Category Archives: Book Review

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Mortality by Christopher HitchensI knew this book was going to be a difficult read when I picked it up.  The surprising thing was that I picked it up at the small local library.  Makes me wonder if they knew who Hitch was before adding it to their shelves.  Maybe they did and that would seriously elevate them in my opinion.

The title, “Mortality”, pretty much tells you what the book is about.  And given that it is written by Hitchens will tell anyone who knows anything about him that he handled this as he handled everything else he wrote or spoke about.  With brutal honesty.

Through the short book, Hitchens takes us on the journey that was to be the rest of his life, the tests, the radiation, the sickness, the effects and tolls it takes on his body.  Christopher Hitchens was diagnose with Esophageal cancer in 2010.  To one of the most erudite speakers of modern times, I can’t imagine a worse place he could have been inflicted.

The book is hearbreaking in its honesty, as Hitchen’s not only recounts ancedotes from office visits, the treatements, the doctors, caregivers.  He also shares the vileness that people can reach even when a person is down by sharing some of the hate mail he received, the betrayals of people baiting his misfortune to fuel their agenda,  i.e. ending an interview with comments about just rewards from God,

Though I am not  surprised, I am grateful to Hitchens for writing such a painfully honest book about dying, about the fraility of the human body and the very human scream that “I wasn’t finished yet!”
We lost a wordsmith of the highest degree when we lost Hitchens and a debater that knew few, if any rivals.  And we lost a man who cared very deeply about his fellow human beings, his world and leaving it a better place than when he entered.

We haven’t heard the last from him though.  He left many writings that haven’t been published.  And his wife’s afterward tells you that she will begin to work on giving us all he wanted to share with the world.

Mortality is a brilliant book that will inflame you, touch you, bring a tear to your eye and a fire in your heart.  Whether you believe, or don’t believe, as Christoper did, and even more if you do not, it will give you a glimpse into the true humanity of the man many know simply as “Hitch.”



To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

YTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Leees, I know.  Most people read this when they were in high school.  To be honest, I don’t remember what the book was we read in high school.  That is probably because I blasted through about a couple hundred books a year.  But, I know that To Kill a Mockingbird was not one of them.  I did see the movie, as I said in my review of Go Set a Watchman.

So, I should start with that.  Its not that the movie didn’t bear any resemblance to the book.  It was actually quite accurate.  At least as far as the portion they took the scalpel to in order to remove what they wanted.  But, the movie starts with the kids in front of the court house with Atticus.  That was more than 9 chapters into the book.

I understand why this book got the high reviews and praise that it did.  It is haunting and picturesque and a delight to the senses.  Admittedly, I think the fact that I listened to it on Audio added to that, as Sissy Spacek was the reader for it.  I don’t believe they could have found a more perfect choice of reader for Harper Lee’s book than Sissy.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been on the Banned Book list for a laundry list of reasons since it was first published, including that it was published under protest of the publisher because of the content.  The reality is that with the negative comments about blacks, including the word nigger, you also have the white trash elements, the class division that existed/probably still exists in the South.  The book speaks as its characters would have, thinks as they would have, behaves as they would have.  You cannot take an eraser to the words you don’t like and pretend that they were never used.  That the good an upstanding citizens of the south did not use them.  They did.  And the bigotry in the book is as real as the words that depict it.  As are the complexities of many of the characters.

And I think that is the genius of the book.  She shows you the humanness of all of the characters, even the most vile of them.  She gives them history and a voice.  You can still hate many of their words, their actions, but its tempered with a taste of understanding as well.  For Harper places their shoes upon your feet and sends you for a walk along their path.

The book is far more about the Fitch family, the children, Scout and Jem, their father Atticus, and their aunt Alexandra.  Its about growing up in a small town and full of memories many of us can relate to such as treasure finding, daring each other into scary places, and trying to understand the world of the grownups.  Its full of family secrets both win their family as well as whispered secrets about their neighbors.

