May 19, 2022

Happy Valentine’s Day! Did You Forget? Then This Column is for You …

2-red-heartEditor’s Note: We first published this topical column by Jennifer Petty Mann on Feb. 14, 2014. We thought it would be fun to republish it today. And Happy Valentine’s Day to all our readers!  

Our columnist Jennifer Petty Mann has some great suggestions for those who haven’t quite got themselves together yet for the big day.

You still want to do something, but are looking for something a little different.

If this is you, read on!

Dear Jen,
Valentine’s Day is always so generic. Chocolate. Flowers. Hallmark cards. What can I do that’s different?
Sick of Same Ol’ Stuff


Dear Sick of Same Ol’ Stuff,
I hear you. Excellent question.

Of course, love is personal, but being a romantic goofball is never out of style. Don’t be afraid to put it out there in your own way.

Here are some ideas:

  • Make cookies in the shape of your beloved’s initials.
  • Use kids’ washable crayons to write notes on the bathroom mirror.
  • Find or buy some henna (which comes off in a few days) and write stuff on your arms.  Like Melanie Griffiths’ huge I heart Antonio* on her arm.
  • Make a David Letterman Top 10 List of Reasons you love your beloved.
  • You can play 9 1/2 weeks with the fridge. Take weird food from the fridge, dip it in chocolate, and have anyone in the house guess what it is. Kids love this. Hey, is that a vegetable? No, no, sweetie. It’s chocolate … honest.

Anyway, have fun. That’s the bottom line.

Good luck!

* Seriously! Who doesn’t?  It’ll be hard to explain, but I may do that anyway …

Relive Memories, Raise Money for Your School with


So much of our childhood is hard to forget, yet hard to see with real clarity.

You remember how you felt going to that 7th grade dance.  How nervous you were.  And excited.  You remember joining the German club or the book club or making the JV Field Hockey team as a freshman, but other than your mind’s eye — which frankly gets weirder as one gets older (we all have tangible proof … mine certainly does) — there aren’t the images.  The photographic evidence that we were there.  We did it.  We loved it.  Or hated it.  But certainly it made us who we are as adults.

Peter Nordberg has found a way to help.  He has found a way to track down these photos of our formative years, predominately K-12.  He has also found a way that raises money for our schools.  How?  Look it up.  It’s so clever and unprecedented and potentially fabulous, both personally and altruistically, that you’ll be proud of him.  He and his wife have others start ups ( and years of experience in venture capital, both here and abroad.

What they saw in their own children’s New York City Public Schools was the need for a new way to fundraise and celebrate our K-12 schools.  140,000 plus schools.  That’s roughly 175 million high school graduates, who would love to have those pictures.  Can you find your yearbooks?  Doubt you could find more than a couple.

Here’s what though, if people look they will.  Someone will.  Then they upload it to the site (through Facebook now, coming everywhere soon with a mobile app available this summer.)  Scan it.  Take a picture with your phone, upload it.  Tag people you remember.  Via Pay Pal, you will be paid $1.  Your alma mater will be paid $1.  Classphoto gets 50 cents to keep developing …

All Kindergarten through twelfth grade schools are eligible.  140,000 schools are already in the database.

If you search for and find a photo that your friend or arch nemesis from 8th grade has uploaded, you can buy it for $2.50.  It will load into a Facebook file only with your full permission.  No one can see that snaggle-toothed school picture without your permission.

Group photos, like teams and clubs are the main target because everyone is in them.  “Hey Bob – look you still had hair!”.

The ultimate goal is to bring alumni back into the fold.  Not to be hassled for donations, but to reconnect.  Generations younger than us (… if I can figure it out you can) are more technologically savvy than older alumni and could raise more money spending an afternoon at school uploading yearbooks to the site than making cookies.  Really – do we need more cookies?   One photo of 20 kids is potentially $20 for the school.  Booster clubs are promoting the sport legacies / heritage and raising money for their schools.

Reunion committees can connect and have fun alternately laughing their butts off and getting misty-eyed as they upload their history together.

I am going rummaging right now.  Watch out Brearley, ASL and Farmington …

Classphotofund can raise $100 million for these school by the end of 2013/2014.  How about $ one billion by the end of 2014/2015?  As more school budgets get cut and more art and music programs are eliminated, this money is literally invaluable.  Take one photo that you’ve had in your drawer for 20 years, upload it and give your friends a chuckle … and funding to the current students.  How easy!  How clever!

Go to for more specifics and 2013/02/14 for additional insights.

‘House of Suns’ by Alastair Reynolds

hosue_of_suns_180OK. You know who you are, you purveyor of science fiction literature hereto unreviewed by me. You are now solely responsible for my little head wandering off to space. With a few exceptions (The Host (12/05/08), I don’t read a lot of sci-fi and I think that’s about to change.

Many, many brilliant minds (not pompously including myself here – just sayin’) write and read sci-fi for the same reasons theologians like Phillip Pullman write fantasy. Things that are inexplicable in our day to day lives may have an explanation that lies outside of the realm of normalcy.

