Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Last night was FUN! Blogger and author extraordinaire Carleen Brice threw a party at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver to celebrate the publication of her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, and I’m oh-so-happy I was able to attend. A little live jazz, a little Pinot Grigio, some wonderful honeyed dishes from amazing and very sweet caterers Cassandra Francisca and her sister Sharon (of my new favorite Denver catering company, Grapes to Wine; sure wish I’d snuck a few of those orange brownies into my purse!) got everything off to a terrific start. Great conversations with local writing folks (like Lisa (pictured with Carleen; I love that photo! You should see Carleen’s grandfather’s beautiful pin up close; it’s stunning), Sarah, Kim, Debra, and Andrea) were followed by Carleen’s lively reading, q&a, and signing sessions.

The room was full of Denver-area book lovers, literary types—many of whom are associated with Lighthouse Writers, where Carleen is a board member—and friends and family members eager to cheer Carleen on. While those in the crowd who’ve yet to read her novel quickly learned they were in for a treat, those of us who’d already read it knew very well that the publication of Orange Mint and Honey was especially worth celebrating.

A Target pick and an Essence magazine book club selection, Orange Mint and Honey incorporates layers of bittersweet emotions into a wonderfully readable and often humorous story. Music plays a huge role, as does the Denver setting, all aspects of Carleen’s life that contribute to the book’s comforting, grounded tone. Shay, the main character, is nothing if not blunt. Having raised herself due to her mother’s once-rampant alcoholism, Shay nearly reaches the pinnacle of years of struggle and strife—the completion of her graduate degree—when she finds she simply cannot go on. A surprise “visit” from the late great jazz singer Nina Simone compels Shay to return home to Denver where her seemingly re-made, AA-saved mother welcomes her with open arms…and a new little half-sister.

The twists and turns that Shay’s few months with the family she’s not even sure she wants in a “home” she hesitates to claim drive the plot and the growing understanding of how Shay is forced to reconcile her tragic childhood with the potential promise of her future. This story is not all rosy and the results of an ongoing, immense struggle to overcome years of abandonment and neglect are not immediately evident. Surprises abound with the introduction of every new character and their effect on Shay, who until now has focused every ounce of energy on school, the one place she’d always known—until recently, anyway—she not only could excel, but could successfully hide her worst secrets—and fears.

While the impact of alcoholism on individuals and families resonates through the pages of Orange Mint and Honey, so does the simple act of gardening and the related tools of survival Shay’s mother shares. Nona Dixon senses her daughters’ frustrations as she battles against the need to forgive in the face of so much that truly needs forgiving, to “let go and let God,” to not only take things one day at a time but to cherish every moment. And she doesn’t hesitate to be just as direct as her daughter about necessary next steps, even when it’s evident Shay doesn’t want to listen.

I once gave my mother, an avid gardener, a little plaque that reads “Love always grew in my mother’s garden.” My maternal grandmother, also a gardener, died of cancer when my mom was a young girl, so I knew this gift would be appreciated not only as a tribute from a daughter, but as a sweet reminder of a beloved mother. I thought of this gardening/mothering statement often while reading Orange Mint and Honey. Not only does Shay learn of her mother’s love for her, she comes to realize that her mother, while imperfect, appreciates the impact of her unconditional love on every person in her life who needs her. While this outpouring of effort and emotion that young Shay once assumed did not even exist within her mother’s heart shocks and at times dismays her, Shay is forced to understand that it does her mother just as much good to be needed as it does for her to aid those in need. But new love, even between a parent and child, takes time, and Carleen masterfully takes her time illustrating this simple fact as her story unfolds. Consider this exchange, initiated by Shay:

“How did you come up with Glory for my middle name?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Remember what?”
“About morning glories…?”
I stared blankly.
“Morning glories were my father’s favorite flower. He used to say, ‘Glories thrive in the worst possible soil and face the day with a smile every morning. What’s not to love?’”
That was me. I didn’t exactly face each day with a smile, but I was still here. I had survived.
“You don’t remember that story?”
“You never told me that.”
“Oh, I did too! Don’t you have any good memories of me?”

One of Carleen’s most memorable statements last night (besides her reference to two different characters who represent “two sides of the same character” which pretty much blew me away) was her reference to the write-up her book received in the March issue of Essence magazine. The full-page feature refers to Shay as a “supersmart grad student.”

“I was so happy for her,” Carleen said. “They called her smart and I thought, Shay would just love that!”

