Read My Review at Writer’s Roundabout of Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood by Melissa Hart

February 23, 2010

Today I’ve posted a review at Writer’s Roundabout for Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood by Melissa Hart.

Here’s the beginning paragraph. Click here to read the whole review on Writer’s Roundabout:

When Melissa Hart’s mother left her father to live with another woman in the 1970s, the custody decision was no surprise for the times—lesbians would not be allowed to raise three young children. Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood is Hart’s account of her life after her forced separation from her mother and through her formative years into college.

Book Review: Forever Lily by Beth Nonte Russell

January 7, 2010

When Beth Nonte Russell was asked to accompany a friend to pick up the baby girl she was adopting from China, she expected it to be an adventure. An avid traveler, Russell had never been to China, and she welcomed this chance to help a friend while discovering a new country.

But when the friend is presented with a frail baby who seems developmentally far behind her age, she balks at going through with the adoption. Russell finds herself responding in a way that will change her life forever: she agrees to take the girl herself once back in the U.S. Forever Lily: An Unexpected Mother’s Journey to Adoption in China is the memoir Russell has written about her experience.

Russell masterfully tells the story of her journey, which included other soon-to-be adoptive parents who had all planned for a long time to bring a new baby into their lives. Russell weaves tales of the groups’ sightseeing excursions to famous landmarks along with heartbreaking images of the babies’ orphanage when the group visits. She shares her conflicting thoughts of China, whose society is vibrant and modern, but also ancient and repressed.

An undercurrent of the story is Russell’s vivid dreams, some of which started before her trip began and lead her to believe she may have a stronger connection to China than she ever would have imagined.

While Russell’s decision to take the baby is clearly heroic, she doesn’t make herself out to be an unblemished hero, which makes her seem more human. She freely shares that her relationship with her stepchildren was reserved, and that she didn’t open herself up to love and the possibility of being hurt in the past. As she struggles emotionally to accept what she knows she must do, she shares with the reader her personal spiritual beliefs and her journey to get to those beliefs.

Forever Lily is a fascinating story that engrosses to the end, and it will have readers asking themselves, “What would I do if something extraordinary was asked of me?” While it’s most appropriate for moms, who will more easily relate to Russell’s story, older girls will find something of interest here too. Russell also makes book club discussion easy with a list of discussion questions and an interview featured in the back of the book along with a list of activities the group can consider.

Also a testament to the profound way Russell’s life was changed by her experience is the fact that she has started a new non-profit organization called The Golden Phoenix Foundation. Here’s a description of the foundation from the website:

“Motivated by the plight of orphaned children in China and elsewhere, Beth and Randy Russell founded the Golden Phoenix Foundation in 2006.

The mission of the Golden Phoenix Foundation is to end child abandonment worldwide. The Foundation supports existing initiatives, helps develop research projects and plans for future direct initiatives to help better the quality of life of children without families throughout the world.”

Russell hopes to raise funds for her foundation through product sales on the website, Good True Beautiful, which sells her book, an eau de parfum called Forever Lily, t-shirts and a tote baag.

Book Review: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

January 4, 2010

In the mid-1990s Neil White defrauded creditors out of their money and was sentenced to spend time in a federal minimum-security prison. He recounts his time spent in that prison in his memoir, In The Sanctuary of Outcasts, which gives the reader a glimpse into two societies shut off from the mainstream: prisoners and leprosy patients. The story fascinates from the start, when White tells of his wife dropping him off at the prison gatehouse. He is early, and he has to wait to be checked in. Everything about his check-in procedure is designed to let him know the rules from outside no longer apply, and he is not in charge of his daily activities. White is strip searched, assigned a room, and given a job. He has no door on his room, no privacy, and he learns not to offer to shake hands with the guards. He also soon finds out that the prisoners are housed alongside Hansen’s Disease patients, more commonly known at lepers, and he must work serving them in the cafeteria.

Through White’s account we learn the history of the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, a facility that started in the late 1800s as a place to isolate those with the disease. While Hansen’s Disease can now be treated in a physician’s office and patients are no longer isolated, those living at Carville predated treatment, and many remained at the facility even after it was no longer necessary for them to stay. Most had been there for half a century or more, and they had no other place to go.

At first White reacts as much of society has always reacted to these patients: he doesn’t want to breathe the air they breathe, touch them, or eat food they have been around. He is afraid he will catch leprosy, turning his short prison sentence into one with consequences for the rest of his life. Gradually, he learns he has nothing to fear. He begins to seek their company whenever possible, and the lessons he learns from them help him find redemption for his own crimes and misdeeds.

Through White’s eyes we also see the other prisoners serving time with him, a hodge podge of criminals who include doctors, lawyers and accountants as well as drug dealers and robbers. This bizarre co-existing of prisoners and patients came about as the federal government tried to decide what to do with the facility at Carville.

Only White can answer whether he truly found redemption and learned to change his self-destructing habits for good. But his story of others who have learned to find grace and lead happy, productive lives despite being cut off from families and ostracized from the rest of society is inspiring as well as informative.

