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Debra Monroe On Transracial Adoption and “On the Outskirts of Normal”

Posted on August 23, 2010

It’s hard enough to be a single mother. It’s even harder, as Debra Monroe discovered, to be the white single mother of an African-American baby in rural Texas. Debra shares her experiences — which include often-mortifying reactions from strangers; the struggle to balance work, illness and child-rearing; and doing right by her little girl’s hair — in the powerful On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging A Family Against the Grain. Approaching her subject matter the same way she approached motherhood — unapologetically, with intent, determined to figure it out — Debra has written a brutally, and beautifully, honest account of transracial adoption and, more importantly, the color-blind bond between parent and child. Not only was she able to create a solid and loving against-the-odds family with her daughter but, through this book, has gathered a whole new family of fans who have taken her story to heart. I am one of those fans, and I was thrilled to be able to learn more in this very personal interview with Debra — and her daughter, Marie!

I so enjoyed reading your book but kept wishing that you hadn’t had to write it, that — in the 21st century — the fact that a single white woman adopted an African-American baby wouldn’t be worthy of a dramatic story. What surprised you most about people’s reactions?

Well, many of the events took place a dozen years ago and in a setting that really put the magnifying glass on them — a small town, which wasn’t close to diverse.  On the other hand, your point is trenchant in that it’s not entirely a book about race. It’s a book about motherhood, and my race vis-à-vis my daughter’s race is a part of the story, but not the entire story.  Readers tell me that they expect the book to be about race more than it actually is, or for it to be about race in a way that’s sort of mythological and not realistic — in the way The Blind Side or The Help or even To Kill A Mockingbird are mythological, or at least not realistic for our times. Those are books in which there are clear protagonists and antagonists (enlightened crusaders vs. the clueless ones).  Real life is more complex than that. Enlightened crusaders sometimes condescend. People who are clueless are sometimes imprisoned by the values of the era in which they were raised and can be jarred out of reflexive beliefs. And it’s also true in real life you can’t tell off or avoid every insensitive person.

Race isn’t irrelevant in the book, of course — it is the sole subject of two entire chapters, and the topic of race is infused throughout the rest of the book in the form of strangers’ comments and the assumptions imbedded in their comments.  I’ll be thinking about a doctor’s diagnosis, or how to get Marie home before bedtime, or what first grade will be like for her, and someone starts talking about race. The questions were usually (not always!) kindly, if constant and disruptive. I’m not black, of course, and I can’t write from the perspective of someone who is. But I am the white mother of a black child, and I wrote about that. My daughter’s race is (or would be) irrelevant to me, but it isn’t to other people, and so I’ve had to step up and deal with other people’s attitudes. The amount of attention I give the subject of race in the book reflects the amount of attention I give it in real life. When people bring it up, I will speak forcefully but tactfully. When strangers brought it up in front of my daughter, I did resist talking about it at length — soapboxing — because I’ve always felt she deserved the privacy to ask her own questions about race, and about the sad, scary history of race in America, and to have the freedom and privacy to wonder what she wonders, discover what she discovers, without an audience of strangers. I thought she should have that experience with me, or a trusted mentor, and not in front of a stranger, with the stranger referring to my daughter in the third person. The last thing I wanted her to be was everybody else’s symbol of their own (self- congratulatory) tolerance, or a public object lesson.

If I read anonymous internet comments under reviews or interviews  — and, believe me, I’m learning not to! — some people, most of whom focus on an out-of-context line in the review or interview and haven’t read the book — say I have either made too much of race and exploited the subject, while other people think I’ve not done justice to the amount of prejudice that still exists, that I’m therefore raising my daughter too sheltered from racial realities. I couldn’t shelter her from all realities of prejudice, as the book makes clear, or the startling facts once she started to learn American history. However, I did think it was my responsibility to shelter her from racism in her own life — to get her out of that weird first grade classroom as swiftly as possible, for instance, drawing as little attention to the process as I did. I taught her to stand up to the school bus bullies. I don’t think prolonged exposure to someone’s racism is helpful or instructive. I think it’s only demoralizing.

I guess what surprises me most, but shouldn’t, is that you can’t say anything about race in America without someone from each side of the spectrum getting hackles up and telling you you’ve got it wrong. But no one can agree on exactly which way I’ve got it wrong.  Finally, it’s one story — influenced by a specific time and place and circumstance — and not everyone’s.

What was most emotional to me was that this is – at its heart — really the story of a new mother trying to care for and raise her daughter by itself. That seems much more important than the stupid comments of ignorant strangers, and I’m sure will resonate with single moms everywhere. What was the hardest part about raising a child alone?

The sheer multi-tasking and the fear I couldn’t do it all. I knew I was raising a child without a husband. Lots of women do. Even married women who have really uninvested husbands do. But if there is a father, divorced or asleep in the recliner or on a business trip, these mothers still have a little time off. A few hours here or there. Weeks or weekends off if you have split custody. And if you have even an ex-husband, you probably have two sets of relatives to call on. What I totally underestimated was the need for extended family. I remember watching “American Idol” with my daughter (she loved it when she was in grade school) and there was a finalist whose M.O. was that she was a single mother trying to win to give her child a better life. I kept thinking: how can she be in Los Angeles without her child for 8 weeks? One night she thanked her mom and grandma, with whom she lived, and her grandma provided daycare.  I remember thinking: ah, that’s the part I didn’t understand.

The four years when we were both sick seem to me, in retrospect, like one long emergency. At one point, I “interviewed” Marie about what she remembered about our life before we moved to the city. All her memories were happy and fun: Johnny Cash songs sung into the Playskool microphone, or her pink pajama pants stuffed with the wrapped presents, or gardening, sewing, cooking, swimming. I gently prodded her to see what she recalled about my surgery, or hers, or other difficult moments. And she doesn’t remember much. Those moments loomed large for me, because I was responsible for her sense of security and working hard at handling crises while also shielding her from them.

I’m now married to a man who’s a great father, and the best thing a good co-parent does is help you make big decisions. If you’re alone all the time, you doubt your judgment.  Am I overreacting, underreacting? I’d been dating him just three weeks when he helped me decide to get my daughter out of that classroom. He helped me decide what to do about the expensive hair care option. I’m not sure I would have made the same (good) decisions without his input, because I tended to self-doubt and second-guess. I am so grateful for his perspective now, every time some significant decision comes up.

You give readers a real sense of place – those small towns feel so red-neck to me, especially when the people who live there ask you questions like, “What is she?” or “Is that a crack baby?”  Do you think your story would be different if you were living in a big city when you adopted Marie?

