Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikery

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It’s not fair. 
I wanted this book to go on forever. How could it be stolen away after only 7 short hours of becoming part of the Island Books family? I want to spend the rest of my life dusting dust jackets and connecting through words and books, growing old and wiser with A.J., Maya, Amelia, and Lambiase.

I could talk about the plot, but this book isnt about plot. It’s about the entire world of Alice Island and the specific intersection of books, ideas and people known as Island Books. I don't feel like I've listened to a book. It's more like I've visited another reality.

I love books about books, books about bookstores, books about booksellers. And this is one of the best. As any good book about books should do, this one talks about a LOT of books. Fortunately, here is a list of them that could keep us reading for many years  now if A.J. would just come talk to me about all of them.

This is a shining example of what a book can be even without vampires, superpowers, exploding buildings or fifty shades of anything. When a book can make me guffaw as well as feel wiser, more hopeful, as well as brokenhearted when it ends, I think it has earned its five stars.

Other helpful reviews:

Format: Hardcover
I absolutely loved this novel. A.J. Fikry is the owner of a small, independent bookstore on the small Alice Island in the Northeast. He is cynical, cranky, and depressed...and not without reason. The recent death of his beloved wife has left him a widower at the age of thirty-nine. Their shared love of books seems to have died with his wife and A.J. is left behind with only bitterness.

Enter an absolutely delightful cast of secondary characters who populate the island and A.J.'s life. You're bound to love at least one - if not all - of them.

Next we have the unexpected hope and redemption of A.J. I'm not giving any spoilers here. Yes, it's a feel-good book. But it's more than that: it's a love letter to the power books have in our lives. If you have ever felt changed by a book, this novel will speak to'll "get" it. And if you loved "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" or "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" you'll find lots to love here, as well - not because the plots are similar, but because of the similar feel to the novels that comes from a good cast of eccentric townsfolk, a small community, and a sense of closeness among the characters.
So I'll leave you with this: if you love reading books, do not miss this one. (I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it made into a movie!)


I always find it hard to review books that actually mean something to me. Books that leave a mark. Books that I've fallen in love with. Books that I close with a heavy heart.

It's so easy to rant and rave when you don't like a book. But what do you do when you love it? There's no amount of gushing and praising that I can do here, because it's not that kind of book. This book speaks for itself, and the story tells itself.

A.J. Fikry owns a bookstore on Alice island, called Island Books. He sells books, that's what he does. He's become grumpy, rude and disheartened since the sudden death of his wife and tries to drink himself to oblivion. He does not care much about anything anymore. He does not care about people, he does not even care about himself. He does not care about his store. Sales are dwindling. He treats people with vulgarity bordering on insolence - and Amelia, the publisher's agent who tries to sell him books, is one of those exposed to his irritable behaviour. But on a fateful night, following another fateful night where a rare book worth tons of money is stolen from his bookstore/home, he finds a baby girl left in his store with a note from the mother, telling him among many things that her name is Maya. With this sudden turn of events, Fikry's life, and his outlook on it, begins to change - and Gabrielle Zevin, along with all of her beautifully crafted characters, take us on an unforgettable journey with Fikry and Maya.

This book is about a bookseller, whose books - and Maya - change his life and that of many others. It is a literary, philosophical, love story. One that will take your breath away, and steal your heart. It is as the title says, a collection of stories from A.J. Fikry's life, and the development of his character and that of others is brilliant.

From Fikry, to Amelia, to Maya growing right before your eyes, to officer/captain/lieutenant Lambiase, and every other character that took part in this story - the character development was wonderful. The changes and growth, the unpredictability of every event. My God, when I remember the ride that Zevin took us on, I feel myself itching to grab the book again and reread the whole thing.
This is an unputdownable book. And I certainly did not put it down until the very last page.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Pieces of Peace

Copyright free for all non-commercial use.

I’ve been "for peace" since Vietnam became a part of my personal life in the mid-60s. I put flower stickers on my car (I was very naive) and took them off when, as a young, Marine wife, I was informed that Camp Pendleton found them offensive. 
I talked peace and backed the movement. I protested Iraq and never believed the WMD line. I thought I was thoroughly grounded in peace.

It wasn’t until Pacifica Graduate Institute sent out a call for submissions for their Pondering Peace in a World of Turmoil program, that I really stopped to think about what peace means. (The Pondering Peace program happens this weekend ... if you're anywhere close to Santa Barbara, check out this exciting event.)

Recently I read an article about what happened in Syria. The article told the story of how four years of devastating drought led to massive shifts in population from ruined farms (85% of the country’s livestock died) to urban ghettos. Homeless, jobless, hungry people are the fodder of revolution. We think of Syria as a victim of politics and religious differences when it is actually an early blow of climate change and what happens when desperate people are deprived of their basic needs. (For more about what happened in this Florida-sized country, read Imagine Florida.)