Religion and science have long sought to face these conundrums. Funny they should fight against each other as often as they do because, with a few idiotic closed minded exceptions, they are both have the same goal.*

People want answers. Indeed we all lie awake in bed and ponder existence. Alastair Reynolds has a PhD in Astronomy. He trained as an astrophysicist. Now he tells us what he lay awake in bed thinking about..

Six million years ago a girl named Abigail Gentian wanted more. She wanted to explore and be free. She wanted power and love. We all do, but she had a means at her disposal that we do not. She clones herself. She actually “shatters” herself into one thousand male and female copies.

They explore a world, a universe … what even to call it? Of empires both human and otherwise. Intellectual capabilities are beyond reason. Travel is beyond reason. Virtually anything is possible but the existence of some human qualities we recognize — love, anger, betrayal, sorrow — make it relatable. Its really cool.**

Campion and Purslane are two “shatterlings” who have bonded. There are mysteries afoot. Someone is killing off the Gentian line. Do they know too much or have they missed the point and need to start again? The book can be a little verbose (don’t even…) and I caught my mind wandering, but hang in there. You need to get to page 565 on your own.

The ending is worth it.

The full circle, theological, scientific proposal is truly wonderful.

Really, really wonderful.

*I will restrain myself to saying that the best religions are the open-minded, exploratory, all-encompassing ones. Those that condemn, pigeon hole and exclude infuriate me.

The best way to say something is neat-o, awesome, or swell. The phrase “cool” is very relaxed, never goes out of style, and people will never laugh at you for using it, very convenient for people like me who don’t care about what’s “in.”
Homestar is cool. The Red Sox are cool. Twinkies are cool.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Boot_jkt-182Right now my toenails are pink. They look very nice and I enjoy smiling down at them, but I can’t help feel a bit like a total spank. Cheryl Strayed lost six of hers. I’m guessing the remaining four were not visions of loveliness. Frankly, it’s a small sacrifice to have made in light of the enormity of her accomplishment both internally and externally.

She was lost and she decided not to rely on someone else to pick her up, not to whine, not to accept her state complacently but to get the hell up and do something. Ninety percent of success is showing up.

Cheryl had a tough childhood with no fatherly support and made subsequently predictable choice regarding men. She pushes away one man who could save her – knowing deep down she has to do it herself, and remains attracted to other men who will only make her feel worse. The loss of her mother sends her over the proverbial edge.

She is not a professional outdoors person. She is not a skilled backpacker. She has virtually no money and lots of time. She decides to do something alone. Something tough. Something where she will be left to face her inner demons with no distraction. She decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Eleven hundred miles. From the Mojave desert up through California to Oregon to Washington state.

“When I had no roof, I made audacity my roof”.* It really is brilliant. I admire her audacity. She does too. Imagine the sense of accomplishment. The sense of pride in overcoming her own obstacles on her own terms. She just keeps on keeping on. She meets wonderful people (with the exception of the nasty old couple at the Whitehorse Campground.**). Everyone looks after one another in a way that is reminiscent of World Made By Hand. (1/09). I love that small community tenderness. It serves her well.

Not only is her trek worth discovery, but also her telling of her tale is quite well done. She has a natural ability to capture detail that makes wild an excellent book.***

Author’s Notes: * Robert Pensky “ Samurai Song”


Quincy, CA 95971-6025. Tel: (530)

Guess what, they closed. HA! What goes around comes around, meanies …

*** re read A Walk In The Woods, Bill Bryson (3/10) for a grand story of The Appalachian trail.

Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy

Anna_Karenina_163x259First off, sorry to anyone who was excited for a word from my dear mother, but she is a bit preoccupied at the moment, so I’ll be doing the review this week. Some of you might remember me from our joint review of Hamlet (in which, to be frank, I wrote terribly.) but enough about me, let’s get to the book.

In a letter to a friend, Tolstoy wrote of Anna Karenina, stating that it would be his only ‘great novel’. And he was correct on it being great (but maybe not his only great novel, because I can’t imagine anyone would want to endure all 1,225 pages of War and Peace if it were dreadful.)

Our (sort-of) heroine, Anna Karenina, has seemingly everything she could want — beauty, money, social position, and a loving son. But then she cheats on her husband (who, by the way, is a total jerk) with the young officer Count Vronsky. This, to put it bluntly, ruins her entire life.

However, among the gloom and doom of Anna’s story, there is the love story between Kitty (another poor girl lured in by Vronsky) and Levin (Anna’s brother’s friend). If you can catch it, there is a great event of foreshadowing regarding our poor Anna’s fate, when Vronsky and Anna’s brother, Stepen, go to the train station to meet Anna and Countess Vronsky.

So, this book was a little depressing, but that’s the nineteenth-century Russians for you. It was beautifully written, although some translations are a bit musty (but if you speak Russian, you’re home free).

It’s worth all 819 pages.

‘Explosive Eighteen’ by Janet Evanovich

Explosive_18_by_Janet_Evanovich_180x272Can you believe I have written almost 100 of these little buggers ( I mean, jewels)? You poor people. What have I put you through. Take note that the rest of my family * is in the paper this week too, so maybe I am not a total failure.