Shay is not only book-smart, she’s wise beyond her years (a typical trait, I believe, of adult children of alcoholics), yet the obstacles she faces—from the present as well as the past—often seem insurmountable. Her ability to keep plugging through it all ultimately leads her to see past her own scars to realize and appreciate the many challenges faced by others. Only through this realization does she allow herself to relax, to relish the sweetness of simple pleasures despite the bitterness that often accompanies them, to love herself despite her perceived weaknesses and handicaps, to appreciate her unique style of gracing the world in which she lives and the lives of those who love her.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Lisa See celebrated the paperback release of her latest novel, Peony in Love, this past week by kicking off a whirlwind tour that will take her from coast to coast and back again, with a few stops in between. While no signing in Denver is on her agenda (bummer!), I’m happy to have my signed copy of her fifth novel already in hand. Some day I’ll get to meet this wonderful author!

Peony takes place in late-17th-century China, a time of immense changes following the Manchu overthrow of the Ming regime. The main character, a girl named Peony, tells of the tremendous impact of that violent regime change on her family through stories she’s heard since childhood…and stories she learns after her death. While Peony in Love delves into the afterworld in more ways than one, it’s much more than a ghost story set in China. Lisa See’s stunning imagery, detailed portraits, and intricate ability to present varying points of view (despite the limitations of first-person narration) lead to an intricate study of complex relationships. Each character is treated with such care that revelations about their personalities and motivations come as complete surprises coupled with complete plausibility. Shifting understandings and realities that occur within a family over generations marked alternatively by prosperity and despair are presented in a scope accomplished through shifts of reality not only within life on earth but within an existence beyond earthly understanding.

Chinese traditions, foods, observances, beliefs, rituals, and rules from long ago fuel the plot of Peony in Love, but so do the strength of Chinese women and the ancient desire of all women to express their unique views and experiences despite the many demands and restrictions history has placed upon them. A celebration of these traditions and of true stories from China regarding love-sick maidens and the lengths they endured to pursue love and learning and self-autonomy combine to make Peony in Love a highly original, cherished work of art.

Go here to see if Lisa will be signing books in your neck of the woods.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Beyond FANTASTIC: Beauty Within Award

This Award has got to be one of my favorites. It originated from MonkeyGirl, who designed it for Joeymom, who passed it on to Niksmom, who passed it on to Kristen and yours truly. I’m woefully late in thanking Niksmom for this honor and in spreading the love. No questions to answer, just a nod of gratitude and a nod forward to those who impress with their strength and their immense, determined ability not only to see that often hard-to-find silver lining, but to point it out to others. Two other bloggers whose beauty within shines for the world to see? Jen and Sherry.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Beyond FUN: BENJAMIN AND THE WORD by Daniel Olivas and THE NEW BEAR ON THE BLOCK by Staci Schwartz, M.D.

I’m always happy to highlight well-written books for the younger set that not only explore tolerance and celebrate diversity but get at the heart of the golden rule without preaching about it.

Benjamin and the Word by Daniel Olivas fits in this special category. When Benjamin becomes upset after a friend calls him a particular word, he finds solace by talking with his dad. Benjamin’s dad encourages his son to be proud of his heritage of Mexican as well as Russian-Jewish descent. He also encourages Benjamin to talk to his friend about what was said and why such words upset him so much. A simple story that explores complex issues of “bigotry, racial dualities, and cultural difference,” Benjamin and the Word also features watercolor illustrations that complement the soothing, encouraging words of Benjamin’s wise father.

Daniel Olivas is a poet, lawyer, and dad whose writings appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times’ Kids Reading Room section and on La Bloga. He’s written various books and most recently edited Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature. (Yes, one for the TBR list! The cover alone is amazing.)

Philadelphia physician, parent, and children’s author Staci Schwartz uses friendly forest animals to tell the story of a small bear who’s not only new to his neighborhood, but has broken his glasses in The New Bear on the Block. Misunderstandings arise when neighbors consider the bear rude due to his odd behavior (caused not because he’s impolite but simply because he can’t see well; boy do I know that feeling!) and shun him. Luckily the town optician is also a wise turtle who discovers in his new neighbor a kind friend deserving of all the town animals’ understanding and forgiveness.

The risk of incorrect first impressions, damaging assumptions, and misread reactions of a new person in a neighborhood or school setting are examined in this tale of tolerance and kindness. Staci Schwartz notes that she often reads The New Bear on the Block to children in grades pre-K through third grade, while older children use it to facilitate discussions about making judgments about other people. “So many children…switch schools several times in grade school,” Staci notes. “Some of the helpful discussions I have had with the kids in the classrooms are about how they can make a new kid in the class or community feel welcome.”