I had the chance to glimpse the inside of Carville myself when I was in college in 1980 and interviewed a patient who was editor of the newspaper the colony produced. I’ll never forget the feeling I had of a place that had been both sanctuary and prison for the patients. White captures the place well, and in writing about it, sheds a bit more light on this little known piece of American history that should not be forgotten. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism; Interview with Author Laura Shumaker

March 6, 2009

I’m happy to review a new memoir by Laura Shumaker called A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism. Shumaker’s story will resonate with many parents, whether they are raising a child with autism or one of it’s related conditions, or even if they are raising a child with any special needs. Here is my review of the book followed by a question and answer with the author.


Laura Shumaker brings us inside the world of a parent who is raising a son with autism in her heartfelt memoir, A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism. When Matthew was born, Shumaker and her husband marveled over their perfect baby and looked forward to watching him grow. But as he grew into a toddler, the Shumakers became concerned about developmental delays they noticed, and they questioned his pediatrician.

It took many frustrating visits to many physicians before Matthew was diagnosed with autism, and even then the Shumakers were given conflicting advice on what to do for him. Any parent who has ever struggled to get an accurate diagnosis for a child will feel the frustration Shumaker feels of knowing something is not right, yet being unable to get helpful medical advice.

As Matthew grows up, Shumaker works to make sure he feels as normal as possible, while also raising her younger two sons as well. She and her husband, Peter, try different treatments and therapies, at great cost to their finances and their emotions. Through it all Shumaker never stops trying to do what’s best for the whole family.

Shumaker’s story is an inspiring tale of a mother who never gives up on her son. She tells it straightforward, not asking for sympathy, but for understanding. Anyone who is raising a child with autism or has a relative with autism should be able to relate to her quest to help her son eventually be an independent adult. Anyone who is touched by autism in any way, at school or church or another community gathering place, will be able to learn more about the condition and possibly be more understanding of people who have it.

I highly recommend A Regular Guy for mother-daughter book clubs that may want to explore autism as it relates to everyone in a family.

An Inteview  with Laura Shumaker

Your story about raising a son with autism is very moving as well as informative. What prompted you to write a book about your experience?

LS: I never thought about writing my story while I was raising Matthew—I was so overwhelmed with taking care of his needs AND the needs of my other two sons. I’m sure that all moms with special needs children can relate! But when Matthew was 15 his behavior in school and in our community took a dangerous turn—and my husband came to the heartbreaking conclusion that we needed to send him to a residential school.

Friends and family who had seen me struggle with him over the years thought I might be relieved, but instead I felt lost, like I was a failure of a mother, and I decided to write about it. A friend encouraged me to join her writing group and I was hooked!!

Getting a diagnosis of autism for Matthew was difficult; do you think it is easier for parents to have a child diagnosed today than it was in the 1980s?

LS: When Matthew was young, it was so obvious that he was autistic, but we didn’t even get a formal diagnosis until he was five or six! It is so much easier to get a diagnosis today! Pediatricians are screening infants starting at eight months old. Parents are also better informed with all of the information online. There are many more tried and true early intervention programs that help children on the autism spectrum learn and connect.

Do you think treatment is more effective now than it was then?

LS: Yes! With the treatment and therapies available these days, outcomes for autistic children are so much more helpful. There is a heightened awareness these days about autism and other developmental disabilities; people are so much more willing to be inclusive.

As quirky as Matthew is, he has so much to offer and watching him try to be a “regular guy” has moved us as a family to appreciate the differences in others. And we have also developed a great sense of humor! My sons Andy and John, now 20 and 16, have grown into compassionate and patient young men (with INCREDIBLE senses of humor). We are so lucky.

Can you share with us one overriding piece of advice about raising a child with autism you wish you would have had when Matthew was growing up?

LS: The best thing I did for myself (and I would have done it earlier if I’d known it would be so helpful) was find a great therapist. When Matthew was little, I tried to hide the anguish and hopelessness I felt from my parents (who were a great support, by the way) and my husband. I wanted everyone to think I had everything under control, but eventually I fell apart. I started getting sick all of the time, was anxious and wasn’t sleeping.

The therapist encouraged me to share my load—to find helpers and mentors who could work and play with Matthew so that I could get a break. She encouraged me to enjoy time with my other two sons and with my husband. Many moms enjoy group therapy, but I found a one on one therapist to be the best solution for me.

What advice do you have for siblings of a child with autism?

LS: What siblings really want and need is time with their parents. So much time and energy goes into the care of a sibling with a disability. I encourage kids to ask their parents for one-on-one outings with their parents–regularly. Siblings need to speak up when they are feeling overlooked! Sibling groups are also very helpful (they call them “sib groups”). It’s really great for siblings to get together with OTHER siblings to tell stories and VENT!!

Can you recommend resources on the Web where friends and extended family of someone with autism can learn more about ways they can be supportive?

LS: My Web site of course! On the right side of my site there is a long list of autism information sites. One of the best links on my Web site is for autism speaks (

That said, the best way that family and friends can be helpful and supportive is to ask questions. “What can I do to help? What is the best way I can communicate with your child? What does he/she like or dislike? How can I educate other family and friends about your child?” And of course the best question, “Can I take your child off your hands for a few hours?”