The section carved out for the movie is but a sampling of what the book is about.  It is more to show the reality of the times, and what the law held for a black man accused in that time frame of a charge of rape.  It also shows how a small town, through this case, begins to have a struggle of conscience as it is growing and beginning to move beyond some of the prejudices.  For just as hate and prejudice don’t emerge overnight, they also do not go away overnight.  And that is one of the shining lights of the book.  To see how the community begins to mature and take a few more baby steps to being a bit more enlightened.

I hope we never see the banning of books such as this.  They are a slipping back into time, where many things were much simpler, where people took the time to swim in a creek and believe in ghosts in the neighbor house.  That the people often acted only as they had been taught how. And even the darker things such as rape and the treatment of blacks, it offers a treatise on how far we have come.  We should never erase or forget the words of our past.  For if we do, we are doomed to repeat them.

I don’t know that I agree in having To Kill a Mockingbird as a student requited reading.  I don’t think the young people will understand it the way that it should be understood.  Or if they are, they should be given it in a way that they are given the history and lessons of the book in a way for them to truly experience what it meant to live in that time, that place.  In a way that it is more than just words on paper.

Harper Lee has recreated life in the south in a way that only someone from there can.  If you are like me and have never read it, do yourself a favor and change that.  Read it, breath it, then close your eyes and dream it.


November 2015 


My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Kate ManningThis should be a must read book for our times.  A cautionary tale that reminds us what the “good old days” consisted of.  That reminds us of what life without choice means.    And how one man’s personal crusade can and shackle lives for generations.

My Notorious Life is a novel based on the life of Ann Lohman, a 19th century midwife and abortionist dubbed the Wickedest Woman in New York.  Mostly because she was successful, rich and flaunted it with her lifestyle and dress.

Kate Manning does a superb job of portraying this fascinating figure from our history.  Her fictional version of Ann Lohman is Axie Muldoon, daughter of Irish immigrants who is sent off to fostering by a “well-meaning” man of the cloth when their mother falls ill.  Her and her siblings are split apart, each going to a different family.  Axie runs away to find her mother with another “orphan” Charlie.  She finally reunites with her mother, only to have her mother fall ill from another pregnancy.  She gets her to a local midwife where her mother dies because it was too late for treatment.

It is here, with the midwife, that Axie finds her home and learns her trade as midwife and eventually abortionist.  When her foster mother, the midwife, dies, Axie takes with her the recipe book of remedies.  She begins to peddle the remedies on the streets with the help of Charlie, childhood friend and soon to be husband.

Charlie takes the advertising to the newspapers and then expands to surrounding towns.  It isn’t long before they are no longer the poor near homeless orphans.  They rise rapidly in society and finances.  Axie’s letters to her sister are no longer lies of a luxurious life, but are quickly becoming the reality.

She performs her first abortion when her friend shows up and begs her to help her.  Then word of mouth begins to bring her more and more patients.  Women/girls who are victims of rape, incest, married women who can’t support the children they have, married women who have too many children.  Rich woman, poor women, street women and society women.  Abortion is illegal if the fetus has quickened.  And Axie won’t intervene if it is “quick”.  She will shelter the woman till its time.

Midwives are generally left alone.  But the male medical industry wan’ts to rope in this lost business.   But, women then, as women often now, want another woman.  One who truly understands the workings of a woman’s body.  Who understands how to work with the natural rhythms.  Not one that wishes to bring forceps and surgical instruments to force what should happen on its own.

Enter into the arena Anthony Comstock, not a doctor, not an elected governor, but a postal inspector.  A hateful prude of a man who called himself a “weeder in God’s garden” who boasted of having driven at least 15 people to suicide with his persecution.  From Anthony Comstock, we have the anti-pornography laws that still exist on the law books today.  Laws that imprisoned many for years for crimes as vile as the sending of medical texts, distribution of condoms or birth control, distribution of information about sex, birth control, human anatomy, etc.

