A Journey of Discovery

When browsing my local public library’s virtual shelves for some inspiring reading, I saw this title. Intrigued, I placed a hold (the only way to choose a title prior to the library system’s full opening) and awaited its arrival. When the volume came, I beat a path to the closest branch library’s door and returned home with this treasure.

And a treasure it is. Here is my humble (and, as usual, wordy) review of this delightful book.

This is the tale of a journey, one that begins during author Judy Gruen’s childhood. The young girl is blessed with loving parents, and Judy’s grandparents are a big part of her life. It doesn’t take her long to discover that the two sets could not be more different. Cece and Papa Rosenfeld, her paternal grandparents, are modern atheists and proud of it. Papa is a successful businessman and Cece a physician (at a time when female doctors were a rare breed) in upscale West Los Angeles. In stark contrast, Nana and Papa Cohen are faithful to Jewish tradition. During their frequent visits, Papa devotes his time to religious activities—and Nana shows herself to be a classic balabusta (a time-honored wife) who combines homemaking with working to supplement her husband’s limited income.

However, traditional Sabbath night meals and synagogue attendance are the extent of the Rosenfeld family’s observance. As a teenager, Judy ponders the possibility of living in both of her grandparents’ worlds: is it doable to be true to Jewish tradition and live an intellectual and pleasurable life? Growing up in the turbulent 60s and 70s, and experiencing a devastating family tragedy, Judy has questions about G-d and His existence (and she believes He does, because such a complicated world must have a designer), and no one she feels she can ask them.

It is an adult Judy, after graduating from college with a degree in journalism and working in a profession she loves, who embarks on the next stage of her journey. It all begins when, still heartbroken after the end of a romance, she receives a phone call from a young man named Jeff. Newly relocated to Los Angeles, he got her name and number from a mutual friend. When they meet, she discovers that her new acquaintance is moving toward more religious observance. Judy finds this unsettling: how can she believe there is truth in a religion she equates with outdated, close-minded, sexist attitudes? However, Judy and Jeff, comfortable in each other’s company, continue to meet, even as she prepares to attend graduate school in Chicago.

Before departing for Chicago, Judy reaches the next stage of her journey. She finally agrees to accompany Jeff to a class given by the Orthodox Rabbi Lapin. The charismatic teacher, speaking to a group of people with backgrounds similar to hers and Jeff’s, delves into the deeper meaning of the subject with a dedication reminiscent of a good journalist. Intrigued, Judy agrees to attend future classes, where she is always ready to challenge Rabbi Lapin’s statements even as she finds meaning in his insights.

Author Judy Gruen tells the story of her journey from worldly youngster to devoted (yet still worldly) member of the religious fold with the skill of a talented writer. Her lively narrative is spiced with humor, descriptions that will resonate with contemporary readers (she refers to her nuptials as My Big Fat Jewish Wedding), and honest accounts of her internal and external struggles to fit into her new roles as a wife, mother, professional, and observant Jew. Judy’s openness will resonate with readers from many backgrounds: religious, those searching for meaning and purpose in their lives, non-Jews, and anyone who enjoys an uplifting, well-written story of self-discovery. Anyone who begins reading this memoir will be inspired by the author’s journey and rejoice as the tale comes full circle.  

An Amazing Journey

In my long hiatus as a blogger, I haven’t changed the types of stories that catch my fancy. My latest book isn’t about animals as impressive or fascinating as wolves, panthers, beavers, or seals, but one that nevertheless is a lovely part of the landscape. Without further ado, here is the story of a tiny but amazing critter.

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In 2013, Sara Dykman and a friend conceived an ambitious plan: to follow the annual migration, by bicycle, of monarch butterflies from their Mexico wintering grounds to destinations up north. Three years later, she decided it was time to make the adventure of a lifetime a reality and chose a start date. As the biologist (no stranger to lengthy bicycle tours) prepared to travel from Mexico to Canada and back along the monarchs’ routes north in the spring and south when summer gave way to autumn, she knew this would not be an ordinary bike tour. Sara was doing it for the monarchs, promoting their conservation and that of milkweed, the only plants their caterpillars could use for food.

