Book Review: Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Parker Palmer, writer, teacher, dedicated Quaker, and activist, shares his philosophy of life to people in many walks of life. In Let Your Life Speak Palmer invites us to listen to our inner teacher to learn a sense of meaning and purpose.

The author shares his own search for finding his vocation. For years he attempted to force with grim determination what he thought should be his life’s work. Eventually, he learned that in order to remain true to himself, he needed to listen within to find a meaningful and lasting vocation.

Forcing ourselves into a vocation based on “shoulds” often results in burnout, trying to give what we do not possess.

Palmer shares a dark period of depression in his life. He describes depression as an ultimate state of disconnection: between mind and heart, between people, and between one’s self-image and reality. I found his painful journey one of the most enlightening of the book.

A section of the book, a look at self through seasonal metaphorical lenses, held profound meaning for me: Autumn, a time of seeding for ultimate growth. Winter, an opportunity to face harsh reality. Spring, though sometimes ugly with mud is also a time of rebirth. Summer, a time of abundance.

In just six chapters, 114 pages, Palmer has written a little volume of gentle wisdom and insight. I highly recommend Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation especially to a young person just beginning to search for meaningful work.

Book Review: The Letter

Kathryn Hughes’ compelling novel, The Letter, takes place in England and Ireland, and toggles between the early days of World War II and the 1970s.

While processing donated clothes where she volunteers at a thrift store in Manchester, England, Tina discovers an unposted letter in the pocket of a man’s old suit. The letter is obviously very old and she can’t resist opening it. Written by a distraught young man to the woman he loves, the letter apologizes for his behavior when he learned the woman was pregnant. Tina’s curiosity drives her to learn more about the letter and the obvious tragedy behind it. Why wasn’t the letter delivered? Who were these people? In any event, the project takes her mind off her own troubles dealing with Rick, her abusive husband.

The story goes back to 1938, to the home of a domineering father, a doctor, his wife, a midwife, and their daughter, Chrissie. Chrissie, 19, is seeing Billy a young man whom her father disapproves. Much to her intense dismay, she discovers she is pregnant. When her father learns of her condition, he immediately sends her to live with his wife’s sister in Ireland.

The story goes into some detail about the horror of unwed mothers being sent to convents and the harsh treatment they endured, invariably ending with relinquishing their babies to adoptive families.

The Letter held my rapt fascination as it weaves the stories of Tina and Rick in the 1970s and Chrissie and Billy in the late 1930s. As Tina delves into the story, another character appears, an American, which adds to the mystery.

I enjoyed The Letter, even though some of the harsh treatment depicted, though believable, was hard to read. The author does a good job of describing the attitudes and conditions of the day of both generations.

Book Review: Seeking the American Dream

Heidi M. Thomas’ Seeking the American Dream, is a heart-felt novel based on her mother, a German war bride.

The story begins in war-ravaged Germany, 1944. Anna Schmidt, a nurse, deals with the horrors of war as she tends the wounded, and as she sees her homeland destroyed by incessant bombing raids. When she meets American G.I. Neil Moser, there is an immediate attraction. Although Anna speaks no English, Neil speaks German so they are able to communicate. She admires his calm demeanor, and she loves listening to his stories of Montana ranch life. When Neil is suddenly shipped out, Anna is left with little hope and a yearning for what might have been.

When Anna receives a letter from Neil declaring his love and a proposal of marriage, she is overjoyed. But the two-year ordeal of emigration procedures make the dream seem almost impossible. Finally, she arrives in Montana and into Neil’s arms.

But the truth is, her problems are only beginning. She meets hostility and prejudice among some of their neighbors. Eastern Montana is a hard land, so vast that their closest neighbor is miles away. Long, harsh winters, spring floods, and sweltering summers make daily living a chore. The lack of household conveniences available in Germany, such as indoor plumbing and electricity, add to their hardship. At first they live with Neil’s parents and Anna feels unaccepted. But through it all, Neil is gentle and patient.