Though Axie is too big, too well known for Comstock to come after in the beginning, as his power grows, he begins to set his sights on her.  Her flamboyant lifestyle and challenges to him make her a target he has to make an example of.

My Notorious Life is a story that should be required reading anyone who questions a woman’s right to choose with her own body.  For, it shows you a world well before women had those rights.  When women didn’t even have the right to vote, own her own money, much less her own body.  It also shows you when our body’s care was wrested from the hands of the skilled women and into the uncaring hands of the physician.  And it introduces you to a fictionalized version of a lost woman hero, Ann Lohman.   A pioneer and warrior for women who still served the lowest born even at the peak of her fame and wealth.  One of many unsung heroes that paved the way for women to rise above the servitude of men and forge a life of their own choosing and making.



Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

go-set-a-watchman-harper-leeI must admit that I have not yet read To Kill a Mockingbird.  I saw the movie and the book is on my “to read” list.  But then again, so are a couple thousand other books.  And I realize that movies don’t do books justice, so I will read it.  And now that I have read “Go Set a Watchman”, it has moved higher up on the must get to list.

I’m not sure what I expected with this book, only that it wasn’t what I thought I should have expected.  It was quite slow in getting around to some of the main themes of the book.  Much of the book fills you with the atmosphere, the people, the customs, the history and the unique level of interactions that is distinctly Southern.  Having been raised by a father that was born and bred in a small town in Georgia and spending many years of my childhood surrounded by his family, I became all to familiar with these types of ways.

The central character of the book is Scout or Jean Louise (gotta love the South’s use of double names), daughter of Atticus Finch, who has returned home from her life in New York City.  The story is a slow awakening of the racial bias in all its complexities that existed at the time of de-segregation, and even persist today.  Actually, it goes even further than the racial bias, but also covers the social and gender bias.

The book offers a unique and interesting perspective on the thoughts and culture of America’s South.  A perspective that still holds to a large degree today in many areas, as is evident by the popularity of the rhetoric of many of the politicians emerging from this area.

But, the thing that is unique in this book is the way it is presented to you.  The issue is not just black and white and there are no real “good guys” or real “bad guys”.  They are humans, many of which believe they are acting for the greater good, attempting to preserve what they believe is a way of life they are entitled to.  In fact, many don’t even see their prejudice for what it is.  They see it as watching over “less fortunates”.  And this does not, by any means, excuse bigotry in any way.  It simply gives you a peek inside the heads of many of these people and seeing there are many shades of gray in there.  And as inexcusable their bigotry is, there is also immense decency in them.  The truth is, they are not unlike many other people who truly believe they are doing good when their acts diminish and marginalize others.  People of faith, and most of these are, believe it is their duty to watch over and guide those that don’t share their beliefs, look different, etc.  They hold a class structure that they will often deny.  And a belief that one can only rise so far above one’s origins.  So often through the book was peppered the line, “Love who you want, but marry your own kind.”

And I give Harper Lee credit for also turning the mirror effectively back the other way when she had Scout called a “bigot” and offered the definition, “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices;especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance”  For, when we close the doors of communication through failing to hear, to understand, no matter how right our cause, we will doom it to failure.  The world didn’t become the way it is overnight, nor shall it change overnight.  And part of changing it is to understand it with empathy and respect.

It’s a coming of age, a God busting, religion busting, hero busting, blinders shattering journey.  Others refer to it as rough around the edges in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think that gives it more power.  Because, the emergence from the shroud of our youth can be a very messy and rough journey.  I don’t know what the criteria is for a Pulitzer for a novel, so I have no idea if this one qualifies.  But, it is an amazing work of writing that makes you at least glance at the world through the eyes of another and shows you nuances and hues you had previously missed.



