Category Archives: Books & Films Reviewed

Various Reviews of Books I’ve read or films I’ve seen and recommend

Night of the Dead by Steve Smith

Dia de los Muertos
El Dia de Los Muertos: photo by Steve Smith
 “In the casa where I am currently staying in Jalpan, Mexico, an altar is set up prominently to honor the ones that are loved but seen no longer. Their photos, together with food offerings for their journeys, a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and other mementos are displayed as a living tribute to the dead. It is this way in every casa in this puebla, and throughout Mexico. This tradition fuses the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints with the more ancient beliefs of the distant past. The dead live among us, and together, we and they pass through this temporal life joined together. Across the great divide that separates mortality and the life beyond, an unbroken chain of love binds one and all.” ~Steve Smith
Let me introduce to you my friend Steve Smith. Steve and I met at Holy Hill Hermitage in Skreen, County Sligo, Ireland when we were both on retreat there. Steve and his wife were there for two months. I was there for nine. You can read all about my adventures in Ireland, if you haven’t already, right here, under the Jubilee tab. Steve was working on his novel called, The Twin, which is historical fiction about Jesus and his brother Thomas, who Steve has conjured and who is very much real. Steve’s story is an accurate historical portrayal of life in Israel/Palestine around the years when Jesus walked the earth.

His story is about the entire family and their hard lives as Jews under the oppressors of the Roman Empire. All the characters that folks know from their bibles are here, but they are having lives, just like we do, and those lives are colored by terrible horror, acts of barbarity, beauty and complexity. Steve consulted with me, which was a happy circumstance for us both, about all things Jewish. Steve is a retired priest, he knows his stuff Christian and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu. Nevertheless, he isn’t Jewish. Part of his story is about the Divine Feminine and both of his Marys, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene are women of power and are channels for the Shechinah.

Steve is already in touch with the Shechinah. Shechinah gets mistranslated and mispronounced all the time. Trying to name the Divine, is just not really possible. All we can do is list the attributes, describe the qualities. Shechinah is not the name of the female part of the Divine. Shechinah is much, much more than that and not containable within any boundaries. She is called the “In-Dwelling Presence” most often. In the Hebrew, when there is a reference to the cloud that protected the Jewish people as they journeyed in the desert for forty years, that cloud is referenced as the Shechinah’s Presence. She is the protector and the lover and the gentle, tender, green-earth growing mothering aspects of the Divine. Whenever the Divine is being referenced as merciful, the word used comes from the root for the word womb/rechem. This word becomes the word Rachamim.

A more accurate translation for this Hebrew to English would be Womb-Like One. Imagine if when you read the bible, instead of  “Merciful God” which is how it gets translated, it actually said “Womb-Like One.” I always try to get folks to understand this basic concept. There is no word for god in the Torah (see Why Ha-Shem Not Naming the Divine). There are only attributes of Holiness that are used interchangeably based on what is going on and what is needed. When those qualities are feminine, which many of them are, female gendered language is used, verb tenses etc… When those attributes are masculine, male gendered language is used. Obviously, the Divine does not have a gender, nor are the words masculine and feminine very useful to try and understand the fluidity of gender that exists in the actual Torah when read in the original Hebrew.

Shechinah Mama
The offerings of the Shechinah Mama as she is clearly visible in this photo taken by Steve Smith

Access and understanding of the sacred texts in their original language is crucial, but it  is something few of us can do. Since having feminine references to GOD THE FATHER was not okay, back in the day, when all of this was translated to Latin, Greek, German and eventually English, we have the mess we have now.The Divine is all and more. The Shechinah is part of that all and more. My connection with Steve happened in Ireland, where we studied her works and who she might have been in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. I invite you to read his book, if you are interested in a great story that many folks think they know, but the way Steve tells it, is something all together more. The link for his book will be at the end of this post. With no further ado, I am greatly honored to include this Dia de Los Muertos travel-narrative story by my friend Steve. Unlike his book, this post is not about Jesus as a child, but about being saved when you are lost and alone and finding that you are indeed held in a womb-like way, even when you think you are alone.

In gratitude for all the ways Holiness unfolds in folks and in the world, nicole_logo3-400

Sierra Gorda
Steve Smith at Sierra Gorda

Dear Family and Friends,

After settling in to our new life in Mid-Coast Maine, Jeannette and I have just embarked on another ex-pat adventure.  Jeannette is in Barcelona, Spain, where she has been invited to team teach an extended workshop in Internal Family Systems to a mostly Spanish-speaking audience.  She will be participating in this workshop in November, January, and March.

