Monday, April 29, 2013

The Dirty Life : Book Group Book Review

In keeping with the book's ethos, why not
get it at Indiebound or your local bookseller?
Do you harbor a secret desire to live and love out in the country, to grow the food you eat, to simplify your life, or to draw closer to the cycles of the natural world?

The women in our book club clearly do.  Which is one reason we all enjoyed The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball and that our conversation at dusk on D's back porch grew so warmly animated and earnest, punctuated by broad smiles and quite a few guffaws. 

This memoir of how Ms. Kimball's love affair with an organic farmer named Mark drew her quickly into his lifelong plan to run the "full diet, free choice" CSA Essex Farm in upstate New York proved to be a quick read with just the right amount of fascinating detail to keep the narrative in focus and their lifestyle dimensional without veering off into how-to manual minutiae.  For these traits, we all applauded the book.  Driving huge plough horses, learning to craft all manner of dairy delights after milking Delia the Jersey cow, harvesting heritage piggies and potatoes, wrangling a herd of runaway Highland cattle:  What's not to enjoy about vicariously experiencing the joys and challenges of the novice full-time farmer? 

And what did we conclude, after hours of great potluck food and relaxed, thoughtful conversation while watching the sun descend?  No way could we live the farming life.  But thanks to Ms. Kimball's sure-handed prose, it sure was fun to visit.

For book groups:  Recommended.


p.s.  Kimball hosts her own nifty website and blog with plenty of photos to give the book's various and many beings visual life.

Looks like Kristin and Mark and a Jersey cow to me.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Be the Thing You See : Poem In Your Post

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long:
To look at this green and say
'I have seen spring in these
Woods,' will not do--you must
Be the thing you see:
You must be the dark snakes of
Stems and ferny plumes of leaves,
You must enter in
To the small silences between
The leaves,
You must take your time
And touch the very peace
They issue from.

                   - John Moffitt

Thanks to my Mom for noticing this one in her "Inward/Outward" email feed.  A rather "Zen meets Christian ministry" moment.  Glad to be a witness to it, to look at it with all of you.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Few Words on the Soul : Poem in Your Post

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

                    - Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

With gratitude to my friend Mirabee for sharing this new-to-me poet and this gorgeous poem.


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Forever Knight : A Mom and Me Review

Get it at or
So, The Forever Knight.

It's a fantasy novel, the fourth in the Bronze Knight Saga by fantasy author John Marco.   The forever knight is our protagonist Lukien, made immortal or invincible or at least not dead by the Akari spirit Malator who inhabits Lukien's sword.

All Freudian giggles aside, this dynamic duo does offer us a solid pair of personalities to follow as they endure some intense battles against creepy monsters (and creepier humans) and a number of knight errant-ish journeys through the Bitter Kingdoms.

Mom's Take:
I'll start by saying that I’m not sure how valid my insights may be since fantasy is not my usual fare. That being the ground from which I write, here goes.

I was fascinated by the imagination it requires to put such a novel together and I enjoyed reading a different, for me, genre. The straightforward storytelling in The Forever Knight moves along at a good clip and I wanted to know what would happen next—a good feature of any book.

Some of the descriptions were compelling, for example on p. 28, of what it’s like crossing the desert. This didn’t seem like fantasy but something written by a person who’d been there, done that. Lukien observes:
“The worst part about crossing a desert isn’t the heat. It’s not the way the flies eat your skin or the fear of running out of water, either. The problem is how small it makes you feel. Anyone who’s done it knows what I mean. Once you’ve traveled for just a few hours, you look back and see nothing. And when you look ahead you see nothing, and you keep looking and looking and there’s nothing. There’s just sand and dunes and the horizon. There’s a fever that sets in when all you see is desert. If a man isn’t careful, it can madden him.”
The story of the monster/beast and of the warring nations is little different from other tales, but the way that Marco puts it together kept me motivated.