I have read so many things lately that its really is hard to choose which to write about. Hollis was reading Dante while I was reading Diane Mott Davidson, so that,s not good. Then I have the last Flavia DeLuce book, but I can’t bring myself to read it because I don’t want to finish it. Dilemma, dilemma. That leaves me with the newest installment of the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Ivanovich, which I think I must do because the movie of the first book comes out on Friday.

Janet Evanovich has really done well with Stephanie Plum. And vice-versa I haven’t reviewed one since June of 2009, but that does not mean I haven’t read and loved them all. “Explosive Eighteen” may not be Kafka, but why do we need to read smart stuff all the time? Who says humor and great fun aren’t smart? Reading is about entertainment too. What are we supposed to read? Textbooks?

Once again, Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter and native Jersey girl extraordinaire is kicking butt. And having the favor returned. I would seriously cry in the half the situations that don’t faze her. At the end of the 17th book, she took a little trip to Hawaii with some “ play money” and a guy.

We don’t know which guy.

Was it smoking hot Ranger – silent AND deadly or Morelli — the sexy cop? She loves them both and is going to have to decide eventually, but can’t. I’d pick Ranger if you want to know. Also Edward. Im sure that is wondrously interesting to you and you’ve lost sleep debating ( actually I’m a Gage girl – he’s my “go-to-guy” as you now know…)

So … Stephanie returns from Hawaii alone. What happened? I know, but wont say.

The usual suspects … Vinny, Lula, Connie, Grandma Mazur etc. … are all still fabulous.

They are an excellent background to the real trouble. Stephanie sat next to someone on her return trip, who was killed on their layover in L.A. He accidentally put something in her bag that every single FBI agent and ne’er do well thug on the east coast wants.

She, of course, doesn’t have it.

They don’t believe her, so she’s stalked, pummeled and annoyed. What else is new?

The real joy of these books is the fast-moving plot, the humor, Lula’s outfits and their readability. It’s like candy. You know it’s going to be great. You anticipate it and Evanovich never lets you down.

* David Gage.

* Campbell and Hollis Mann

“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches is part one of a trilogy in progress about the human and non-human worlds of science, faith, and power.  Add a pinch of lust and some evil – lots of wine and Oh, what fun!  

Escapism is always best when it has foundations in reality.  Historical and scientifically-accurate (sort of) reality is especially appealing.  Throw in non-humans descended from human bloodlines, supernatural abilities and a hot french guy and I’m there.  This shocks you, I know. 

Deborah Harkness holds three degrees in history and specifically the history and science of magic in Europe. She has published books and received fellowships from many prestigious foundations (among them, the Guggenheim, National Science and National Humanities Foundations…)  It suffices to say that she knows of what she writes.  To mix fact and fiction with such cleverness is always deserving of kudos.  

I loved A Discovery of Witches.

Diana Bishop is an historian with impeccable credentials; Yale, Oxford and is also the progeny of a long startlingly-gifted and pure line of witches.  She renounces magic after the murder of her parents and fights against her innate abilities at every turn.  She tries, and fails, to squelch the extraordinary under piles of anal compulsive ordinariness.

Matthew Clairmont is an old, old, old geneticist.  And a vampire.  He also crawls the hallowed halls of academia at Oxford.  He is also rich as Croesus and french Nobilty.  Poor dear.

You’ll never guess what happens!  OK, yes you will.  They meet.  They fall in love.  It’s forbidden.  It’s so bloody familiar.  And yet … it’s more interesting because they aren’t love-sick teenagers.  No proms.  No sulking (… not that I didn’t love those books – you know I did).

Add some intelligently-original Darwinian plausibility to all that.  What if survival of the fittest is responsible for species other than human or animal?  Is it really so implausible that nature would create diversity outside of the known family, genus, species arena?

Diana and Matthew are possibly the end and the beginning of their own creatures’ survival.  How clever that one is a scholar of alchemy* and the other a gifted geneticist.  The answers will inevitably lie somewhere between the mind and the heart.

My only problem is waiting for round two.

*Alchemy is foremost the material transformation of chemicals but no less importantly, a discussion of philosophical and metaphysical transformation.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry

April 1, 2008, I reviewed the stand out self published book by Brunonia Barry.  I swooned.  Read it, so I don’t have to repeat myself- we all know how anathema THAT is to me. (Boyfriend will hurt self rolling eyes.) 

With very high expectations I read her second book — The Map of True Places.  At first I was not enthralled. I hoped for more and put it down and picked it up a few times.  Luckily I picked it up that last time.  Phew.  Pity the unbeliever.  I literally finished and slammed it closed saying Holy Crap –.  I had to re-read the last chapter to orient myself.

This is what I love about Brunonia Barry.  You  think  you know better (again with the eye rolling) but  you don’t.  As with Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog (9.4.09) you have to keep checking.  You are close and its in your periphery but you miss it.  I love being put in my place.  I love being wrong.*

Barry keeps you on the verge of figuring it out.  When she tells you can’t believe you missed it.  You are glad you missed it because the mystery is her talent.