Absolutely. But people still make race-based assumptions in the city. That she’s a shoplifter, because she seems to be alone in the store, not shopping with me, because we don’t look alike. Maybe the same clerk would think that about a white adolescent who seemed alone in a store too, but I don’t think so. Or that she’s going to be good at sports but not academics. Or that she lives in a less affluent neighborhood. They just don’t say the words “black” or “African-American” when they state these assumptions. We live in semantically cautious times, and people in the city learned that sooner than people in the country—they have a more careful vocabulary on tap.

A great thing about living in the city — again, this is a side-effect of living in a later decade — is that there are other interracial families here. I see interracial families a few times a week. There are fewer in Austin, Texas, than there were in Los Angles when I visited Los Angeles a month ago. But everywhere there are more than there were 14 years ago.

Not only were you the first one in your family to graduate from high school but you went on to earn your Ph.D. and have a successful writing career. How were you able to overcome your own childhood, which included abusive men, alcoholics and a neglectful mother? Where did you find that strength and determination?

My mother wasn’t at all neglectful when I was a child. She bailed out when I was in my early twenties. It was sad. But it didn’t destroy me. I can’t stress enough the difference between a mother who neglects her child, and a mother who can’t be there for her grown children. A mother’s inability to mother a child has life-long ramifications. A mother’s inability to be available to her adult child is sad, but, in my case, I had my essential lessons instilled already. I’d learned to give love, receive love. I might have been a little hungry for it by the time I adopted, for a return to the sense of the unconditional permanence of familial love, and perhaps overweening and cautious. But I knew how to do it.

My mother was a wonderful woman whose world came crashing down on her, and she bailed out on her entire life, including her adult children. I know from experience, and from having done research about motherless children and attachment disorder, that I’m fairly lucky. It hurt to lose my mother in my early twenties — in ways that I didn’t fully come to terms with until I was in my forties — but if she hadn’t been such a good, nurturing mother when I was a child, I wouldn’t have been good at mothering at all.  How we mother ourselves is determined by how we have been mothered, unless we consciously set out to learn to do so differently. Social workers who supervised my earliest days with Marie, and strangers too, remarked how instinctively and effortlessly maternal I was. Touch is the first language of love a child understands. Then structure and safety and routine. I learned those early, so I knew how to give them to Marie.

The biggest legacy of my mother’s life I had to unlearn was that she didn’t have a bottom line about how men treated her, a failing that was, in part, generational. She didn’t feel equal to men. I grew up feeling the same way, though I was, in theory, post-feminist. As for how I educated myself, as I say in the book: school was structure. My family structure disappeared. School was such a reliable and rewarding replacement. You work hard at school and you’re rewarded tangibly. You work hard on your dysfunctional family and you may or may not be rewarded — you might even be making more trouble for yourself.

What’s amazing, with your family background, is how unselfishly you were willing and eager to give your love to a child. It’s like you said – “Love is like spelling. You learn good spelling early. Or you never do.” How were you able to open your heart so generously when you certainly had no role models in that area?

I did learn love early. As a child, I did have a great role model. My mother did most things right. What she didn’t do right is choose men. She can be forgiven for that. You’ll notice I absorbed that from her too, along with nurturing and tenderness. So I had to keep the best of what I learned from her — love, structure, essential kindness — and reject the worst, which was her fear of being alone, her subservience toward men.

I loved the chapter about Marie’s hair and the amazing amount of time, effort and care you put into getting her hair right. It’s such a fascinating – and important – topic, and one that Chris Rock’s explored in his documentary, “Good Hair.” What other culture-related challenges have you had to face?

Well, I’m going to get slammed for saying this, but I would say geographic apartheid. I just looked up the census statistics about the little town I used to live in. African-American, 0%. (We moved away—maybe it used to be 1%.).  It’s 11% in Austin. But not in our neighborhood. This is a very liberal city — the Chamber of Commerce tourism slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.”  Yet it’s still segregated in a self-perpetuating, voluntary way — or maybe not entirely voluntary way because of median income and property values.  But people gravitate to what they know as “community.” I’m constantly wishing for more diverse social settings, but there are few. A friend who has her Ph.D. in urban planning just moved from Austin to Chicago. She loved Austin but is thrilled that in Chicago she was able to find many diverse neighborhoods. This is so not the case here.

Why did you want to write this book? Is there a specific message you want to pass along?

In the book I talk a lot about “clout,” how I got clout, what I was like before I did, how I am since I got it. My message is that each of us, at some point in life, is handed a series of painful experiences we wouldn’t choose to endure but must. Choosing to be a mother has been my great joy. But, given the chance, I would have opted out on the nearly fatal illness, my daughter’s illnesses, the shock of my mother’s disappearance, reappearance, and death, and the numbing isolation. Yet without these experiences I would be a less able mother than I am today. I’m not saying that bad things happen for a reason. I’m saying that bad things happen. And if we pay attention, we will probably be wiser and stronger afterward.

You are so open and honest in telling your personal story. Were there parts that were difficult to write? Parts you wanted to leave out?

I felt guilty for telling my mother’s story — I don’t think I could have done so if she were still alive. I also feel ashamed of my own bad decisions in the chapters in which my surgery and a series of other mishaps spiral together. But when I write the difficult moments, I always picture one sympathetic reader at a time, not a judgmental horde. I know that when I have been discouraged or sad, I’ve sometimes stayed up all night reading a book that spoke to my difficulties. I think it’s right and necessary to explore difficult times. People who have found themselves in similar straits feel saner, less lonely, generally better off for having read someone else’s account.

Was it strange to write a memoir after writing novels? And, in the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, how would you have written this story differently if you were writing it as a novel?

I sort of did write it as novel, in my previous book, Shambles.  And the reviews were like: this novel is trying too hard to be politically correct. Doesn’t that say it all?  No one believed me when they thought I was making it up. Of course I changed some details in the novel, heightened certain tensions. But it covers many of the same issues.

Photo by Scott Van Osdol

Marie’s had questions of her own since she was prattling chains of syllables at age 15 months. I’ve always answered them. She’s used to me being a writer, having books out, and she’s gone to many conferences and readings with me since she was a baby, so, in some ways, this isn’t different. Except she’s on the cover of the book. Right now she thinks that’s cool, fun. Most kids her age would but I don’t think any adolescent understands what it fully means, and I know that. I talked to her a long time before I submitted the book for publication, to see what she thought. If she truly seemed uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have. And I would have insisted on a different cover photo if she’d objected. And I feel right with my decision to write this book because I don’t tell her secrets, only my own. She did say not long ago that it was “our” book.  Her friend corrected her: Your mom wrote it. Marie said, “She couldn’t have without me.” So true.  It’s a book about how, in my forties, I finally addressed a few problems in my life and got them right. I couldn’t do it for myself, to improve my life. But I was compelled to do it for her, to be a better a mother and role model.