I found a couple of aspects a little distracting like using words that were specific to this world but not explicated (p. 34 “drowa” for example) and the occasional use of modern diction seemed a little out of place to me.  For instance, it didn’t seem that a knight would be using contemporary terminology, as in a conversation between Lukien and Cricket:
“If he touches me again I’ll bite his hand off,” she hissed.
“Tell you what—you control yourself, and I will too. Deal?”
“Deal,” she agreed”      (130)
Somehow the "Deal? Deal." felt too modern day for The Forever Knight and his cohort.

I had a question for John Marco: was it challenging or playfully satisfying to choose names for the principles and places? Is that part of the fun of writing fantasy? I found the names themselves intriguing.

In the end, I enjoyed spending time following Lukien around with his adventures, violent though many of them were. His touching relationship with Cricket had just the right amount of tension for meMalator was the encourager, alter ego, friend, savior we might all like to have in our corner when the going gets rough.

Me's Take:
On the positive side, I've read some recent fantasies with far slighter characters, and for that I congratulate Mr. Marco.  Lukien, Malator, Cricket, and even a number of the supporting characters certainly grabbed my attention and empathy, keeping me turning the pages.  Also, although this was the fourth in a series and unlike my mom, I had no trouble keeping up with the key conflicts, people, language, and settings.

Themes of desire (carnal and political and economic and then some) and death and determination, of loyalty and lust for power meander through this eventful story.  Bloodlust and pride and greed and anger guide many characters.  Others seem to simply follow their moment-to-moment desires. 

In other words, this is - unexpectedly - a tale for our times.  Certainly, it's a fantasy, and we know all along that our hero can't die, so some of our messy modern ambiguities needn't apply.  But for bleakness and callousness and cruelty generally trumping decency, well, we can see our world in Lukien's.

And yet...
For me, a quiet soul unaccustomed to the current state of the adult fantasy genre, this novel offered some challenges.  First, I wasn't ready for Lukien to scream "Bitch!" or "Whore!" at his male and/or monsterly opponents when battles turned most heated.  It could be typical of current fantasies, or it could be that Lukien was established as a misogynist in the earlier works in this series, so perhaps I shouldn't have felt so surprised and so uncomfortable with this practice.  At any rate, it definitely had me pondering.

Also, and again this may simply be a current genre feature, I sometimes raised an eyebrow at the seemingly random nature of Akari spirit Malator's decisions about when/where/how he would help Lukien by adding bonus superpowers to the Forever Knight's arsenal.  It felt somewhat like rolling the dice in ye olde game of D&D to me.

Finally, although I understand why a fantasy writer might employ a conceit like Lukien's "mostly dead but not all dead" (and then quite spectacularly, regeneratedly alive) superpower to keep the plot going, I wondered, "To what end?"  If auxiliary characters hadn't stated directly that Lukien had grown as a person, I certainly wouldn't have guessed it.

All in all, I'd say that if you're already a fan of adult fantasy, you'll find this novel diverting.  If you want to sample the genre, this one might be a worthy first timer too. 

As ever, Mom & Me are grateful to TLC Book Tours for opportunities to sample new novels and to offer up our responses for our readers.  And we're especially thankful for Mr. Marco's active involvement in this tour.  We wish him all the best.


p.s.  Get to know Mr. Marco at his blog, The Happy NerdVisiting there, I learned plenty of interesting faacts about his artistic life and his tastes.  My favorite factoid?  Right now, he's watching the fabulous I, Claudius TV series, rating it a 10 out of 10.   I couldn't agree more: that's one stellar series based on an exquisitely well-researched and well-crafted novel!  (I <3 Derek Jacobi; I <3 Robert Graves!)

Mom & Who? 

Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.

Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Spring : Poem In Your Post

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

                            by Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892–1950

Clearly penned on one of Vinnie's darker days.  Suits my mood though.

With appreciation for clairvoyant friends who offer up poems like posies, at just the moment I need them.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Dog's Journey : Book Group Book Review

Why does that Alaskan malamute always escape from her yard to wander miles from home?  Why is that Chihuahua so fiercely aggressive toward strangers?  Why does that mixed breed down the street always cower and shrink away when I approach?

You could seek the answers to these questions from animal behaviorists, breed specialists, or dog whisperers.  Or you could get inside those dogs’ heads.  If the latter option seems a lot more interesting and a lot less costly to you, A Dog’s Journey by Bruce Cameron might be the book you’re looking for. 