Zee Finch is a therapist in Boston with a lovely office overlooking the Charles.  She grew up in Salem and spent an excellent portion of her childhood being a boat-thieving derelict.  Alas, morally she is sound so that ended before it could have made an equally enthralling story.  Her young bipolar mother marries a gay man and kills herself when her daughter is 13.  The father’s love, a wonderful man named Charles, moves in and it is hardly a fait accomplit.

Zee challenges her own demons by addressing those of others and thwarts her own progress.  When a case strikes very close to home and ends without resolution, Zee is forced to confront the obvious and come to terms with herself.  As with the Whitneys in The Lace Reader, the Finches are a fabulous amalgamation of drama and love.  The more you know the less you understand until the denouement, which has dreadful yet cathartic repercussions.

Quel coup de foudre alors!  Loved it.

*There are a veritable plethora of reasons this is not true, but you know what point I’m making. Yes, you do.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

“Every Last One” by Anna Quindlan

Anna Quindlan is such a good columnist (New York Times, Newsweek) that is constently thrills me that she also such a good and prodigious writer, Black and Blue, being my favorite among her novels…

Every Last One is her newest and … holy you know what.  I walked into the library to fight with their fax machine (I damned mine to the basement for insubordination) and Barbara Carlson hurled the book at me while muttering something akin to OMG.  Being naturally quiet people (not this bunch, but still), any time a librarian thrusts a book at you, you must take it.

Next image is me reading quietly at home while two sick children cough and gag in the background and the other three cough at school.  I sit.  I read.  I want to flip ahead to the part that made Barbara say OMG, but I can not.

Mary Beth Latham is a mom.  A wife.  She and her doctor husband have three children.  All at home.  I read.  They are normal and fairly happy.  Dinner, school, camp, boyfriends, the usual.  Mary Beth has friends and neighbors with varying degrees of involvement in her life.  The past has a few thorns as does, we assume, the future.  This is life after all.

What happens is staggeringly heinous.  Take the magic eight ball.  Shake it and ask a question.  Then, in lieu of an answer, throw it out the car window and watch a tractor trailer drive over it.  Now imagine that was your heart.

Now get up the next day.  And the next.  Repeat until the day you die.  This is the new world for Mary Beth Latham.

It is quite extraordinary how resilient mankind really is.  Things you can not imagine surviving are survivable simply because you have no choice.  You literally CAN NOT imagine them.  Thank God.  You can decide to act a certain way or not to act that way, but it really makes no difference.  You breathe in and out until life moves on.  It is actually merciful to be shocked and numbed because operating at full capacity with full cognizance is totally out of the question anyway. 

I certainly couldn’t have and neither can Mary Beth.  The testament to the power of Anna Quindlan’s novels is her grasp of reality.  She sees and hears and tells you a story that has happened.  It happens all the time.  Thankfully not quite like this, but horrifyingly often nevertheless.

It is a gift to feel another’s pain.  Empathy is far more useful than sympathy.  If you can for one moment be in Mary Beth’s shoes, you are a stronger, more understanding person.  If for one minute of one conversation when you meet or know someone who has been in staggering circumstances, you can choose the better thing to say — the more empathetic thing to say — then it is a gift for you both.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

“Anybody Out There?” by Marian Keyes

I know I should be reviewing something smarter, or more current, or hipper, but I can’t help myself.  I am reading everything I am supposed to — CleopatraUnbroken, some book about Voltaire’s mistress.  This book really got to me though, so I just can’t help but do this.

I went to the Book Barn (akin to Harry Winston in my opinion for sheer delight and fabulousness) and came back with yet another coal bag full of books.  Everything Marian Keyes has written was among them.  

There are five Irish sisters and there is a book about each.  Love, divorce, family trials, etc. … the Walsh Family is a riot.

What I am compelled to say about Anybody Out There is that the mix of humor and pain is notable.  How on earth, I thought, can this really be at all amusing when what I think has happened has happened?

Anna Walsh has a really cool, make-up PR job in the City.  She has moved to the States with her best friend Jacqui and her sister Rachel (Rachel’s Holiday) is also there with her fiancé Luke. The gang of their friends is a riot.  The “real men” absolutely will crack you up.  Anna is young and spunky and clever, and falls in love with her dream man.  Aiden is her life.

We meet Anna at her parents house in Dublin recovering from horrifying injuries that she has little recollection of getting.  What is going on?  You figure it before Keyes tells you and it makes you feel sick.

It’s just awful.  Interestingly, you don’t really see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel until Anna does.  It goes neither too slow nor too fast, and even though this is essentially a chick-lit beach book, it surprises you with its insight.  Keyes very deftly maneuvers through real pain with real humor.  I was compelled to comment … and so I have.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

“Isobel’s Odyssey” by Ann Blair Kloman

Ah, the fates have intervened again and a long misplaced email has called a book to my attention. Ann Blair Kloman wrote a wonderful suspense novel last year (… longer? Who knows?  I age without consent) and has now written another.