In the winter of 2017, the author waits in a forested mountain part of Mexico for signs that the monarchs are about to begin their journey. When they take flight, Sara mounts her bicycle—loaded with camping supplies and other necessities—and heads north. As she travels, the adventurer takes every opportunity to share her message. Spending the night in a variety of locations—camping sites in both suitable rural and urban locations, pre-arranged homes, and residences of locals offering a place to stay—Sara fills her days with presentations. Catering each talk to her audience, she describes the plight of monarchs as habitats fall victim to development and milkweed to mowing, details what people can do to positively change the situation, and provides a demonstration of her mode of travel. Along the way, Sara mourns the loss of wildlife to traffic and mishaps (and rescues many critters from roads) and milkweed plants mowed from highway medians, golf courses, and impeccable lawns. And she celebrates the discovery of eggs, cocoons and monarch caterpillars chomping their way through milkweed leaves.

Author Sara Dykman’s first-person narrative of her remarkable trek is an eye-opening account of an even more extraordinary journey: the autumn flight of monarch butterflies to their overwintering grounds and their return north in the spring. Her description of her subjects’ awareness of changing seasons, navigational skills, and knowledge of appropriate egg-laying spots is a fascinating look at an amazingly sophisticated system for such a tiny creature.

The author’s account is peppered with events and encounters both memorable and humorous. Her story comes alive through descriptions of details of life on the trail: ensuring her tent will not flood when rain is on the horizon—and dealing with it when it happens, setting up camp in places as unlikely as a commercial parking lot, finding her own brand of “sandwiches” (ingredients eaten one after the other instead of combined between two pieces of bread) less time consuming to prepare after a long, exhausting day, and doing laundry in a shower stall.

Sarah Dykman’s fascinating account is spiced by passages that are sheer poetry:

One “can only dream of the millions of bison that once chomped, wandered, and produced the prairie under the gaze of visiting monarchs. Looking out at the broken scraps of what once was, my heart is broken, too.”

“Humans keep taking, and wildlife keeps trying to make do.”

All these elements combine to make the author’s story one readers will have a difficult time putting down until the satisfying conclusion. We, like Sara Dykman, cannot help but be enamored by these tiny but amazing creatures and hope they have a future on our planet.  Her journey is an enlightening learning experience for her even as she teaches others, and readers will discover truths about our world and its human and animal inhabitants. This book deserves a place alongside memorable and inspiring wildlife rehabilitation books like American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee and Eager by Ben Goldfarb. The author’s mission, to enlighten people of all ages and three countries about the creatures whose path she follows, makes Bicycling with Butterflies not her story, but the monarch’s.  

After reading this story, I have another reason to look forward to spring: a chance to spot a monarch butterfly flying overhead or flitting around our part of the world.

The Little Seal That Could

I’m continuing my literary love for all the marvelous animals who populate the Creator’s magnificent world.

Author Terrie M. Williams takes readers on a journey of discovery. She introduces us to a creature not familiar to many: the Hawaiian monk seal.

The story opens on a stormy spring evening off the coast of Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. Six paddlers aboard a canoe have lost their way in a downpour. As the danger grows with the triple threat of growing darkness, hypothermia, and tiger sharks swimming below, a more benign creature spots them. One paddler recognizes the visitor as KP2, a ten-month-old Hawaiian monk seal who took up residence a few weeks before. The human-loving youngster is looking for playmates but responds when the paddlers tell him to “go home.” KP2, sensing something is different, swims away and the canoers follow. Within twenty minutes, humans and seal enter the calm waters of a harbor. KP2 swims off and climbs onto a docked boat to await morning and the return of children with whom to play.

The author turns her attention to her own younger years. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be a dog. Even though this did not happen, the little girl discovered she could understand animal “language” and predict their next moves. As she grew, Terrie’s affinity for animals developed into a career of wildlife research in all corners of the world. Yet, there was only one creature who could “read” her in return.

On May 1, 2008, a Hawaiian monk seal dubbed KP2 (Kauai Pup 2) was born. Almost immediately, the pup found himself under attack by a male who saw him as an obstacle to mating with his mother. Unlike most mothers of her species, she did nothing to protect her newborn—and even attacked the baby herself. Fortunately for the pup, members of the Kauai Monk Seal Team were watching. Since his species was endangered, the observers decided to rescue him.

In faraway Antarctica, Terrie is one of eight researchers working with Weddell seals. While there, she receives an enticing email: would she like to care for KP2 in her California lab? Knowing the danger of extinction monk seals face, she consults with Beau Richter, one of her trainers working with her in Antarctica, and agrees. Terrie travels to Hawaii to meet the young seal.

