Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, totally worn out and screaming,
"WOO HOO, what a ride!"

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson

This is a memoir of Amy Dickinson's life and her extended family of strong women. Amy's husband decided to leave early in their marriage. Alone with a young baby she had to rearrange her life. She left their home in London and returned to her childhood home in Freeville, a small town of less than 500 people in rural upstate NY. She surrounded herself with her family which happened to largely consist of other single women. "Divorce runs through my clan like an aggressive chromosome" states Amy in the earliest chapters. Her father left her own family of her mother and her three siblings when she was a young girl. Fortunately she wasn't witness to her parents fighting. Since her father abandoned them there could be no fighting. He walked away from his family and a dairy farm loaded with debts. After they lost everything except the house to the bank and auctions, her mother found a job as a typist at the age of 42. She spent over 20 years of her life working the farm and caring for her family and now she was forced to find a career to support her children.

Amy also chose not to expose her own daughter to an ugly relationship between her parents. After attempts at counseling failed they met with a mediator to finalize arrangements and avoid the lawyers. They had both been raised by divorced parents and they were well aware of the things they didn't want their own child to experience. If they couldn't have a happy marriage they could at least have a good divorce. And although it was against her every instinct Amy decided to make the choice to forgive her husband. She needed to let him go instead of trying to keep him. Now as a single parent, she returns with her daughter to Freeville to stay at her sister's home and decide how to rebuild her life. She uses the time to grieve for her marriage, bond with her family and consider her options. Eventually she chooses to return to Washington D.C. where she had lived and worked before her marriage. As Amy begins her new life Freeville remains close to her heart. Eventually she and Emily decide to buy an old, run down house of their own there so they will always have a place to stay when they return "home".

Amy continues her story and tells of the years spent raising Emily the best way she knew how to, adding humor as she reveals her mistakes and triumphs. She learns and she goes on, always with the support of her daughter and her family. She also tells of her success as a writer and later as an advice columnist where she has been able to share her wisdom in "Ask Amy", a daily writing with over 22 million people. She was chosen by the Chicago Tribune to replace the late Ann Landers. Her story is inspirational, as are the other women in her family. They do what needs to be done in order to survive and raise their children but they also endure with grace and dignity. In honoring her family it makes the reader recall the mighty queens in their own life. This was a book I enjoyed very much. While it was a light, easy read it was also an honest portrayal of their past. I would love to hear more about these amazing women in Freeville.

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this book from Barnes & Noble. It will be released in February, 2009.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Home Girl - Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

I was fortunate enough to win a copy of Home Girl last week from Up For Grabs. It sounds so good and I'm anxious to read it. Until that time here's a teaser for us all from the publisher.

Raising a Kid Safely in the 'Hood

By Judith Matloff,
Author of Home Girl -- Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

My stomach sank the moment we arrived home from the hospital with our newborn baby. There in front of the house loitered the narcotics gang that ruled our street in Harlem.

First to step forth was the head of the drug crew. He offered stiff congratulations as he peered at our precious bundle. Then the one I feared most -- a malodorous crack addict named Salami -- let out a menacing yelp. "Oooh, he's so pretty. Just like the Gerber baby! Watch out someone doesn't steal him!"

As I began to hyperventilate, my levelheaded husband fixed his eyes ahead and advised me to get a grip on my mounting hysteria. "It's going to be okay," John insisted firmly. "Trust me."

I didn't believe him at the time. But John was right.

Raising a child in this inner city presented challenges, to be sure. At that time, seven years ago, this area was one of the worst anywhere in the U.S. for narcotics trading. On a given day, 60 drug dealers stood outside our front door hawking cocaine. My husband and I moved here because we couldn't afford anything else. We were childless when we bought our brownstone and didn't ponder what it would be like bringing up a kid next door to a crack house. Now we had to confront our predicament. But with some creativity and open minds, we have managed to bring up our son, Anton, safely in the 'hood.