As I thought about peace, it suddenly became more than the absence of war. When people don’t have their basic needs met … food, shelter, safety, knowledge, work … they will fight to get it. Of course they will.

Those words had to be part of answer. Then, Barbara Gaughen-Muller, a friend and long-time peace activist, told me about a book she’s working on focused on the idea of “peace begins with me.” That makes sense so I began thinking about what I need to embody in order to truly support peace. The words that came included … gratitude, openness, hope, expression, courage.

However, it’s not just about our physical needs or how we are as individuals. Peace is about relationships and our interactions, how we live together. More words were needed for that part of the picture … equality, justice, compassion, forgiveness, generosity.

These aren’t all the words, of course, but, in the process of thinking about all these levels, I realized that peace isn’t something we do or don’t do (war). It’s about who we are and how we choose to be, individually and with each other.

Each of us is … or can be … a piece of peace. What word would you add as a "piece of peace?"

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Love Notes: Barbara Gaughen-Muller

Barbara Gaughen-Muller
Some miracles happen instantly: a call out of the blue, a sudden connection that takes you in a new direction, an insight that greets you when your eyes open in the morning.

Other miracles develop over time, building momentum until you’re finally gobsmacked by their magnitude. Barbara Gaughen-Muller is one of those slow building miracles in my life.

Barbara is a gift to everyone she comes in contact with. I call her a happy pill. She sees the best in everyone and never holds back in telling them how wonderful they are. I hope to someday be the person she thinks I am.

As often happens to people with an attitude like Barbara's, she has led a charmed life. She is a beautiful, larger than life presence who sweeps you up into her energy. She focused that energy into public relations and her talent for connection created magic from Hollywood to New York.

I met Barbara about 25 years ago and had the fun of watching her fall in love with Robert Muller, a life-long leader of the United Nations. Together they toured the world and hung out with a stellar crew of world movers and shakers. She lost Robert a few years ago but still pours her energy into the peace movement and played a key role in the Rotary World Peace Conference 2016 held earlier this year.

Over the years, in all my many zigs and zags, she has always found time to be a cheerleader for me. Talking to her for just a few minutes always gives me an "OMG I can do this” shot of adrenaline. And, sometimes, that’s all it takes … one person who believes in you.

Thank you, Barbara … I love you.

Barbara is also the co-author of Revolutionary Conversations which offers readers the brilliant SHARE model …  Stop-Help-Ask-Risk-Explore, which, once you understand it, becomes an almost automatic way of thinking.

Read more about Barbara here:

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Gratitude for Past Miracles: Diane Walker

Facebook cover art by Diane Walker
Almost seven years ago, a stranger who would soon become a friend, changed my life with four words. She also reminded me of the world of blogging, something that had slipped away during the years of illness that ended with the death of my husband.

This note is for Diane Walker, a remarkable artist/photographer, creative being and generous soul. Above is a small sample of her art from her Facebook page: Contemplative Photography by Diane Walker:

I met Diane at a Miksang photography workshop taught by Michael Wood in Boulder, CO.  The workshop was already in the process of changing forever the way I see and take photographs but it was at lunch one day when I found myself pouring out my story and Diane said the four words that woke me up.

The words don't seem all that magical by themselves, but they were like a key finely ground to fit a particular lock. I told the story in my second blog post on this blog which I started within days of meeting Diane and seeing her blog. You can read it below.

Finding that old post, reminds me that we never know the effect we have on others with our words, our actions, and the example of our own lives. One of my favorite quotes comes from Bali ...
Someone out there needs you.
Live your life so they can find you.

What I want to say today, seven years later, is ... thank you Diane for your words at that critical moment in my life when I truly needed them. Thank you for the continuing example of someone living and growing in creative expression. Thank you for the kindness and beauty that you pour so generously into the world.

Meeting you was a miracle. I knew it then and I look at my life today in all its joy and fulfillment and it has your fingerprints all over it. Thank you so much for being you and for the gift of knowing how to fill my cup!

Blog Post: September 15, 2009 - 
My Cup Is Empty

We are sitting at lunch at Boulder's Pearl Street mall when my new friend Diane says, "Your cup is empty" and the words telegraph through my body and find their mark deep in my heart. And, as tears begin to flow, I realize that I am empty ... broken open, depleted and disconsolate, far from the dyed-in-the wool, rose-colored-glasses, cheerful optimist that I had been.

Three years of loss piled one upon another until I am sitting here in this strange state feeling utterly alone, homeless, rootless, without solid ground to hold onto. I suddenly know that I am an empty vessel and am not completely sure that I am not too broken to ever be filled again.