This is Cameron’s second novel written from the perspective of a dog.  His first, A Dog’s Purpose, led the best-seller lists for weeks at a time.  In that novel, Cameron’s unnamed protagonist lived and died many times, being reincarnated into a variety of dog bodies and learning from each experience to become a better dog, until he (or sometimes she) fulfilled his ultimate purpose by returning to Ethan, the boy he loved, and shepherding him through his old age, rekindled love, and eventual death. 

In this sequel, the same dog-spirit doesn’t so much evolve as apply what she/he has learned to each new situation and time period faced by his new human CJ, Ethan’s granddaughter.  CJ has a troubled life, influenced by her vain, careless, and treacherous mother, Gloria, so our dog must remain ever vigilant while bearing the brunt of Gloria’s wrath.  In this book, the dog intentionally wishes to come back after each death in order to protect and guide the self-injuring and groundless but equally warm-hearted CJ.  Supported by CJ’s loyal friend Trent, the dog (Buddy, then Molly, then Max) rescues CJ from repeated traumas through his fiercely devoted love and courage.

As one might guess, the most dominant feature of this novel is its use of perspective.  You either buy into the notion that you can hear all the human dialogue and the dog’s thoughts, or you don’t.  If you don’t, you may as well walk away from this book.  True, it’s quite a contradiction to be reading the dog’s thoughts in English, a human language that he/she doesn’t understand, but once you get used to this conceit, the characterization of our protagonist offers quite fascinating and heartwarming opportunities to empathize with another species. 

Try this sample on for size and see if you feel you could suspend your disbelief. 

Here, teenage CJ is escaping from her mother, who has illegally and surreptitiously spent nearly all of the million-dollar trust fund left to CJ in her father’s will.  As CJ angrily flees cross-country, “Molly” – at this point a poodle mix – narrates:

    We took a long car ride.  I elected to curl up on the front seat with my head within easy reach of CJ’s hand, and she’d touch me every so often.  The love flowed through that hand and eased me into untroubled slumber.  It was so much better than being in the place of the barking dogs.  I hoped I would never have to go there again.  I just wanted to be right where I was, a front-seat dog with my girl, CJ.
    We stopped at a place with outdoor tables and wonderful food smells.  “It’s not too bad out here if I keep my coat on,” CJ said as she tied my leash to a table leg.  “You’ll be okay, right, Molly?  I’m just going in there for a second.  Don’t look at me like that; I’m not leaving you.  You’re a good dog.”
    I understood that I was a good dog.  I made to follow her as she turned, but the leash stopped me.  I strained against it as CJ went through som glass dorrs and into the building.  I didn’t understand, and whimpered.  If I was a good dog, I should be going with CJ!
   “Hello, Molly.”
   I looked around and there was Shane.  I did not wag.
                                                                                    (Cameron, 161-162)

So, if you can enjoy inhabiting Molly’s perspective and accept that a dog can think in English but not understand when people speak it, you’ll be fine. 

And for me, personally, it’s worth suspending disbelief.  As is evident in the above quote, diction and syntax should be no obstacle to most readers.  The eventfully episodic plot also keeps us moving along at a breezy pace, while experiencing sensory details from a dog’s nosy perspective brings readers the opportunity to enjoy unique description too. 

Anyone who loves dogs and wonders what goes on in their heads will enjoy this book, and any mature, balanced middle school student should be equipped to encounter the delicately indicated issues of bulimia and psychological abuse – not to mention the problem of pet overpopulation and its attendant euthanasia rate in the U.S. – that form a backdrop for the plot.

My verdict?  For those seeking a light, fast-paced, and heart-warming read, I give A Dog’s Journey two paws up.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

What I Have Learned So Far : Poem In Your Post

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of— indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

— Mary Oliver
    New and Selected Poems, Volume 2
    Beacon Press, Boston, 1992 (Web)


p.s.  April is Poetry Month in the United States.  Why not revisit wisdom-stones or alight upon fresh-budding posies at  You're bound to find solace and surrender there.
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