The couple eventually moves to their own ranch and start a family. But the hardships continue—running a ranch is brutally hard work. When sickness strikes, their existence is threatened and Anna fears her American dream is crumbling.

Master storyteller Heidi M. Thomas grew up on a remote Montana cattle ranch, which adds authenticity to her stories. Thomas’ descriptions of Montana’s landscape, weather, and the mindset of neighboring ranchers bring scenes to life. I very much enjoyed Seeking the American Dream which is the first book of Thomas’ new “American Dream Series.”

For more information about the author and her work, visit http://www.heidimthomas.com/

Book Review: A Man Called Ove

Fredrik Backman’s novel, A Man Called Ove, brought me many hours of pleasure. Although it wasn’t immediately clear to me, the story takes place in Sweden. There are no descriptive scenes of country-side; most of the action takes place in a housing development that could be anywhere.

Ove would just like to be left alone so that he could get on with his routine, self-appointed chores in peace. But one thing after another gets in the way of his methodical life. For instance: It’s perfectly clear that motor vehicles aren’t allowed in the housing area and a sign plainly states this regulation. Tenants, and tenants only, are to use the parking lot. But new neighbors not only violate this ruling, they back a U-Haul trailer over his flower bed and flatten his mailbox! Thus begins a series of interruptions, inconveniences and unwanted tasks, all aimed at interfering with his well-ordered life.

The man may be considered grumpy and unyielding, but you can’t deny he has principals and that he has no tolerance for those who don’t. As he valiantly strives to go about his own business, life, or other people’s lives, get in the way. Even a stray cat conspires to complicate his life.

Ove believes most people are idiots. They’re incapable, inept. His colorful language, his rages, even his inflexibility give a first impression of a stingy, miserly man. However, when you learn of his back-story, you see another kind of man, a self-made man who loved and has been deeply loved.

A Man Called Ove is a masterpiece. I highly recommend this enchanting novel.

For further information about this author and his work, visit http://www.fredrikbackmanbooks.com/

 

Book Review: Moloka’i

Alan Brennert has woven a fascinating historical novel, Moloka’i, a story about the dreaded disease, leprosy, and its affect on the Hawaiian people in the late 19th century.

On the Island of Oahu, Hawaii, Rachel Kalama, at 7 the youngest of four children, is diagnosed with leprosy. In the late 1800’s leprosy became a common and terrifying disease among the Hawaiian people. Once authorities learn of Rachel’s condition, she is sent to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment, then eventually sent to the leper colony on Kalaupapa Peninsula on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. For many, leprosy becomes a family tragedy of shame and of being shunned, often involving having to move to an area where the family’s circumstances are unknown. On some occasions a family member might accompany the diseased member, but Rachel’s mother is needed to care for the other children on Oaho and her father obliged to support them. Rachel’s uncle is also a resident of Kalaupapa, but it is decided that Rachael should not live with him, but rather live in a girls’ dormitory, supervised by Catholic nuns.

Rachel, feeling angry and abandoned, fights her confinement. So far, the leprosy only affects patches of skin on her leg and foot, so she is fully functional, but other girls are in various stages of disfigurement. At first she refuses to participate in the activities provided: school, organized play times and programs, but she eventually makes friends with the other girls. Years pass as Rachel carves out a life for herself. The book covers a span of more than fifty years.

In the meantime, Hawaii becomes a United States possession—not necessarily with the consent or approval of the Hawaiian people—and becomes the Territory of Hawaii. Funds and expertise become more available for the people at Kalaupapa, including a new hospital. This is well after Father Damien’s time, but many of the older residents remember his fiery dedication to the people there. A cure is eventually found for leprosy, a sulfa drug that stops new growth of the bacillus. Most patients are ultimately free to leave Kalaupapa, if they choose, and in later years the Peninsula becomes a National Historic Park.