The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd 2I somehow made it all the way through this book before I discovered that it is based on the lives of two sisters from our history.  Women I have never heard of, even in all the reading I had done on the women’s rights movement.   Okay, more on that later.

I picked up The Invention of Wings at the library.  Looked interesting.  Was so much more than just interesting!

The invention of Wings is told through first person narratives of a number of the main characters in the book.  Primarily through the words of Sarah Grimke, the young white debutante from an old slave owning Charleston family, who from a very young age finds issue with the owning of humans.  And Handful or Hetty, the young black slave that is gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday.

Hetty gives a beautiful rich texture to the story with her voice as she tells of her mother, the quilt maker, who tells stories with the appliques and stitches she loving places in each of her quilts.  The hoarding of tiny scraps of fabrics from making clothes for the family to weave into these quilts.  And teaching Hetty her art and giving her a value to the family that few slaves have.  For, mother and daughter are so good with their needles, their services are wanted by those even outside the family.

When Hetty is given to Sarah, Sarah immediately attempts to free her with a letter she leaves on her father’s desk.  When this attempt fails, Sarah begins to teach Hetty to read.  A crime for both the teacher and the student.  Sarah,is brilliant, headstrong, and set on a path to defy her family’s heritage of Southern slave owners.  Sarah dreams of defying the norms and following in her father’s footsteps and becoming an attorney and reads through his library with a fury.  However, when he learns of her teaching Hetty to read, she is given the punishment of being banned from her father’s library and furthering her education.  Her sole consolation is in becoming the Godmother to her sister, Angelina or Nina, who quickly takes more to Sarah than she does their mother.

As both girls mature into adulthood, the friendship changes and they move in different directions.  Hetty becomes involve with the black abolitionist movement after her mother fails to return from an escape excursion to meet with her love and Sarah meets an enigmatic Quaker man while travelling with her sick father.   This brings her into the abolitionist movement, though from a different direction.

She returns home after her father’s death and begins a correspondence with Israel Morris (the Quaker man she met) and after a time, returns to Philadelphia to join the Quaker church there.  There, she meet Lucretia Mott, a still famous abolitionist, feminist and Quaker minister and realizes that she also, wishes to be a voice in front of the crowds.

The Invention of Wings is different than most slavery era books I have read.  It gives you a view of history, the lives of the women,  and what life was like for them and expected of them.  Even in the least likable characters, such as Sarah’s mother, she gives a depth and range showing the lights as well as shadows that reside in all of us.

The book resonates with all the lessons of racism, religious bias and fundamentalism, sexism and the full sociological gamut that was a part of that time in our history.  The characters are believable and engaging, drawing you deeply into their world and immersing you in it.  And thankfully, a couple of them have been drawn from the annals of history so that you might delve further into their stories.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke were both major players in both the abolitionist movement as well as the early women’s movement.  They were the first female speakers in the United States.  And it was primarily the rebuking of their public speaking by the religious community, including the Quaker community, that pushed them into the feminist arena.  The fact that we have not heard their names in our history books shows again how women who defy the status quo are erased.  Thankfully, there are writers like Sue Monk Kidd that dig up their bones to remind us.

The Invention of Wings is a book I would place well into the top tier of books that should be on a required “to read” list.  The author is stellar in her use of the language (understandable, since she also wrote, The Secret Life of Bees).  And she has definitely earned a spot on my favored author’s list.



Godless Grace – David Orenstein Phd., Linda Ford Blaikie L.C.S.W.

Godless GraceI received this book as a giveaway from Library Thing.  I had heard about it previously from atheist podcasts I listen to and it sounded very interesting.  So, I was very pleased when I got the notice that I had won a copy of it for review.

Alas, the joy didn’t last long.  I had such hopes for this book.  I had believe it was being written to give a kinder face to non-believers, a book that people could pick up and find a kind face put on a group that has been marginalized and demonized.  A group that I can count myself among.

