Paperback Picks – May


by Tayari Jones

From the opening line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” to the closing, Jones hooked me with this wonderful, heartbreaking, honest novel. Within 20 pages, Jones has laid the characters’ baggage at the reader’s feet; but instead of stagnating, the narrative just continues to dig deeper into the themes of love, loyalty, friendship and betrayal.

I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding. This was what it was like to have a friend, someone who knew exactly what you were and didn’t blame you for it.” Each teenage girl’s voice is written beautifully, getting to the heart of those years. Each girl is searching for her place, identity and family — it’s just more complicated because they share a father.

Without ever choosing sides, Jones allows her story to do the talking. I was left aching for both girls and unsure if the ending is how I would have written it, just what I look for in a great book.


by Ann Patchett

I treasure the beauty in Patchett’s writing.

In an instant the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she had never seen nothing before. It was as if God Himself had turned out all the lights, every last one, and left them in the gaping darkness of His abandonment.”

Add to this beauty the fact that Patchett crafts a wonderful story about science, anthropology, reproduction and loss, and it equals a true winner. I was lost in the Amazon, conflicted and drawn to possibility right along with the main character Marina.

In this life we love who we love. There were some stories in which facts were irrelevant.”

I was slightly disappointed in the book’s last 50 pages, which come so fast and so improbably, that I was drawn out of the story. Still, I loved this book.


by Jennifer Weiner

If you like Jennifer Weiner’s other books, you’ll like this one too. She doesn’t deviate from her tried and true formula of likable women struggling to shed their past skins. In this case, it’s four women connected by a Philadelphia fertility clinic. I was mildly surprised by some of the plot’s turning points, but by the end I was so frustrated by the unrealistic way it came together that I literally dropped the book. Weiner is such a talented writer and I don’t blame her for sticking with a formula that has proved successful, but wouldn’t it be great if she would stretch herself (and us, her readers) beyond our comfort zones?


Monday Quote: Memorial Day

Perform, then, this one act of remembrance before this Day passes – Remember there is an army of defense and advance that never dies and never surrenders, but is increasingly recruited from the eternal sources of the American spirit and from the generations of American youth.

~W.J. Cameron

I do not know who W.J. Cameron is (or was), but this is one of the truest Memorial Day quotes I have seen. Memorial Day does not just celebrate the men and women who died many years ago in service to our country. It celebrates the never-ending line of boys and now girls who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way.

I can speak my mind, vote my conscience, protest in the street, gripe about capitalism and choose where to send my children to school because these Americans defend my rights. The overwhelming majority of servicemen don’t know me personally, but defend me all the same.

English: Picture of graves decorated with flag...

English: Picture of graves decorated with flags at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thank all of them today and every day.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry — my review

I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to reading this novel based only on its description. I was afraid it would be silly or trivial. Instead, I found a thought-provoking mix of humor, sorrow and self-discovery.

Harold Fry doesn’t have much personality at the start of this novel, a retiree without much motivation and a harpy of a wife, he didn’t seem protagonist material. However, I very quickly understood that his pilgrimage would involve a good deal of self-exploration. I was intrigued by his commitment to just put one foot in front of another as a means to ensure survival.

Rachel Joyce does an admirable job with Harold’s story. Of course I knew that he would succeed and that he would come out a better man, yet I did not anticipate all the detours. He doesn’t travel easily from one milestone to the next, but instead circles round and round.

What had been so clear to him when he was alone, two feet on the ground, became lost in this abundance of choices and streets and glass-fronted shopping outlets. He longed to be back in the open land.”

As long as he is walking in open space, his path seems simple. But, of course, that doesn’t make for exciting story-telling so Joyce mixes in characters and landmarks and setbacks to challenge Harold’s simple journey.

Walking the road already travelled was even harder. It was like not moving at all. It was worse, like eating a part of himself.”

These are the elements that make the book much more interesting. Harold’s wife makes her own journey without walking that I found both heart-breaking and inspiring.

It would be so easy to stop getting up. To stop washing. To stop eating. Being alone required such constant effort.”

My complaint would be that Rachel Joyce doesn’t trust her readers (or her own writing) well enough. Portions of this book are so overwritten that I could actually feel the author’s message hitting me over the head. Still, it was an overall enjoyable read.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by Random House.