I’d add that we were, whether we liked it not, public figures in the small town just for being so conspicuously unlike everyone else, and she’s accustomed to attention.  If she hadn’t been handling it well, I probably would have moved away from the small town long before I did. She was on the front page of the small town newspaper all the time. Every time there was a school event, she’d be in the newspaper photo because the newspaper wanted the town to look diverse. I don’t think she makes a distinction between being in the Wimberley Times and People magazine. She was quite unimpressed by People magazine. This is what she said about the People magazine photo: “Well, I don’t read that magazine.” Who knows what she’ll ultimately think? But a review recently pointed out that it is a book in which she comes off stronger and better than anyone else.  And that’s because — I’m bragging now — she pretty much is.

Marie looks like a happy, confident young woman. Can you tell us a little about the person she’s becoming?

She has a gift for working with small children.  She’s a mensch about human nature in general. She’s not underconfident or ill at ease, but she notices kids who are and helps bring them into the fold. She has zero tolerance for bullies. I don’t mean she gets mad.  They just aren’t on her radar. There was a “mean girl” at camp recently, and I said, shuddering, long-time coward that I am, “How can you stand being in a cabin for two weeks with someone like that?” Marie turned to me with a level stare and said, “Mom, sometimes you meet people you just ignore. You can’t let them ruin your day.”

How has life changed in the time since the book ends? And have people’s reactions changed since you moved and married?

Basically fewer people ask in their roundabout way if I’ve had sex with a black man, no kidding.  In part, because you don’t ask that in the city, and, in part, because I’m out in public with my husband and his son too, and it’s fairly obvious she’s not our biological child. It’s been interesting to watch my husband learn to navigate the chronic awkwardness. He was recently trying to pay for Marie’s sandwich in Subway, and the clerk told him to back off, to give the young lady space. My husband, startled, said, “Umm, I’m her father and I’m just trying to pay for her sandwich.” Marie cracked up and said to the clerk, “He’s my dad, not a stalker.” I realized when he told me about it that I’d long ago learned to make small talk with Marie in public places where we’re unknown to people, just to make it clear we’re together. I apparently started doing this unconsciously.  But of course he hasn’t.

What’s next for you professionally?

I’m not sure because promoting and traveling for a book is so time-consuming. I’m writing a lot of short magazine pieces and book reviews now. But what’s emerging is an idea for a nonfiction book with an overarching personal narrative, but also research, and interviews with other people, with the working title, The Last First Kiss: Courting and Sparking in Middle-Age. People in their forties and fifties having to begin to date again is kind of a new cultural phenomenon. More people divorce now. More long-married men and women come out gay late in a marriage and fall in love. For both gay and straight couples, this sometimes includes blending families. Some people live longer, so one spouse dies and the other has 30 more years and doesn’t want to spend them alone. The narrative arc would be my own changing ideas about what marriage is and isn’t over the course of several decades. I went from being fairly conventional on the subject; to radically disenfranchised, thinking a marriage in which a woman’s professional ideals don’t get swallowed was a pious but unrealizable ideal; to changing my mind again, learning to understand that, with the right partner, we can retain the best features of the traditional partnership and adapt it too. And I’d interview people from different demographic categories who did partner happily late in life.

Thanks so much for sharing your story. I think it’s going to make a big difference in many people’s lives.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Meggan Watterson on “Eat Pray Love” and The New Spiritual Seeker

Posted on August 20, 2010

Meggan Watterson is the founder and executive director of REVEAL, a non-profit that empowers and inspires the next generation of female spiritual leadership. She has a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and is the author and editor of the forthcoming REVEAL Generation: Voices of The Fierce Divine Feminine. I am truly grateful that she’s sharing her profound perspective on Eat Pray Love with us. This is real soul food, and it’s the kind of article you need to send to all the women in your life.

As a feminist theologian, I was hooked 15 pages into reading Eat Pray Love and here’s why. Gilbert prays to God for direction and she gets an answer. Immediately. And her answer comes not, as she reassures, in a freaky loud and booming Old Testament type voice; it’s simply in her own. But it’s her voice, as she has never heard it before, “perfectly wise, calm and compassionate.” It’s what her voice would sound like, she relates, “if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life.”

Rather than a more typical or traditional religious conversion experience, Gilbert understands this defining moment of hearing her own “omniscient interior voice” as the experience of the beginning of a religious conversation.

Gilbert goes on to travel to Italy, India, and Bali but, for me, the true adventure starts when she begins this divine conversation from within. That moment shifts the trajectory of her prayer- instead of casting off or out her prayers to some divine source above or beyond her, her prayers echo down into her cavernous core. The source of wisdom and unfaltering love is found deep within her. It takes most pilgrims years, a lifetime even, to get to this truth that Gilbert experiences before she steps on a plane or tastes her first Italian gelato treat.

The contemplative traditions have claimed this truth the world over, so what’s new about Gilbert’s religious conversational conversion experience with the divine that dwells within her? Gilbert represents a new form of spiritual seeker, a seeker of the fourth wave of feminism, one who refuses to abandon or deny the body as she draws nearer to God.

There is a pervasive desire among emerging female spiritual leaders to honor, acknowledge and even indulge in the wisdom and power of the body as they seek to cultivate their relationship with the divine. Women no longer want to separate their spirituality from their sexuality.

Take, for example, my cosmic twin and Harvard Divinity School peer, Sera Beak. At 29, she wrote The Red Book, A Deliciously Unorthodox Approach to Igniting Your Divine Spark. She urged women of our generation to not only claim their spiritual authority as women, meaning to hear the divine from within, but to also claim their bodies as sacred.

As the founder and executive director of REVEAL, I am profoundly encouraged by the cult-like following of Eat Pray Love. The spiritual barometer in culture has risen. This gives me hope that women are ready to go within, and they are willing to believe (again) that as a sex we have something unique to say and to share about the experience of encountering the holy.

Gilbert refers to the voice of wisdom within her as her “omniscient interior voice.” My masters of theological studies and masters of divinity have demanded my lexicon contain less secular words. I refer to the voice I hear within me as the soul voice. The experience of it requires it.

The experience of hearing my soul voice is profoundly (and sometimes irritatingly) paradoxical. It’s hysterical when I’m the most stressed out and it’s filled with levity when I’m as heavy as a piece of lead. It’s the voice that offers balance when my life is most out of whack and it’s the voice that leads by empowering me to be bold enough to make choices for myself.

I can recognize the soul voice within me because it is most fierce when it comes to truth telling and yet never insists on its own way. The soul voice offers every kind of encouragement and yet is often the most challenging. The soul voice will suggest I do that one thing I want least to do, not to annoy me (smile), but to get me to face fears, to grow, to change. The soul voice — as compared to the voice of the ego — is not about drama.

