Book chat: ‘Etched in Sand’ by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in SandRegina Calcaterra could have turned out very differently.

The third of five children, Regina and her siblings were forced to scrabble a life together when Cookie — their mentally ill, alcoholic mother — went on weeks- or months-long binges, leaving her four daughters and son to fend for themselves.

Little to no food. Shelter — until a landlord gets wise to the fact that his tenant isn’t paying . . . and has abandoned her kids at his rundown apartment, where they live like warriors forced to steal to survive. The clothes on their backs and, if they’re lucky, a television set to entertain the little ones.

No more. No less. For years.

Though she thinks there are people who want to help them, Regina fears what has already come to pass before: being shoved into foster care, where she will be unable to look after siblings — especially Rosie, the baby of the group. Tired of playing “mom” before their time, Regina’s teenage sisters have begun hefting more of the responsibility to Regina . . . who has no resources, no support.

Even in this quagmire in New York, Regina believes that staying together in an abusive hell with Cookie — who arrives only occasionally to dole out beatings and drop off pathetic groceries — is better than losing one another. Better than the unknown. Until one confession changes everything . . . and changes life forever.

Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is the sort of book you desperately wish were fiction. These horrible things can’t really have happened, can they? No “mother” could be so heartless. No “parent” could be so cruel. No system in place to help children could be so neglectful, and no children could really be forced to steal or starve to death in a lonely, worn-out hell.

This book is jarring. Gut-wrenching. Horrifying. Despite the obvious pain and difficulty, though, we know from the beginning that Regina not only survives her mother’s abuse . . . but thrives. That glimmer of hope — that small, tiny ray of sunshine in the distance — is what kept me motivated to turn the pages. Regina is a woman you come to know and love: someone you want to cheer on and support. Someone who needs that support.

Why read a memoir detailing such neglect? The power of Regina’s story — which is her siblings’ story, too. Even in her darkest moments, she never loses sight of the most important people in her life: her family. Though the system fails Cookie’s children in many ways, they never give up fighting for one another. And knowing that Regina goes on to become wildly strong and successful, brave and resilient, well . . . it makes it all worthwhile.

Though occasionally tough to read, Etched in Sand was impossible to put down. I finished the book in two sittings, desperate to make sure that Camile, Cherie, Norman, Rosie and Regina would somehow land on their feet.

With or without Cookie.

Somehow, through it all, Regina’s first-person account does not come off as bitter — or even angry. Someone who has every right to be a fire-breathing dragon when recounting the horrible things she was forced to do, see and decide as a teen manages to tell her tale without malice. Regina’s writing strikes a delicate balance between factual detachment and impassioned storytelling, and I found that impressive. Crazy, even.

For much of the story, I felt focused on the idea of revenge . . . this hope that their mother would finally be forced to pay for what she did to them — either with jail time or mental anguish. Preferably both. In the process, I wanted her to repent and apologize. To be less of an unspeakably horrible monster, basically.

But real life doesn’t always work that way. By the close of Calcaterra’s powerful memoir, I was thinking more about forgiveness . . . and how important it is for the soul. Despite Cookie’s attempts to break them down and wreck them, her children found a way to move forward.

The best revenge, they say, is living well.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for review consideration


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Book chat: ‘Seven Letters from Paris’ by Samantha Verant

Seven Letters from ParisTwenty years after they shared one fateful weekend in Paris, Samantha and Jean-Luc are separated by an ocean and wealth of varying experiences. Samantha herself is in a rut — 40 and jobless, staring down an impending divorce, living back with her parents as she nervously tackles her debt.

When Sam stumbles upon a series of letters Jean-Luc sent after she returned to college in America, the passion and connection they shared decades ago comes flooding back to her. She realizes she hasn’t felt that way before or since — but never actually responded to her French Romeo. At all.

Though she believes her apology comes a little too late, she’s able to find Jean-Luc online and sends him the answer she feels he was owed in the ’80s by way of a blog. Their emails lead to phone calls, and calls expand to talk of visiting in person. Is she crazy to leave California for France to see if the connection they once shared has stood the test of time?

Maybe. But she has nothing to lose, and all the world to gain.

Samantha Verant’s memoir Seven Letters from Paris is the romantic, entertaining story of how she reconnected with the love of her life when the odds certainly seemed stacked against them. Their story is an improbable one: a young American woman and French rocket scientist randomly meet at a cafe when Sam and a friend visit Paris in the late ’80s. After they share a weekend exploring the city, Jean-Luc falls completely in love . . . and Samantha disappears. He sends seven letters to her address at an American university but never hears from her again.