Despite the locals who protest the removal of “their” seal, Terrie arranges for his transportation to San Diego aboard a Navy plane. Awaiting his arrival are Terrie, Beau, and fellow trainer Traci Kendall. The trio loads KP2 onto a rental truck and they begin the nighttime trek to Santa Cruz in northern California. Upon their 3:00 a.m. arrival, excited student volunteers welcome the young seal and ask his name. Terrie responds with the moniker given him by Hawaiians when he left: Ho’ailona, a special seal with a special purpose and a sign from the ocean. Now she must fend off curiosity seekers and reporters who have somehow learned that a celebrity seal is hidden at the lab. Knowing that he is vulnerable to disease caused by microorganisms different from those in Hawaii, and wanting him to remain healthy and able to “meet” the other lab animals, Terrie refuses permission.

However, even when KP2 is found to be healthy, everything is not rosy. The youngster refuses to eat until ingenious Traci, understanding his need for human contact, tricks him into accepting the fish he usually rejects. Training KP2 to follow commands that will enable Terrie and others to examine and work with him is difficult: he, like other monk seals, is stubborn, and his poor eyesight means he must employ other means to maneuver around his world. Just when the team is making monumental discoveries that could save KP2’s species, a combination of events conspire to throw a wrench into their progress.

Author Terrie M. Williams’ affinity for and empathy with all the critters inhabiting our planet spring forth on every page. This quality and a gift for storytelling combine to bring the tale of KP2 to life. All players in the young monk seal’s drama have a voice: from the Hawaiians who want to keep Ho’ailona home, to the government representatives who must follow (and occasionally bend) the rules, to the dedicated and clever animal care experts so instrumental to KP2’s well-being, to members of the public with a wholesome concern for all creatures and a healthy, unpolluted future for our planet.

Williams’ recognition that the scientist does not have the final say in determining the course of study, but that his or her subjects often take the lead and provide surprising and enlightening insights into their behavior and abilities, is refreshing. She interjects a healthy bit of humor into the adventures and day-to-day realities of those whose lives and careers are dedicated to the survival of KP2 and his fellow monk seals. Readers from teens to senior citizens will be inspired by the little seal that could—and those who have given him a voice—and cheer for him every step of the way.

 

Beavermania

Since I, like so many, find myself spending a lot of time at home, there is a bright spot: more time to read and share books with any audience who is willing to listen to or read my musings. And since I have a sense of wonder about our world and its many inhabitants, volumes featuring any critter naturally catch my attention. So please join me in discovering an animal many don’t think much about but is worthy of our attention.

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This is the story of humans’ relationship with members of the Castor family: rodents who, according to author Ben Goldfarb, are some of our “closest ecological and technological kin.” We are both creative tool users who choose to live near water (especially agriculturally productive valley floors made by rivers), have a penchant for designing elaborate structures, and are compelled to reorganize our surroundings to better provide shelter and food rather than be satisfied with the status quo.

However, these striking similarities do not necessarily endear us to beavers. These misunderstood rodents were viewed by newcomers to North America merely as a source of fur perfect for wearing apparel, especially hats. In fact, the fur trade—and the wealth it brought and territorial conflicts it generated—played a role in early American history from the Pilgrims to the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the western United States and Canada became denuded of beavers by the middle of the 19th century, their former habitats became towns, farms, and industrial sites.  Castors were not missed: the critters were viewed as pests whose dams flooded farms and ranches and destroyed desirable trees and other vegetation.

Things began looking up for North America’s largest rodents as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Between 1872 and 1905, national parks, refuges, and forests were created and wildlife-protective legislation was passed. The powers that be discovered the vital role that the humble beaver plays: as a keystone species responsible for a healthy ecosystem that supports a variety of creatures up and down the food chain. For well-watered areas created by dams and their vegetation provide homes and sustenance for ducks, moose, elk, and deer—and the wolves and mountain lions relying on them for food. (The big predators return the favor, as controlling the numbers of their prey makes more room for beavers.)

As a result, in the first two decades of the new century, beavers were reintroduced to a number of states, where they thrived and their numbers mushroomed. However, their return was not always welcome. Beaver dams, even as they increased all-important water levels and replenished underground aquifers as their ponds’ contents seeped into the soil, also caused roads and crops to be flooded.