This week, I left for Mexico, and am staying first in a small mountain town, Jalpan de Serra in the Sierra Gorda, in an exquisite ecological zone five hours north of Mexico City.  Jeannette will be joining me for a seven week stay in San Miguel de Allende, followed by a week in the Yucatan, before she heads back to Spain.  I will be travelling to Peru in January, where good friend, Michael Corrigan will join me to experience Cuzco, Macchu Pichu, and Lima.  Then I will meet up with Martin in Chile, and travel to Patagonia for some trekking, before visiting Argentina.  While we are away, Colleen and Luke are taking up residence at our house-sit Seacroft, our wonderful home, by the Penobscot Bay.

It was a crash landing arriving in Mexico a couple of nights ago.  I picked up my rental car in Mexico City, and, foolhardily perhaps, tried to rely on my long since atrophied cab driver skills to negotiate my way out of one of the largest cities on the planet.  That painfully accomplished, I started out my journey to Jalpan, which Google Maps had identified and directed me to north and east of Mexico City.  Even then, I managed to fritter away my time getting lost, and as darkness set in, I found myself on deeply pothole pocked roads, doing untold damage to my front tires and rims.  Finally, my left right front tire blew, and I coaxed the car into a Pemex station, and got out the spare, which, predictably, was bald.  Into the night, I pressed on, now sleep deprived and disoriented heading up into the switchbacks of the montañas.  Suddenly, my right tire blew, and I had no breakdown lane or place to park the car.  For at least a few miles, I drove the car on its rim, hoping against hope for somewhere to pull out.  Finally, a small opening appeared in the darkness, but still, I was not out of harm’s way.  Ongoing trucks bore down on me, blaring horns and high beams alight.

For a moment, I had a strong premonition, with no dramatic exaggeration intended, of my death, brought on, no doubt, by an overwhelming sense that I was completely lost and vulnerable, that brought on, no doubt, by my complete stupidity and arrogance in assuming I could bivouac my way through this uncharted territory.

Despair is a funny thing. It eviscerates, but it also provides for some detachment. I raised the hood, put on the hazard blinkers, opened the trunk, and stood in the darkness, facing the oncoming lights and blare of horns.  In that timeless place, I thought it would be hours, if at all, before rescue would come.  And at that very moment, a truck approached and turned on its blinking lights. My loved ones must have been praying at that moment.  I sure was.  It was a wrecker.

Out appeared a young man, Mitch he introduced himself, and we began the task of communicating what had happened to my rental.  My Spanish is rusty in my good moments, but without sleep and stressed, it’s a jumbled mess.  After several fits and starts, and appeals to my Google map, and showing him by the light of his cellphone the damage I had done to both rims, he cheerily urged me into the cab, while he waved off traffic, and hoisted the car on to truck’s bed.  Ten miles further, he brought me to his hometown, Huauchinago, and pulled into his workplace, where his compañeros, taking good-hearted delight in this gringo’s predicament, set to pounding out the sorry tire rims with mallets.  Everyone has damaged rims in Mexico, they said.  One pantomimed a giant boom to show how the cars fell into the ubiquitous potholes.

Then, my host in Jalpan, who I had texted earlier on Mitch’s cellphone in the car, rang.  I explained how close I was, and I was on my way, after I weathered this interruption.  “Huauchinago”?, he asked, “I don’t know this town.”  It seems, with help from Google, I had found another Jalpan in the opposite direction, and was now eight hours off course.  Now, hearing Mitch explain things, the compañeros were doubled over.  Then, Mitch set to getting this pilgrim to a hotel in town, while they set out to repairing my car.  The night was ablaze with the fireworks of the great feria, La Dia de Los Muertos.  When we arrived in town, skeletal apparitions appeared, all reveling in this festival, where the dead come out to party with the living.  Reflexively, I joined in the dance.

Next morning, Mitch brought me back to the car, and demonstratively showed me how bad all the tires of the car the rental agency had given me, so we set out to a roadside tire shop.  There, two cousins, named in Spanish “The Mosquito Bros”, changed out all my tires on my repaired to normal rims, and found new tires with enough tread to get me safely on my way.  Mitch wanted to take pics, and get ourselves set on Facebook as friends.  He told me about his four-month old daughter and four-year old son.  He said, as best I could understand him, my detour had led me to Huauchinago, so we could become friends.

Amigo Mitch, fixing Steve’s tires.