Isn’t that one of the most important things kids ought to learn in school?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Beyond FACTS: SELLOUT, by Randall Kennedy; NO PLACE SAFE by Kim Reid; and BROTHER, I’M DYING by Edwidge Danticat

So many books! Before I shift gears back to fiction with Carleen’s new release this weekend, I’m anxious to write about a few non-fiction titles that have been on my mind lately: Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, which was featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week; No Place Safe by Kim Reid, which I read last year; and Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat, which I just finished.

Sellout has been added to my TBR list, but I was most intrigued by the discussion that took place on the TOTN show. While Kennedy emphasized how divisive accusations of “selling out” can be in the black community, almost all the callers into the show discussed much more varied victims of this form of prejudice. Native Americans and others who leave behind family to pursue degrees in higher education and high-profile careers are impacted by this issue, as are first-generation “hyphenated” Americans from many countries, those who marry across racial or cultural lines, etc. etc. Kennedy himself has been accused of “selling out” by “telling white people what they want to hear” through books such Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. The cause and impact of such accusations of betrayal within the black community form the central discussion points in Kennedy’s current book; I believe by reading Sellout I’ll also learn why so many other groups chastise and often ostracize their own who seek a different way of life than their families’, who risk the pain inherent in being labeled a “sellout.”

In her fantastic memoir, No Place Safe, Boulder author Kim Reid writes of the many challenges she faced throughout her childhood, including those she encountered when she chose to attend an all-white private school far outside her Atlanta neighborhood. A scholarship offer to the new school prompted Kim to leave her friends and take multiple city busses to go where she quickly found she was not entirely welcome. The examples she provides of the various forms of prejudice she faced from both sides of the racial divide add considerable impact to her story of growing up as primary caretaker of her young sister while her mother worked as a police officer for the Atlanta Police Department. The main story of No Place Safe details the consuming, high-pressure investigations of the 1979-1981 disappearances and murders of black boys and young men in Atlanta—investigations in which Kim’s mother worked as a lead investigator. While this story alone propels this book to read like a compelling novel, Kim’s personal experiences and insights into her family and community make this a powerful document of life in a major Southern city during an especially tumultuous time.

I did not gather from Edwidge Danticat’s memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, that her parents were labeled “sellouts” when they moved to New York from Haiti in the early 1970s. Everyone in Haiti had suffered immensely through decades of failed regimes, and the lines of those applying for immigration documents at the American consulate were always long. Family members were eager to help raise four-year-old Edwidge and her two-year-old brother when their mother joined their father in the U.S. Their Aunt Denise and Uncle Joseph raised them as they had their own children and as they raised many other children who were left with them for various reasons. By the time Edwidge left for America at age 12, she had two sets of parents—the parents she loved, knew well, and had to leave to join the parents she loved but barely knew.

The story of her father and his much older brother, Edwidge’s kind Uncle Joseph, comprises the bulk of Brother, I’m Dying. But again, the insights provided about growing up in limbo (while Kim Reid had practically no parental guidance and was forced to grow up very quickly, Edwidge had two sets of parents and struggled to reconcile her complex feelings about them and where she belonged throughout her childhood) as well as the racially charged forms of prejudice witnessed during extremely troubled times add incredible weight to this narrative. Though I initially found Brother, I’m Dying a little flat due to its emphasis on dialogue, by the middle of the story events kicked into high gear. Edwidge Danticat’s shocking revelations regarding elderly Uncle Joseph and the ultimately fatal manner in which he was mistreated at home and in the U.S. compelled me to read the second half of her book in one day.

All these titles offer insights not only into race but into various forms of prejudice—from the subtle to the brutal, from one’s own people or from complete strangers—and how discrimination in any form dramatically impacts individuals, families, communities, and lives.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Beyond FICTION: Release Day for Two Blogging Authors’ Books

Just a quick note to celebrate a terrific day for two blogging Ballantine Babes! Carleen Brice of Denver now has her novel, Orange Mint and Honey, on shelves in bookstores across the country, as does Therese Fowler, author of the novel Souvenir. Congratulations, ladies!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Beyond THE FUTURE: Autism Vox and The National Autistic Society

Kristina Chew, Ph.D. advocates for people with autism through her blog, Autism Vox. One of Kristina’s recent posts not only addresses important findings from The National Autistic Society on adults with autism, but features very personal insights regarding Kristina’s own ten-year-old son, Charlie.