Moloka’i is a moving, well-written description of Hawaii and the terrible disease now known as Hanson’s Disease. I particularly loved this book as I lived and worked in the Territory of Hawaii before it became a state. I delighted in hearing again the local terminology (kapu—stay out!, wahini—girl, mahalo—thank you), and loved hearing the names of places once so dear to me. In more recent years my husband and I rode muleback down and up the 26-switchback steep trail to visit Kalaupapa. Our guide was a resident who choose to remain on Kalaupapa and with him we visited many of the buildings of the original colony. To this day, the only way to approach Kaluapapa Peninsula is by sea, air, or by riding or walking the steep trail.

I highly recommend this fascinating account of a disease that affected so many lives. To learn more about the author, visit http://www.alanbrennert.com/

Book Review: Someone Knows My Name

Lawrence Hill’s memorable historical novel, Someone Knows My Name, is a gripping account of Aminata Diallo’s tragic journey as a slave. Captured at age 11 from her West African village in 1756, Aminata is ripped from her family and thrown in with others as they march for several weeks to the ocean, chained together, barely fed or given time for personal needs. Arriving in Senegal and then enduring barbaric treatment aboard the slave ship, Aminata attempts to keep track of the few people also taken from her village. Though young, she realizes the importance of being remembered as a person and not chattel.

After the humiliation of being displayed and sold, Aminata’s first several years were spent on a Georgia indigo plantation. She is housed with an older woman, a midwife, and learns the skill of “baby catching.” Aminata is secretly tutored to read, almost unheard of in that day. Through the years she suffers one loss after another at the hands of her different owners. Still, she steadfastly retains her dignity and finds many uses for her language skills, baby catching and herbal-remedy competence.

Always, Aminata dreams of one day returning to her African village, but as she observes: “It was almost impossible to get into Africa, but easy to be taken out.”

As the Revolutionary War rages, it’s difficult from our perspective today to understand how Americans could be so irate over British control, yet think slavery was perfectly acceptable. Yet, that’s our history, a grim and horrifying truth so well stated in this novel.

I loved this book. For one thing, I spent two years in West Africa with the Peace Corps and wrote about my experiences in Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps.  In Hill’s novel I heard many expressions and descriptions of places familiar to me. I was impressed with the author’s research and how well the story was presented. I found Lawrence Hill’s understanding of a woman’s perspective accurate and realistic. The book is a fine example of absorbing storytelling. I highly recommend
Someone Knows My Name.

 

Book Review: Across the Savage Sea: The First Woman to Row Across the North Atlantic

Maud Fontenoy knew the sea. Her first fifteen years of life were spent living aboard a fifty-one foot staysail schooner with her parents and two brothers. She knew what it meant to be self-sufficient, to weather storms, to acknowledge the sea’s powerful force. But in order to accomplish being the first woman to row across the North Atlantic, she had a host of other skills to learn.

Across the Savage Sea: The First Woman to Row Across the North Atlantic is a remarkable memoir of one woman’s determination to set a record. At the age of 25, she singlehandedly rowed her 24-foot boat, Pilot, from Newfoundland, Canada to LaCoruña, Spain. Although she felt prepared for the journey, Fontenoy realized that nothing could have prepared her for the hardships she endured: personal injuries, life-threatening equipment failure, aching loneliness, back-to-back storms, numbing cold and constant dampness. For four months, the author battled the turbulent sea, experiencing the ocean’s wrath, but also its poetic and beautiful moments.

This book is not for everyone. Many will ask, “Why would anyone want to do such a thing?” But it is an exciting account written by an expert mariner. I have been to sea with my husband on a 40-foot sailboat, have experienced being bashed around by turbulent seas. I cannot imagine doing it alone. But this was Fontenoy’s dream. She wanted to experience a great adventure, all alone, to drive herself to the limits, putting emotions, her body and its potential, to the test. And, she did it.

