Thursday, September 28, 2017

Harbor Springs Festival of the Book

The Second Annual Harbor Springs Festival of the Book begins tomorrow. It will be spectacular and will feature many of my favorite authors including several featured in full reviews or on my annual list on this site including Tim Johnston, Brendan Kiely, and Robin Sloan. A pdf of the festival brochure including author biographies and the full schedule is here.

Come visit me on Friday and Saturday between 11 and 1 when I'll be hosting and introducing the authors reading at Soup & Stories, a come-and-go lunch and author reading at Holy Childhood Church. Drop in anytime for soup, bread, and dessert and to listen to a rotation of authors reading brief selections from their works. Lunch tickets are $10 and available in advance at

Friday authors are:
11:00 a.m. Megan Miranda
11:15 a.m. Fleda Brown
11:30 a.m. Alan Drew
11:45 a.m. Augustus Rose
12:00 p.m. Donovan Hohn
12:15 p.m. Julie Buntin
12:30 p.m. Meg Howrey
12:45 p.m. Gabe Habash
On Saturday, the following authors will read:
11:00 a.m. Erin Entrada Kelly
11:15 a.m. Drew Philp
11:30 a.m. David Francis
11:45 a.m. Kia Corthron
12:00 p.m. Carmen Maria Machado
12:15 p.m. Ronald L. Smith
12:30 p.m. Ben Loory
12:45 p.m. Jessie Chaffee

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne

Wow, wow, wow! The Marsh King’s Daughter is one scintillating, psychological thriller.  On the novel’s opening page, the reader learns that Helena and her mother were held captive in “what the papers describe as a run-down farmhouse surrounded by swamp in the middle of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” until she was twelve and her mother twenty-eight, that she’d never gone to school, had never known electricity or running water. “That the only people I spoke to during those twelve years were my mother and father. That I didn’t know we were captives until we were not.” 

Now the mother of two young girls, the wife of a nature photographer, and the maker of jams and jellies, Helena and her family are leading an ordinary life in the U.P., as Michiganders call the remote Upper Peninsula. While heading down a country road toward home to meet her older daughter’s school bus, Helena’s car radio blares the news that her father, Jacob Holbrook, the Marsh King, has escaped from a maximum security prison just thirty miles from her home after killing two guards.

Helena loved her father. “The Jacob Holbrook I knew was smart, funny, patient, and kind. He took care of me, fed and clothed me, taught me everything I needed to know not only to survive in the marsh, but to thrive.” She hadn’t attended his trial or had any contact with him in thirteen years. She’d changed her name and even her husband didn’t know of her past. Now, all that will change and Helena feels that she’s the only one who knows enough about her father to find him and stop him from what surely are plans to harm her and her family so she sets off into the wilderness to use the hunting and tracking abilities her father taught her.

Helena’s powerful first-person narrative weaves the world of her childhood with that of her quest to find her escaped father. Helena immerses the reader into the world where she survived in part because of her imagination which allowed her to create a space conjured from the pages of old National Geographic magazines.

This novel will appeal to fans of Emma Donoghue’s Room as it explores the psychological aspects of the word “normal” and of what it means to love. While Karen Dionne’s prose is consistently mesmerizing, it is the inclusion of epigraphs from Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Marsh King’s Daughter” that elevate the tale beyond the typical thriller. By choosing to share the fantasy of a wicked Marsh King, the fairy princess he captured, and their child Helga who is an ugly, yet kind toad at night and a beautiful, yet spiteful child by day, Dionne gives the novel a shimmering of fairy tale magic that makes the reader pause to consider the implications of Helena’s actions.

Dionne paints such a visual portrait of the isolated land that is the Upper Peninsula that the topography becomes a character. Dionne’s personal experiences when she, her husband, and six-week-old daughter moved north to the U.P. in 1974 and spent three years homesteading without a phone or running water make the world she invents authentic. Every word of Helena’s adventures rings true. After you read the book, you’ll want to learn more about Dionne’s time in the U.P and this interview and pictures will feed your hunger for more of her story. 

I hope that librarians, teachers, and booksellers will recommend The Marsh King’s Daughter to older teens. The intrepid Helena is reminiscent of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s marvelous young heroine Margo in her Michigan tale, Once Upon a River. Rarely do female characters with grit and skill appear on the written page and having both set in the rarely visited landscape of rural Michigan is an uncommon bonus. 

Summing It Up: Read The Marsh King’s Daughter to fall into a hypnotic story that will make you want to fly through the pages and that will force you to contemplate the nature of parenthood and love. This is the best psychological thriller I’ve read in quite a long time.
Rating:  5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Mysteries & Thrillers, Book Club
Publication date: June 13, 2017
What Others are Saying:

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Waking Up White by Debby Irving

Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race is a book I tried to review after I read it in December and again after I led a four-week discussion of it in February. I have over twenty pages of handwritten notes on it and have flagged dozens of passages in the text. I’ve also spent more time learning about myself from this book than I ever could have imagined yet I couldn’t picture describing my experience reading it. The incidents in Charlottesville this week forced me to write this review.