First off, much is a matter of perception. What we anxious parents tend to forget is that little ones don't have a clue what's going on. Toddlers don't realize that the guy passed out on the playground slide has overdosed. The kids simply notice that someone is taking a noon nap. For example, consider the time a hostile cocaine peddler spray-painted a threat as I wheeled Anton by in the stroller. I was scared, but not my toddler. All Anton fixated on was the paint color, which happened to be one of his favorites.

"Orange!" Anton gurgled happily.

Later in the week, the little guy wasn't the least shaken when the police came round to probe the threat. As the lieutenant and I discussed the potential danger -- which turned out to be nil -- Anton beamed at the glint of the officer's handcuffs. The child apparently thought they were shiny toys. I doubt he even noticed the gun.

Of course, we'd rather that Anton not be exposed to crime and we keep an eagle eye on whoever hangs around the block. So do the grannies that closely watch proceedings on the pavement. Thanks to these matriarchs who use the sidewalk as an extension of their living rooms, our street is one of the last in New York City where kids can play outside safely. The ladies leap from their lawn chairs if any child runs into the road or talks to a stranger. I feel perfectly confident leaving Anton to sit without me on the front steps. No one is going to touch him with the mamas around.

Cops provide further vigilance. Areas like this with a bad rep tend to deploy a lot of officers on the beat, and ours are a particularly friendly bunch. Like firemen, these guys understand what makes little boys tick and Anton has enjoyed many a personal tour of police trucks. He can probably turn on a cop radio with his eyes closed and knows how to book a perp. While these may not be necessary life skills, they sure are fun for a second-grader.

This is not to say I don't have my worries. From the earliest age possible, I made Anton memorize our telephone number and 911. He's also picked up Spanish, the lingua franca in this Dominican neighborhood. The boy knows to scream bloody murder in two languages in case of trouble.

Not that there would be much opportunity, I suspect. Maybe we're lucky, but our local dealers tend to be family-oriented guys who don't use drugs themselves and discourage petty crime. Most do this line of work because it's an easy way to make money to send back home to Mama. Moreover, these fellows tend not to be violent towards the average citizen. Narcotics salesmen like these make as much as a corporate lawyer and are not going to want police pursuing muggers on their turf. Street justice is important here, too. I once saw five men pursue a purse-snatcher. They tackled him and held him down until the cops arrive. The same would go for anyone who hurt a little kid.

In any case, neighborhood is steadily improving as gentrification seeps up from nicer neighborhoods. The drug gangs have largely moved on and only a few guys loiter around the corner these days. Hopefully the pushers will all disappear before Anton enters impulsive adolescence.

Even if they're still around, we've developed an unlikely ally in childrearing. It turns out that Salami the scary addict actually has the kid's welfare at stake. He routinely sweeps up broken glass outside our house so that Anton doesn't cut himself while playing.

"I don't want the Gerber Baby to hurt himself," Salami explained one day. "Gotta look after these kids."

Judith Matloff

Author Bio
Judith Matloff is the author of Home Girl -- Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block (Random House.)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Authors I have met, kind of... part II

I got to meet another author online in a club recently who was so accommodating. Garth Stein, who wrote The Art of Racing In The Rain, participated with us for a month. This book was a special project for him and was very near and dear to his heart. Of course all writing is a special project to a writer but this was one of those books that was just begging him to be written. He was already involved with another draft but this one would not leave him alone. He had taken an idea from a documentary about Mongolia that revealed their truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next reincarnation will be as a man. Stein took this idea and ran with it. What made this truly his own was combining this theme with his love of car racing. An unusual pairing? I certainly thought so. Effective? I definitely thought so.

Enzo, a Labrador/Terrier mix is the narrator and best friend of his owner Denny Swift. This book begins near the end of Enzo's life. He is old and in poor health but he is content knowing that he will be returning in his next life as a man, his greatest dream. He considers himself to have a nearly human soul already after a lifetime of educating himself and paying attention to all of life's lessons. He also shares Denny's passion as a race car driver, listening to all of the stories, watching racing videos and documentaries. As a puppy, the best friends shared bachelorhood days but soon they add to their family when Denny marries and has a child. They live a charmed life until tragedy strikes their tight knit clan. This is the beginning of an unraveling that they don't know how to recover from. It almost appears that nothing may ever go right for them again. They cling to hope and remind themselves and the reader, That which you manifest is before you. Using lessons and techniques learned especially in racing they apply them to life and decide to create their own destiny. Enzo vows to set this family back on course and sets a plan in motion.