And to think I almost missed it.  Isobel’s Odyssey is a treat.  Wonderfully reminiscent of my beloved Mrs Polifax series (Dorothy Gilman), Isobel Van Dursan has broadened her horizons.

A sweet widow (do not believe this) from the picturesque coast of Maine, she decides travel and piles of caviar-type accommodations whilst doing so is her new future.  Why should she suffer in coach when the Admiral’s Club has such great chairs and champagne?  She is equally resolute in her inability to suffer fools.  Some less than others.

Certain people really have it coming and, if the two propensities can work together? … ahhh.  Isobel’s niece Chloe married a particularly obstreperous individual with whom Isobel has taken great umbrage.  What to do?  How about a small electrical problem?

Indeed.  Well, he asked for it.  Who else is behaving poorly and asking for it?  Quite a number of disreputable characters apparently.  And if something were to happen, who would suspect a sweet American widow?

See where this is going?  Just wonderful.  The unlikeliest of scenarios when written with humor and zest is going to be a fun book.

Ann has nailed it again.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

“Swamplandia” by Karen Russell

Swamplandia!  The reviews of Karen Russell’s last book, “Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” are enough to make you pick this new one up and clutch it to your chest as you race from the shop … “Run for your life. The girl is on fire.” (Los Angeles Times)

Not even a page in and I was captivated by the ease and grace with which she writes.  A pseudo-real Indian tribe on an island with beer and alligators and ghosts?  Really?  And I didn’t bat an eye.  It felt a bit like finding Harper Lee again.  The character of Ava Bigtree is so tangible, so familiar that it grabbed me.

I’ll digress a bit for the sake of clarity (hardly my forte as we all know).  The Bigtree family owns Swamplandia!, the alligator theme park where they also live.  Ava, her parents, brother and sister know little else but life with the “Seths” (as they name each and every alligator) on their island on the west coast of Florida.  The world outside is encroaching.  Cancer, theme park competitors, old folks’ homes,  love affairs.  They all loom on the horizon. 

There is a slightly off-kilter magical quality to Swamplandia! that makes all of this pain bearable.  It is reminiscent of Victorian goth or a dark fairy tale.  This lift keeps it just above the waterline of despair.  Some parts are hard to read.  Her brother Kiwi and her sister Ossie are teetering on a dangerous edge.  Her father, mother and grandfather have fallen over.  Ava’s narrative is just high enough to keep Swamplandia! afloat. 

The beginning seems strangely positive.  Campy, but exhilarating.  When Ava’s mother dies, the change is swift.  The darkness starts to flood in.  Ava’s father, Chief Bigtree, is gone.  Her siblings are too engrossed in their own struggles to cope.  Ava is left to pick up the pieces of their lives and their livelihood.  She has no support.  She has one to rely upon.  She has an island crawling with Seths.  She is 13.

And yet, she is no dummy. 

You hope right away that she will be fine.  She will fight long and hard to be fine.  Hell, her mother swam through alligator-infested swamps for a living … how weak could Ava be?  There is hope and dark humor and stalwart narrative that keeps you reading. 

And the symbolism of one red seth in the congregation is worth holding onto.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

‘Room’ by Emma Donohugh

enterRoom_177x284It should be called ‘Floored.’ I am, completely. A 19-year-old girl is kidnapped and held prisoner in a shed for seven years. She has two babies by the gruesome, evil, sick bastard, who took her. One dies. One lives.

We see the story through the second child’s eyes. A boy, Jack, who is five. He and ‘Ma’ live in ‘Room.’ It is not ‘a’ Room. To Jack it, quite literally, is the world. It is ‘Room’. He has never left. He knows nothing but this 11 by 11 foot reinforced, one-skylighted prison. His mother has done the miraculous and created a world for him where he feels loved and is as safe as he can be given the circumstances. They have power, a bathroom, a television, books, and each other. The dreadful man comes in at night while Jack stays in Wardrobe.

The miracle that this world exists at all is such a testament to his Mother’s innate and adapted coping skills that I am ashamed to try to articulate it.

Because it is all they can have, Ma convinces Jack that this world is all they need. She tries not to over explain the horror of their containment. She makes and keeps a schedule. They exercise, eat as well as they can, stay clean and only watch an hour of TV. Jack speaks well. He has imaginary games with his few toys. He learns to read and write. They narrow down the basics of existence and survival to this one room.

However, a double-edged sword of joy arrives when they get out. How is the real world as seen through the eyes of a five-year-old who didn’t know it even existed. What is rain? Why do doors open and other people know his name? How can his young, tortured mother possibly cope with both of their re-entries to a world she’d lost and he’d never won?

The fact that you can read a book about this at all is amazing. The Shack made me sick and I did not enjoy it. You can read exactly why (Jan 16, 2009) Room is strangely rewarding. The level of hope and resiliency in humans is remarkable. This girl lives through this, raises a good son and still maintains empathy for the plight of many many others, who suffer far worse.

Compound all of that with brilliant writing and the world through the quite believable mouth and eyes of a small child and I have to recommend it.