Enter Mike Callahan and Skip Lisle, the geniuses behind Beaver Deceivers: flow devices allowing ponds to partially drain into creeks, with pipes enclosed by a fence so the animals cannot plug them. At a yearly price tag that is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of road restoration, together with the miniscule outlay for beaver-created wetlands ($14 an acre as opposed to an average of $38,725 per acre for wetland restoration), these deceptively simple devices are a win-win situation for landowners and Castors alike.

With a major hurdle out of the way, landowners whose property suffered damage at the hands of beavers began to increasingly call on not trappers but removal and relocation specialists such as Kent Woodruff and Washington State’s Methow Beaver Project. Their techniques are being adopted throughout the nation with extraordinary results. In Woodruff’s words, “We’re not smart enough to know what a fully functional ecosystem looks like. But beavers are.”

Author Ben Goldfarb’s gift of language turns a historical record of the relationship between beavers, their fellow creatures, and humans into a mesmerizing read. His fascination for his subject fills every page.  Chapter titles like “Dislodged” and “California Streaming” add spice to this delectable account. An animal that takes a back seat to wolves, cougars, deer, dolphins, and many more charismatic players on the world environmental stage comes into its own under the author’s capable pen.

Yet Goldfarb does not expect his readers to take his word for it. He deftly describes up close and personal encounters with Castor advocates and habitats on both sides of the Atlantic and, more importantly, with beavers themselves. With healthy doses of humor, the author presents his case—and that of beaver aficionados everywhere—in a manner that will resonate with readers on both sides of the debate.

Goldfarb’s eye-opening, informative account is more than an attention-grabbing story. He has obviously done his homework; copious footnotes provide sources for historical and contemporary quotations, research, and events, and a detailed index provides quick access to the subject matter.

As a bonus, several pages of photographs demonstrate the efforts by human and animal participants in the cause of beaver restoration. (There is a small detraction in this book: the author makes occasional use of strong language that may be off-putting to some readers.)  All in all, Eager is a fitting tribute that will make readers see beavers in a whole new light.

Turkey Tale

Last week, National Geographic published a timely article; timely, because of the date—close to Thanksgiving—and the topic—turkeys. Once, wild gobblers were plentiful throughout this country. However, by the Civil War, their numbers were decimated because of excessive hunting and loss of forest habitat.

This drastic decline led a New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife biologist to reintroduce 25 birds in 1975. Expecting at most a few thousand turkeys to descend from them, he has watched their numbers to explode to 40,000. With neighboring states boasting similar population increases, wild turkey introduction has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

The birds themselves are largely to be thanked for the population explosion: they can live almost anywhere and thrive near human habitations. People who keep feeders well stocked with birdseed for their hoped-for avian visitors (of whom turkeys are almost certainly not on the expected guest list) provide a ready source of nourishment. Add to these factors a dearth of traditional predators like wolves and cougars, and the stage is set for one of the most fruitful wildlife reintroduction events in the nation’s history.

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Turkey Crossing Guard

Actually, the unfortunate disappearance of wolves and cougars from their ancestral habitats brings to mind two other wildly successful reintroductions. Naturally, I learned of them through books chronicling the (largely man-made) decline of these magnificent apex predators and the often hindered efforts to restore them to their proper place.

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Back in the late 1890s, Yellowstone National Park’s powers that be believed predators would decimate elk and bighorn sheep—animals which brought visitors in droves. These officials saw one solution: entirely eliminate wolves, a goal which was achieved by the mid-1920s. However, the plan backfired, as the population boom in prey animals wreaked havoc on their populations as well as those of other Yellowstone critters. To remedy this situation, wildlife officials—after hearing from proponents and opponents of the plan—okayed the release of 32 Canadian wolves in 1995 and 1996.

By 2009, under the watchful eyes of biologists, park rangers, amateur wolf watchers, and a filmmaker, 1700 wolves belonging to numerous packs called the northern Rocky Mountains home. Now the challenges became ensuring that the big canines remain protected and convincing elk hunters that wolves are not responsible for the reduction in numbers of their quarry.