There are no accidents in this life, and in anything that appears like an accident, like my fateful entry into Mexico to experience a humanity and hospitality that is sorely absent these days in my own homeland,  always grace is close at hand. I had wandered into one of those thin places and in that liminal space where the living meet the dead, I had encountered angels unaware.Blessings,


The Twin

The Unruly Mystic and Unruly Me

Illumination above by Hildegard of Bingen: Cultivating the Cosmic Tree
Illumination above by Hildegard of Bingen: Cultivating the Cosmic Tree

A few days ago I watched my friend Michael Conti’s film, The Unruly Mystic. The film is about his spiritual journey and his exploration of the life of Saint Hildegard of Bingen. I first learned about Hildegard from my botanist friend Jolie Egert Elan of Go Wild Consulting. Jolie is definitely an unruly herbal mystic. I guess I am one also, unruly in all kinds of directions.

It turns out Micheal, Jolie and I, we’re in good company.

The film was beautiful, well-done and lyrical, full of Saint Hildegard’s music and works. She was an extraordinary woman who composed music, wrote books, liturgy and healed people. She was a doctor of the church, like Thomas of Aquinas. She confronted emperors and popes and battled illness and injustices. She confronted and challenged the flawed ideas of her time about self-abuse and harm as paths to the Divine. She rejected the ideas of the body as evil and hatred of the body. She challenged people to engage with the Divine within and around us. She preached to armies, begging them to lay down their swords. She was in a relationship with Holiness, calling to her, moving through her, engaging and directing her and she heeded that call. Michael’s film shows us all of this through the people alive today who study her and engage with her and also through the vehicle of his own searching. It’s very moving.

Unruly Mystic
Michael Conti, the director and Producer of the Unruly Mystic, and I meeting up to exchange hugs and his lovely film.

Saint Hildegard left a legacy of herbal remedies and writings about how stones, herbs, meditation and minerals can heal us. In Michael’s film we visit an institute in Germany which uses her techniques to heal people. We go around the world connecting with mystics, spiritual directors and seekers of all faiths, healers, curanderos, priests, professors, philosophers, nuns, monks, musicians and artists. Hildegard is often thought of today as the patron Saint of Creativity. She created many vibrant mandalas that are full of her visions. They are vivid, real, stunning and powerful.

In today’s era, heeding the call of the Divine, is still thought of as crazy or radical. It’s never really a safe thing to pay attention to the other side, to the call of the wild, the earth, the angels, the Holy (however you conceive of that or connect to it). Once you listen, really listen, there are oceans full of energy, voices, and information. It can actually make you a little “nuts.”  Not paying attention though, is truly dangerous. With our world full of mess, suffering, climate change and violence, the only way through into what Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche calls Enlightened Society, is to wake up and listen and start making a connection with the basic essential goodness of who we are. Once we do that we can move towards repair and mending and healing of the world around us. We can embody Tikkun Olam.

So, being called unruly, makes sense, once you are able to hear the call of the Wild and Powerful Divine within, then you have to figure out how to translate that. If your message is true, it will survive naysayers, wars, eons, folks who cannot relate and it will come into the greater world. Hildegard of Bingen was hearing voices, healing, and channeling what she experienced in the Middle Ages.

Lerman, K. (02-15-95). The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen . Retrieved from

The films and books about her to date are numerous and she continues to emerge all the time. Michael’s film brings her into our time and connects us with her works, her songs and music and a whole world of people following her teachings, and most importantly, keeping her alive here and now. The film, the Unruly Mystic, is a great homage to her, but also a call to all of us, to listen, to still ourselves and to heed the call of our souls and whatever unruly messages exist therein.

Michael lovingly called me an “original unruly mystic,” which I think is high praise. When I graduated from Boulder High in 1982, I was voted “most original individual” and “most radical.” I had to choose one of those and I think I chose to keep “most original.” I’m certainly also a radical.

My radicalism today, if you don’t scratch deep, is harder to see. I’ve been happily married for 26 years, have children and a grand-child, drive a Prius and attend religious services. Doesn’t sound too radical. Scratch a little deeper and you find a lot more going on.

My call, like Hildegard’s, is very personal and private at this time. I need to sequester myself, much like a nun, and indeed I am venturing into the Carmelite Monastic world, to find the quiet I crave to hear the Voice of Holiness within and without (in the stones, hills, rivers, mists, green growing beings and in the connection between my feet and the earth without pavement or roadway or power-lines to interrupt the feeling between myself and the planet). That’s a little more unruly! Especially since I’m a very Jewish extrovert.

One of my radical actions is the engagement with multiple faith traditions. I’m very married and in covenant with the Jewishly Divine Presence in this world. I live and practice actively as a Jewish woman. Connecting with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Carmelites, Quakers, Native Tribal Peoples and all the various iterations of Holiness, is the only way that makes sense to me. I have no desire to be right or make someone follow a tradition that doesn’t resonate for them.