Until, one day, he does.

I’ll just come out and say that I’m a huge fan of serendipity. I love stories that connect lovers who, by all logic, should not have found one another; I adore tales of fate stepping in to guide the lives of unlikely people. Sam and Jean-Luc live an ocean and a continent apart — and the idea that they could randomly meet on a sidewalk, lose touch and find each other again after 20 years, several marriages, children and so on was nothing short of amazing.

Where the story could have become schmaltzy and boring, Samantha’s self-deprecating humor and humble roots were endearing and kept me rooting for her from start to finish. As she sheds her dog-walking skin back in California and takes a chance on visiting Jean-Luc, I was breathless with anticipation of their meeting once again. Ah, true love.

Are Jean-Luc’s overtures a bit over-the-top? Sure. But as Sam points out often, the standard for romance in France is, um, a bit different than what we might expect of courtship here in the U.S. She is wooed quite thoroughly by her older scientist — and who could blame her? I mean, really.

A quick and engaging read, Seven Letters from Paris  was just the sort of story I needed to help break me out of my reading slump. I loved Sam and Jean-Luc — and especially loved them together. I’ve heard rumors that we may get a follow-up on their new life together in France (not a spoiler!) . . . I’ll just be over here with my coffee and macaron, waiting.


4 out of 5

Pub: October 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book review: ‘Everybody’s Got Something’ by Robin Roberts

Everybody's Got SomethingTelevision newscaster Robin Roberts has had her share of struggles. Treated for breast cancer in 2007, the “Good Morning America” co-anchor expected to make a full recovery and put her fight behind her . . . until five years later, when she learned she would need a life-saving bone marrow transplant for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood disorder — a side effect from her initial cancer treatment.

Who could blame someone for balking, for shrinking, for retreating inward . . . for asking a distraught “Why me?” To hear Robin tell it, though she faced uncertainty and doubt and did occasionally rail against her situation, she tried to focus on healing.

And Robin is a fighter.

More inspirational than informational, Roberts’ Everybody’s Got Something is her recollection of where she was before, during and after her 2012 transplant — and reads as a “thank you” to the friends, family, coworkers and viewers who bolstered her during a tremendously difficult time.

As she prepares for her transplant and its required isolation, Robin must also come to grips with another pain: the grief of losing her beloved mother, Lucimarian. The love shared between her close-knit family — including Sally-Ann, her bone marrow donor — is the backbone of Robin’s story, and many chapters feature snippets of childhood and the many lessons her mother and father shared with their children.

Though Everybody’s Got Something lacked some of the candor I’d expect given Robin’s difficult situation, I respect her so much as a person and appreciate that she wanted to focus on the positives: the bond her illness further cemented with her family and girlfriend, Amber; the overwhelming, soul-restoring support she received from colleagues, friends and viewers; the strong faith that got her through the darkest of her days.

Robin’s struggles seem to have been buffed clean, smoothed of their most jagged edges — but this is her story. If it’s varnished, I understand . . . and appreciate that, more than anything, Everybody’s Got Something — a popular saying with her mother — is exactly what it purports to be: a reminder that we all face challenges, but need not be defined by them. Readers facing health crises may find it especially comforting.

If you like Robin? Well, you’ll like her book. She’s sincere and humble — and just a darn likeable person. I finished the memoir grateful for her returning strength and hopeful that the future will be a bright one.


3 out of 5

Pub: April 22, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Audio copy borrowed from local library


Book review: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the WoodsBill Bryson thinks he knows what to expect when he embarks on a journey to hike the Appalachian Trail — some 2,000 miles, stretching from Georgia to Maine. He knows about the wildlife, the heat, the inevitable exhaustion. He’s aware of the dangers posed by being alone in isolated areas, as well as the potential medical risks. But he’s also in need of something . . . reflection, reconnection, fresh challenges. And in the company of Katz, an old friend, Bryson sets off on a life-changing adventure.

First published in 1998, Billy Bryson’s seminal A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a book I’ve had on my radar for ages — but one I wasn’t eager to pick up. Surprisingly, I had once convinced myself I wasn’t “into” non-fiction, preferring Jane Austen or Emily Giffin to someone like Bryson, but that started to evolve years ago. After loving Cheryl Strayed’s Wild last fall, Bryson’s name kept popping up as a recommendation.