Nate Blakeslee’s story of the return of wolves to Yellowstone is as captivating as a great novel. The author’s admiration for these smart, devoted, social creatures is obvious; yet it does not prevent him from open-mindedly presenting all sides of the restoration question. Blakeslee has a gift of combining a historian’s detachment with an advocate’s passion about the subject. Readers interested in environmental issues, social concerns, wildlife, and history will want to add this account to their shelves. It’s vital reading for anyone preparing for or following a career in biology, wildlife management, the national park system, or social concerns. Even people who have not given wolves much thought might find themselves aficionados by the time they finish American Wolf.

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Now it’s the big cat’s turn. In a book scheduled for publication in January, 2020, Craig Pittman introduces us to the puma, aka cougar, mountain lion, tiger, catamount, and panther. Like all apex predators, these cats are necessary for a viable ecosystem. And like wolves, puma subspecies once thrived in varied regions of the U.S. yet fell victim to people’s fears for their safety and their livestock.

Today, cats live in only one state east of the Mississippi: Florida, where they are known as panthers. Even there, their survival has been endangered by fear, loss of habitat due to development, highway expansion, corporate greed, and–amazingly–government  wildlife officials bowing to lobbyists and undermining their staffs’ recommendations for panther protection. By the time they began to actively improve the cat’s lot in the 1960s, biologists and veterinarians faced the grim possibility that there were no panthers left outside of the Everglades. It has taken a diversified cast of characters, some with their own agendas yet united by one goal, to stand up to all opposition and ensure a future for Florida’s state animal.

Craig Pittman, a not-so-secret admirer of panthers, uses his journalistic talents to tell their story with a blend of humor, passion, irony, and objectivity. He brings the hopes, plans, and schemes of heroes and villains alike to life. Readers feel the dreams, exhilaration, outrage, and frustrations of those who have devoted their careers and lives to ensuring that America’s cat overcomes its challenges and be a source of enjoyment and admiration for generations to come.

During and after reading these heartwarming tales, I began to think about my affinity for creatures of all kinds. What makes a woman entering—and now in—her golden years feel for the plight and express concern for the future of wildlife? True, there have been remarkable women like Marjory Stoneman Douglas (the author of Everglades: River of Grass) who became a panther advocate in her late 70s and spent the next thirty years actively working to preserve the environment. Yet I have not extensively researched or written anything on this topic or worked in a professional or even amateur capacity to protect our planet and its inhabitants.

The answer has to be my religious tradition. Judaism places a premium on animal protection; teachings are full of rules governing treatment of our feathery and furry friends and the avoidance of physical and emotional cruelty. In fact, the guidelines all people are expected to live by (the seven Noahide laws) stress the importance of this idea. And the reward is great for one who sends away a mother bird so she will not suffer the anguish of seeing a person take her young. In addition, we are enjoined to emulate the positive characteristics of various creatures (the strength of a lion, for one) in service of our Creator. There are so many more examples of the proper and requisite attitude we must have towards the animals with which we share this world; to enumerate them all would fill volumes. Yet it can be summed up in a nutshell: Judaism is a compassionate way of life whose emphasis on kindness extends to all the inhabitants of planet Earth, animal and human alike.

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I’ve Come Back

Time flies! Is it really a year and a half since I posted a review? Since there is (no surprise there) a book waiting for me to share, here is something that is long overdue. This drop-everything-and-read title is The Blink of an Eye: a Memoir of Dying—and Learning How to Live Again by Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard.

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Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard plays many roles: she is an accomplished scientist; the devoted and beloved wife of Peter Kjaergaard, the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s director and a university professor; and the loving mother of 18-year-old Johan, 14-year-old Victoria, and eight-year-old Daniel. Blessed with a family who taught her to believe in herself and a husband who shares the sentiment, Rikke spent a year completing work on a Ph.D. while Peter took on the role of both parents. The couple’s work took them to two Cambridges—England and Massachusetts—and California. Rikke, with her love of travel, felt at home in all of these places while remaining proud of her Danish heritage.

As Rikke’s incredible story opens, the family lives in a large town in Denmark. On the last evening of 2012, the Kjaergaards host a party for some friends. Ever optimistic and looking ahead, Rikke enjoys the beginning of every new year. (Even becoming seriously ill with a chronic condition—systemic lupus erythmatosis—at age 20 did not put a damper on her spirits or her determination to live life to the fullest.) On January 1, the parents, their children, and a friend of Peter’s take a walk along a river near their home. As the others go ahead, Rikke begins to feel chilled and too weak to keep up. She puts it down to being tired after their late-night gathering. However, nothing works to keep her warm, and a fever and unpleasant symptoms develop. The Tamiflu prescribed by a doctor and a penicillin injection do not help.