For example, when Gilbert prays for God to tell her what to do, she expects to hear sublime advice about her imminent divorce, real drastic changes she must make, or hard and fast lines she must draw in her love life. Instead, she hears a simple directive, “Go to bed, Liz.” That can only be the soul voice. In that moment, this was the most sagacious, the most loving, and compassionate advice she could receive. She just needed to take care of her self. The wisdom of what to do with her life, with matters of her heart, would follow without drama and without deadlines. Her soul knows this.

Every woman has to take the journey to meet with her soul voice alone — and find that authentic truth that waits within her. Every journey taken is as different as the soul voice found.

But in my experience, the soul voice is that one voice that is always and in all circumstances waiting to be the voice of unconditional love inside us. It’s the voice that longs for us to listen and to follow its audacious call to dare us to live out our potential.

REVEAL is so concerned for women to become intimate with their soul voices, because the soul voice asks that we each in our own ways love ourselves enough to live our best and most realized lives. The soul voice leads us to transform not only ourselves but also the world around us with love, with joy, and with the taste of gelato fresh on our lips.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

eat dessert first!

Posted on August 18, 2010

After spending so much time writing about Eat Pray Love, I’m kind of shocked that I didn’t devote more space to eating. So, I’d like to introduce you to three new cookbooks which are, of course, all about desserts.

Farmer’s Market Desserts by Jennie Schacht

You know all those gorgeous fresh and home-grown ingredients you salivate over at the farmer’s market but can’t really rationalize splurging on? This book is the ideal resource, giving you dozens of great excuses to bring home a bagful of persimmons (Persimmon Swirl Cheesecake in a Gingersnap Crust), that goat cheese you sample every week (Meyer Lemon-Goat Cheese Souffle Cakes) or locally-grown lavender blossoms (Lavender Walnut Sandies). The photographs are as appealing as the recipes, and there are lots of great tips for selecting and storing ingredients, top seasonal and between-season choices, and a guide to specific markets nationwide. With farmers’ markets popping up all over the country, this is a book you will turn to again and again.

Spice Dreams: Flavored Ice Creams and Other Frozen Treats by Sara Engram and Katie Luber

We pride ourselves on being ice cream connoisseurs so this innovative book took us by — very pleasant — surprise. In The Spice Kitchen, Sara Engram and Katie Luber (who founded two award-winning lines of organic spices: tsp spices and Smart Spice) taught us how to literally spice up everyday – a.k.a. bland and boring – meals. Now, they’re shaking up that classic dessert. These recipes are not for the faint-hearted; making ice cream takes effort. But once you’ve tasted Almond Ice Cream with Turmeric, Cardamom and Cloves, Basil Ice Cream or Chile-Lemongrass Ice Cream, you just may be screaming for spice cream.

Super-Charged Smoothies by Mary Corpening Barber and Sara Corpening Whiteford

Smoothies are those rare treats that taste so yummy, you can’t believe they’re good for you. This great little guide ups the ante with more than 60 recipes meant to make you look and feel better than ever. Featuring ingredients like pomegranate juice, Greek yogurt and fresh fruits, they’ll make your hair and skin glow, and turn your immune system into a thing of beauty. Smoothie queens – and identical twins! — Mary Corpening Barber and Sara Corpening have already written two bestselling books on the subject, and this one takes the drink to a whole new level. Smooth!


Leave a comment below, and you just may win one of these books! Giveaway ends Sunday, August 22 at midnight Pacific time. Winners will be notified by return email.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

“Women, Food and God” by Geneen Roth: A Review by Tiffany Farnsworth

Posted on August 16, 2010

“Hmm, this must be a knock-off of Eat, Pray, Love,” I thought when I received Women, Food and God. I imagined it would be a fun beach read, focusing on a woman’s escapades at cooking school over an adventurous summer in Italy or maybe France. My own longing for immersion into continental cuisine may have inspired this notion because, in fact, it was pure projection. My first impression had absolutely nothing to do with the content of this book.

Geneen Roth’s new book is neither summer pap nor a romantic twist on a female adventure. It is a serious, in-depth exploration of overcoming compulsive eating.

Although Oprah has taken this book to heart and devoted an entire show to it, it is very similar to Roth’s other works. The author continues to impart wisdom from her own food struggles and recovery and from studying and pursuing emotional/psychological health over the past three decades. Roth has written many books focusing on women’s physical and psychological health as it relates to food. Some of her most well-known titles include When Food is Love and The Hungry Heart.

This genre may best be suited for those interested in dedicating thoughtful inquiry and reflection into their reading experience. Readers who are interested in issues of self-esteem and body image may also find this work meaningful. While I thought to myself,  “I need some potato chips for this” when I read Roth’s lines, “I turned to Hostess Sno Balls the same year I gave up on God. I was eleven years old and had been praying nightly for thick hair and a boyfriend, but mostly for my parents to stop screaming at each other.”  This genre is not for everyone.

The text is divided into three sections: “Principles,” “Practices” and “Eating.”  In “Principles,” Roth discusses the history of her abusive relationship with food and spiritual growth. She also conveys many examples of personal and anguished anecdotes from clients attending her compulsive eating retreats.

In “Practices,” Roth expands upon her utilization of meditation and the power of our minds. In this short, four-chapter section, Roth teaches the reader about inquiry. This is an interesting section in which she asks the reader to think about differentiating what they are feeling from what they think they should be feeling. This is a thought-provoking process which Roth illuminates with examples from her semi-annual retreats.  As a part of this practice, Roth tells her students (and readers) that they need to remember two things: to eat what they want when they’re hungry and to feel when they’re not.

In “Eating,” Roth continues to pull from religious traditions such as Sufism to guide her readers toward practices and beliefs that liberate them from food addiction and guide them toward a rich life in which food sustains rather than consumes them. The crux is eating with awareness. Listen to your body; as Roth puts it, “When I first realized how simple it was to end the compulsion with food — eat what your body wants when you’re hungry, stop when you’ve had enough — I felt as if I had popped out of life as I knew it and suddenly found myself in another galaxy.”

Roth started to eat what she wanted and quickly realized she was able to able to eat foods that had been “forbidden” on many of her diets. However, after coming to terms with her emotions and beliefs, her body told her it needed nurturing and nutrition — not sugary snacks and bags of potato chips.

Does Roth teach her readers useful lessons? Yes. Be present, truly feel your feelings, trust yourself and treat yourself as you would a child, with love and kindness.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

“Eat Pray Love” And the Big Picture by Scott Stevenson

Posted on August 13, 2010

Toward the end of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about a Buddhist philosophy in which an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time:  the acorn, which grows into the tree, and the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity. She says, “I think of everything I endured before getting here and wonder if it was this future me – this happy balanced me – who pulled the younger, more confused and struggling me forward during those hard years. The younger me was the acorn full of potential, but it was the future me, the already-existent oak, who was saying the whole time: Grow! Change! Evolve! Come and meet me here, where I already exist.”