Book Review: The Pages In Between by Erin Einhorn

December 30, 2008


In The Pages In Between, Erin Einhorn has written a memoir about what she finds when she searches for the Polish family that sheltered her Jewish mother during World War II.

When she was growing up in Detroit, Einhorn didn’t know much about her mother’s past until she wrote a paper on the topic when she was in high school. Her mother, Irena, offered only the basics: Born in the early 1940s, Irena’s mother died during the war, while her father, Beresh, survived. Before he was taken away to a concentration camp, Beresh offered a local woman money and his home to live in if she would keep Irena safe. After the war, Beresh returns and makes his way with his daughter and new wife first to Sweden then to the U.S., where he made a new life.

When Erin, Irena’s daughter, became a journalist, her reporter’s mind refused to let go of her mother’s story, and she wanted to learn more. Taking a sabbatical from her job, she moved to Poland to see if she could find her mother’s rescuers. In the story of her quest, Einhorn mixes historical fact with current cultural observations with details of her journey to create a fascinating account that is very personal, yet universal in many ways as well.

The story will touch a chord with anyone who has ever wondered about the people who came before them: where did they live, what motivated them, how were their lives different from ours? There’s genealogical research and observations about Jews in Poland. Einhorn takes a look at historical attitudes of Poles to Jews and how lingering feelings of distrust resulting from the Holocaust continue to this day. But she also looks at how this generation of young Poles is different from the one that came before, and she candidly assesses the differences.

I think The Pages in Between is not just the story of one woman’s search for her mother’s history. It taps into the yearning that many of us feel about understanding our mothers and ourselves by  looking at the events that helped shape us into who we are. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with daughters in 10th grade and older.

Mother-daughter Book Club Meeting—The Glass Castle

November 19, 2008

Last night Madeleine and I went to our mother-daughter book club meeting. It was at Janelle and Emily’s house, which is just several blocks away, so despite the dark and cold, we walked. It took less than 10 minutes, but in that time I got to hear a lot of what’s on Madeleine’s mind these days. She talked about school and the play she’s directing with friends and anything else we could cram in. Later, on the way home, we debriefed on the book club meeting. This isn’t the only time we spend talking to each other, but there seems to be something about book club that brings out conversation before, during and after. I think it’s because we know we’re in for a relaxing and fun evening.

We spent lots of time talking before and during dinner. Since the girls are all seniors they are also all in some process of applying for colleges. Some have already finished and been accepted to the schools they want to attend, and some are still in the stressful period of applying. And it is stressful if only because it’s an unknown that will affect them in ways they have no way of gauging at this point in time.

We gathered around to talk about The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (watch book video here) and ended up discussing memoir more than anything else. We talked about the different kinds of memoir, and how much of the genre we expect to be the truth. Many of us, including me, look at memoir as a contract with the reader that it’s an honest recollection of the writer’s perception of the truth. But some of us said it’s not important to them, that they read a story for what they take away from it, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or truth. We got into a good-natured but heated discussion on the topic.

We also talked about memoirs that detail extreme childhood experiences, like those in Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and The Glass Castle, versus those that are more musing on life experiences, such as A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun. I’ve also read an interesting memoir recently that combines memory with current events in a very interesting way. It’s called The Pages In Between by Erin Einhorn, and it recounts the author’s quest to reconnect with the family in Poland who sheltered her mother during the Holocaust. It blends family history research with historical facts with analysis of current cultural conditions in Poland with a personal quest of the author to search for clues about her mother (official review to come). I tend to like this type of memoir more than those about extreme childhoods (with the exception of Angela’s Ashes). It was a very interesting discussion that I believe gave us all lots to think about.

Madeleine and I will host the next meeting, which isn’t until January, and Madeleine really wanted us to tackle a Jane Austen review. We all signed up to read different books by Austen, with at least two of us choosing to read each book. When we get together in January we’ll plan to look at Austen as an author as well as gender and class issues of the times she was writing in as much as we’ll talk about the books themselves. I chose to read Mansfield Park, because I haven’t read it before, and Madeleine picked Pride and Prejudice, which she hasn’t read. Stay tuned!


Book Review: West with the Night by Beryl Markham

April 29, 2008

West with the Night, a memoir by Beryl Markham, is one of my all time favorite books to read. Both for the glimpse it gives into life in Africa during the early decades of the 20th century, and for the descriptions of life for a bush pilot.

As a child growing up with her father in Africa, Markham faced down lions and wild boar. As an adult she trained race horses before learning to fly airplanes and becoming a bush pilot. Eventually she became the first pilot, female or male, to fly west with the night and cross the Atlantic ocean solo from Europe to North America. Marham bring the African bush to life with stories of boar hunts and elephant hunts. Of horse races and airplane flights over desert terrain. And she tells her story beautifully. There are other famous characters here as well. If you’re familiar with Bror Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton, who appeared in Out of Africa, you’ll find more about both of them in this book.

Markham lived a courageous life in a time when girls were only supposed to wear dresses and play with dolls and flying airplanes was a man’s job. Her account of the early part of her life is fascinating and provides a good example for older girls. I recommend West with the Night for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 14 and older.