Salutations September-October, 2021

Yikes. How did two months go by since my last post? Oh right. The semester started. And I co-facilitated a large six-hour virtual training. Yeah. That would be why.

My Cornell colleague Wendy Wolfe and I developed and published the Choose Health: Food, Fun, and Fitness curriculum in 2015, and it’s gratifying when other states want to use it! In 2019, I traveled to Washington State and trained their folks over three days – and got to see some beautiful country! This fall, Kansas SNAP-Ed and 4-H educators requested a similar training. I was all set to travel to Wichita where I’d also get to see my sister, her kids, and a great-niece I’ve been dying to meet. The idea of traveling in this Covid/Delta era did make me nervous – and in the end my clients were nervous too. They opted instead for safety – and a virtual training. But in half the time – because who could stand twelve hours on Zoom? Oh Yikes! What a challenge! Thank heavens Wendy was now available to help. But oh my, it took acres and acres more planning! And a huge sense of relief when we were able to pull it off!

I allowed a few hours to celebrate. And then…OY, THERE’S SO MUCH TO CATCH UP ON! Piles of papers to grade, preparations for a step-son’s wedding and rehearsal dinner… Gotta make a felt wrap to dress up an old dress for the wedding… Gotta get, and then recover from, my third Moderna dose so being with people won’t be so scary… Gotta gather stuff to make the rehearsal dinner special… Pant, pant, pant.

I’m glad to say light began to emerge late last week. All is in readiness for our wedding obligations this weekend, and I even managed to dust off my novel-in-progress or the first time in months. I might even see glimmers about what’s supposed to happen in the story. Maybe. I figure it could take another hundred pages or so to be sure. And then, since I’ve already written over four hundred pages, I’ll have a ton of revisions and darlings to kill! But I’m a lot more hopeful I’ll live to see it become an actual book than I was a week ago, and more opportunity to carve out time to work on it.

In the meantime, have I found time to read? Well, of course! I’d be a blathering mess if I hadn’t. More blathering than usual. Let’s see what’s been keeping the blathering from my door.

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At first, this book seemed like a fairly typical small-town/family saga. Dysfunction a plenty. A patriarch who couldn’t keep his fly zipped, a son who could act like a grown-up only when hundreds of miles from his mother, a set of twins – one selfish, one in love for the first time. Strange alliances, relationship angst, revenge motivation. A cheery little small-town saga. Up to the moment when the twin in love mistakenly shot and killed her lover. Whoa! This was more dysfunction than I expected. What would this weird collection of people do next? I turned pages fast. And then my book club discussed Olympus, Texas. Well. Thank heavens for my friend Terry who saw that all these weird dysfunctional characters were fashioned after Greek and Roman gods. Oh my, my! With wide-open eyes, I saw all the clues I’d missed. Artie (Artemis) the huntress, Marsh (Mars the god of war)with his intermittent explosive disorder, June (Juneau) the unappreciated wife of Peter (Jupiter) the adulterer. All their bad behavior made sense. They were just like the roamers of a different Olympus. Now the book became a romp! I’ve not yet unearthed my old Edith Hamilton paperback from high school but I hope to soon because refreshing my knowledge of those old myths will surely make Olympus Texas even more fun!

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A friend dies – a best friend – and Wren needs to understand why. Even if it means interacting with Stewart’s other truly dreadful other friends? How could he – this bright light in Wren’s life – stand these people? And why didn’t Stewart let Wren help him before he took his life? How could someone like Stewart – someone who was so alive, who seemed to thrive in any situation – feel so bad he chose to kill himself? And who is this lawyer friend George, and why did Stewart insist that Wren and George be the ones to pack up his apartment? Before they can even start, those other despicable friends descend on Stewart’s possesions like vultures. En masse. With grasping claws worthy of the name. And big doses of sometimes comical and sometimes nauseating obnoxiousness. The Vultures further complicate Wren’s already complicated process of grieving. As does her grudging acceptance and attraction to George. If you like lots of gallows humor and snarky commentary on human nature, you’ll find this book a hoot. But you’ll also get insights about loss – what can be learned from grief, how we must accept what we cannot understand, how we might never understand what’s going on in someone else’s head even when we love them a lot. I enjoyed this book a lot – especially when the Vultures headed backstage and I got to spend more time with the far more likable George and Wren.