I can so relate to this. Several years ago, right after we were married, my wife, Susan, and I went through a dramatic period during which our physical, emotional, and financial well-being were threatened.  I was forty-six at the time, and it was my first marriage. It was Susan’s third. As an architect who had worked ten-hour days at my own small firm for most of my working life, I was ready to give it a rest. Susan was a massage therapist, and although she loved her work, she was also ready for a change.  We decided to retire and move to a small mountain town in Julian, California, build our dream home, and live the simple life.

Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. Before we could start construction on our mountain home, Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer and totally flipped out.  Ever since Susan was a child, she had been afraid of dying from cancer, and, now that she had been diagnosed, she was sure that her days were numbered.  I jumped in, trying to do what I could: I attended all her doctor appointments, massaged her to sleep when she was stressed out, tried to just listen and not force my logical opinions onto her emotional behavior and, in general, let her know that she wasn’t alone.

Susan had always taken the natural approach to health but was anxious to get the cancerous tumor out of her breast as quickly as possible. She decided on surgery to remove the tumor, and then skipped radiation and chemotherapy in favor of holistic treatments including natural foods, supplements, meditation, and psychotherapy.

About this same time, my sister informed us that she was filing for a divorce from an abusive husband. We had no idea that her husband was abusive but discovered that he had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. What else could Susan and I do but jump in with both feet to help out?

Meanwhile, our dream of building our retirement home had come to almost a complete standstill.  We were building the house ourselves, and, between all the medical appointments, court hearings, attorney meetings, helping my sister with the mountain of paperwork it required to make it through a divorce, and trying to protect her and the children from their abusive father, there just wasn’t a lot of time left over to work on the house.

Finally, after three long years, Susan and I moved into our mountain home. It was one of the happiest days of our lives — but we didn’t have long to enjoy it.  A few months later, the California wildfires raced through our small community. Holding out until the last moment, trying to save our home, we were eventually forced to evacuate when a thousand-foot wall of smoke and flames were within a hundred yards of our back door.  The Cedar Fire turned seventy per cent of the homes in our neighborhood – including ours — into six-inch layers of ash.

Susan and I were devastated. Our dream home and the beautiful forest that surrounded us were gone.  We had no idea where we were giving to live, and, to top it off, we were still dealing with the Susan’s cancer and helping my sister with her divorce.  And, oh yeah, did I mention we were penniless?  We had invested our retirement money in the stock market which soon began a slide that ended up in the biggest drop since the Great Depression.  Our retirement money, like our home and the forest, were gone.

The thing that most helped Susan and I through this tough period of our lives – not just to make it through but to actually come out smiling and feeling stronger for the experiences – was that we tried to view these events from the perspective of what I call the “Big Picture” view of life.  We tried not to get caught up in the overwhelming emotions of the moment, to step back from the anger, the worry, the frustration, and see the experiences for what they really were.  And what we discovered was that by stepping back, we could find ways to learn from them, ways in which we could help others dealing with the same issues, and ways in which we could laugh at what was happening. It’s amazing how funny things are when you look for the humor in them.  It’s also amazing how hard it is to feel sorry for yourself when you’re trying to learn, help others, and laugh.

You’ll notice I used the word “tried.” There’s no question it was hard to step back when I was overwhelmed by anger, frustration or worry. The last thing on my mind at those times was to look at the Big Picture. But when I untangled myself from the overwhelming emotions of the moment, I could gain a different perspective. The results were definitely worth the effort, and I even wrote a book about our experiences, Looks Easy Enough: A Joyful Memoir of Overcoming Disease, Divorce and Disaster.

I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s words and truly believe that the future me and the future Susan did have a hand in pulling us through those tough times.  And in an effort to help, they made us — the younger and struggling me and Susan — aware of the Big Picture view of life so that we could come out smiling. They brought us into the future.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Leah Stewart on “Husband and Wife”

Posted on August 12, 2010

Does a woman’s identity change after marriage? Does she lose herself once she becomes a “wife?” This fascinating subject lies at the heart of “Husband and Wife,” a must-read that explores a couple’s changing relationship. Here’s what author Leah Stewart told me about her latest novel.

I think this is a book all women will relate to, whether they’re artists or not. What’s been the response so far? I would imagine women would be grabbing on to you, asking you how you knew what they were thinking.

I’ve heard from and talked to people who identified strongly with Sarah and were really moved by the book. I’ve been thanked for portraying the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood with honesty. I’ve also seen some online reviews by people who find the narrator immature and/or self-involved. I saw these love/hate reactions to the narrator of my second book, too. Maybe this is because both books have very interior first-person narrators who reveal their more self-serving thoughts and impulses as well as their more selfless ones. Both books also deal with a narrator debating whether to forgive another character, and in some cases readers have sided with the other character. When a reader hates your narrator so much she seems furious with you, that’s hard to read, but I suppose I should feel I’ve done something right if someone can respond as dramatically to my character as they might to a real person.

You’re a writer, you’re married and you have two young children so I have to ask — how much of the story is based on your own life?

None of the story (as in, the events of the plot) is based on my life. But some of the set-up is. I used our old house in North Carolina as Sarah and Nathan’s house, because it was easier to describe what I could picture so readily. (Though I added a bedroom to it—virtual remodeling!) Sarah works where my husband and I used to work, in the Department of Neurobiology at Duke, though she has a different job than we did. (I was a secretary; he was the grants manager.) I also modeled Mattie and Binx on my children, who were three and about seven months when I started the book. My daughter is delighted that Mattie is modeled on her, down to her habit of sucking her fingers and twisting her hair. I thought I should take advantage of this now, as in a few years I imagine the last thing she’ll want is to appear in something I write.

Perhaps most importantly, the story certainly emerged from some of the pressing concerns in my post-motherhood life and that of my friends, several of whom have given up writing and/or seen their marriages change in ways good and bad. Once you have kids, are you yourself as a mother, or has your identity changed in some essential way?

The book title is so simple and so perfect. Can you talk a little about its significance, and if/how someone’s identity changes once they become a husband or wife? And what do you think are the differences are in people’s perceptions of husbands versus wives?

I just read The Group by Mary McCarthy, and that book, which is set in the 1930s and was published in the 1960s, is in part about how dramatically women’s lives change when they become wives. For myself and many people I know, this is less true than it was then, when the culture at-large still told women to submit to their husbands’ will. Sarah and Nathan, who lived together for some time before marriage, didn’t really have to change much except what they called each other when they got married. But becoming a mother and father, and therefore the leaders of a family unit, forces them to examine what those other roles mean. Sarah, for instance, worries a great deal about her identity being reduced to “the betrayed wife” if other people find out about Nathan’s infidelity.