Mary Oliver's words from "The Journey" echo in my mind, "It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones." My path seems confounded and blocked by the fallen branches and stones, and perhaps I will never be able to clear them. Sorrow, fear, pain and aloneness envelop me and I'm not sure I have the energy to find my way out. By myself, I feel too weak to grapple with this challenge and I find myself clinging to a past-relationship as if it's my only hope.

And yet, the simple act of admitting that I am empty seems to let me hear a small, new voice that says simply: "Begin, do what brings you joy, take one step at a time and tend your spirit."

What brought me to this place and introduced me to my new friend, who with just four words stripped me bare of my false-front of strength and independence, was a Miksang workshop about seeing in a new way and capturing those new perceptions through photography. Miksang is a Tibetan word that means "good eye" and is as much a meditative practice as a photography technique.

We had been using the technique for two days and, as always, the act of taking pictures, capturing small pieces of beauty, was bringing me joy but, in some ways, it felt like layering wallpaper over a wall that had not been washed clean of years of grime and debris. The pain was still swirling an indelible pattern below the surface. Admitting to myself my vulnerability to pain and loss seems like a first step in cleaning that surface. Perhaps now the Miksang practice of awareness and perception, the slowing down and taking each step with intention, will allow the joy of each perception to stick and gradually begin to refill my cup.

I feel a great sense of relief. I have been looking around rather desperately for a project, a mission, a way of serving, in actuality, anything that would distract me from the pain. Now I realize that I am not ready to go out into the world. I have nothing to offer because I am empty. Who I was has drained away and who I will be has not made an appearance. So now I am unformed, uncertain of anything except my emptiness and a willingness to walk toward spirit, a willingness to be filled.

One Afternoon in a Forest

One Afternoon in a Forest

One afternoon I dozed in a dappled grove.
Somewhere between
here and there,
Somewhere between
light and shadow,
Somewhere between
word and image,
I dreamed.

I see a shimmering veil of green and yellow stripes
Flow behind the daughter of water,
Flow like silken hair as she steps onto the bridge,
Flow under the divide between yesterday and tomorrow,
Flow like amber trapped in the eternity of now.

I hear the lonesome creek ripple across pebbles,
sing a snaking song line between tree roots,
sing golden notes across mica-flaked sand bars,
sing hosannahs to the day-night-day journey,
sing not at all of the beginning or end.

I touch a pink petal dropped onto the isle of separation,
drift on the cool, clear water,
drift in lazy circles into a timeless eddy,
drift, warmth hungry, against a sun-lit boulder
drift, unknowing, toward the unseen fall.

I smell sweet peas, tangled and wild,
twirl past permission, boundaries and beliefs,
twirl into riotous, unbridled abundance,
twirl toward some unknown destination,
twirl perfume into the sweetened water.

I taste the conjoining of orange and purple,
wake as passion draws a measureless breath,
wake to the first sweet swelling of creative abandon,
wake to the crack of the boulder of expectation,
wake to the birthing ...
                                       of freedom.

by Joyce Wycoff

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: The Painted Drum (fiction)

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I've been looking for stories about fascinating women doing interesting things where the love relationship wasn't the only thing going on. This definitely filled that bill. The Baltimore Sun says it is "Her most gloriously lyrical and harshly beautiful book." It is definitely both.

This may not have been my favorite book but I knew from the beginning that I was in the hands of a master story teller and a verbal artist.

I was drawn to the subject and I loved that part of the story even when it is very harsh. And the author's and thinking is captivating. For instance:

"Ravens are the birds I'll miss most when I die. ... If only we did not have to die at all. Instead become ravens. I've watched these birds so hard I feel their black feathers split out of my skin."

I was fascinated by Faye's life as an estate appraiser. The idea of sorting through the detritus of a life is probably not as glamorous as it sounds, but it sounds like a treasure hunt. Faye sounds weary, though, as she says, "All I have is other people's lives."

When she takes an action that is very unlike her normal self, she states, "I have stepped out of rules and laws and am breathing thin, new air." I think all of us have that yearning, once in awhile, to breathe thin, new air.

I had difficulty connecting with Faye's life although I recognized her statement about her complicated relationship with a professor when she states, "I am not inexperienced in love, I just haven't been successful at it ... "

The book is filled with nuggets:
"Today, my art is blackberry jam." "Brush jewelweed and its seeds pop six feet." "The mind is a wolf." "The knowledge was there, in the tiny black eyes sharp as bitter stars.

The Washington Post Book World reviewer Donna Rifkind makes a comment that I think captures the flavor of this book: "Her (Erdrich) fictionalized version of the real Ojibwe tribe is a brilliant creation: it possess the instantly persuasive strangeness of something faithful to life."