Waking Up White tackles Debby Irving’s struggle to understand the racial tensions in her community, her professional work, and her life. She was a worrier who didn’t want to offend people, yet she could tell that her efforts to stimulate diversity in her job as an arts administrator were a failure. She was certain that as “a good person” she didn’t see color and “didn’t have a racist bone” in her body. The more she tried to understand and “help” the more confused she became. In the winter of 2009, at age forty-eight, she began course work for a master’s degree in special education where a “Racial and Cultural Identity” class offered what she thought would be tips that would help her with her students of color, but it made her turn the lens on herself.

Irving’s struggle to understand race and racism had left her upset and confused. “It turns out, stumbling block number 1 was that I didn’t think I had a race so I never thought to look within myself for answers. The way I understood it, race was for other people, brown- and black-skinned people. Don’t get me wrong – if you put a census form in my hand, I would know to check “white” or “Caucasian.”. .  . I thought white was the raceless race – just plain, normal, the one against which all others were measured. What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs.  For instance, I used to believe:

  • ·         Race is all about biological differences.
  • ·         I can help people of color by teaching them to be more like me.
  • ·         Racism is about bigots who make snarky comments and commit intentionally cruel acts against people of color.
  • ·         Culture and ethnicity are only for people of other races and from other countries.
  • ·         If the cause of racial inequity were understood, it would be solved by now.

If those beliefs sound familiar to you, you are not alone. I’ve met hundreds of white people across America who share not only these beliefs but the same feelings of race-related confusion and anxiety I experienced. This widespread phenomenon of white people wanting to guard themselves against appearing stupid, racist, or radical has resulted in an epidemic of silence from people who care deeply about justice and love for their fellow human beings. I believe most white people would take a stand against racism if only they knew how, or even imagined they had a role.”

Irving began educating herself and soon learned that “not talking about race was a privilege available only to white people.” She also learned that she couldn’t give away her privilege so she had to use it to create change and that her own “Robin Hood Syndrome” of helping people in certain ways actually disempowered them. She understood that her belief that the police were there to protect her came from her mother’s words to her when she was a child: “If you get lost or feel worried, just look for a policeman.”  Now she understood that just five miles away, black mothers in Boston were telling their children, “If you get stopped by the police, keep your hands in plain sight so they don’t think you have a gun.” She began wondering what else had shaped her beliefs. 

This book offers historical research and examples along with Irving’s own compelling story, but what sets Waking Up White apart from other books about race is that each short chapter in the book ends with a question that makes the reader learn more about his or her own story. I wrote fourteen hand-written legal pages answering those questions and those words offer a more multifaceted portrait of my experiences than any other exercise I’ve ever completed. After I contemplated each answer, I was even more eager to return to the book and to learn more. 

Listen to this 2015 National Public Radio interview to hear about Irving’s light bulb moments beginning when she was five and wondering what had happened to Native Americans through her times as a teacher trying to help but often hindering her efforts. She discusses the GI Bill and how 98% of the money for housing went to white families and how her eyes began opening to her own privilege. Listen, if only for her statement “There is no neutral in racism.”

This is the single book that every American must read AND it’s a book that will compel you to find others to read it so you can discuss it with them. Ask your library, book store, religious institution, school, or local newspaper to sponsor a discussion group. Our four-week discussion at Flossmoor Community Church in Illinois had people from their thirties to their nineties who’d grown up poor, rich, white, black, Latino, some with multiple educational degrees and some with none, some in cities, some on farms, and we taught each other. Whatever you believe or know, this book will stretch you.

Summing It Up: Every person living in America today needs to read and talk about Waking Up White. We all want to end racism and reading Waking Up White is a first step toward that goal.

FYI: Best-selling author Jodi Picoult’s 2016 novel Small Great Things is inspired, in part, by what she learned reading Waking Up White. The Presbyterian Church, USA chose the book for their denomination to read together in 2016. Many communities are selecting it for a one-book-one-community reading project. 

Rating: 5 stars for the importance of the topic and its impact on the reader
Category: Five Stars, Nonfiction, Soul food, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: January 9, 2014
What Others are Saying:
"Debby Irving's powerful Waking Up White opens a rare window on how white Americans are socialized. Irving's focus on the mechanics of racism operating in just one life -- her own -- may lead white readers to reconsider the roots of their own perspectives -- and their role in dismantling old myths. Readers of color will no doubt find the view through Irving's window fascinating, and telling." -- Van Jones, author, Rebuild The Dream, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems; Co-host, CNN Crossfire 

"I read Waking Up White in one sitting. To say I loved it is an understatement. It's such a raw, honest portrait ... Irving's experience on display - warts and all - will help white people, who haven't noticed the role systemic privilege has played in their lives, start to see the world in a new way." -- Jodi Picoult, author, The Storyteller, My Sister's Keeper

Irving's personal and moving tale takes us on an adventure to a world utterly new to her as she wakes up to the reality of how, without her knowledge or active pursuit, she lives in a society which is set up to reward her at the expense of people of color. I cannot imagine a more understandable and compelling invitation to learn about how racism lives on in our homes, communities, and nation. -- Bishop Gene Robinson, Retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC

Monday, August 7, 2017

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is, as acclaimed author Steve Yarbrough writes, “nothing short of magnificent.” These ten exquisite short stories are ones you’ll find yourself reading again and again as you savor each phrase and rejoice in the power of story.