I said “yes.” Now what?

“You’re going to be terrific, but I’m really sad to see you go,” said my boss when I told him that, after 20 years together, I am moving on to a new job.  I have a similar feeling about this enormous step, but I would add another emotion – absolute terror.

Fear of the unknown

I am sick to my stomach when I think about the reality of my decision. I have not had a structured, full-time position since before my oldest son was born almost 12 years ago. In order to be available to my kids, I have instead cobbled together a variety of jobs, shuttling from one place to another, or working from home when my kids needed me to be here.

Of course this ability to multi-task and the projects I’ve taken on are the very things that led me to this position, but still? I can’t know what this job will be like until I actually do it. I have built an entire life around being the person who “knows” things. I don’t like this “not knowing” feeling.


Old habits die hard

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve grown up at my current company. I started filing ads there back when I was in high school. Although I moved around a great deal while there, the company has the real feel of a security blanket. My bosses have known me through boyfriends, marriage and three children. I have been with them through expansion & contraction – some really good times, and some not-so-good times. As my boss put it, “Alena is deep in the DNA of this place.”

I have created a complex job that almost defies a standard description and have really enjoyed the sense that I would not easily be replaced. I love being in a place where longevity alone provides me with a constant big-picture view. I have familiarity and history at my new job, but not that deep sense of intimacy.

I will be letting go of the security blanket I’ve come to depend on. That is both sad and scary.


A bird in hand vs. two in the bush

A few weeks back, my Monday Quote dealt with the courage to say “yes.” While this job was far from a reality at the time I wrote that post, I had a sense that changes were in store for me. I seemed to have multiple opportunities knocking at once, from social media sources, writing connections and even within my own company. What I didn’t write about then, but what I understand now, is that in saying “yes” to this opportunity, I am saying “no” to others.

I can’t help but ask myself if I made the right choice.


The things that keep me up at night

Are my sons ready for this? Will I like the job? Will I like my co-workers? Will they like me? Am I ready for this? How will I figure everything out? What will I wear?

For the immediate future, there are more questions than answers. Of course that makes me uncomfortable.


The bottom line

As I went through the interview process, I tried to understand the demands, the culture, the compensation, and growth potential that accompany this new opportunity. Every part of me felt at home during the interviews. If I can ignore my own insecurities and fears, I know that I am well qualified for this position.

During my final interview I said that I was more convinced than ever that this job has Alena written all over it.

Now I just have a few weeks to convince Alena to never let my fears get the best of me.

Knock, knock … who’s there?

I am officially a guest blogger! Who would’ve thought?

I am so excited to contribute to the reading and reviewing project at easyondeyes. You should definitely take a look at what they have going on.

Knock, knock … who’s there?.


And…a Tuesday addition to this…my guest post is posted.

A special thank-you to my new friends at easyondeyes.

How can he be 10?

“I know it’s only one night’s sleep, but I’ll never be 9 again.”

Those were the final words my son had for me before bed last night. I knew just what he meant. He will not be fundamentally changed when he wakes on his 10th birthday – he will still be smart and funny and athletic and sensitive. He will still be the middle child. He will still have to brush his teeth, put away his clothes, and do his homework.

But 10 feels different from 9.

It feels different for him and it feels different for me. Somehow the passage to double digits marks a shift in childhood. He hasn’t been my fat-cheeked baby for a long time, but he’s still been a little boy in my mind. With age 10, the adjective “little” disappears. He is most definitely my big boy, and that’s tough.

At such a milestone I can’t help but look back. Have I done enough? Have I been the best mom for him? I joke about forgetting the first year of his life, swamped as I was with two babies. Now I think it’s not so funny.  I look back on his baby book and, despite all the parenting advice, compare his slim volume to his big brother’s 3-ring binder. Oh, the mom guilt.

So then I look at the big boy himself. Oh, the mom pride. I marvel at the person he has become. How have we managed to raise such a wonderful kid? He is loved by his classmates and his teachers. He takes pride in his work and his athletic achievements, especially in baseball. Sometimes quiet and reserved, he also possesses a kooky sense of humor we adore.

With all these gifts, it’s easy to forget his sensitivity. I worry about how easily his feeling bruise. His brothers have long figured out the quickest ways to push his buttons. Even at age 10, he can go from smiles to tears in an instant. I take more pride in the way in which he is sensitive to everyone else’s feelings.

Today’s crisis is who to pick as his birthday helper. As the birthday boy, he gets to pick 2 friends to help him pass out treats at school. He is so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings by not picking them. He just doesn’t know what to do. It seems a small dilemma to be sure, but I understand that for him, it’s enormous. I also understand that it is only one of many perceived crises that I will not be able to solve for him.

The trouble with growing up is that, more often than not, you have to solve your own problems. As much as I’d like to pick him up and whisk him away from any hurt, I can’t do that anymore.

He is 10.

Home — not the Toni Morrison I know and love

book cover from Goodreads

Toni Morrison speaking at "A Tribute to C...

Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart'”. The Town Hall, New York City, February 26th 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Full Disclosure: I am a huge Toni Morrison fan – like the read all of her novels, follow her on Facebook, order her new releases months in advance kind of fan. My English teacher assigned Song of Solomon when I was in high school and I’ve been hooked ever since. Fellow readers have told me time and again that they just don’t get my obsession. They claim her books are messy and unfocused, too much that’s unbelievable, language that’s too dense. “What’s the story,” they’ll ask. These are the very reasons I adore her. Before I knew the term magical realism, I understood Morrison’s mysticism. I fell in love with her language and never looked back.

So with all that baggage, I should not be surprised that her new slip of a novel could disappoint me. Set around the Korean War, the Money siblings just can’t seem to catch a break. Frank has watched his best friends die in war and returns home unable to face reality or return to his hometown.

In Lotus you did know in advance since there was no future, just long stretches of killing time. There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win, and save for somebody else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.”

Only when he finds out his beloved little sister Cee’s life is in danger is he able to take some action. From this premise, Morrison weaves her story in no specific chronological order, with alternating perspectives and bits and pieces of historical context. None of those devices are out of character for her, but in this case, it took me far too long to care about these characters.

I wanted to love Frank and be invested in his journey. Morrison gives us a glimpse into his soul —

As she stretched, her dress of a soft cottony flowered fabric rose up, exposing that seldom noticed, ooo-so-vulnerable flesh. And for a reason he still didn’t understand, he began to cry. Love plain, simple, and so fast it shattered him.”

But she pulls the story away from Frank before I can connect. The same is true of his trauma in Korea. We get so little of what could really have been an amazing book.

What died in his arms gave grotesque life to his childhood…They argued, fought, laughed, mocked, and loved one another without ever having to say so.”

Morrison hints at the bond shared by Frank and his friends, but I never truly understand the bond or its importance to him.

But, just as I was beginning to despair that I would never love this book, she pulls magic out of her hat. Through Cee’s journey the kinds of characters and language I identify so strongly with Toni Morrison begin to appear.

Misery don’t call ahead. That’s why you have to stay awake — otherwise it just walks on in your door.”

The wisdom in the mouths of older, uneducated black women felt familiar and right. Perhaps I felt like I’d read this section of the book before, but with so many pages leaving me without any footing, I was thrilled to take comfort in the ending.

Glad I read it, but not rushing out to recommend it.

Monday Quote: Motherhood

“(24/7) once you sign on to be a mother, that’s the only shift they offer.”
Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

I think of this work shift as I attempt to balance a professional life, marriage, friendships and, of course, reading & writing, into my world of motherhood. Yesterday was a lovely day as I felt very keenly the love of my mother, the love of my sons and ultimately the love of my wild, funny, terrific set of extended family and friends.

I am so blessed to be raising sons among people who truly value my role as mother. They love me, cherish me and lift me up on occasion. Even with all those gifts, motherhood is hard work. It never stops. I am “Mom” wherever I am. That title does not disappear when I am at work, out with friends or at book club. The responsibilities of motherhood do not disappear when we change location or have room service.

But when I start to feel overwhelmed by the “never-endingness” of this job I took almost 12 years ago, I remember also that their love is endless. I will forever be adored in a way that has no equal.

My sons may not behave perfectly, but they love me 24/7. That is payment beyond measure.

I want my Mommy, not my sons’ Mima.