The Painted Drum: A Novel (P.S.) Paperback – August 22, 2006 by Louise Erdrich (Author) 4.3 out of 5 stars 128 customer reviews
Amazon writeup: When a woman named Faye Travers is called upon to appraise the estate of a family in her small New Hampshire town, she isn't surprised to discover a forgotten cache of valuable Native American artifacts. After all, the family descends from an Indian agent who worked on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation that is home to her mother's family. However, she stops dead in her tracks when she finds in the collection a rare drum—a powerful yet delicate object, made from a massive moose skin stretched across a hollow of cedar, ornamented with symbols she doesn't recognize and dressed in red tassels and a beaded belt and skirt—especially since, without touching the instrument, she hears it sound. And so begins an illuminating journey both backward and forward in time, following the strange passage of a powerful yet delicate instrument, and revealing the extraordinary lives it has touched and defined.

Compelling and unforgettable, bestselling author Louise Erdrich's Painted Drum explores the often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters, the strength of family, and the intricate rhythms of grief with all the grace, wit, and startling beauty that characterizes this acclaimed author's finest work.

Useful review:
4.0 out of 5 starsSlow start, but then beautiful writing and storytelling take over
ByKindle Customeron May 3, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The novel starts in the present day and is very sluggish at first. Erdrich assumes too much and does not clearly place the reader in an understandable community -- at first. The same is true of the narrator's living situation. She is clearly a grown woman, living with her mother, carrying on a discreet affair with a neighboring sculptor. But why is it so discreet? This is never made clear. One is far into the book before beginning to understand why mother and daughter are together. Indeed, the answer to that question is central to the plot yet it is answered very abruptly, I thought.

Nonetheless, once the drum is introduced, the writing and the story jump to a whole other level. The stories about the drum are truly magical, mesmerizing. I went from slogging through the first part of the book to not wanting to put it down. The creation of the drum and the way in which it is imbued with the spirit of a young girl are the heart of the book and beautifully written. I highly recommend this book, even though you may have to do some work at the beginning to get into it. 

Book Review: Creating a Life Together (Co-Housing)

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In my travels, I find more and more of us "of a certain age" are talking about ways to build community, live together, support each other ... and avoid the dreaded institutionalized lives that face so many people.
I'm exploring a local co-housing project focused on expressive arts and the organizers insist on all interested parties reading this book.
It is a bit daunting as it rigorously strips the romance away and puts all the financial and organizational challenges in the spotlight.
I continue to be intrigued by the possibilities but am gradually becoming a little more informed about the pros and cons. More to come. 
 Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities Paperback – 2003 by Diana Leafe Christian (Author), Patch Adams (Foreword)
4.8 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

Amazon write up:
Creating a Life Together is the only resource available that provides step-by-step practical information distilled from numerous firsthand sources on how to establish an intentional community. It deals in depth with structural, interpersonal and leadership issues, decision-making methods, vision statements, and the development of a legal structure, as well as profiling well-established model communities. This exhaustive guide includes excellent sample documents among its wealth of resources.
Diana Leafe Christian is the editor of Communities magazine and has contributed to Body & Soul, Yoga Journal, and Shaman’s Drum, among others. She is a popular public speaker and workshop leader on forming intentional communities, and has been interviewed about the subject on NPR. She is a member of an intentional community in North Carolina.

Useful Review:
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a member of a group of folks currently planning an intentional community, I can testify to the fact that a million and one totally unexpected questions (not to mention the expected ones!) leap up to bewilder anyone thinking about creating an alternative living experiment. There are philosophical questions--what do we stand for (not just what are we against)? what's our vision?--and there are the nitty-gritty questions that have to do with land ownership, trusts, zoning permits, nonprofit status, and so on. Until you're actually in the process, you have no idea of how complicated the creation of an intentional community can be. No wonder fewer than 10% of planned communities actually get off the ground!

That's why Diana Leafe Christian's book is so invaluable. Written by someone who's been part of the intentional community movement for years, and a member of an ecovillage, "Creating a Life Together" could easily be subtitled "everything you always wanted to know about forming an intentional community but were afraid to ask." Especially valuable is its discussion of composing vision statements, thinking through what kind of land is right for your group, dealing with bankers who are likely to be wary of intentional living in the first place, and different strategies for conducting initial meetings and making group decisions--you'd be surprised how foreign consensus-style decision-making is to most of us.

A growing number of folks are searching for meaningful, peaceful, self-sufficient, and eco-friendly lifestyles-in- community that offer alternatives to the consumer-driven world. But building these communities is hard and sometimes perplexing work. Take all the help and advice you can get-and Christian's book is at the top of the list.