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I’m sure if I were more well-read, I’d have found more to like in this book set in Flannery O’Connor’s home town. I learned a lot I never knew about O’Connor, one of the cast of characters in this piece of fiction. I’m grateful to have a story – even if it is fiction – to tie to this name of the renowned southern writer. But what I learned did not convince me to rush out and devour what O’Connor wrote. First, I learned O’Connor primarily wrote short stories, and those rarely engage my interest. Secondly, violent death and tragedy appear to be her central themes, so…um…no thanks? Okay, I know many of the well-read among us will see me as a shallow reader and undoubtedly a less than worthy human being. They’ll consider my reasoning invalid and ignorant. They may be right. I can live with that. And even if she didn’t turn me into a Flannery O’Connor fan, I credit Ann Napolitano with writing an interesting tale. O’Connor was only one player in the small town, and while enormous and unthinkable violence shaped Napolitano’s tale too, the other characters and the predicaments they fell into intrigued me. Heavens, the peacocks alone were enough to stun and amaze. Again, I’m sure the well-red fans of Flannery O’Connor would know this astonishing fact – the writer collected peacocks and apparently relished their raucous and testy companionship as well as their ability, it appears, to make the rest of the world keep their distance. Another thing I learned? Peacocks would not make happy companions for me.

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Barbara Davis spans World War II Paris and 1980s Boston in her tale of a wedding gown seamstress who weaves in a little magic to guarantee happiness – for select customers. Soline Roussel’s gift comes down from generations of Roma women but puts her at particular risk in occupied Paris. Even more when she volunteers at the American hospital in Paris and falls in love with ambulance driver/resistance liaison Anson. He sends Soline to the dubious safety of his family in Maine before he is shot, presumed dead. So much for her happy ending. particularly when Anson’s father rejects his intended war bride. Rejected by Anson’s family, alone and grieving, she lands in Boston where she slowly re-builds her wedding gown trade. Decades later young artist Rory Grant’s fiance has gone missing from his Doctors Without Borders clinic in Sudan. No one understands Rory’s fears that the man who finally sees her is gone forever – until she meets Soline. From there, the wheels of fate and improbable coincidence conspire until you guessed it – a happy ending for all. The characters are well-developed and likable, and it’s gratifying to see the women growing stronger amid their mutual support. But really? So many incredible coincidences? And the dead and gone coming back to life? Nope. I am no fan of neatly tying up so many hanging strings.

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Now here’s a book I can heartily recommend, a tale slightly reminiscent of The Help and the tight bond a caregiver might feel for a child in her care. Kiley Reid set her tale in contemporary Philadelphia, light-years away from 1960s Mississippi. The blatant oppression we saw in The Help has shifted, but that doesn’t mean the biases are gone. Oh no. Those biases show up in sharp relief when Emira Tucker encounters a security cop who accuses her of ‘taking’ three-year-old Bryar. You guessed it. Emira’s black caring for Bryar, the daughter of Alix Chamberlain, white, privileged, and the kind of liberal that gives liberal a bad name. Before this incident, Alix treats her toddler and her ‘sitter’ with equitable nonchalance bordering on neglect. After, Alix makes a big show to not be seen as ‘that kind of white woman.’ Suddenly she wants to be Emira’s friend. Emira is herself at a crossroads, embarrassed by her baby-sitting job at twenty-six but love-love-loving her time with Bryar. And more, believing that without her, Bryar won’t have the doting attention the intense little girl craves. When Emira starts dating white Kelley and he starts talking about the rich girl he once dated and who got his black friend arrested, you start to think uh-oh. And oh my, don’t things get interesting? On its surface, this story is pure entertainment, but don’t overlook the deeper questions it asks about race, privilege, and friendship. They’re questions worth asking.