I began reading the collection in May and allowed myself only one story a week as I didn’t ever want them to end. I soon found myself rereading the stories and bending my rule to read just one more. More than two months later, I’m still returning to consider the characters I’ve come to know and the insights they’ve imparted as Hamilton Summie’s astute observations continue to penetrate my heart.

The sense of place evoked by these stories forces the reader to stop to examine the landscape as in the description of an area where “A row of young elm trees runs behind the fence in a neat and even line, save one, which leans into its neighbor as if it’s relieved to share the burden of once having stood upright.” That line has altered my rural driving pattern from one of simply scanning the shoulder for deer to adding a search for leaning trees while pondering whether I myself am standing upright or need to share my own burdens.

There is so much to recommend in these narratives, yet the greatest gift they offer is showing how real people deal with loss as in this sentence reflecting the book's title when a grandfather speaks about his son’s death:  “. . . finding Edward’s name carved into the far left panel of the Vietnam War Memorial, one name among many, the only one I loved; and weeping, with my head to the cool, inanimate marble, weeping beside other men and women and in front of children, who watched as we laid to rest our ghosts, strangers all, yet connected.” Hamilton Summie takes characters that are strangers to us and connects us to them in a way that leaves us profoundly affected and grateful to have spent time inside her word pictures.

One of my favorite authors is the late Kent Haruf, a master of spare, eloquent prose and a writer who used geography and place with precision. To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts reminds me of Haruf’s novels in its homage to ordinary people, in its quiet, composed manner of writing about loss and grieving, in its evocation of landscape as character, and in the way it leaves me wanting more.

Three stories in the collection, “Patchwork,” “Geographies of the Heart” and “Taking Root” feature characters from the same family. After rereading those stories, I cared so much about Al and Sarah and their family that I ached to find out what made them “alive, like electricity. . .” just as these stories are. When Sarah looks at her grandmother and recalls, “You do not abandon family," Grandma had often said during my growing up years, "no matter what,” I felt it an omen and was glad to learn in this interview with Hamilton Summie that she’s at work on a novel about Al and Sarah.

Read this collection of beautifully wrought stories to fall in love with a variety of characters and settings while gaining insight into your own relationships and losses. I predict that you’ll reread and cherish this book.

Summing it Up: To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is a collection of eloquent, grace-filled stories that offers readers a mirror into their own souls. If you enjoy the spare, affecting writing of Kent Haruf, read this. Buy two copies – one for yourself and one to give someone you love.

Note: Caitlin Hamilton Summie is my friend. We’ve never met in person, yet her astute insight has steered me to many exceptional books she’s shepherded. Her kind and caring manner toward her associates is echoed in her attention to the characters in this collection.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Tapas, Book Club
Publication date: August 8, 2017
Read “Geographies of the Heart,” one of the book’s stories here:
What Others are Saying:

“It’s been a long time since I read a collection of stories that amazed me from cover to cover, but that’s what Caitlin Summie’s To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts did. With the grace and elegance of a master, Summie lays bare our vulnerabilities and desires and hopes in equal measure. The result is one stunning story after another, each as lovely and heartfelt as the one before. If you’re a fan of Grace Paley or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolff, you’ll surely find something to love in these pages.”— Peter Geye, author of Wintering

"...To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is nothing short of magnificent. After reading the vivid and powerful opening story, I thought Well, this is a smart writer she's obviously led off with her best. Then I found that if anything I liked the next story even better, and by then I knew I was reading something special. These stories are realist fiction at its finest. The author's sense of place is extraordinary, and it informs every word she writes. Her characters are as real as anybody you know in the town where you live, and their lives are depicted with quiet dignity. The stories are both intense and economical. I've gotten very hard to please, but I loved this book." --Steve Yarbrough  

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family came out in 2015 and it’s a must read for today. This will be a short review as I want the book itself to show readers one middle class family’s story. The book chronicles the changes in the family’s life beginning when one of their identical twin toddler boys begins insisting that he’s a girl. Pulitzer Prize winning health and science journalist and author Amy Ellis Nutt transforms their saga into a page turner that educates as it captures the reader emotionally. Nutt exquisitely narrates the love and acceptance that the family shares as she reveals their poignant story with journalistic integrity.

Today as transgender individuals are being thrust into the news, many people either don’t know a transgender person or aren’t aware if they do know one. Reading a book that’s as well researched and beautifully written as this one should help people who want to be informed.

I hope this quote from the book will be enough to make you read Becoming Nicole: When an endocrinologist asks his transgender patient to teach him, the patient says, “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with . . . Gender identity is who you go to bed as.

Summing it Up: Read Becoming Nicole to educate yourself on a hot button topic and to understand why it’s important to respect individuals as people not just as an issue to discuss. Combining biology, research, and compelling stories, this is a brilliant work of nonfiction.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: October 20, 2015

Author Website:

What Others are Saying: