Monday, January 16, 2012

House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard

House of Prayer No. 2 is as gothic and Southern as a memoir can get. I predict it'll sweep through book clubs like tornadoes twist through the south when it comes out in paper next month. Unlike the usual first person voice of most memoirs – Mark Richard tells his tale primarily in the second person imperative thus delivering his life in a series of jabs that punctuate the landscape like cherry bombs that kids might have tossed on dead-end gravel roads in the towns he called home. Richard’s voice makes this memoir gritty and real while underneath it’s tender and spiritual.  Comparisons to Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ are inevitable but Mark Richard’s tale is peerless in its originality. His opening chapters read like a Biblical creation story because he’s showing his readers how the place where he began delivered him to where he is today. 

When a book opens with: “Say you have a “special child.’ Which in the South means one between Down’s and dyslexic,” you know you’re encountering a unique voice.  Then add sentences like: “Give the child a sandbox to play in, in which scorpions build nests.  Let the mother cut the grass and run over rattlesnakes, shredding them all over the yard. Make the mother cry and miss her mother. Isolate her from the neighbors because she is poor and Catholic.”  You will not only know Mark Richard, you will feel him deep in your bones. More from that first chapter:

Move the family to a tobacco county in Southside Virginia. It is the early sixties, and black families still get around on mule and wagon. Corn grows up to the backs of houses even in town. Crosses burn in yards of black families and Catholics. Crew cut the special child’s hair in the barbershop where all the talk is of niggers and nigger-lovers. Give the child the responsibility of another playmate, the neighbor two houses down, Dr. Jim. When Dr. Jim was the child’s age, Lee left his army at Appomattox. When Dr. Jim falls down between the corn rows he is always hoeing, the child must run for help. Sometimes the child just squats beside Dr. Jim sprawled in the corn and listens to Dr. Jim talking to the sun. Sometimes in the orange and grey dust when the world is empty, the child lies in the cold backyard grass and watches the thousand starlings swarm Dr. Jim’s chimneys, and the child feels like he is dying in an empty world.

Southern euphemisms sometimes label a child and keep him in his place but calling Mark Richard a “special child” doesn’t stop him.  Clearly everyone in town considers him “special” both because of his deformed hips and because his oddness makes them think he's mentally challenged.  Then Richard endures long periods of confinement at the Crippled Children’s Hospital in Richmond, VA, a place that he renders Dickensian. Yet as difficult as the hospital is, it might be better than home where his alcoholic father provides little support.

Richard’s early adult years find him dwelling in shacks, borrowed apartments and on a shrimp boat while hiding from himself.  His occupations vary from house painter to private investigator until a short story a teacher submits on his behalf is published in the Atlantic and he begins his writing career and falls in love.

Just as Richard’s life seems to settle down with an offer to teach, he feels the call to ministry.  This later leads him back to an unlikely spot for a man who now seems to have it all: The House of Prayer No. 2 Church where he and his mother are usually the only white worshipers.  There he finds a place where his call turns into action.  Along the way, Richard’s intimate view of his life is packed with staccato word pictures that will make any reader thankful that Mark Richard survived to tell his tale.

Summing it Up: Read this memoir to experience nothing like you’ve ever read before.  Grab a blanket and a comfortable chair; you may not put this one down until you’ve devoured it in one fell swoop.

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Nonfiction, Gourmet, Grits, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: February 15, 2011 (Paperback: February 14, 2012)

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sarah Andrew Ohaver

Today would have been my mother's 90th birthday. Sarah Andrew Ohaver showed me how to love reading and writing proving that such a love is caught not taught. She married on November 30, 1946. She was 4' 11 1/2" tall and weighed 87 pounds on her wedding day. She loved her family and friends with utter abandon. She's the reason I began writing my book lists. They started as lists of books for her to read during chemotherapy. After her friends asked for copies, I began making them public.  Mom would be very happy to see others enjoying them.   She loved mysteries and "good" fiction.
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Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Pocketful of Light by Jan Stafford Kellis

A Pocketful of Light, 13 Days in the World’s First Tourist Destination, is a charming look at Jan Kellis’s Italian trip with her teenage daughter, Stephanie.  I recommend it for anyone contemplating a European voyage with a teen or young adult offspring.  Kellis’s attention to detail in her planning will help travelers anticipate and prepare for minor irritations.  While it won’t replace a traditional guidebook, it might just make reluctant parents realize that such a trek is possible even without a substantial budget. 