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

I live on a little under 10 acres.  It’s fairly private and we all sort of behave the way we like without fear of public scrutiny.

Upon re reading Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent, I laughed so hard and so loudly and so often that I was embarrassed and waited for someone to come scold me or at least make fun.

He is bar (almost) none, the most amusing writer.  It may be my practicular brand of sarcastic, snide, clever, back-handed yet kind humor, but Im not the only one.

I am sadly now at the point where I can re-read a book from years back and have it be only vaguely familiar.  Sad but it also excitingly opens a whole new world of literature.

Maybe I’ll start re-reviewing. That could be fun.  You could all send in nasty, pitying letters saying,” You didthat one two years ago.”  Oh well, maybe I have different thoughts on it.  Take that!.

Anyhoo. The Lost Continent is a series of essays on Bryson’s travel and rediscovery of his native country upon return from years and years in England.  He ran from Iowa as fast as he could and is now pining a bit so he has returned.  He is searching for his childhood and memories shared with his recently deceased father.*

As he travels in his mothers Chevette, we follow him through small-town America.

He succumbs to road rage, idiotic directions, angry gravel and angrier waitresses.  He eats Wiffle Ball Surprise and sleeps on  mattresses that sap his will to live.  As we are laughing, we are agreeing that the idiosyncrasies and glories of small-town America are what make us all who we are.  It’s a wonderful journey.

* For more brilliantly written along this vein read, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KId.  Maybe I will re-read that next …

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

‘Faithful Place’ by Tana French

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

I really am getting behind here!  I have a few books you’d love, but as I just closed this one I’ll get to it first.  Good book.  Dark and clever.  Both in equal parts really, which makes for a good mystery detective, personal thriller, angst-ridden-type book.

You really can’t go home again, or really shouldn’t, as undercover detective Frank Mackey discovers. Well, first he discovers the suitcase and subsequently the  body of his long lost love.  Then he discovers that running off all those years ago was an excellent idea.

The night that he and his Rosie were to elope, she doesn’t show.  Assuming that he has been stood up, he says screw it and leaves anyway.

He becomes a police officer.  Marries, divorces and generally stays as far from Faithful Place in Dublin as he can.

His alcohol-fueled family has many, many issues and as they are seemingly unresolvable (or un-fixable), he saves himself at great cost to the other less self-reliant members of the family. Or was the cost due regardless?

It raises a good question.  Are you duty bound to attempt to save your family if it can not or will not attempt to save itself? Does familial duty (even if its guaranteed demise is self-destructive and inevitable) trump personal obligation? Saving oneself at the cost of others is unacceptable, but is it wasteful and defeatest to throw away your own potential to help people who don’t want your help?  Indeed, resent you for offering?

Frank gets deeper and deeper into a mess that is more psychological and sociological than mysterious.  I had a fair guess who dunnnit fairly early on … (Yes, I know, pat, pat on my back.)  The book goes beyond what you are expecting.

What I found most interesting is Tana French writing as Frank Mackey.  A la Memoirs of A Geisha, it is impressive for an author to pull off the other sex’s point of view.  She writes quite well as a man.  (Being a girl – one wonders how I would know this … good point, but ignore it.)

Faithful Place is interesting on many levels and, although a tad bleak, it has quite positive energy about it.  Love can close or open doors and Frank chooses to keep them open.

‘Little Chapel On The River’ by Gwendolyn Bounds

Fact is often better than fiction.  Have you ever looked at a brightly colored fish or flower and thought, “It is not possible that that just appeared in nature.  I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.”

Fact is like that too.  Imagination is contained by our perceptions so it makes sense, but some plots are so wonderful you think they must have been monkeyed with.  “Little Chapel On The River” is true.  What a wonderful thing that Wendy Bounds is articulate enough to have captured such a true moment in the world.

After evacuating their apartment across from the World Trade Center on September 11, Wendy and her girlfriend have to move on.  Literally and figuratively, they must find safe ground from which to grow new roots.

Fatefully, Garrison, N.Y., is waiting.  Unbeknownst to Wendy, it will save her and transorm her life.  She, in turn, will return the favor.

Guinan’s General Store and Pub is a long standing bastion of comfort, safety and beer in a tough world.  The more things change the more they stay the same at Guinan’s and this is the gift.

Wendy befriends a wonderfully honest, grizzled, kind, amusing group of people.  All real, all amazingly human.  As she bartends, opens the store for the 5:07 a.m. commuters, listens to stories and winds her way into the hearts of the Pub, Wendy blossoms from a Wall Street Journal writer to a woman of many talents.

Each new door that opens bring her back to the gifts of her childhood and the joys of life she has been stepping over and around to get to work.  Her truest self is re-emerging and she and the town are delighted.

Her sense of belonging to something larger than her self was in dire need of Guinan’s.  We all are and through her book we find it.  Much like my thoughts on “World Made By Hand”, the things we need the most are seemingly small, often overlooked and right there for the taking if we simply open our eyes.  We all have the spirit of Guinan’s within reach if we know where to look.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski

Lots of people think that the book our Jen selected this week, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” by David Wroblewski, is very good, including Stephen King who noted he doesn’t re-read many books, but will be doing so with this one. Yet again Jen’s review has tickled our fancy too and we think we’ll also be reading it very shortly.