Five years after her epic North Atlantic crossing, the author established the Maud Fontenoy Foundation, established to raise awareness and educate people, especially young people, about the challenges we face to protect our oceans. To learn more about the author and the foundation, visit http://www.maudfontenoyfondation.com/en/

 

Book Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Matthew Quick’s debut novel, Silver Linings Playbook, is written in first-person from the viewpoint of Pat Peoples, a man not yet equipped to handle a normal life. Pat has spent the last few years in a mental health facility. Because he doesn’t seem to be improving, his mother insists he be released from what he calls the “bad place,” and he lives at home with his dysfunctional family. Pat sees life as a movie produced by God. Although in his thirties, he grapples with life and is incapable of coming to terms with his divorce from Nikki.

In his attempt to regain Nikki’s love and respect, Pat embarks on a physical training regimen, spending many hours a day on an exercise machine, or doing sit-ups, and running miles each day. He reads books from his ex-wife’s teaching syllabus in a effort to be more literate and raise Nikki’s opinion of him. His goal is to end what he calls “apart time” and resume his life with Nikki.

Pat goes to therapy and the therapist and Pat’s lives begin to intertwine through their mutual love of the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the meantime, Pat meets Tiffany, an angry, troubled young woman with a mysterious agenda. She often shows up at Pat’s doorstep to run with him.

As the story of the circumstances surrounding his being admitted to the mental health facility slowly unfolds, Pat’s awareness of that time brings more grief into his life and his desperation grows. In his mind, all his improvement focus is tied to reuniting with Nikky.

Silver Linings Playbook is an entertaining read, but troubling, too. Pat’s inability to think and act like an adult bothered me. His parents’ marriage brought even more anxiety to his life, and that concerned me. Although the novel ended on a happier note, I found it hard to believe all would be well, let alone “normal.” Admittedly, I am not a fan of organized sports, but I thought all the emphasis on football somewhat “over the top.” Still, I enjoyed the book and appreciated the exposure to, thankfully, a way of life unfamiliar to me.

Book Review: Cavalry Scout

Dee Brown, (1908–2002) was an acclaimed author and historian of the American West. His most famous work, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) details the historical development of the American West from the Native American point of view.

In the novel Cavalry Scout, which takes place in the mid-1800’s, John Singleterry is ordered to guide troops charged with escorting the Cheyenne to a reservation. Although he is engaged to the daughter of his superior officer, Singleterry meets and falls in love with a woman who is half Cheyenne, half white. He becomes involved with the plight of the Indians, their mistreatment and the outrageous injustices they experience.

Brown’s exquisite details and depth of knowledge are impressive. I felt like I rode with him, experienced handling the horses, suffered from the unrelenting cold, and put up with an Army that followed orders dictated by those who didn’t understand the situation. His knowledge of the Indian way of life was fascinating in its authenticity.

Cavalry Scout is a classic and has spurred my interest in reading Brown’s other works. I highly recommend this novel.

Book Review: Unsaid

Neil Abramson’s poignant novel, Unsaid, is told by Helena Colden, 37, a veterinarian who recently died of cancer. Her lawyer husband, David, is left with the care of his wife’s animals: three dogs, six cats, two horses and a pig. The animals were her passion, but David feels an obligation to carry on with their care.

Jaycee, a friend and colleague of Helena’s, asks David to defend her and Cindy, a chimpanzee, against the Center for Advanced Primate Studies. Jaycee has taught the chimp how to communicate through sign language and other aids. The Center feels the study has failed and plans to return Cindy to the primate population for other experimental work, likely to test human diseases.

Still grieving, David is overwhelmed with obligations to his law practice, running the household, and now being asked to take on a questionable case of animal rights. Out of respect for Helena, he consents to defend Jaycee and the chimp, Cindy.

This story is told from an interesting point of view, that of a deceased person who can be everywhere at once, one who sees and hears all.

This novel touched my heart with the many animal scenes, particularly those with a little autistic boy, the son of David’s newly acquired housekeeper. If you are an animal lover, this is a book for you. I have had and loved animals all my life and this book was balm for my soul. I thoroughly enjoyed Unsaid and highly recommend it.