Its not that the book isn’t well researched and well written.  It is.  But, it is written like a research paper.  Its clinical and sanitary and the perfect cure for insomnia.  The sections on individual people that were interviewed for the project read like the short biography on the back of a novel or a seminar pamphlet introducing the speakers.  Coupled with that, it is weighed down heavily with statistics and data and wells of clinical observations, complete with charts and tables.

It is not that the information between the covers of this book is not valuable.  I am sure that it is.  However, as something to be offered up to the public to give a human face, a common face to this community of people, it falls flat on its face.  There are no personal interviews, no amusing anecdotes, no humor, no personality that shines from these pages.   The truth is that the lack of these human elements only reinforce the stereotype that non-believers are lacking in empathy, good will . . . humanity.

It may be that they should have turned their data over to a writer and not a scientist.  Someone who could take it out of the lab and into the world where life is lived out loud and not in a test tube or on a spreadsheet.



Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia BondWow does not even begin to cover this book!  Cynthia Bond is a Storyteller of the highest degree.  She softly invites you to take a seat next to her so she can tell you something and gives you a taste of her tale.  You sit down and she slowly wraps a blanket of words about your shoulders, the sounds entering your flesh and mixing with your blood to travel to your heart.   Her lips busy speaking the words to guide more threads into the pattern.  She is not just telling you the story, she is making the story a part of your very soul.  The primal word thoughts of Ruby draw forth forgotten memories that live in all of us.  Magical words, desperate words, joyful words and painful words.

Ruby is the story of a young woman, a victim of abuse her entire life, given over to a brothel where the black girls are sold and rented for the men to do any dark intents to.  She learns to survive by internally fracturing, leaving her body to be used in whatever way their sick desires lead while she lets her mind wander.  When the men take her in the streets or gutters or behind the store counters, she retreats, merging with her environment, the nearby trees, rocks, streams.  She speaks with the ghosts of the children lost to abuse, drawing them to her and inside her to protect them.

Ephram sees her in a way no one else ever has.  He is untroubled by her past, understands the things she does are the only way she has ever known how to survive.  Ephram’s father was the Reverend, a harsh cruel and abusive man that had dark secrets.  Found hanging from a tree when Ephram was still young, Ephram was raised by his sister Celia.  He is docile and obedient to Celia until he meets Ruby again.

Ruby is told in scattered time frames.  The memories of the past merging into the events of the present.  Ephram and Ruby are introduced as children when they visit a Voodooein who sends them both off with poppets.  They don’t meet again till years later when Ephram sees Ruby laying in a puddle of mud in the gutter in town as the townspeople make fun of her.  He becomes enraptured with her and follows her quietly home where he begins to care for her as no one ever has, beginning with cleaning the filth and squalor of her home as well as her body, restoring her to the beauty that she is.

Ruby is a hard book to categorize.  Its a love story, sort of. Its a ghost story, but not like most ghost stories.  Its about the supernatural, magic, religions, superstitions, family, prejudice, abuse.  Its about just about everything that is ugly in humanity and everything that is beautiful in it.  Its about how nothing and no one are how they really appear to be, how things are more complex than they seem at the surface and how the complex can be viewed in simpler terms as well.  Its the paradox that life is, was and probably always will be told in imagery that emblazons your mind, words that ring through your ears and invades every sense with its magnificence and subtleties.

I keep very few novels on my shelves after reading them nowadays.   Only those whose words I know I want to revisit again and again.  There are not many that I feel that way about.   Cynthia Bond has become one of those few authors whose pages will find a permanent place on a shelf.  Her book, I doled out in small doses, savoring the words, for she is a master with them.  This is a book where you wish there were extra credit stars or some way to mark it as a truly exceptional work.  Alas, you are left with only giving it the highest marks that are in a standard rating.

The book jacket says Ms. Bond teaches writing to street people.  That is enough to make you want to pack up and move out into her streets to beg to sit for her classes.

June 15, 2015