Category Archives: Guest Posts

Best Books About Love

The always-illuminating Flashlight Worthy Books has a new list up in honor of Valentine's Day: 9 of the Best Books About Love… That Your Book Club Probably Hasn't Read. I am happy to report that I contributed #7 on the list, one of my old favorites – The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel, by Alain de Botton. For more suggestions, check out the list.

What's your favorite book about love? (My absolute #1 is Pride & Prejudice, but I can't exactly suggest that for a list of books "that your book club probably hasn't read".)

Interview at Frugal Mama

Pigs-small My friend Amy Suardi is the author of Frugal Mama, an excellent blog about parenting and living a frugal (ie simple and happy) life. I love her blog, which is incredibly well-researched and beautifully written. She's only been at it for a few months, but she is already building a community and putting out great content. (You can also follow her on Twitter).

Today, Amy posted an interview with me about encouraging children to read, finding book clubs, and how to score inexpensive books. Check it out!

Guest Post From Flashlight Worthy Books

It's your turn to be the book blogger! See the post below from Peter at one of my favorite blogs, Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations – he needs your input.

Hello and happy new year from Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations – where you can find books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. ;-) 
It seems the book club community has recently discovered my book club recommendations. From the feedback, not only are the lists very much enjoyed, but people are clamoring for more.
That's where you come in. While I've read plenty of books, I'm looking to book club members to contribute new lists — themed, annotated lists of highly discussable books. 
you name and describe 5+ flashlight worthy, discussable books that
follow a theme? Maybe '7 Great Books that Revolve Around Food'? Or '6
Women's Memoirs That Will Start an Argument'. How About '5 Discussable
Novels Set in Africa'?
a look at the lists I have and give it some thought. If you're
interested, email me at Info AT flashlightworthy DOT com. Thanks so
much and have a great new year!
(The guy who runs Flashlight Worthy)
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. 😉

Flashlight Worthy’s Best Book Club Books for 2009

I am very honored to report that I was included on Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations' list of the Best Book Club Books for 2009! I love Flashlight Worthy's book lists, and I was thrilled when they asked me to submit a book for their list. [I will keep the book in suspense – you have to click through to the list to see what I recommended.]

There are a lot of books on the list that I'd like to read, such as Await Your Reply and The Help. Which have you read?

Guest Post: A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE by Anita Shreve

Thank you to guest-poster Nancy West for this review of A Change of Altitude by Anita Shreve.

Shreve On one level, A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve is a travelogue, depicting what it’s like to live as an American in Kenya in the late 1970’s. As seen through the eyes of young newlywed Margaret, Kenya is magnificent and yet terrifying, irresistible but also abominable, with its gorgeous scenery and mesmerizing wildlife but also corruption, poverty and crime. On another level, A Change in Altitude can be interpreted as an allegory for the first year of marriage, which is just what Margaret and her physician husband, Patrick, are undertaking simultaneous with their year in Kenya. Welcome to a strange new life, in which romance and excitement contrast with miscommunications, disappointments, domestic stress and in their case tragedy. Does that describe Kenya? Marriage? Or both?

I spent two weeks as a tourist in Kenya more than a decade ago, and I was fascinated, wondering what it would be like to live there. Through Margaret’s eyes, we find out: mostly it’s often really difficult. Robbery and other forms of crime are a constant threat, and like a lot of Americans and Europeans, Margaret suffers from guilt regarding Colonialism. Their servants work hard and loyally for them, only to be separated from their families for months on end or to go home to deplorably poor conditions, as Margaret discovers when she escorts a friend’s nanny to her home in the slums of Nairobi after the nanny survives a violent attack.

Patrick and Margaret’s real problems begin with a tragic event. They join another couple for a challenging hike up Mt. Kenya, and one of the friends meets with a disastrous end that Margaret may or may not be indirectly to blame for. From there, things only seem to get worse for the couple: they return home to suffer the guilt of the accident along with the ongoing stress of living in such a complicated place. Adultery tempts both husband and wife; even their professional lives encounter obstacles specific to Kenya.

With its ongoing themes of culpability, resilience, and how we decide whom to forgive and when and for what, we see in Margaret and Patrick’s story how both life in Kenya and marriage are obstacle-strewn landscapes not easily – and perhaps not happily – survived.

Guest Review: HOME SAFE by Elizabeth Berg

I am in a book lull right now. I am not enjoying the book I am reading… it’s not drawing me in, and I don’t look forward to reading it. I think I am going to set it aside, which is something I rarely do, and move on to something else.

I circled a book in BookPage a few weeks ago called Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Berg is one of those authors that I always see in bookstores, but I’ve never read anything by her. Home Safe looked good: a successful novelist tries to cope with the death of her husband while she learns some secrets about him and tries to make sense of them. BookPage calls Home Safe “a perceptive and sensitively written novel – a compassionate, illuminating narrative that examines the nature of love and the process of grieving.”

EDIWTB reader Nancy West wrote a guest review of Home Safe for the blog – here it is! Thanks, Nancy!

Berg I can’t think of a novel with a nicer protagonist than Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Helen Ames is simply one of the kindest, most well-meaning characters ever to serve as centerpiece of a work of fiction.  Here’s my favorite example out of many: struggling with a difficult relationship with her 27-year-old daughter, frustrated by writer’s block and heading into her first holiday season as a widow, Helen looks out a train window as she travels through the dark en route to her parents’ home for Christmas. “Every now and then, there is a house with a light on. She strains to see the people there, and across what seems a vast distance, she wishes them all well.” She wishes them all well? All the strangers whose houses are visible from the train tracks between Chicago and St. Paul? But yes, that’s just the kind of person Helen is. Blessed with personal happiness and creative success, she seems to have no greater priority than the general well-being of all of mankind.