And so at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park, where it’s literally impossible not to be awed by nature, I picked up a copy of A Walk in the Woods to keep me company on our plane ride home.

Excellent choice.

Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren

Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren, via Flickr


Known colloquially as the bestselling “bear book” in my family, Bryson’s saga of attempting to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trial — or the A.T. — is a wonderful one. Filled with just enough history and facts to make the story both informative and entertaining, the trademark Bryson wit and style I’ve heard so many describe are on full display.

Bryson never claims to be a great hiker . . . and in fact, he begins his journey a middle-aged man carrying extra weight and more than a little trepidation. Though American, Bryson has spent 20 years in England — and walking the A.T. seems like a great chance to reconnect with his homeland after returning to the U.S. with his family. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself, and he’s certainly not embarrassed to admit his doubts. Bill knows he doesn’t have all the answers and he’s made mistakes, and that’s what makes him such an enjoyable — and trustworthy — narrator.

Bill’s friend Stephen Katz provides much — but certainly not all — of the comic relief in the story, occasionally dragging Bill down but often propelling him forward. Though his identity has come into question in the years since publication, he was a thoughtful friend (and occasional foil) during their joint trek. The story without Katz wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling, and certainly not as funny.

There are blisters. There are bugs. There are hungry days and lonely nights and sweat, sweat, sweat. The driving force of A Walk in the Woodswill they make it? can they really do this? — kept me turning the pages, and it was absolutely the perfect story to read coming back from a national park.

Does the story stand the test of time? Sixteen years have passed since publication, and even longer since the journey itself occurred. Aside from obvious technological changes (finding pay phones in small towns, say, and no mention of the Internet), A Walk in the Woods is pretty evergreen (pun quite intended). Taking a walk then is similar to taking a walk now, though routes can now be carefully planned online or with the help of a GPS in the wild, maybe. Such features weren’t available then.

I breezed through this book in a few hours, wanting so much to stretch my time with two friends on the A.T. Though I’m not outdoorsy in the least, I couldn’t help but finish wanting to dive into the woods myself. Bryson’s enthusiasm for nature is completely contagious. And even if the travel bug bit me long ago, I finished his tale with the overwhelming feeling that there are so many lessons — so much to see — out in our beautiful world.

Thanks, Bill.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 1998 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Non-fiction to take you away (even if you want to stay put)

photo


With heat pulling my tender strands into frizzy curls already, it’s high time we talk about summer reading.

As a kid, I was the book geek already tearing through her assigned books before the current school year was over. I have fond memories of Dad taking my sister and me to Crown Books, the bookstore that sat where a Panera now resides, to thumb through their children’s and young adult section for the classics. We spent hours wandering the aisles — the first place I remember my parents giving us a tiny bit of independence. (Don’t worry: they were just around the corner, Dad in sports and Mom usually in magazines.)

I miss summer reading. That might be why I love reading review copies: it feels like I’m back in my English program in college, perhaps? With a stack of books I must read? At heart, I can be fairly indecisive about novels — and it often helps if I’m on a schedule. Who doesn’t benefit from a good deadline now and then?

I’ll admit that, you know, going rogue with my reading was definitely exciting post-college; I loved choosing books at random, especially when I worked at Borders, because it felt almost . . . illicit. After being handed a syllabus for so many years, doing what I wanted was exhilarating.

Now I’m tired and often cranky and don’t know what I want. I want someone to tell me what I want. Isn’t it funny how that works?

Anyway. Summer reading. Traveling! Adventure! With no one telling you what you must read, here I go giving you a list of sorts. But it’s a short one. Whether you’re readying for a plane ride or staying perched in your air-conditioned living room through September, don’t we all love a little escape through reading?

Flip-flops and sunscreen optional.


Awesome Non-Fiction
That Takes You Away
(Even If You Want to Stay Put)


Paris LettersParis Letters by Janice MacLeod — Bored by a humdrum advertising gig, Janice scrimps and saves enough to leave her desk job and book a flight for Europe. Falling hopelessly in love with Paris wasn’t part of her plan — and this artist’s journey was just beginning. Enchanting, romantic and fun, I’ve thought of this story often since finishing in the winter. It’s the perfect book in which to lose yourself — and live vicariously through another. (And then you can check out her blog to continue the fun.)


