-capped Mt. Baker. Tulip fields provide a colorful carpet against the backdrop of the majestic Cascade Mountains.

To get there: The blooming fields are 60 miles north of Seattle, directly off I-5 using exists 221 through 236. All of these exits have tulip brochures at the nearest businesses. The fields are spread out over a 15-mile radius and events are scattered around the entire county. Festival site guide maps are available.

For more information, visit tulipfestival.org or call (360) 428-5959.

Book Review: Flying South

Flying South 2

Already a woman of many accomplishments, Barbara Cushman Rowell embarked on the greatest adventure of her life. Together with her husband, world renowned adventurer/photographer Galen Rowell and her younger brother, Barbara Rowell set out on an epic aviation adventure.

Leaving Oakland, California in November,1990 Barbara Rowell flew south in her single-engined Cessna 206 to Central America, then on to Patagonia at the southern end of South America. Along the way, she dropped off first her husband so that he could fulfill a climbing and photography assignment for National Geographic magazine, then her brother so that he could return to his business in the United States. Along the way she picked up two or three other passengers, some who fulfilled the role as co-pilots, some just along for the ride. She completed the flight in February,1991.

Barbara Cushman Rowell had previously logged 700 flying hours as a pilot, but was also licensed for instrument flying. I loved the “pilot speak” with explanation enough to understand the gist and complications of a pilots life. The book also contains a helpful glossary. Photographs taken by Barbara and Galen add immeasurably to the book’s 302 glossy pages.

The memoir has vivid descriptions of aqua-blue bodies of water, impenetrable jungles, sparkling Mayan ruins, vast deserts, colorful markets, and cities sometimes not so friendly. She also shared the difficulty in some countries of getting through customs, airline paperwork and dramatically increased fees, and landing in a country in the midst of a coup.

Along the way, we see Rowell grow in confidence as an individual, not as someone’s wife, especially someone as famous as Galen Rowell. She realizes that most of her life she acquiesced to men’s will or desires. For example, a male friend scheduled a rafting trip for them on the Bio Bio River in Chile. Although she didn’t want to go, she consented, with disastrous results.

Barbara had her share of fears: fear that her plane would have mechanical problems (it did), fear of having to fly in bad weather (she did), fear of having to land under adverse conditions (that happened, too), but she learned to recognize her fear as a biological warning to pay attention.

Flying South is an extraordinary memoir, one that held me captive. I recommend this book not only to anyone interested in flying, but to anyone who longs to test herself, to stretch her limits. Barbara Rowell’s candid writing rings with honesty and character.

Note: Flying South had just been published when, on their return trip from Alaska, the charter plane in which Barbara and Galen Rowell were passengers crashed. There were no survivors

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hidgehog

As a member of our local library book club, I have had the pleasure of reading many excellent books that I otherwise wouldn’t have selected. I won’t write a bad review—if I don’t like a book, I simply stop reading it. When I started reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, my first reaction was that it really wasn’t my kind of reading. I’ll just try another chapter, I thought. And then I was hooked.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is an incredible novel. Translated from French, the book’s two main protagonists couldn’t be more different. Paloma, a privileged precocious twelve-year-old is disgusted with life and intends to end hers on her thirteenth birthday. Paloma has only one friend, but has a mind far advanced of her age. She is a deep thinker who can see through facades, including those of her own family. Although an excellent student, she hides her extraordinary intelligence.

Renee Michel, a concierge at an elegant Paris hotel, describes herself as a short, ugly, plump widow. The hotel, which consists of five posh apartments, is what we might call a condominium with Madam Michel the building manager. She is treated as she expects to be treated, as someone to take care of mundane chores, freeing up the rich and important people to go about their busy lives. What the tenants don’t know is that their concierge is a connoisseur of fine art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture.

When a new tenant arrives, a wealthy Japanese man named Kakuro Ozo, amazing things begin to happen to Madame Michel and Paloma’s worlds, each in different ways.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an unusual book, an ingenious work of fiction. The story line is intriguing, and shows not only the author’s masterful writing skills, but her intelligence in a wide variety of subjects.

To learn more about this French novelist and professor of philosophy, visit http://murielbarbery.com/