A successful novelist living in the Chicago suburbs, Helen has enjoyed a wonderful marriage to a dear man who dies suddenly of a heart attack when Helen is 59. His loss reveals to her just how much she feels incompetent at managing, from personal finances to home repairs to effectively parenting the couple’s one child. And although it hasn’t been all that long – less than a year, when the novel begins – her friends and daughter are already expressing their concern that she isn’t bouncing back as quickly as she should. It doesn’t help that writer’s block is clouding a previously successful career or that none of the prompts that previously inspired her writing are working for her anymore. (The insider’s view of a novelist’s work life, including her rivalries with colleagues, her feelings about teaching, and how it feels to fail miserably at a speaking engagement, are an added attraction to the story.)

Though she doesn’t use the term, we can imagine Helen identifying herself as part of the sandwich generation, worrying about her 20-something daughter – a single magazine editor whom Helen would dearly like to see settled down with a husband – and her elderly parents, always a source of succor but gradually experiencing declines in their own health. What everyone except Helen seems to realize, though, is that the people Helen worries about are all managing their lives much better than she is; she would be better off tending to her own emotions than assuming they need her ministries.

Into the situation falls a bit of a mystery: Helen’s accountant calls to say that the retirement account that she believed held nearly a million dollars is nearly empty. Helen is bewildered as she contemplates all the possible ways her husband could have spent $850,000 before his death without telling her. Though she acknowledges all the tawdry possibilities – bigamy, blackmail, gambling – none of them seem likely to her. Soon enough, the mystery is solved for her, but it only serves to open up a new sphere of questions and decisions to ponder – even as the healing process gradually begins and Helen meets new friends, contemplates life changes and tries to return to her writing.

Guest Review: ONCE WAS LOST by Sara Zarr

When I was at BEA last spring, I picked up a few review copies of books that I ended up giving away to EDIWTB readers a few weeks later. One was a YA novel called Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr. Once Was Lost is coming out tomorrow, and Nancy West, who received my copy of the book, graciously wrote a review for EDIWTB. Here's her review:


One or two pages into Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr, I suspected I’d read this book before. Not literally – I was holding an advance reading copy of this novel which is scheduled for publication in October – but rather that I’d read too many of the same thing recently. Opening as it does with its adolescent female protagonist moping around the house preoccupied by her parents’ financial situation, her mother’s dysfunction/addiction problems, and the stifling southern heat, I felt like I was back in three or four other books I’d recently read, including Tomato Girl by Jane Pupek, Mrs. Kimble by Jennnifer Haigh and a still unpublished memoir by a member of the writing seminar I attended in June. 

But just a few more pages in and I was reassured that this was new territory, or, if not new, then slightly familiar territory with some very interesting new landmarks. Zarr’s 16-year-old heroine, Samara, is the daughter of a popular and attractive local preacher; her pretty mom is in rehab for alcoholism following a recent car accident. And although the family seems to be experiencing immediate cash flow problems, this isn’t another tale of southern poverty: they live in what appears to be a comfortable middle-class suburb, and one of the big questions facing Sam the summer before her senior year in high school is not how to buy groceries but whether her parents can make the upcoming tuition payment at her private school.

And then something unexpected drops into what seems to be a tale of quotidian grinding discouragement. Near the end of the kind of Sunday that seems to typify this summer for Sam – morning at church, trying to dodge friends’ and parishioners’ probing questions about her mother’s whereabouts; afternoon thinking about how to make the house look nicer for her mother’s eventual return from rehab – the younger sister of Sam’s secret crush disappears, plucked off the street in what appears to be an unwitnessed act of abduction. By evening, the “Amber Alert” is out and the community has swung into a fever pitch of anxiety and suspicion.

As the next seven days unfold, the crisis hijacks the ordinary lives of nearly everyone in Sam’s world. Her father, as minister to the kidnapped girl’s family, becomes not only pastoral counselor but spokesperson to the media, and Sam cannot help but note the way he rises to the occasion almost as if this is what his career has been heading for all along. Townspeople and church members eye each other warily even as they unite in grief: with a nice touch of up-to-the-minute reality, Zarr acknowledges that many of the key players in this small-town universe, including the minister and the missing girl’s family members, are likely to be viewed as suspects, and she deals accordingly though not laboriously with the necessary measures taken toward that end.

This story felt very 2009 to me, in a thought-provoking way. Cell phones and text messages were ever-present, not in the sense of brand-name dropping but rather as a reference to the issue of helicopter parenting, which is something of a subtext in this novel. On the one hand, a 13-year-old has just apparently been abducted; if ever there was a time for parents to hover protectively over their teens, this must be it. On the other, how is the game changed when those very same parents who hover like helicopters can’t themselves be trusted? Sam has a cell phone, but her mother won’t return her calls. Sam is under strict orders from her father as far as where to be when and with whom, but what about when she spots her father’s car in the driveway even as he insists via cell phone that he’s at a conference out of town?

I don’t normally read books classified as YA (young adult) and don’t have much of a feel for the genre; I’m not sure I would have known that this was YA rather than a novel for adults about teens (like Prep or Testimony) except that the language was, for lack of a better description, light on the ear and the storyline fairly straightforward. It’s not a genre I’m particularly interested in, and not having experience with recent YA literature, I’m not sure how it compares in literary value to others of its ilk, but I think Sara Zarr’s third novel shows a nicely emerging voice with an original perspective. And yes, the mystery of the missing girl reaches a reasonably satisfying conclusion by the end. Even if in general I’d rather be reading something a little more exotic than another story about hot summer days with dysfunctional southern families and a little more complex in voice and style, I’m glad I took time for this one.