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Two sisters on the run from grifter parents land in a small coastal town, and despite the older Charlotte’s vow to go straight, circumstances conspire to have her pose as the town’s new psychic. All she really wants is to hide out and feed her sister, but she gets drawn into friendships and obligations, working to help the local police solve a crime. Will her ruse be uncovered? For most of the book, I was with Charlotte – not exactly feeling her pain but glad to see her making friends and being a helpful presence in this new community. She befriends two dirty and hungry little boys, coaxes the curmudgeon next door to put his grief to good purpose, and wins over the hunky detective she’s sure will expose her. But then, before the story’s crisis is even fully resolved…’to learn more, read book 2 in the Extradordinary series…’ What? Really? No satisfying conclusion. No cliffhanger making me itch for more. No bang. I couldn’t even call it a whimper. Really? You just stop and then expect me to run out and buy the next book in the series? No thanks, Mary Frame. You cheated. Yes, cheated. This book was nothing more than a teaser for the next. You didn’t keep your bargain with your readers, Mary Frame. And this reader won’t take another chance on you and your propensity to leave a story unfinished.

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How can you miss when a book is about books and a group of women who read them? Wouldn’t you think that such a book would be a sure bet? Um. Not quite. Full disclosure – I adore my book club. And I suppose another fledgling reading group could only pale in comparison to the joy I get from my reading group. I suppose too that way back when, I learned to know my fellow book club members in slow bits and pieces. But when I still don’t know the characters in this book – much less care about them until nearly halfway through the book, do you think the rest will be worth the wait? I did stick it out, and eventually, I cared. A little. What was missing? Maybe I hope for too much. Like the way books can build vibrancy and strength into female friendship as it has with my book club. We could never be so close without our mutual love of books. Which did not seem the case with Elizabeth Noble’s characters. Their friendship seemed to develop just because they met once a month. The books they chose and how they discussed them seemed incidental to the dramas playing out in the rest of their lives. I couldn’t help believing that they’d manage those dramas better if only the group put more effort into their reading! Eventually, I could see these women as people I wouldn’t mind spending an evening with. But would I look forward to attending their monthly meetings? Doubtful. And will I recommend this story about book clubs to one as passionate about books as my own? No. I won’t be doing that.

Miss Benson's Beetle

Yes, this is a re-run book from last winter when I first read Miss Benson’s Beetle. And no, her beetle is still not a Volkswagen. Think actual insect. I re-read this book to refresh my memory and keep up with my book club’s discussion last month. I liked it the first time – and found more to enjoy in my second reading. I often do read books more than once – often precisely because it’s a book club choice – but I really ought to do it more. I typically race through a book – when it grabs me early as this one did – because I need to know what happens. But when I read it a second time, I slow down (or it feels like I do) and savor the language and the lead-up to what happens more. So it was with Rachel Joyce’s tale about two of the quirkiest women you’re ever likely to meet in a book. I laughed more at Margery’s musings, her self-doubt, her bombacity, and the wildness of her post-corseted adventure. I was touched more deeply too, as she emerged into a self-reliance she never suspected she was capable of. The same was true for the remarkable Enid Pretty whose costumes and speech leapt off the page in a more riotous burst of color. And oh the gems that Rachel Joyce included in her back-matter! I loved her ‘interview’ with Margery and Enid and was fascinated with her own story about how these characters came to life in her mind and then on the page. Miss Benson’s Beetle is a book that is definitely worth a second read – and a second mention in this newsletter.

I’ll be re-reading another already-mentioned book this week – again to keep up with my book club friends. Kristan Higgins’ Pack Up the Moon is slated for discussion tomorrow, and I know I’ll get the amplified pleasure from my second read of her story about love and loss – even as I race to get it read in time.

This means I’ll have to put not one, but two books on hold – which likely means they’ll both deserve a second read too. I should have planned my reading time better. Alas. I’m deep into a book recommended by my Kansas clients called Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, a book one needs to contemplate so I won’t mind putting Tiny Habits on hold a few days. More time to mull and contemplate. But I’ll feel tempted to keep reading The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld even though the first third of the story is so gripping, I doubt a few days immersed in Higgins will diminish the way I already fret about Denfeld’s street kid’s outcome. Stay tuned, I’ll report on both next month.

Unless…you know. It could take a little longer than a month for me to send out Salutations again. Maybe that’s an arena where a new Tiny Habit might help?

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