By the time paramedics take Rikke to the hospital, she has deteriorated—and goes into cardiac arrest. The first responders restart her heart, but Rikke’s body is failing. At the hospital, doctors reach a diagnosis: pneumococcal menginitis, an illness usually stopped in its tracks by the spleen with no more serious symptoms than those resembling a mild cold. However, a scan reveals only the remains of this organ. With nothing to trap the bacteria, Rikke’s body is easy prey.

When the dangerously ill patient begins to awaken from a coma, she discovers that the disease has left her with severe brain damage, no short-term memory, and the ability to move only her eyes. Rikke and Peter quickly devise a system of blinking to answer questions and spell out words. Her innate determination comes to the fore, and—with the help of her family and dedicated medical professionals—she begins the long journey back to the land of the living. Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges they present, even naysaying practitioners cannot deflect Rikke from her goal: to return home and resume her place as wife, mother, and productive member of society. As her rehabilitation commences, she sums it up: “Now more than anything, I wanted to be with my children, to talk to them, answer them, play with them, walk with them, eat with them, read to them. To be their mother again. My dreams soared.”

Author Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard tells her extraordinary story with the craft of a novelist. The horror of awakening with no control over most of her body and the other devastating effects of the disease are described with the precision of the scientist. Yet, the reader is privy to the thoughts, fears, and frustration that plague the patient.  Rikke’s heroic efforts to prove to herself and those around her that an intelligent, capable, feeling human being resides within her damaged body and brain are nothing short of inspiring. People following her story feel like front-row observers as they share the disappointments and rejoice at the triumphs, large and small, that mark the patient’s journey. Rikke has the gift of relating all the details of her experience—even the most disturbing—in language that neither sugar-coats nor appalls. As such, this heartfelt and heartwarming memoir is an appropriate read for young teens and adults alike.

The Recipe Box Revisited

In my previous post, I talked about a soon-to-be-published novel that had me mesmerized from page one. Now that I’ve completed my official review, I would like to share it with my patient readers. (As mentioned, this review is double the length of most that come out of my [virtual] pen.)

Readers are in for a literal and literary treat.

Viola Shipman’s delectable story opens in the fall of 1939. Alice Mullins looks out the window of her northern Michigan farmhouse to see her husband, Leo, and their dog Mac approach from the orchard. Alice decides to make something special for Leo with the apples he brings her. While the apple crisp bakes, she writes down the oft-used recipe for the first time. A few days later, Leo presents his wife with a handmade locked recipe box. For the next several weeks, Alice writes down every recipe she can think of—and keeps the key on a chain around her neck.

Fast forward to 2017. Sam Nelson, Alice’s great-great-granddaughter, has left home to follow her dream: attend culinary school and work in New York City. The twenty-four-year-old is a pastry chef on a reality TV show hosted by “Chef Dimples,” a pompous man with no culinary skills who relies on his staff’s creations. On a dreary summer morning, Sam arrives at work at the same time as Angelo Morelli, a young man delivering fruit to the bakery. After Angelo expresses his appreciation to the young woman for encouraging him to attend college, the two enter the premises—only to discover that Trish, another chef, has quit rather than continue working for their unscrupulous, callous boss. When Chef Dimples arrives, he orders Sam (in the absence of a “real” pastry chef) to make a pie for the show, which is being featured on Good Morning America.

In the first of many perfectly-placed flashbacks, we meet Sam on her 13th birthday. Disgruntled about having to spend another summer on the Mullins Family Orchard, picking fruit and greeting guests, she shares her desire to see the world beyond northern Michigan with her grandmother Willo and mother Deana. That evening, the new teen is introduced to two family traditions: her own recipe box and key, complete with recipes written over the generations, and a baking session. As grandmother, mother, and granddaughter prepare Sam’s first peach-blueberry slab pie, Willo tells her to make it whenever she wants a “taste of home and family” and to demonstrate that appearances are not what matters; what’s inside is what counts.