Today I leave for a long weekend with my mom. It’s our Mothers Day present to each other. No kids, just each other for a quick getaway. I’m more excited than I can express.  I will miss my husband and sons but will treasure a couple of days on my own. Besides, I adore time alone with my mom.

In celebration, I am sharing an essay I wrote in 2004. This essay was published in the May 2004 issue of Chicago Parent magazine. I wrote it before I had my third child. My world was so different, but the sentiment remains.

I hope you enjoy this post and I wish much happiness and love to all the mothers and grandmothers out there.

How can I be jealous of Mima time?

It’s been three years since my older son’s birth and I still have a hard time believing that Mother’s Day has anything to do with me. As each May approaches I consider ways I can make the day special for my mom. Since I have toddlers, going out for a crowded brunch is not a relaxing idea for anyone, so I host a brunch at my house. I prepare all week-carefully choosing a menu, thoroughly cleaning our house, arranging beautiful flowers, setting the table with china and crystal.

My friends think I’m crazy. Aren’t I supposed to be taking the day off? But she’s my mom, my best friend. For almost 30 years she was the most important person in my life. I want this lovely day for both of us. So the stage is set. The music is playing. In she comes, full of compliments about the table setting and delicious aromas. But before I can even offer her a cup of coffee, my boys are clamoring for all of her attention. They drag her off to the playroom where she happily builds animal parades, puts together puzzles and colors pictures all morning.

I watch from the dining room because when “Mima” is over I’m pretty much invisible anyway. I marvel at what an amazing grandmother she is, especially considering that she doesn’t come close to fitting the gray-haired, cookie-baking mold. But she excels in the endless gifts, pockets full of candy and zero discipline departments. It is no wonder my sons adore her.

Taken June, 2011

Even as I observe them together, grateful my sons are so blessed, I am jealous. On the inside I’m yelling, “I want my mommy.” I admit it. I want that radiant attention focused squarely on me. Not that she doesn’t try. I am never forgotten or ignored. She is always there for me when I need her and she never fails to know what I need before I do. Still, as I watch her with my kids I am aware that I have lost “Mommy” forever now that she is “Mima.”

I know I shouldn’t complain. My children are lucky to have her. I’m lucky to have her. I still can’t help feeling the twinge of resentment when she takes their side over mine. The issues are minor-candy before lunch or one more video before leaving- but still…aren’t mothers supposed to defend their own children above all else? How did I become the odd mom out?

She would argue that by “occasionally” siding with the boys she is supporting me, because her attention and spoiling take some of the pressure off of me. And she would be right. As much as I might resent her apparent shift in loyalty, I depend on her presence in our lives.

In fact, it’s rare if the boys and I go a whole week without seeing her. We generally spend Saturdays on “Mima adventures,” which might be a trip to the conservatory, museum or even an amusement park.

Occasionally I even make plans to meet her on my own for coffee or some shopping. I remember the first time I showed up for coffee without the baby in tow. The first words out of her mouth were, “Where’s the baby?”

I was so disappointed, not just at the realization that I was not the only light of my mother’s eye. I also wanted her to share in my excitement over having a couple hours with no crying, diapers or spit-up. As the boys have grown, she’s acknowledged my need to just be with her alone. Still, I’m more careful to warn her in advance when it will just be me. It saves us both the initial disappointment.

It’s strange that becoming a mother in no way diminished my need for my mother. I thought it would, like a membership to some exclusive club of strong, self-confident women. If anything, motherhood makes me more aware-emotionally, intellectually and physically-of the job she has done.

I wonder if it’s true that we all turn into our parents. It’s hard to believe at this stage. I remember the mom of my childhood as being fun, filled with ideas for outings and art projects, never disciplining us or raising her voice and always, always keeping us neat and clean. It’s with these ideals in mind that I strive to be a great mother. I can’t help making the comparisons between us.

To my mom’s credit, she rarely offers unsolicited advice on how to parent. She listens and sympathizes, offers alternatives when I’m frustrated, and praises often. In other words, she mothers me.

I’m sure that with each passing year, Mother’s Day will begin to feel more real to me. I will continue to watch my mother and my children share an unbreakable bond, probably continue to be envious. But I’ll also know that I am a link in that chain, adored by both generations.

I can sip my coffee, surrounded by crystal, china and lovely flowers, knowing I receive the ultimate Mother’s Day gift every day. I am loved.