Walk in the WoodsA Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Though I’m late to the Bryson fan club, he certainly has a new member. I inhaled most of this book coming back from California and wanted to don hiking boots by the time we touched down. The story of Bryson’s epic journey hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods manages to weave history, environmental issues and self-discovery into one moving, humorous package. Bryson’s language is evocative; you can almost feel the mosquitoes. (Better him than us.) Full review of this one to come once I’ve collected my thoughts!


The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner — All at a crossroads, three friends climb off the corporate ladder to go and explore the world. Their year-long journey takes them to Brazil, Kenya, Australia and more, and their story of friendship and living for today was inspirational. A heavy dose of armchair travel with this one: you’re all over the place!


Bank of BobThe International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris — Featured in my reading honors for 2013, Harris’ account of traveling to meet those he has assisted with microfinance loans bears mentioning again. A travel writer, Harris has an open mind when he begins making $25 loans through Kiva.org — and his story is heartwarming without drifting into condescension. Funds are paid back by small business owners: hardworking men and women whose lives are changed forever by the money Harris once spent on coffee. We journey with him to Nepal and Morocco, Cambodia and India. The lessons reach far beyond the page.


Any favorite travel reads to recommend?
Just summer books you love?


Book review: ‘Paris Letters’ by Janice MacLeod

Paris LettersIf ever there were a book I’d love to climb inside, an author through whom I could live vicariously, it’s Janice MacLeod. And Paris Letters.

After climbing the metaphorical advertising ladder in Los Angeles, Janice realizes her “dream job” — and dream life — aren’t quite what she imagined. Worn out by her 9-to-5 and dreaming of so much more than a dull commute and another birthday cake for a coworker, she begins to fantasize about a life beyond the square walls of her office. Encouraged to journal her thoughts and think about something more, a question rises to the surface: How much money does it take to change your life?

The answer is roughly 60K, actually — enough to quit her job, sell most of her worldly possessions and leave California for a walkabout in Europe. By scrimping wherever possible, she amasses enough to arrive in Paris and walk sip creamy lattes in the sidewalk cafes just as she imagined. Though she speaks no French, her arrival in the City of Light isn’t burdened by language barriers. She soon meets Christophe, a handsome butcher, and begins her French education rather romantically.

When she considered her talents back in America, one passion kept returning to her: art. Painting. With the time and freedom to now explore those dreams, she sets to work cultivating and fashioning an entirely new life for herself. And the results are pretty extraordinary.

Oh, friends. How to describe my love for Paris Letters? Picture me in my pajamas sipping coffee on a snowy day, imagining what it must feel like to step off a plane with only a tiny suitcase in a foreign city — unburdened, untethered, totally free. Though I love my own work, I know the constraints of a desk job all too well. The idea of abandoning it all to chase your passions — in Paris! — holds an allure I can’t deny.

For Janice, shedding her old skin and finding love in France is revelatory. Who among us can’t relate to holding that holy grail of professional accomplishment — that “I did it!” cup declaring you finally met a longstanding goal — only to realize . . . you’re not happy? It isn’t what you wanted after all? If the joy is in the journey, reaching the end of that journey — job stability; boring routines — isn’t actually so joyous in the end.

And that’s okay.

Janice’s experiences in Europe are absolutely enchanting — and I’m going to be honest here. It’s been a long time since I read a Paris- or London-themed book that didn’t make me green and rage-y with jealousy. Usually when I read a memoir about an American/Canadian upending their lives to eat macarons, write and paint abroad with a seemingly unending pile of cash, I think, Oh, golly — must be freakin’ nice.

Snidely. Like, in a really mean voice.

But here? All I felt about Janice’s story was complete enchantment. She’s down-to-earth, friendly, funny, interesting. Writing honestly about both her feelings on leaving behind her old life and the stress of beginning a new one (and with a new man), I bonded with Janice immediately — and that’s all to say nothing of her actual Paris letters, which she paints, writes and addresses to subscribers through Etsy. When I finished Paris Letters, I made a mad scramble to see if her work is still available online — and it is! My first letter is en route.

If you need me, I’ll be lingering around my mailbox.


4.5 out of 5!

Pub: Feb. 4, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


P.S. As Janice works to save enough cash to explore her wanderlust abroad, she makes many financial sacrifices and decisions (both big, like selling her car, and small). I was thrilled to see some of her tips at the end of the book! A few of my easily-attainable favorites:

1. Used up her beauty samples and creams that were just “so-so” before buying her favorites.
2. Stopped buying things just because they were on sale and a “good deal.”
3. Stopped buying decorative things for her apartment.
4. Invited friends out for hikes, coffee, or frozen yogurt, rather than wait until they invited her to pricey dinners.
5. Drank all the tea in her house before buying more. (And hey, sound familiar?)
6. Had car-free weekends, using her bike instead and saving gas. (Not feasible for all, but an interesting idea.)
7. Said no to dinners at restaurants, choosing to cook at home instead.
8. Did her own nails with already-purchased nail polish.
9. Got a cheaper phone plan — and a cheaper phone.
10. Stopped believing in storage solutions. The solution is to clean out closets.