I loved the book and I loved the club. And to make it even better, Garth's wife Drella had been reading the posts and decided to join us. She is also a very creative artist so we got a two-for-one special! Actually we only picked her brain the first few days about life with an author before she politely asked us to just consider her as only another club member. The Steins posted comments and answers to our questions every single day. When Garth was away for a weekend of racing himself, he phoned in his race results and special hellos to Drella who then passed them all on to us. He earned himself many fans when he wrote this book but he earned himself even more when he went over and above with his club participation. He and his book get both thumbs up from me (thumbs play an important role in this story) and I look forward to what he will be writing next. Having an interest in dogs and/or racing may make you appreciate this story more but you definitely don't need them to enjoy it. Be prepared to laugh and cry and to learn a few lessons as well.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Amazing Library

I've seen this article a few times now and I am still drooling. In 2002, now 52 year-old Jay Walker added a library onto his New England home. As a very successful Internet entrepreneur and founder of Walker Digital he has a fascination for the human imagination. His library reflects that in every way. At 3,600 square feet with three levels, the word massive does not do it justice. Not only does he have an incredible collections of books he has an incredible collection of everything. An original Sputnik 1 satellite, a hand-painted celestial atlas from 1660, the original hand of "Thing" from The Adam's Family TV show, an original copy of the first illustrated history book from 1493...just the photos are amazing. I can't even imagine what it would be like to visit there. Please take a look here and see for yourself. I dare you not to drool.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Authors I have met, kind of...

I've been in online book clubs for a few years now and have really enjoyed them. Hopefully you have a great conversation about a great book but neither one of those are guaranteed. It's always interesting no matter what happens even if only for a short time. My favorite clubs are when the author joins us for the entire length of the club, usually a month. I've been lucky enough to meet some amazing authors this way. Some of them, I'm embarrassed to say, I've never heard of until I started to participate in the club that featured their book. But there always has to be a first time! I find it so fascinating to ask questions and post comments and have the author respond to me personally every time. I am able to chat with them every day for a whole month. I can't always wrap my brain around the fact that it's the author of the book in my very hands. OK, I don't get out much but everyone must get star struck sometimes. Authors are my celebrities.

The most recent author I "met" was Annie Barrows one of the authors of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I wasn't sure if I would like this story since it was about the Nazi occupation during WWII of the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. I don't usually care much for historical fiction (or nonfiction for that matter) but I must be maturing because I really enjoyed this one along with some others I've read lately. Juliet Ashton is an author in the story who begins a pen pal relationship with the residents of the island and it develops into a friendship. She decides to visit them and find out more about their history and their lives. The characters are a fantastic mix of every small town's inhabitants. The nosy neighbor, the know-it-all, the leader, the loyal friend, the hermit, every character serves a purpose here. The story is written in epistolary form with many different people writing back and forth. What made this book unusual was that Ms. Barrows' aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, was the author and it took her several years to write this. She became ill and asked her niece, who is an author of childrens books, to help with the editing. Unfortunately, Ms. Shaffer never recovered from her illness and died knowing it had sold but before it was published.

Ms. Barrows shared the story of this unusual coauthor situation and what it meant to her aunt to write this story. We were also lucky enough to have readers join us who had been to the island of Geurnsey and could tell all of us about their experiences. Some other readers from our club also decided to go there after our discussions together. I wanted to go there myself! Ms. Barrows promised to give us an update after her excursion and tell us what the residents thought of the book. We are all hoping she gets the same response as the main character during her own visit. Ms. Barrows was very friendly and accommodating to all of us and I would be happy to spend another month with her.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Working on it...

I still don't know what I'm doing but I'm determined to figure this out yet! That way, even if I don't have anything important to say, I'll look good saying it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Under Construction!

This my brand new blog. The first one I've ever done. Let's see if I can get anything accomplished here.