When we all reject the out-dated and dangerous model of separation and recognize that we are all one GIANT family of folks who connect to Holiness in our own personal ways everything gets luminous and wondrous. One should never assert that there is only ONE way to connect. The idea that anyone has to follow a tradition that doesn’t resonate for them is a little like preferring cucumbers over carrots and asserting that one is better than the other. Both are great vegetables, neither one is the ONLY TRUE VEGETABLE. Put them together with some other lovely greens and voila, we have a wonderful salad, Yippee, my favorite thing; a great salad.

My current unruly act is to go off the grid, to reject the noise, volume of information, media and violence in the world and to take some space and time to rejuvenate, reinvent and reconsider my path on this earth. I am doing this alone without my husband, my friends, my teachers or my family. I am not alone though. I journey with Hildegard, with Rabbi Zalman of Blessed memory, with Reb Nachman of Breslov, with all the angels and other beings who inhabit my life. As I cross the ocean and move into the territory I will be traversing for my coming adventure, I cannot say what will be unfolding and that is tremendous for me and those who love me.

My next actual landings will be in England, France and Ireland. Who knows what opportunities, voices, mystics, saints, and traditions will be calling me from there. It’s for sure they won’t be calling me on my cell-phone.

May you find your own path towards your inner unruly soul and may it infuse your life with great meaning, value and depth and lead you into connection with all beings and into awakened love and life.

“Holy Spirit, giving life to all life, moving all creatures, root of all things, washing them clean, wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds, you are our true life: luminous, wonderful, awakening the heart from its ancient sleep.”

– Hildegard of Bingen

Illumination above by Hildegard of Bingen: Cultivating the Cosmic Tree
Illumination above by Hildegard of Bingen: Cultivating the Cosmic Tree

Some More Book Reviews, these from 2011

Ethan Reading Tintin at Uncle Paul's house, a really long time ago. Reading is always a good idea!
Ethan Reading Tintin at Uncle Paul’s house, a really long time ago. Reading is always a good idea!

Swimming by Joanna Hershon

This was a wonderful novel, painful and rich and intense and beautiful and I highly recommend it. I don’t want to tell you anything about it though.

The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

I am a Card fanatic and read all his books voraciously. I was not disappointed with this magical novel full of real teenage and human drama along with lots of magic and mystery, intrigue and fantasy. I was not ready for it to end.

The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan

Excellent story told from the eyes of a young girl in a difficult family and situation in Wales not too long after World War II. Very lovely, lyric, tragic yet hopeful as well. A good read, hard to put down.

The Margarets by Sherri S. Tepper

Tepper is another one of my favorite authors. This fantasy/science fiction is set many thousands of years from now and I don’t want to give anything away. This was also a quick read and impossible to put down.

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

This is a memoir by a woman whose mother was a brilliant musician, and also mentally ill, homeless and dangerous to her and her sister. It’s the story of their lives and how she remembers it while her mother is dying. Both her and her sister find their mother after fifteen years of not seeing her and spend the last month of her life taking care of her and helping her to die in a safe, warm place. Very painful, but stunning writing and amazing clarity of memory recall. The book is full of pictures, not real ones, but ones that you see as the author tells the story. It’s a visual read, without visuals.

Delilah by India Edghill

Historical fiction about Samson and Delilah. Told with accuracy for historical details more than biblical ones and interesting and lovely as well as the story of love between two Priestesses/Sisters. Very enjoyable.

Ender’s Shadow, Speaker for the Dead, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, Shadow of the Giant all by Orson Scott Card. I love all of these books and went on a wild re-read of them. If you haven’t read Ender’s Game and all the books which follow from it, you are missing out on extraordinary fiction.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

On a Harry Potter kick, will probably read through all of these again. They are fun reading.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

This book recommended to me by Betty Braver. I have enjoyed other books by Allegra Goodman and this was a wonderful read. Set in SF and also New York and Connecticut, dealing with the bubble, an old/rare bookseller and book collection and the 9/11 tower bombs and their aftermath in the lives of two sisters. Great story, well wrought. I got it out of the library and have returned it, so it’s yours to go get and read NOW.

The Long Night of the White Chickens by Francisco Goldman
hmmmm, what to say. I read this book but never completely got into it. The characters are interesting but the intrigue and complexity, while all too real and accurate dealing with Guatemala and death squads, orphans and complicated love was just a little too windy a path. You may enjoy complex, gruesome and long narratives, not my favorite thing though.

Another partial Reading List, some books from 2010 that I reviewed.

Bookshelf Heschel quote
One of many bookshelves in my home, complete with children’s art, favorite quote and art by someone I love!

These are mini-reviews of memorable books I read in 2010. If I can’t get through a book, it usually won’t make it onto the list of books for me to review, so all of these were readable and most of them were excellent or worth the time. Please buy your books from a local bookstore or go to the library, if you can! Also, I am very impressionable and become very engaged with whatever I am reading or who I am interacting with, many folks are way more “discerning” than I am or critical, so you have been warned. That said, I am voracious in my reading and my perspective may be helpful to you in choosing which books you engage with.