I had dinner a few weeks ago with a gentleman who said this was his favorite book.  My step-mother liked it but thought the middle a tad long-winded.  Stephen King said he,” flat out loved it.”  How could I resist?
Ultimately, I agree with them all. OK – done.

Kidding.The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is a hell of a book.  Long, but good-long.  A young boy growing up in Wisconsin has to face some very serious issues.  His family has bred dogs for generations and lived an idyllic life until the black sheep (read total psycho) of the family returns.  Edgar, the boy, is in the teacup when the tempest arrives.
Born mute, his considerable intellect is torn asunder by death and deceit.  His Uncle Claude is the tempest and the Sawtelle dogs are the grounding rod.  Edgar must find himself using their strength of character and his own.
Wroblewski paints a truly involving portrait of the mind.  The outside world is beautiful: the postcard-perfect farm, the shamanistic woods, the magnificent barn … but the story is the human mind.  How to handle extreme adversity?  How to stay focused and self-reliant without capitulating to fear or self-loathing?
Edgar and the dogs are it.  We are with them.  My favorite personality—and its subsequent depictions and thoughts—is Almondine.  Edgar’s dog, and he is her boy, is so remarkably wonderful I am hard pressed to say how much I loved knowing her.  The chapters from her perspective are remarkable.  I do not look at my dog with the same eyes anymore. Almondine is a character who will resound within me forever.  More than Claude, more than Edgar, she is the touchstone for the story.  For me, at least.
As good as the plot is, the training of the dogs is fascinating as well.  These dogs are all so tangibly individual it is a pleasure to witness their actions.  They are as much individual characters as the humans.
When I was young, my great-grandfather had a barn like the Sawtelle’s.  It was magic and I would still be in it if it were possible.  It was a world unto itself and the sense of safety and promise is so well described by Wroblewski that I felt home.
The magic of this book is larger than a simple story.  The barn is not just a barn.  The dogs are not just dogs.  Edgar is not just a victim.  His story is the story of faith.  The story of redemption and come-uppance.  The story of love and magic.  It does get long-winded, but don’t forget how hard it must be to write such a book.

Read every word.  You will miss it when it’s over.

Why Sometimes I Don’t Read

Our Jen was—along with (in our unscientific opinion) approximately half the population of the Lymes—sick last week.  We’re so glad to learn that she’s now recovered and here she is back again for your delight with the revealing (and riveting) antithesis to her earlier column on why she reads.

Here is the companion piece to the ever-popular,” Why I Read.”  It is fair to say that many, many people ask me how I have the time and mental where-with-all to read two books a week and review them for your entertainment.  I say I don’t know.  It just fits in somehow.  Like extra piles into the washer.  It’s a mystery, but it works.

Until it doesn’t.  Sometimes, even your fearless book reviewer just can not bring herself to pick one up.  Sometimes she reads some she hates and doesn’t want to review them (sparing you loads of whining.)  Sometimes she lies in the tub and reads Danielle Steele and is embarrassed to review them.  When all these happenings converge you get a perfect vacuum of book reviews.  I know this is momentously hard to overcome for many of you and I apologize for selfishly sapping your will to live but it can not be helped.

To bring some small bit of happiness to you I will tell you the whole unadulterated truth.  I read Margaret Atwood’s newest book, “The Year of The Flood” and disliked it.  It was as depressing as “Oryx and Crake” and it sapped my will to live.  Then I read “House” by Danielle Steele.  That was OK.  Then I read “Kaleidoscope.”  That was too much Danielle Steele for me.  Back-to-back unreality, happy ending and endless cash is too depressing.

Then I started “Crow Planet,” which will be good but made feel bad about the planet going to hell in a hand-basket because I won’t drive a Prius.  So I read “Snow White and The Seven Dwarves,” the original, written and mesmerizingly illustrated by Wanda Ga’g in the 30s.  I also did many crossword puzzles from New York Magazine and read People. And Clifford’s Halloween.”

I felt much better so I picked up “Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time; My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals” by Richard Coniff.  I am only on chapter three and I love it.  He is clever, humorous and brave.  I will review this next week when I finish.

I have today off so I am going to read a new as yet unpublished book that the author handed me yesterday.  I can’t tell you who or what, but stick around … I will.

I thought it only fair to divulge all, so there you have it.

Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time My Life Doing Dumb Stuff by Richard Conniff

Old Lyme resident Richard Conniff lives the life of which most of us mere mortals can only dream.  He travels to exotic places, meets interesting people … and animals, writes or makes movies about them … and on top of all that, gets paid for doing it.  Jen Mann chose his most recent book as her review pick for this week.

This is very amusing.  I am a big fan of personal essay type books.  The collection of true accounts from Richard Coniff’s bag of tricks is excellent.

Always a fan of Dry Wit, I am thrilled to have found a sizable collection of writings from this intelligent, wildly experienced writer.  After this collection in particular I want to hunt down the rest.  Each chapter is an article slash essay slash short adventure recounting a particular escapade Coniff has had in the wild or with a certain species.