Starting in Venice, Kellis captures the reader with her honest reactions: “Immediately overwhelming.  Chaotic, confusing, and, well, foreign. My first impressions of Venezia were compromised by one of my best assets, my self-confidence. . .”  Here Kellis shows how so many of us, especially Americans, feel when we’re first in a new place then she guides us in ways to overcome our fears.  Arranging to meet an old friend and her teenage daughter in Tuscany (the friend was a Norwegian foreign exchange student who lived with the Kellis family in the 1980s) adds to the excitement of the trip and will make readers think about ways to enliven a trip with a younger traveler.

When the duo meet Kate and Liam, a mother and son from Colorado, in Tuscany, they learn that they’ll both be in Sorrento at the same time setting up one of the joys of traveling – the chance encounters that can make a trip exceptional. Kellis also tells of the minor difficulties that can derail a trip, things like long bus rides, tired feet and ogling men but she tempers them with an openness that allows for humor and joy in the journey. Picking up sea glass on a Mediterranean beach and carrying it in her pockets led Kellis to note: “the sea glass emitted a comforting glow. I’m carrying a pocketful of light. . .” 

Still carrying the reflected light, they cancel their last night in Sorrento so they can spend more time in Rome with their new friends thus illustrating that careful planning needn’t become a stranglehold. This portion of the book carries the reader along with the foursome as they enjoy the Spanish steps and delectable meals in each other’s company.

The book ends one year later when the Kellis family visits Kate and Liam in Denver and begins planning their next trip. It also includes useful appendices with lists and the trip budget. 

Summing it Up: Read this book to decide if you might like to travel with your child and to enjoy tagging along with a typical American family as they share their journey. 

Rating: 4 stars    Category: Nonfiction, Dessert, Super Nutrition

Publication date: July 18, 2011
Jan Stafford Kellis is also the author of Bookworms Anonymous, a book about a non-traditional book club in the upper peninsula of Michigan.  Find information about her club and the books they’re reading at:

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

The World We Found is the new novel from Thrity Umrigar, a talented writer, whose The Space Between Us is one of the best, literary novels of the past decade. Yet Umrigar also writes page-turning, popular fiction - novels that shed light on the changing culture of her native India through characters that could be our neighbors in Ann Arbor or the Cleveland suburbs. 

The World We Found draws the reader in immediately with Laleh, a privileged wife and mother, breaking a tooth and finding it “an outward manifestation of the brokenness she’d felt ever since the phone call from Armaiti. An uncharacteristic acceptance descended upon Laleh, in contrast to the denial she had felt since Armaiti called with news about her cancer.” Armaiti, who has lived in the U.S. for years, has only six months to live so she wants to see her three best friends again.  They were inseparable activists in college in the late 1970s.  Lelah and Kavita, a successful architect, are still in contact but no one has heard from Nishta since she married their collegiate colleague, Iqbal, and disappeared from their lives.  Lelah and Kavita track Nishta to a sheltered and impoverished Muslim enclave where she wears a burkha and is guarded by Iqbal’s fundamentalist family. 

The world each of these women has found in the thirty years since their idealistic college days has changed drastically. Umrigar uses their different lives to reflect on the changes in India and the U.S. and to show that the world each of us finds is the one we must navigate.  This novel soars above others in the genre when it shows how the Hindu-Muslim conflicts of the early 1990s changed the way people like Iqbal saw the world around them.  It also foreshadows an airport scene where all it takes to solve a dilemma is today’s equivalent of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre and watching stereotypes come into play.  That scene alone makes the book worth reading and clearly illustrates Umrigar’s title and premise that the world we find is the one we adapt to and use – sometimes without considering the consequences.

The World We Found will appeal to Elizabeth Berg and Anita Shreve fans in that it takes something that could happen to anyone and turns it on its side by showing it to the reader through multidimensional characters.   It also provides secondary plots involving each of the main characters that add to making this novel different from the usual.  Its careful turns of phrase and setting allow the reader to vicariously meet the women of Mumbai.  Just as readers love historical fiction because it allows them to learn about history without having to read academic tomes, this novel will appeal to readers who want to know about modern-day Mumbai through getting to know its citizens.

Summing it Up:  Read this to enjoy a page-turner that will transport you to Mumbai and its changing culture while enveloping you in the lives of women who could be your friends and neighbors if you got to know them.

Rating: 4 stars    Category: Fiction, Grandma's Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: January 3, 2012

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