  1. Flower Children by Maxine SwannA lovely reminiscing of growing up in the 1970’s with hippy, Harvard educated parents. Wild, lyric, sad, beautiful, crazy and communicates well the child’s perspective throughout the whole narrative. Google describes it this way: “Based on the authors own upbringing, Flower Children tells the story of four children growing up in rural Pennsylvania, impossibly at odds with their parents.”
  2. The Saturday Wife by Naomi Ragen: I hated this book, but couldn’t stop reading it. I never liked the main character who is everything I am not, Blond, vapid, money and status and looks obsessed. It’s a sad story full of excess, broken and foolish people. It’s also a satire on multiple levels. I’ll be donating it to my Temple library, which is NOTHING like the synagogues and congregations this book deals with!
  3. All the Twilight Books 1-4. Enjoyed them despite myself. Best one is the last one.
  4. The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen: Set during the mid 16th century the story of a female painter in the court of Queen Elisabeth of Spain. Interesting but not great and similar to other works of its genre. Lots of gossip and ladies in waiting and thwarted love and lust although it is somewhat historical and the artist that is the protagonist is a female painter whose works are just now being properly credited as hers.
  5. Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann: Painful, intense, well written but very sad for most of the book. It is a very honest look at the life of a very beautiful American woman, complete with body hatred/confusion, sexual complexity, death of beloveds and how that shapes one. Long and engrossing.
  6. Halycon Crane by Wendy Webb: Fiction about a girl/woman uncovering dark and hard mystery of her life based on family history and a nasty ghost. Interesting.
  7. Sexual Metamorphosis edited by Jonathan Ames: Excerpts from the lives of various transgendered folk over the last two hundred years. Very good read.
  8. Blue Nude by Elizabeth Rosner: Israeli & German bound narratives and a very intense, painful and beautiful read about an artist, models, love and war. Excellent! Whether or not you are a painter or an artist, this book evokes process really well and takes you into the lines, colors and feelings of a painting, the painter, the model and the whole cooperative creation of art.
  9. Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong: Fascinating story about a girl who “for as long as she can remember, Linda has experienced a secret sense—she can “taste” words, which have the power to disrupt, dismay, or delight. She falls for names and what they evoke: Canned peaches. Dill. Orange sherbet. Parsnip (to her great regret).” Quote is from the Random House website about this book. I enjoyed this and it was hard to read because Linda tastes as she talks so sentences have foods/tastes interspersed with them. Not throughout the whole book, but it was a little challenging at times.
  10. Family Album by Penelope Lively-Loved this story about a large British family, out of keeping with the times, six kids. A very powerful mother. Narratives of each character over time except one. Read this book. Very well done.
  11. The Golem A version by Barbara Rogasky illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Excellent version of this story, with amazing illustrations. Very enjoyable and a good book to own.
  12. By Fire By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan: Takes place before 1492 in Spain. Deals with Inquisition, Jews being tortured and then expelled, intrigue, financing of Columbus’ armadas, love, and Jewish life in antiquity. I’ve read a lot of these kinds of books. Wasn’t the best, but intriguing and hard to put down nevertheless.
  13. Right of Thirst by Frank Huyler: Story of a doctor who leaves his home to go “give aid” in very remote mountain country of a small country at war (probably Pakistan or Afghanistan). After his wife dies of cancer Charles, still in shock, decides to go work for an international aid agency, one on the fringes. He leaves behind his adult son and his life as he’s known if for over 40 years. His experiences there are very hard and also help him come to terms with his wife’s death and his life in general. Medically detailed, author is a doctor, very thoughtful and of course painful too.
  14. Woodsburner by John Pipkin: Fictional story of a real fire stared by a young Thoreau. I enjoyed this book, although the spreading of the fire and what it meant was hard to read about, I found the story compelling. Several other characters besides Thoreau and their relationship to the fire are told in this book as well. Here’s a quote from the author in an article about his book. “On April 30, 1844, Thoreau started a blaze in the Concord Woods, scorching a 300-acre swath of earth between Fair Haven Bay and Concord. The fire was an accident, but the destruction of valuable woodland, the loss of firewood and lumber, and the narrowly avoided catastrophe that almost befell Concord itself angered the local residents and nearly ruined Thoreau’s reputation.” ~quote from Globe © Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company
  15. Burning Silk by Destiny Kinal: This is definitely erotica/historical fiction/magic lore. Parts of this book were really fascinating and enjoyable, other parts made me uncomfortable, not because I have a problem with erotica, but I never find rape to be erotic and there is some rape in this story. There is also love between women and love between those working together with the silk moth. The story takes place in France and early America around 1829. It is based on the production of silk and the early way silk was processed and the guild of women responsible for helping it come into being. Not sure how much of this is accurate, but it was very compelling and I rarely think about how silk becomes silk, beyond knowing a worm is involved and some mulberry trees. The book goes into the details of silk making in great depth from the perspective of the women as keepers of the moths and as mistresses/channelers/communicators with the moths/worms. Not for everyone, but if you like this kind of book, you will probably enjoy this one.
  16. The False Friend by Myla Goldberg: I consumed this book in a few hours, not able to put it down. Myla Goldberg does that to me. Very well written exploration of a childhood friendship, childhood cruelty/teasing/bullying, other traumas and mistakes and how that unfolds in the lives of our characters shaping their whole lives and personalities. I don’t want to give any of this book away. Just read it. While the content is not happy in much of this book the story is beautifully written and there is healing and honesty here that is refreshing and feels very true.
  17. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin: Story of two boys, one black, one white and their painful complicated stories in a very small Mississippi town. Vivid writing, hard themes of childhood harm, loss, violence, mistaken hatred and how it shapes their lives, and of course, finally some redemption. Hard to read in some places, because I’m a softy, but well-done and lyric writing even about ugly things.
  18. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: Sad but beautifully written stories about Bengali immigrants to this country and their children’s lives. Very evocative, very sensitive, very honest, very well done.
  19. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova: Slightly too long tome about Vlad Tepes, known as The Impaler and transformed into a real Dracula for this story and the historians trying to both escape and find him. Interesting in parts, but too long and drawn out for my taste. I got a little bored by the end and just wanted it over. Part mystery, part romance, part history.
  20. A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell: So, if I haven’t mentioned this author before, his other book, A Blessing on the Moon is in my TOP TEN. A Blessing on the Moon is a very intense book, Shoah related and takes place post death in emotional and spiritual areas. I saw A Curable Romantic, a huge tome on the Northtown book counter and did a double take, JOSEPH SKIBELL! another book by him. I HAVE TO HAVE IT. I rarely buy hardcover books, but there it was and I HAD to have it. The end of this book is like the redemption of the universe. The rest of the book is amazing and was hard for me to endure. The topics were ones that are close to my heart and I had no perspective on and I was not super fond of the protagonist. I want my heroes to be heroes and this is of course rarely the case. I finished the book while visiting at my rabbi’s home for Shabbat and was laughing and umming and aaaahing for the last three chapters, pretty much every sentence. This book is supremely Jewish, full of themes, concepts, stories (biblical, yiddish and rabbinical). Not sure how someone unversed in these underlying stories will experience this book. It is superbly written, so even if some of the context doesn’t make sense, the writing will take you places.
  21. Devotion by Dani Shapiro: One of my friends in my Mussar group recommended this book. If I had a lot of money I’d buy ten copies and give them to several of my friends. As it is, it will be a birthday present or offering to many of you. A powerful and short and important memoir chronicling the search and hunger for a relationship with holiness from someone who is very modern, very uninterested in cliches or simple solutions, someone Jewish but often mistaken for a non-Jew. A yoga lover and meditator who practices and studies Buddhist teachings and yet grew up in a Yeshiva and with very religious parents. This book is also about relationships that are painful and complex with parents and with illness and loss. It is phenomenal.
  22. Resilience by Elizabeth Edwards: Short, intense story of a woman in the public eye whose life has been full of tragedy, but who is herself heroic and honest. There is pain in this book, but also a real examination of what and how a person handling death of a child, cancer of her body and her husband’s betrayal, can be alive and present, not just shut down and off.
  23. Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay: If you like Russian Ballerina narratives, full of Stalin, party politics, body punishing extraordinary beauty, jewels, mystery, love, sex, betrayal, confusion and all the good stuff of a Russian novel, this book is for you. Takes place in modern day Boston and 1950’s Russia. Hard to put down. Not exactly happy but well-wrought.
  24. The Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernieres: Very sad and interesting story told by two people, one a Yugoslavian partisan’s daughter, down on her luck and illegally in London and the other a lonely pharmaceutical rep., hungry for love and connection. Well written and touching as well as tragic.
  25. Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin:Takes place in Budapest, Three folks, three intertwined stories, one a Holocaust survivor and composer, one an African American soldier posted in the city and a violinist in the orchestra performing the composers music. Painful, intense and well wrought. Good read, quick read.
  26. The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Macguire: Painful, beautiful, intense reading. Deals with AIDS, religion, crazy Pentacostals and catholic nuns that are ancient, teenage sexuality, pregnancy and single motherhood. I couldn’t put this book down.
  27. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: I found this to be a good read. I know there are a lot of critics of the commercialization of this book and I agree with them. The book itself though is a very in depth chronicle of one woman’s misery and movement out of misery through her spiritual path and her exploration of self.
  28. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes: This is one of the books Ethan had to read. I usually read all of them. Story of a crippled teenager during the time of the Revolution with Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party and lots of other historical figures and events. Good read, well written. Newberry Medal book.
  29. The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher: Another Ethan school book. Takes place after WWII in France. Young boy, intrigue, German spy hiding in the woods kind of thing, with dark drama unfolding and lots of action. Book is in French and English, mostly English, but some French too. Very enjoyable.
  30. The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis: Another Ethan school book, this one features a young girl and her family trying to survive the Taliban in Afghanistan. Poverty, sexism, danger, fear, injustice, cleverness and adventure. Great Read.
  31. Mother of the Believers by Kamran Pasha: Story about the birth of Islam told from perspective of Aisha, one of Mohammed’s wives, supposedly his most beloved. I didn’t feel drawn to any of the characters and they were all compelling folks, so the writing was a little not enough for me. It’s a good book to read if you want a novel telling the story of that time period. Very historically accurate and interesting, just not as enjoyable as it should have been.
  32. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: An excellent read. Takes place in the  Balkans about fifteen or twenty years ago, mixing of fairytale/myths with everyday war torn reality. Very well wrought, beautiful even in its severity and not hard to read, even in the hard parts. Have already passed it on to a friend.
  33. Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum: This is the story of a family of four girls and their parents. Each of them separate from the other by many, many layers. It is a story of their secret and yet shared loneliness and longing, their losses and all that they encounter while moving to West Africa to set up a hospital. It is also a story of love, tenderness, confusion and folks coming into themselves in the face of harsh circumstances and truth unfolding. I couldn’t put it down.
  34. The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer by Siddharta  Mukherjee Loving this book (while hating the stories and the reality of Cancer). It is an intense look at the history and life of Cancer and our understanding and knowledge of this “malady” over the last several thousand years. Since I have several friends with cancer, this is a book I very much wanted to read. I will recommend it to all my friends dealing with cancer and to those who want to understand this disease. The book reads like a novel, really well written.
1/1000 th of the books in our home
1/1000 th of the books in our home

There are several years of book reviews that I will be posting over the next few days. This is the 2009 list.

Because I live in a small town and I shop local and I shop a lot at my local bookstore, I am regularly invited behind the counter at Northtown Books to read and review the uncorrected proofs that they get in. In this way I get to read many books before they are published. I often send Dante, the owner of Northtown, my reviews and if they end up ordering these uncorrected proofs when they are fully finished books; he writes up my review on a little card that goes in front of the book on their “new books shelf.” I also get books from my library, from friends and I buy them too. Our home is full of books and I lend or give them away also.

These particular reviews are pithy, which is the only kind of pithy writing you will ever see from me!

I will not post links to all these books here because I do not want you to just buy them from the internet but would prefer if you went into a library or a bookstore, locally and bought them. I understand if that doesn’t happen, for all kinds of myriad reasons and however you choose to read or acquire good books to engage with, know that you are supporting writers everywhere when you do so and also encouraging your mind to expand and dance and grow and learn and in general do all the things a mind should do!

  1. Spoon by Robert Greer: Black/Native cowboy looking for his roots on a ranch where big Oil/Coal is trying to take over the last wild lands. Narrative of hard-working family struggling against the giant companies and also of young man growing into maturity. Good reading.
  2. God’s Gym by Leon de Winter: Interesting, good writing, intense story about loss, adaptations to that, Israel, mourning, working out, betrayal and love. I enjoyed it a lot, but the ending was a little disappointing, so be forewarned.
  3. The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: Fabulous novel based on the real life story of the Muslim man who saved an ancient Haggadah in Bosnia during the worst of the looting, bombing and destruction going on there not so long ago. This is a must read book. Beautifully written, fascinating storytelling, rich, textured, lovely, sad and luminous all at once. GO GET IT RIGHT NOW!
  4. Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen: This was not an easy book to read because the main character is a man who is in the middle of a psychological breakdown and he is the narrator, so you are taken on the paths of his mind and are also caught sometimes thinking the way he does, even though you know he’s nuts. Well done, because I was drawn in. Well thought out and researched and sad, lovely and intense all at once. I had to put it down sometimes because my brain was getting fuddled.
  5. Jarretsville by Cornelia Nixon: Very interesting and thought-provoking novel based on the authors ancestor who was acquitted of killing a man in cold blood. The man was her fiancé, the time was right after the end of the civil war, his crime, not marrying her. She had a child, that was his, out-of-wedlock. He was a union soldier, her family were on the other side, but all of them lived right on the line between those who supported one side or the other. This book brought home the personal complexity of the civil war and how neighbors, family members and people in the same town could be friends and enemies, lovers and conflicted all at the same time and how hard that was.
  6. Crows over the Wheatfield by Adam Braver -EXCELLENT READ
  7. The Condition by Jennifer Haigh: fascinating and painful and well written. Story of a young woman/girl who cannot get taller and has a medical condition that leaves her the size of a ten-year old, despite being an adult.
  8. A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire: Not bad, not as good as Wicked
  9. Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre, very intense, good read.
  10. Innocent Blood by P.D. James: All of the following three books are excellent mysteries, well written and enjoyable, total escapism, very good writer. I went on a PD James kick for a jaunt and all I can say is if I read three in a row, that tells you something!
  11. Cover Her Face by P.D. James
  12. Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James
  13. Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb, excellent, painful Ethiopian novel of Islam, love, war, pain. Warning, You’ll want to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant when your are done.
  14. A theory of Relativity by Jacquelyn Mitchard, very good, painful, heartfelt and worth reading.
  15. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I enjoyed the flavor of this book, although the ending is terribly sad and not quite right. I love her other book RUN, which I read last year.
  16. Warriors Book One: Into the Wild, by Erin Hunter. This is a kids’ series about cats and their clans and their relationships. My son Ethan wanted me to read these. He’s already into the second set in this series. I’m going to be reading all of them. Enjoyable, predictable and full of good messages for young folks about loyalty, using your mind, taking care of the earth. I’ve completed all of the Erin Hunter Warriors books, which Ethan was trying to get in races with me to read first. He lost, because I can stay up til two a.m. to finish one and he couldn’t, as he was only twelve in 2009. List of the books in this series that I read: Into the Wild, Fire and Ice, Forest of Secrets, Rising Storm, A Dangerous Path, The Darkest Hour, Warriors: The New Prophecy, Midnight, Moonrise, Dawn, Starlight, Twilight, Sunset, Warriors: Power of Three, The Sight, Dark River, Outcast.

    Ethan reading TinTin at Uncle Paul's House a long time ago
    Ethan reading TinTin at Uncle Paul’s House a long time ago
  17. The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip. Great Fantasy, lovely, quick and thoroughly enjoyable read.
  18. She is Me by Cathleen Schine. Three generations of Jewish women working through illness, marriage, love and life. I read this book on CD, meaning I listened to it on my drive to and from Oregon. I’m not sure I would have liked it as much reading it. It was very captivating for the drive.
  19. Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Very beautifully written, intense, lovely, lovely.
  20. Hot House Flower, The Nine Plants of Desire by Margott Berwin: A little bit of everything, sex, mystery, spiritual myth making. Silly, and pop-spirituality, but interesting and clever as well. Enjoyable!
  21. miss harper can do it by Jane Berenston~memoir of a young woman whose boyfriend goes to Iraq. She’s a school teacher. Interesting and looks pretty in-depth at how hard long-distance soldier relationships are.
  22. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith by Gina B. Nahal. Iran/Jews/Mystery/Bad Luck/Magic/Incest/Political Murders. Very poetic, mystical, well-done.Good Read.
  23. Trouble by Kate Christenson, spicy, sexy, interesting read about a woman changing her life pretty radically.
  24. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Dark, weird, not particularly pleasant, but somehow I made it through, heavy on the dark arts mystical live forever strange mythology. There is good stuff in here about the love of books and the beauty of reading and the life of books whose worth has never been acknowledged, best part of this book was the cavernous labyrinthine book tunnels/warehouse that was a secret and that housed all these lost books.
  25. Skylight Confessions by Alice Hoffman: Sad, well written story of a broken family and a lighter than air mother and her children’s lives.
  26. The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air by Allan Appel: Good read, funny, painful, teenage lust/drama/anxiety mixed with class differences, religious/philosophical differences and moral and ethical edgyness. The story is very different and I enjoyed this book and wanted to keep reading when it was over.
  27. The Blue Notebook by James A Levine: I literally couldn’t put this book down and I started reading it at midnight, so it wasn’t until 2:00 a.m. that I finished it and tried to go to sleep. Very upsetting/disturbing journal of a child prostitute in India. It’s fictional, based on an interview the author, a doctor, did with a child prostitute in India who he noticed was scribbling in a small notebook. So, this is his informed version of what her story could be or is. Very well done, very hard and VERY SAD. The proceeds of the book go to benefiting organizations working to help children sold into slavery all over the world.