My favorite is without doubt the discussion of zoological identification with particular regard to naming of a species by its discoverer.  Much like Bill Lear (of the jet) naming his daughter Shanda; these men and women have had great fun with the English and Latin languages.  If you are fortunate enough to discover a new species you are allowed to name it.  Coniff’s research into the names chosen by overworked, overwhelmed or just over amusing scientists had me in stitches.

How about the 8,000th beetle you’ve discovered that needs a name?  Ohno.  Or with 1,500 to go?  Agra vation.  Agra phobia.  How about Phthira relativitae?  On the eve of one’s retirement why not throw caution to the winds and go with, Verae peculya, Heerz tooya or Heerz lukenatcha?  Boy have I missed my calling.

Can’t you see me doubled over laughing at my own jokes in a lab somewhere?  Another wonderful chapter is chock full of more things I never knew.  (One could argue that there are many, many such chapters and one would be correct.  (Rude, but correct.)  Why do humans and horseshoe crabs have different blood chemical bases?  Our blood runs red because hemoglobin is an iron-based molecule. Horseshoe crabs have blood that runs blue because hemocyanin is a copper-based molecule. Really, how cool is that? Mother Nature never ceases to totally amaze me.

What other metals are incorporated into varied cellularly similar creatures?  Have you heard of the Justin Schmidt Pain Index?  On a scale of one to four, it rates the pain of insect stings.  I usually use the JPM Index* but his has merit also.  Good to know that a fire ant will cause serious pain for about half an hour and that the Tarantula Hawk Wasp’s sting is best handled by lying down and screaming for the entire three agonizing minutes before it wears off.  A chapter on mosquitos and how many bites can be expected in a short time in various locales is eye-opening.  Some Canadian scientists sat still long enough to report 9,000 bites in a minute.  As Coniff says,” Those Canadians know how to have fun!”  So does Coniff!

*The JPM Pain Index rates the pain of stepping on small matchbox vehicles barefoot while running across the room to catch a glass of milk before it spills on the couch.  For example, a fire-truck with a vaulted metal ladder rates a perfect score when stepped on hard, directly in the arch, after tripping over a cat.

“Les Jeux Sont Fait” by Jean Paul Sartre

We felt Jen’s book review this week is suited for a Sunday. For those not familiar with Nobel Prize-winning French author Jean-Paul Sartre, his theme is existentialism, which preaches, in Jen’s concise words, “life is a done deal before you started, so what’s the point?”  Sartre is a hard sell, but Jen makes us want to try him one more time.

The Chips Are Down ( Les Jeux Sont Fait) is not as depressing as I remembered.  (Of course, in 10th grade French – everything is moderately depressing unless you get to read Tintin, which you don’t.)

I actually enjoyed it more this time.

It stands as a classic example of the existentialist movement in the last century.  Camus, Sartre, Ionesco and others were presenting the relatively novel opinion that life was a done deal before you started, so what is the point?

“Existentialism is a term that has been applied to the work of a number ofnineteenth and twentieth century philosophers who took the human subject — and his or her conditions of existence — as a starting point for philosophical thought. Existential philosophy is the “explicit conceptual manifestation of an existential attitude” that begins with a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.” *Well, Hell. There’s really no point in even reading my thoughts then, is there?  In Les Jeux Sont Fait, two characters from very different circumstances, die and then fall in love.  As this is a bit backwards, they are given, by the powers above or whomever, another try.  If, in 24 hours they can stay in love then they can return to the living.

Of course, the chips have been played though haven’t they?  What is done is done.  You can no more control the fates than overlook the grammatical anomalies in this sentence.  (Oxymoron doesn’t have the word moron in it for nothing.) See how jumpy existentialism makes me?  My sense of humor is eroding before your very eyes.

Existentialism is a variation on the theme of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which states that man should absolutely take charge of his own life.  Reality exists independently of consciousness and your world is what you make of it.  You will succeed if you utilize your powers.  Existentialism holds that your consciousness is your reality and the world is made already so you are not as powerful as you think, but you still have to try.**

Instead of getting control over your own life, your own happiness, you may have no say at all.  Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be and you’d best just accept it.  Les Jeux Sont Fait, so tough darts.  Or is it?

Sartre seems to agree with me (how vain, it is I with him, of course) that although your freedom may be a fantasy, it is also a necessity.  “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”  Whatever cards you are dealt are worth playing.  The outcome may or may not be fixed but it’s all in how much you enjoy playing the game.

It is definitely a book you should read at least once (also Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.)  It is not quite as morose as it seems and it is an important door to open.

As Max Tivoli said,” Life is short and full of sorrows, and I loved it”.

* Thank you, Wikipedia.
** I apologize for the gross oversimplification.  There isn’t enough coffee in the world for me to go further down that path of reasoning right now …Editor’s Note to Book Reviewer:  This book breaks all previous records for length of time to locate a photo to run with your review … seems kind of par for the course for Monsieur Sartre …