My guess is that “husband” is still more of a practical description (i.e. the guy’s married to somebody) than “wife,” which suggests more of an identity. Would anyone call a show “The Good Husband?”

I wanted to smack Nathan for telling Sarah about his affair since the confession was so self-serving. Men seem to feel the need to do that way more than women do, and nothing good ever comes out of it. What are your feelings about that?

I think how you feel about confessing infidelity depends on what you value more: principles of honesty or day-to-day reality. If Nathan hadn’t confessed, nothing that happens in the book would have happened. I don’t actually know if that would have been better, not having tried to write that version, but certainly they would have just kept on functioning in their daily lives without all the emotional upheaval that results from his confession. I’m generalizing wildly here, but it seems to me that men often rely on their wives for emotional support, while women get that support from a variety of sources. So perhaps it’s harder for men to keep such a large secret from the primary person they talk to about their feelings. Nathan confesses in part because he thinks keeping the secret is affecting his closeness to Sarah, and their relationship has always been about being friends and colleagues as much as husband and wife. But, of course, he’s also being self-serving, in that he hopes to make himself feel better, and in doing so makes her feel a great deal worse.

As someone who has also cursed in front of her children and not always handled motherhood gracefully, I thought Sarah was so real. Were you worried about readers’ reactions to some of her “Bad Mother” moments like when she imitates her daughter’s lisp or tells her to pretend the baby isn’t crying?

Sure. It’s always dangerous to write about motherhood in any sort of complicated way, as Ayelet Waldman can attest. But I think the most judgmental people aren’t being truthful, because, honestly, who has always handled motherhood gracefully? We as mothers would be a lot less hard on ourselves if we didn’t believe that we were always supposed to do everything right, and that all other mothers were either besting us or failing. We go to the “bad mother” place so easily. And though fathers are so much more involved than they used to be, there’s still not the same level of cultural or self-produced pressure on them. There was an article a few months about how if you Googled “bad father” it came up: Did you mean bad mother?

I literally laughed out loud and almost spit my iced tea all over the place when I read the scene at McDonald’s because I have been there – and survived! This was such a signature motherhood moment but one I don’t think fathers often experience, interestingly enough. Why did you include a scene like this, and have you been there, too?

Oh, absolutely. My son did indeed have a diaper explosion all over me in a truck stop McDonald’s. The crucial difference between that scene and my life was that my husband was there and could run out to the car for the diaper bag and stand at the bathroom door to collect the dirty clothes and keep an eye on our daughter so I wasn’t juggling both a disastrously messy infant and a toddler. I included the scene because I thought about how much more difficult it would have been to be in that situation without his help, and that’s the part of the book where Sarah’s experimenting with single motherhood.

This may sound like a sexist question but why do you think women’s priorities tend to shift after they have children while men’s don’t? Is it just because women are expected to take that role?

Yes, that’s certainly a large part of it. The hormonal effects of motherhood are also undeniable. I remember reading about a study when my daughter was a few months old that found that it was physically painful for new mothers to hear their babies cry. This doesn’t happen to men.

I don’t think I’d argue that men’s priorities don’t shift. What I’ve observed, at least, is that men are more likely to think that children should be one of their priorities, and women are more likely to think that the children should be the priority, or sometimes to feel like they should think that and feel guilty if they don’t.

The scene in which Nathan tells Sarah she’s not the same person any more is a great moment in domestic fiction and made me gasp in its truth, especially as it makes Sarah realize how much she misses “herself” as well. How many of us are the same person our spouse married? Can we be? Is this why the divorce rate is so high?

You know, I wish I knew the answer to those questions. The desire to explore those questions is one reason I wrote the book, but I’m not sure I found an answer, or at least not an answer that’s universally right.

How do you think the story would have been different if Sarah or Nathan weren’t both writers?

Their sense of what’s changed in the marriage would have been very different. One of the aspects of their relationship that interested me was the fact that they were once so completely in sync with each other and, now that Sarah’s not writing, no longer are.

You’ve now covered marriage, children and friendship in your books. What relationship is next?


This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Jeffrey Koterba on Becoming a Cartoonist, Growing Up with Tourette’s Syndrome and His New Book, “Inklings”

Posted on August 2, 2010

One of the most valuable aspects of reading memoirs is being able to get an inside look at a way of life so different from yours and learning how other people cope with the challenges they have to face. Award-winning political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba has written an open, honest and completely intriguing account of growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome — and a volatile family — which I felt compelled to share with our readers. Here’s my interview with the amazing author (and musician!):

“Inklings” – a brilliant title, by the way — is fascinating on so many levels. It gives much insight into surviving a dysfunctional family, growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome and becoming an award-winning political cartoonist and successful musician. Which of these did you most want to write about or was it more important to show how all of those elements combined?

Thank you for your kind words. This may sound strange, but I sort of keep forgetting that the book is actually out in the world. I mean, I know it’s a physical book that exists—I’ve seen it in bookstores—but it’s surrealistic and exciting beyond belief that people I’ve never met are reading it. Regarding the title, I usually struggle with titles—but this one came naturally, literally in a flash. So I suppose it was meant to be. Regarding the overall theme of my memoir, I really wanted to show, best I could, how everything is interconnected. If not for the events and complexities of my childhood, and the Tourette’s, I might not ever have become a writer, cartoonist and musician.

You certainly had many obstacles to overcome to reach your goal of becoming a cartoonist but you never gave up, and I think your story will inspire many others to do the same. What gave you the courage and drive to pursue your dreams?

It’s funny you use the word “obstacles.” The other day, the phrase, “Let your obstacles become your muse,” came to me. Maybe because I have to often remind myself of my own life’s lessons. Instead of looking at the obstacles as a roadblock, I try to remember that in the past, my obstacles have often been exactly what I needed at that time, providing opportunities for growth. We all have struggles; the real challenge is how we deal with them, turning those challenges into blessings in disguise. I hope readers of “Inklings” will get that message.

What was it about cartoons that was appealing to you, as opposed to any other form of art?

That’s a great question. I think cartooning is part of my DNA or something. I’ve been cartooning as long as I can remember. Later, in high school and college, I thought I wanted to become a painter—the more abstract the better—but I kept coming back to cartoons—especially editorial cartoons. There’s just something so immediate and accessible about cartoons, but depending on what type of cartoon it is, there’s often a deeper layer. I’m all about the deeper layers. And sometimes, even though a cartoon might be pleasant to look at, the idea might be a bit dark or poignant. Ultimately, it’s not really about the drawing at all, but the message behind it.

Because Tourette’s is so visible, it must be especially difficult when you’re young. You touch upon the fact that other children teased you but don’t dwell on that in the book. How did you handle that?

I didn’t want “Inklings” to come off as a “poor me” kind of memoir, certainly, that’s one reason I didn’t dwell too much on the Tourette’s. And while Tourette’s obviously plays an important role in my creative life—I’m convinced that without the twitches and tics, I wouldn’t do all the things I do—it doesn’t define me. Kids can be cruel, but I certainly don’t hold grudges. In fact, looking back, it makes me sad for them—I wonder what kind of struggles were occurring in their lives, what obstacles they were contending with. The journalist in me would give anything to go back in time, to take notes of everything that happened, to interview those kids. But otherwise, I sure wouldn’t want to replay my childhood, although I’m grateful for my experiences, good and bad.

It seems that your family life would almost be harder to deal with than the Tourette’s. Do you think your dad was what would now be called a hoarder? For all your father’s craziness, though, what made me saddest was your mom secretly dressing you like a girl and calling you her daughter. What kind of effect did that have on you?

Because my father grew up during the Great Depression, in a large family without a father, and certainly with little money, when he discovered garage sales, he was in heaven. He could buy TVs, radios, stereos, sometimes for the change in his pocket. By today’s standards was he a hoarder? Maybe. But I can’t cast any stones. I’m currently in the process of moving and found I needed a place to store my stuff. As it happens, the house where I grew up is still in the family so I’m using it to store my cartoons. Bins and bins of cartoons and sketchbooks. All kinds of writings and drawings and musical items. I’m feeling like a bit of a hoarder myself. Another point about my father which refers to the earlier question about obstacles: As a kid I could see how sad and regretful my father was for not pursuing his dreams. I vowed to never have any regrets. Even if I failed, I would know that I tried.

Regarding my mom dressing me as “Cindy,” well, I don’t know, I like to think that as a male, it somehow gave me early access to my feminine side. As a boy I was pretty typical in that I played sports and liked to get my hands dirty and loved motorcycles, but I also loved, from an early age, the perfumed scent of a woman, the beautiful nuances of a woman’s face, what makes them look different from men. I think it helped me as an artist. I hope so, anyway.

How did your life change once you learned that there was actually a name for your tics? How do you think your family’s life might have been different if your father – and you — had been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome many years earlier?

Growing up, I had what my father called “nervous habits.” He had them, too. And although Tourette’s is genetic, neither of us knew what caused the tics. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there simply weren’t the resources now available. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I was diagnosed, and although that diagnosis assured me that the habits weren’t simply something I could stop if I wanted, in a way I’m grateful for not knowing sooner. I mean, what if I had known as a kid and what if I latched on to that diagnosis and had defined myself as a Tourette’s kid? Of course, there’s really no way of knowing how things might have been different had I known. Maybe it would have saved me a lot of grief on the playground. But then, in a way, that grief inspired me to try harder, to prove myself that I wasn’t a failure.

As an adult looking back at your childhood, were you surprised to remember certain events? Did you gain any new insight or perspective in the process? Was it empowering to realize how far you’ve come?

I had been lugging around my stories ever since I was a kid. Frankly, I was getting tired of them. So it was a relief to finally get them down on paper and let them go. Still, I have more I need to get out of my system. It’s often said that a first-time writer puts everything into his or her book; on the contrary for me—there was so much I had to leave out, so many more stories. In the end I had to decide what served the overall story. While writing early drafts, however, I found myself twitching more than usual—my Tourette’s often gets worse when I’m stressed out, physically or emotionally. So to a certain extent it was a bit uncomfortable going through those first drafts. However, it was also while writing that I began to see all these connections in my life, in an even more profound way–events and connections with people that on first glance might have seemingly only played a small role in my life, but as it turns out, were significant in helping shape the person I am, for better or worse.

You’re the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the swing band, the Prairie Cats, as well as an incredibly talented cartoonist. You have to believe there’s truth to your doctor’s explanation that most people who have Tourette’s are artists in some form. Have you taken medication or are you concerned it will somehow mess with the creative process?

Over the years I have tried various medications, all to varying degree of success. In some cases, the medications seemed to have made my tics worse. But the stress might have had to do with outside forces. It’s difficult to know for sure. And yes, certainly, my biggest concern has always been that I don’t want to mess with a good thing—don’t want to dampen my creativity. But who knows? What if there is a drug out there that might ease the symptoms, but also give me more energy to create? The good news is that with age, the tics have seemed to lessen in severity and also a proper diet of avoiding caffeine and sugar, and also exercising regularly, has helped quite a bit. I’m always a bit concerned when I give a talk at a Tourette’s support group and all around they have snacks in the form of sweets. But that just might be my take on things, regarding sugar. Regarding those groups, by the way, it’s a great place to let go—of your tics, that is. That’s a place you don’t have to worry about people looking at you funny.

What were your parents’ reactions to the book?

Initially, they were worried what friends and family would say. Some of their concerns came from the level of detail I write about, and my parents, being very private people, were worried how others might judge them. Some of their reaction might have been a generational thing, too, my parents coming from an era when you “just don’t talk about such private things.” Growing up, we didn’t have many books in the house—certainly nothing like a memoir—so I’m sure it was a bit surrealistic for my parents to read about themselves so specifically. I did my best to remind them that many families have complexities and dysfunction. My overall intent wasn’t to point out my father’s weaknesses or faults, but rather, to show, how he rose above his disappointments and loved his family. And as part of loving me, he inspired me nearly every day, pushing me to be original and unique, to push my own personal envelope.

What advice would you give children with Tourette’s? How have they reacted to your book?

I once had a mother and her daughter who has Tourette’s come to see me at the newspaper. The daughter was in grade school and was already showing great promise as an artist and playwright. In front of her daughter, the mother asked me if I thought her daughter could live a “normal life.” That absolutely broke my heart. “Of course,” I answered. “In fact,” I remember saying, “not only will she live a normal life, she’ll live a great life!” The little girl looked up to me and smiled. That still gets to me.

I loved spending time on your site, going through the cartoon gallery. How are you so prolific? What do you do when you have cartoonist’s block?!

Well, I have to admit, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up with everything, especially because I’m itching to write another book. Having said that, I do often find that doing one thing often feeds me in other areas. Sometimes when I can’t come up with a cartoon idea, I might pick up the guitar. Just the act of strumming might free up my brain to come up with a cartoon idea. It’s all integrated, really, not separate things I do, but all connected in some grand way in my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Is there a specific subject you especially like to draw, that you find yourself returning to over and over? Which cartoon is your all-time favorite?