Based in the U.K., the NAS has just launched I Exist, the second phase of its Think Differently Campaign. The I Exist program has been developed to raise awareness of and campaign for “better support and services for adults with autism.” Through its I Exist survey, the NAS has found that most adults with autism are “isolated and ignored.” “A lack of recognition that autism affects adults, a lack of understanding of people’s needs, and a lack of suitable services means that most adults are prevented from realising their true potential,” the organization states.

These findings strike a chord with Kristina and, I’m sure, most parents with children with autism, especially as those children grow older. “As Charlie has gotten taller,” Kristina writes, “his shoulders stronger, his shoes bigger—eyes gets averted. People…walk on with a studied look of ‘I am minding my own business.’ Of course, people will do what they need to in public but sometimes I get the feeling that Charlie is rendered invisible by those gazes aimed the other way.”

This struck a chord with me because of the stories I’m currently writing and because of comments on the January 25 “Rate Your Bliss” post on Patry’s blog regarding people who so often feel invisible. One comment on rating emotional pain especially stood out; it’s from Chosha, an Australian blogger at A Little East of Reality: “Invisibility, for me, would sit somewhere above loneliness (because it is loneliness imposed) and somewhere below betrayal.” I find it amazing that such a simple statement can be so thick with layers of meaning. What a powerful way to describe emotional pain as something that can be caused and experienced in an immense variety of ways, including invisibility as “loneliness imposed.”

Kristina, for her part, refuses to accept that children with special needs necessarily grow up to be ignored, invisible adults. As a college professor, she’s glad to see students who struggle to fit in and succeed in her classroom; she considers them evidence that despite various obstacles and challenges, all people deserve the chance to realize their true potential, regardless of what others might think or even prefer they do. Kristina notes she’s aware of the challenge as a teacher to “make my classroom suit their needs…to get creative and teach them differently (so they can thrive)…just as Charlie has thrived because his teachers have thought differently, tried different things, and never given up.”

While results from reports such as the NAS I Exist survey raise awareness of the needs of all people with autism, I always learn much more from the advocates, parents, and teachers like Kristina Chew who provide the personal insights that put such findings into perspective. As Kristina states, people with autism exist, they are here, they’ve “got places to go and things to do and learn and we need to help to make that possible.” There’s no reason any person should have to suffer through loneliness imposed, yet so many do.

Photo © Eastern Michigan University

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Beyond FUNDRAISING: A Family in Need

I was going to write a post on perfection this weekend after hearing a terrific NPR piece (that included an interview with Larry Csonka of ’72 Miami Dolphins fame—who’s also a famous Syracuse alum) on the Patriots’ pursuit of a perfect season. If the Patriots win the Superbowl (and my sister Janice in Boston would say “when” they win!) they’ll have won every game they’ve played during the 2007-2008 season. What impresses me most is the way the entire organization focuses on one game at a time, one day at a time, without letting the emotional aspect of even the potential of such an accomplishment sidetrack them. This low-key culture has been the brunt of a lot of jokes in the media, but it makes wonderful sense when you have a huge task staring you down. Like, for instance, writing a novel (or a short-story collection, my current challenge). Or keeping your family afloat when your husband’s out of work and just had back surgery.

In the case of Pam and her family over at Rhett’s Journey, back surgery is only one of the many challenges staring them down. Pam’s husband’s back condition has forced him to stop working; Pam can’t work because their youngest, Rhett, is a two-year-old who requires constant, special care. Rhett was a healthy child with Down Syndrome until an extreme (10-fold!) overdose of painkillers last year after surgery resulted in a series of physical impairments. For details, read a few of Pam’s latest posts. I’m overwhelmed by just the idea of the logistics involved in getting Rhett to all his medical appointments and therapies. Pam’s oldest son also has Asperger Syndrome and requires his own special appointments. (When Pam wrote about Dakota’s recent phenomenal accomplishment of reading and sharing in front of his entire class, I was so happy to hear that at least SOMEthing was going right for them, even for a single day.) Add to all this the stress of worrying constantly about Rhett’s health—including his limited ability to breathe correctly, especially at night—and I know I’d be a complete mess if I were Pam.

But there’s more. Pam and Andy and their four children are very likely going to have to move out of their rented home soon due to a drastic inability to pay their rent. Pam swallowed her pride and installed a “Make a Donation” button to the top corner of her blog. I’m writing now to invite every visitor to this blog to stop by Rhett’s Journey and pitch in any amount. As Pam notes, even $5 will help. Whether or not you choose to donate, if you pray please pray for Pam and Andy and their kids. This new year has been a nightmare for them so far. With our help, maybe it’ll turn around soon. I certainly hope so.