Friday, February 26, 2016

Tagging Along With Bill Through Britain

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is a fun romp around Britain through the eyes of an American ex-pat. If you enjoy PBS travel programs and/or British comedies, or frequently find yourself watching BBC America from your satellite provider but haven’t read this book, you jolly well better hoof off to the nearest book store or library and procure a copy for heaven’s sake!

Bryson lived in England for a number of years, having married a British nurse. One day after 20 years or so of being a part of the British landscape, Bryson and his family decided to move back to the United States. Notes from a Small Island is a memoir of the seven-week “farewell” trek through England, Wales, and Scotland Bryson made before departing. If you have read A Walk in the Woods (recently made into a film starring Robert Redford), then you know that Bryson is a walker. It is a habit he perfected during his years in Britain. Much of the journey he takes readers on is a walkabout through the countryside.

“I picked a mercifully level footpath and followed it for two miles through woods and fields along the crest of a secluded hanging Valley to rejoin the coast path at a lonely and dramatic eminence called Houns-tout Cliff. The view once again was stunning: whale-back hills and radiant white cliffs, dotted with small coves and hidden beaches washed by a blue and infinite sea. I could see all the way to Lulworth, my destination for the day, some ten miles and many daunting whale-back to the west.”

In addition to rich descriptions of the landscape, villages, and people Bryson encounters on his journey, there is also a good smattering of the irreverent humor one expects while reading anything by this author. I had many good laughs aloud (much to the consternation of my husband seated at the opposite end of the couch trying to make his way through the latest George R. R. Martin epic, A Dance With Dragons) as I joined Bryson’s farewell tour.

As an example, Bryson begins chapter 20 with: “I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a festival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add ice cream wrappers, empty cigarette boxes, and plastic carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought color and texture to pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in trashbags.”

His tale of the sign he found where a grumpy landowner did not want anyone turning around in their driveway, or the elderly train enthusiast he encountered on the train to Llandudno in Wales were a hoot! I can easily imagine that travelling with Bryson would make for a fun time. And indeed, it has each and every moment I have spent reading his books. The book should come with a warning that you may get some funny looks from people around you when you break into laughter in public. That being said, I would encourage you to read it--especially with a pint in hand and a marathon of British documentaries playing in the background.

From the Publisher . . .

Before New York Times bestselling author Bill Bryson wrote The Road to Little Dribbling, he took this delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation of Great Britain, which has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie’s Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey.

About the Author . . .

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa. For twenty years he lived in England, where he worked for the Times and the Independent, and wrote for most major British and American publications. His books include travel memoirs (Neither Here Nor There; The Lost Continent; Notes from a Small Island) and books on language (The Mother Tongue; Made in America). His account of his attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, was a huge New York Times bestseller. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his wife and his four children.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Eleanor Will Haunt Your Thoughts (In a Good Way!)

Eleanor, by Jason Gurley, is an emotionally charged and gripping tale of family trauma, dysfunction, and reclamation. I was hooked from the get-go! (For a plot synopsis, please see the “From the Publisher” section below.)

Gurley’s characters are well-developed and immediately drew me into the storyline. The tragic circumstances that hang like an invisible pall over each of them added to the urgency of identifying with each character from the main protagonist, young Eleanor, to Aunt Gerry and Jack, Eleanor’s best friend and love interest.

While the main tragedies that befall the Witt family are events we witness on the news any given day, I really enjoyed the fact that Gurley adds a “paranormal” twist to the disappearances Eleanor experiences. This twist was the added traction that kept me up past bedtime reading “just one more section” after another!

I think book clubs would find much to discuss in this book. The perils of motherhood. Issues of mental illness and addiction. How tragedy and trauma unfold in lives and through generations. What happens after death. What is the purpose and nature of our hopes and dreams (both waking and the dream world’s we weave in our unconscious minds/sleep).

Eleanor is a book that will appeals to a variety of readers. I am happy to tell my friends and family about this great read!

Thanks to Blogging For Books for the ARC I received in exchange for this honest review of the book.

From the Publisher . . .

Eleanor and Esmerelda are identical twins with a secret language all their own, inseparable until a terrible accident claims Esme’s life. Eleanor’s family is left in tatters: her mother retreats inward, seeking comfort in bottles; her father reluctantly abandons ship. Eleanor is forced to grow up more quickly than a child should, and becomes the target of her mother’s growing rage.

Years pass, and Eleanor’s painful reality begins to unravel in strange ways. The first time it happens, she walks through a school doorway, and finds herself in a cornfield, beneath wide blue skies. When she stumbles back into her own world, time has flown by without her. Again and again, against her will, she falls out of her world and into other, stranger ones, leaving behind empty rooms and worried loved ones.

One fateful day, Eleanor leaps from a cliff and is torn from her world altogether. She meets a mysterious stranger, Mea, who reveals to Eleanor the weight of her family’s loss. To save her broken parents, and rescue herself, Eleanor must learn how deep the well of her mother’s grief and her father’s heartbreak truly goes. Esmerelda’s death was not the only tragic loss in her family’s fragmented history, and unless Eleanor can master her strange new abilities, it may not be the last.

About the Author . . .

JASON GURLEY is the author of Greatfall, The Man Who Ended the World, and the fiction collection Deep Breath Hold Tight, among other works. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Loosed Upon the World and Help Fund My Robot Army!!! He was raised in Alaska and Texas, and now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Get Locally Laid

I like chicken, both meat and eggs. I might as well get that confession out of the way at the outset.