Even though drawing local cartoons typically doesn’t win national journalism prizes, those are probably my favorite. Mostly, because I know that the people I’m drawing about will see the cartoon. If I draw a cartoon about the leader of a foreign country, probably not. And picking one favorite is tough. I draw six cartoons a week, so in baseball terms, if I can get on base every time, I figure I’m doing well. If at least one of those makes it over the outfield fence, I’m happy.

What’s next for you? A subject you haven’t touched yet? A cartoon set to swing music?

I like that—a cartoon set to swing music would be awesome! Well, I am fiddling with a TV show idea with a friend of mine and an “Inklings” screenplay is in the works, so we’ll see. Otherwise, I’m mapping out my next book project. The problem is I have too many ideas and there’s only so much time. Maybe I should be working on a machine that would somehow expand time.

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I feel really privileged to get to know you a little better.

For me, the sign of a great question is when that question gets me to think about my life in ways I hadn’t previously considered. Your questions did that for me. Thank you so much.

Jeffrey Koterba is generously giving an autographed copy of “Inklings” and his latest Prairie Cats’ CD to one lucky subscriber. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment below by midnight Pacific time on Sunday, August 8. Winner will be notified by return email.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Happy 75th Anniversary, Penguin Books!

Posted on July 30, 2010


Happy anniversary, Penguin Books!

Seventy five years ago, today, Allen Lane changed the course of publishing by launching a new line of inexpensive, paperback books. His secretary came up with the company name, and he sent a designer to the zoo to capture the essence of that little bird which has since become an instantly-recognizable icon.

Penguin began with a 10-title launch, and critics laughed at Lane’s idea. By the end of the year, the little-publisher-that-could had sold more than three million books, and now has bragging rights for an author list that includes everyone from Hemingway and Tolstoy to Stephen King and Don DeLillo.

Believing that you actually can judge a book by its cover, Penguin has always paid as much attention to design as content. “Penguin 75” is a stunning representation of the publisher’s three quarters of a century of book cover design, with revealing commentary by the authors and artists.

As part of the anniversary celebration, Bravo’s series, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” challenged designers to create a book cover for a Penguin classic which would introduce it to a whole new generation of readers. John Parot’s winning – and eye-popping — design for H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” now graces the book’s cover, giving it a fresh new look.

Six additional titles also boast new covers – designed by some of the world’s best illustrators and tattoo artists. Check out these gorgeous new Inked editions of “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “The Broom of the System.”

You can read all about Penguin’s anniversary events on their website, and find out if the Penguin Mobile is coming to your town!

Meanwhile, we’re celebrating Penguin’s anniversary by giving away one of our favorite Penguin classics, “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner, as well as the winning Bravo cover design edition of “The Time Machine” and the Inked edition of “The Broom of the System.”

Enter to win by leaving a comment below. Let us know which one you’d like for your collection, and tell us which of the Penguin 75 is your favorite. Winners will be selected on August 9 and will be notified by return email.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Deb Wainscott Reviews “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

Posted on July 29, 2010

This Pulitzer Prize winning book is astounding and dense — and it is only 192 pages. It’s very hard to put down once you start it.

The story is told in the voices of three generations of a dysfunctional family. The old man is on his deathbed, in the dining room of his home, and the book covers his last eight days of life. He hallucinates, recalls and reflects on his life.

You flip from him growing up in Maine and then Massachusetts, and becoming a horologist (someone who makes clocks and watches). Then you learn about his father — a tinker with epilepsy — and his mother, who is contrary & cantankerous. My favorite line of hers is, “Don’t you try to make me feel better!”

The whole story is like the winding down of a clock, which is ironic since clocks were this man’s life.

You can almost feel every single thing that the author describes because the scenes are so vivid.

A spectacular first book for Mr. Harding.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Attorney Todd Doyle Reviews “Supreme Justice” by Philip Margolin

Posted on July 27, 2010

Accompanied by a Corona Lite or Mojito, this is the perfect light book for a summer beach day.

Author Philip Margolin is an ex-criminal attorney who, like John Grisham, went the way of fiction to make millions and enjoy the law without the mundane parts.  This is Margolin’s 14th novel, and it uses a number of characters from his 2006 best seller “Executive Privilege” to help solve crimes, bring some justice to the world and lay down a little punishment along the way. You don’t need to have read the prior book to figure out what’s going on here despite the numerous references to their prior collaboration.  The book is much less about the judicial system or Supreme Court than the title or cover would lead the reader believe.  But, then, you know the saying about a book’s cover …

The heavily plot driven story involves Sarah Woodruff, an Oregon cop, who’s on death row for murdering her lover, John Finley. Finley is (was), at various times, an import/export executive, a drug dealer, or a CIA operative. The triad of prior Margolin characters (Brad Miller – Supreme Court Law Clerk, Keith Evans – FBI, and Dana Cutler – Private Eye) get involved because Woodruff has filed a request for Supreme Court certiorari (cert for those in the law biz). This is a prisoner’s last chance for a review of their case and chance for a retrial. Without cert, its certain that Woodruff will be put to death.  In Woodruff’s case, the basis upon which cert is sought involves a mysterious ship that was docked in a small town in Oregon 6 years earlier. That ship left several men dead. But the ship disappeared, along with a possible large cache of drugs on board, and therein lies the backbone of the story.  Powerful people in Washington D.C. want to keep the ship’s existence and any evidence related to it a “state-secrets privilege,” meaning Woodruff can not use the ship’s connection to her case as a defense. Without that evidence, Woodruff is sure to face the gas chamber. You have puppet masters playing chess with real people while common folk with connections try to outwit and solve the mystery before it’s “too late.” This multi-layered situation results in some unscrupulous acts, legal maneuvering, detective work, assassination attempts and some killings. The author uses about 20 different characters in at least three different time periods to tell the story.

The danger and killing in the book are certainly not on par with one episode of Jack Bauer in “24,” but are still very entertaining. The multiple stories are woven together in a simplistic albeit an enjoyable way. The reader races side by side with the characters as they piece this puzzle together. There are no long scene descriptions or chapters devoted to character development. This is a quick-paced story that is driven through dialogue, some of which is rather uninspired.  The book is 310 pages, broken into 65 chapters, many of which are short mini-cliffhangers that will have you saying to yourself, “One more chapter.”  Easy stuff since many of those chapters are only 3 to 5 pages long. The multiple storylines get woven together like a 25 piece puzzle – in big chunks – which are wrapped up into a cohesive story with some twists.

The writing is easy to read, the story is plausible enough, the settings are interesting and there is enough mystery, suspense and thrill that I give “Supreme Justice” a B grade.  It will take even the slowest of readers — like me — only a few days to finish, and you quickies will plow through it in a day.  Don’t overanalyze or dissect the implausible parts and you will have enjoyable entertainment for your beach, pool or other vacation spot this summer.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

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