Book review: ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed

WildI read Wild when I was feeling wild myself.

Isn’t it funny how that often works? A book seems to find you at precisely the point when its pages would bear something you really need to know.

For me, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of embarking solo to hike the Pacific Crest Trail so topical and enthralling . . . though I listened to the audio nonstop the weekend I moved to Spencer’s, feeling a little bit lost and anxious and uncertain. With Strayed’s soul sprawled bare on the pages, I felt like a warrior alongside her — a compatriot, a comrade. We were in this together.

Whatever “this” happened to be — for her, for me.

For Strayed, it was battling through grief after her mother is quickly taken from cancer. At 24, she’s very recently divorced, a recovering addict — a broken young woman wondering what and where her next move will take her.

On a whim waiting in line one day, she picks up a book that will change her life: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. Orphaned and bereft, the idea of leaving it all to hike is pretty appealing. She sells most of her possessions, buys a pack she will affectionately dub “Monster,” creates care packages to be delivered to herself at various post offices along the PCT and sets off.

The adventure is just beginning.

Before I randomly picked up Wild at the library after reading a post from Kim, I had no experience with Strayed. She’s the voice behind Dear Sugar, a popular online advice column — and reading through her backlog is pretty stunning. Many of her essays were recently compiled into Tiny Beautiful Things (and I plan to look for that soon).

PCTSo I came into Strayed’s memoir clean. No preconceived notions; no real plans or expectations. And while Wild could be a bit meandering at points, unruly and fierce but occasionally tedious, I really fell in love with the story. I fell in love with Cheryl, so crazed and raw and unsteady on her feet.

Because who hasn’t felt that way? Who hasn’t dreamed of chucking it all, selling off our crap and taking to the woods? I certainly have — and trust that I’m no nature girl. But the idea of living on the land, breathing the fresh air, wandering free with no plans or expectations save finding a clean water source (an important mission) . . . well, it really appeals to me on some deep, visceral level. The same way that traveling the world to “find ourselves” has become so synonymous with Eat, Pray, Love, you know?

The PCT itself is a central character in Strayed’s story, threatening to freeze her to death in one moment while barbequing her alive in the next. All told, Strayed hikes from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State, stopping along the way to chat with new friends, pine for Snapple, bum a meal from a kindly shopkeeper or bandage her damaged feet. Before she sets off to California, she has no real hiking experience; she’s an everyday person, a “regular” woman, and Cheryl wants only to stay one step ahead of her demons.

More than anything, Wild is a walk through grief. Her mother’s death changes everything. Nothing feels certain; everything is a gamble, a mess. And though Strayed takes this journey in 1995, the pain and confusion still feel very much on the surface. Because of this, many passages were very hard to get through.

There were places Cheryl walked that I couldn’t follow. The brutal final days at her mother’s side; the sickness of a beloved horse. A cold and brutal winter that finds her having to make an awful, terrifying decision. Strayed’s prose is so vivid, so gut-wrenching, that my stomach churned and my hands trembled until I had to move forward. I simply couldn’t take it.

It’s hard to capture in words the way this book made me feel. Perhaps because I was listening to it on audio, I was so lost in the woods with Cheryl that I felt bereft when our journey together was over. Though she doesn’t have that one major epiphany we expect from a memoir like this (and perhaps that’s a good thing), her transformation en route to Portland is sincere. Physically, she’s lean and muscular and bitten and bruised; emotionally, she’s fragile but stronger every day. Though nothing truly terrible befalls her, she has a few frightening experiences but lives to tell the tale.

And lives well. Strayed is now a New York Times bestselling author, a wife, a mother. A film adaptation of Wild starring Reese Witherspoon is in the works. She’s come a long way from the frightened but determined twenty-something taking on the PCT . . . and I feel fortunate to have found her.

Highly recommended to fans of memoirs, transformational or inspirational stories, or anyone looking for a riveting non-fic read. Wild is a truly memorable experience.


4.5 out of 5!

Pub: March 20, 2012 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library