My grandparents on both sides were born to farm families and spent some of their lives working farms as well. My parents were the first exception to this, and I am a city girl, through-and-through. Luckily for me, my maternal grandparents still farmed during my childhood years so that I was privy to the knowledge of from whence my food came. I helped my grandma turn the earth for the chicks to eat the grubs and worms, gather eggs in the hen house, and took part in the autumn slaughter and cleaning of chickens to be put up in the freezer and turned into stews and casseroles over the winter months to follow. (I’m still haunted by images of headless chickens flopping around the butchering yard until their nervous system’s electrical impulses were spent. Just the idea of the smell of burning pin feathers during plucking can turn my stomach to this day.)

Thus I found Lucie Amundsen’s book, Locally Laid, thoroughly engaging with it’s sometimes humorous and always educational story of her family’s adventure into sustainable, middle agriculture egg production.

The fact that Locally Laid is a company from neighboring Minnesota added to the pleasure of this read for me. I lived in the Twin Cities for a few years and have visited Duluth numerous times. Familiarity with the landscape, the weather, and the ethos of the area makes Amundsen’s words ring all the louder and truer.

I have a lot of admiration for Amundsen and her husband. He had a vision and they both sacrificed and worked (you could say struggled!) to bring the dream to fruition. The stories she relays of the making of their farm and brand are harrowing and humorous, full of pain and triumph and plenty of school-of-hard-knocks learning. The insights gained and shared will benefit everyone who has a vision of something better which takes grit and true determination to bring to life. (That is to say, there is something here for ALL of us!)

Locally Laid is a quick, delightful, and thought-provoking read. I feel I learned a great deal not only about the egg and chicken producing business in the United States, but also about food sources, sustainability, and the true cost of the food choices before me every time I open my wallet to pay. For this insight I am truly grateful! If you have even the slightest inkling to stop and think about the food you eat and feed your family with, I highly suggest you read this book! (Besides, who doesn’t love the idea of free-range chickens happily roaming the prairie of northern Minnesota?)

My thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy I received in exchange for this honest review.

From the Publisher . . .

How a Midwestern family with no agriculture experience went from a few backyard chickens to a full-fledged farm—and discovered why local chicks are better.

When Lucie Amundsen had a rare night out with her husband, she never imagined what he’d tell her over dinner—that his dream was to quit his office job (with benefits!) and start a commercial-scale pasture-raised egg farm. His entire agricultural experience consisted of raising five backyard hens, none of whom had yet laid a single egg.

To create this pastured poultry ranch, the couple scrambles to acquire nearly two thousand chickens—all named Lola. These hens, purchased commercially, arrive bereft of basic chicken-y instincts, such as the evening urge to roost. The newbie farmers also deal with their own shortcomings, making for a failed inspection and intense struggles to keep livestock alive (much less laying) during a brutal winter. But with a heavy dose of humor, they learn to negotiate the highly stressed no-man’s-land known as Middle Agriculture. Amundsen sees firsthand how these midsized farms, situated between small-scale operations and mammoth factory farms, are vital to rebuilding America’s local food system.

With an unexpected passion for this dubious enterprise, Amundsen shares a messy, wry, and entirely educational story of the unforeseen payoffs (and frequent pitfalls) of one couple’s ag adventure—and many, many hours spent wrangling chickens.

About the Author . . .

Lucie Amundsen is a writer, marketer, and reluctant farmer. She co-owns Locally Laid Egg Company, a farm that provides pasture-raised eggs in Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana. She sits on the Hartley Nature Center board and is an active volunteer with Duluth Community Gardening Program. Amundsen also holds a master’s of fine arts in writing from Hamline University. A former contributor to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and former editor at Reader’s Digest Association, Amundsen has written for scores of publications during her freelance career. She lives with her husband and two children in Duluth, Minnesota.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Path To the Good Life

Who among us has not wondered whether or not there might be something more to life than our current circumstances have to offer? I would venture to guess that it is part of life to look at the world around us every now and then and ask the age-old questons: Why am I here? How did the world and my life get to be this way? How can I be happy?

Michael Pruett and Christine Gross-Loh softer some answers to these questions from Chinese philosophers in their new book, The Path.

It's been a while since I was in school. The basis for this book is Puett's popular class at Harvard on Chinese philosophy. It turns out students were flocking to Puett'so class in droves, making it one of the most popular courses at the university. Something in these ancient texts and teaching was resonating with the questions so many young people harbored about the direction of their lives and our world today. They were hungry to find a way to have a good life.

The Path introduces readers to the overarching concepts developed through the ages by Chinese philosophers and works such as Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Inward Training, and others. Puett lays out the general concepts of each school of thought and weaves that thinking together with examples of modern-day scenarios which provide examples of how such philosophy would play out in our lives today. It is, in a word, brilliant!

I would encourage everyone to get a copy of this book! Great discussion will come from reading it, and you may find yourself looking to delve deeper into some of the writings of these wise teachers from the past. The Path will be joining a select group of books on my shelf which I reread every year. My thanks to the publisher for the free ARE I received in exchange for this honest review.

From the Publisher . . .

For the first time an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how these ancient ideas can guide you on the path to a good life today.

Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard?

It’s because the course challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish. This is why Professor Michael Puett says to his students, “The encounter with these ideas will change your life.” As one of them told his collaborator, author Christine Gross-Loh, “You can open yourself up to possibilities you never imagined were even possible.”

These astonishing teachings emerged two thousand years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counterintuitive ideas? Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities.

In other words, The Path upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Above all, unlike most books on the subject, its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place—just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently.

Sometimes voices from the past can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about the future.

About the Author . . .

Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is the recipient of a Harvard College Professorship for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Christine Gross-Loh is a freelance journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the Huffington Post. She has a PhD from Harvard University in East Asian history.