Back in the present, Sam recalls her grandmother’s words as she fingers the recipe box key worn on a chain—and bakes the unattractive but delicious peach-blueberry slab pie. Despite the fact that her boss obviously enjoys the pastry, he acts true to form. Chef Dimples throws it into the garbage, ordering Sam to bake a real pie. She has had enough: she quits.

Confused and unhappy, Sam flies back to Michigan, feeling like she is returning with her tail between her legs. Even though she keeps her recent experience a secret, her grandmother and parents sense there is something Sam is hiding—and find opportunities to talk about their own life events. Hearing how a young Willo sought out a deserted spot to rethink her life and whether what others expected of her was what she wanted for herself; the chance her recently-married father had to follow what he thought was his dream until a simple event opened his eyes; and the memory of a story about a teenage Deana’s experiences that mirrored her own all shed new light on Sam’s perception of reality.

However, before Sam has an opportunity to come to terms with everything, she receives two calls: one about a promising job opportunity in New York, and the second from Angelo—who drops the bombshell that he is coming to Michigan. Now Sam—with a little help from family and friends—must discover where her path lies.

Viola Shipman’s heartwarming novel is like a breath of fresh Michigan air. While there are many quality works of fiction published every year, one that tells a memorable story and is free of strong language, sex, and violence is a rarity. From the moment readers meet the scions of the Mullins family and those who carry on their legacy, they are hooked. All the people in Sam’s world—past and present—are believable. The author paints such a vivid picture of the settings, whether crowded Manhattan streets or secluded Lake Michigan beach, the reader can visualize the rain-dampened pavement and see and smell a dew-laden orchard at sunrise. Each chapter centers around a deliciously appropriate dessert, complete with a recipe at its end.

Shipman’s gift of language is nothing short of amazing: “The lake extended as far as Willo could see—a watery blue fabric that moved in the wind, the lighthouse watching over everything.” “Sam expected to smell the spices from the Indian restaurant, Naan Better, that occupied the ground floor of her Brooklyn apartment building and to see a brick wall across the narrow street that served as a sort of Broadway backdrop to the choreographed chaos of the city streets that greeted her every morning: people scurrying to work, cab horns blaring, sirens whirring, a world of music echoing up to her.”

By the time readers reach the end of this achingly lovely tale, they are certain to have a new favorite literary heroine (or two or three). It should not come as a surprise if, like this reviewer, readers find themselves returning to the beginning and treating themselves to a second helping.

Now that I’ve delighted in this gem twice, I am looking forward to checking out Viola Shipman’s earlier novels.

A Story As Sweet As Pie

I think I might have just read the book of the year.

Several years ago, I joined netgalley.com, a source of about-to-be-published books available for review. The titles I’ve chosen to read range from so-so to exceptional. When, earlier this winter, a book caught my attention, I jumped at the chance to request it.

The title of this gem is The Recipe Box by Viola Shipman. The author is relatively new to the scene; her first novel, The Charm Bracelet, was published in 2016.

After I finished reading the story, I returned to the beginning for the purpose of taking notes for my review. However, the tale drew me in–and I found myself rereading the novel. When, midway through the second reading, I felt it was time to write the review already, I did so (while continuing to read). By the time my thoughts on The Recipe Box were complete, the review was a whopping 900 words–more than double my normal length. (And that is without giving away the glorious ending!) I’ve reread the review several times, but I cannot bring myself to cut more than a few words here and there.

But I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. Even though I cannot include the review here (at least until I submit it to Netgalley close to the publication date), here is a sample.

In 1939, Alice Mullins looks out the window of her farmhouse as husband Leo and their dog return from the orchard. When they enter with a basket of apples, she decides to make an apple crisp; and, on a whim, writes down the often-used recipe for the first time. When, several days later, Leo presents her with a locked homemade recipe box, Alice puts the key on a chain around her neck, writes all the recipes she can think of, and begins a family tradition.

The year is now 2017. Sam Nelson, Alice’s great-great-granddaughter, is following her dream of working as a pastry chef in New York City. Her boss is the famous “Chef Dimples,” a pompous, callous man with a reality TV show. However, he has never baked a thing in his life; his bakery is full of the creations of his staff. When pastry chef Trish quits because of her employer’s attitude, Sam is under orders to bake a pie because Good Morning America is featuring Chef Dimples.

Remembering her official introduction to the world of baking on her 13th birthday, the young woman fingers her own recipe box key on a chain and decides to make the unattractive but surprisingly delicious peach-blueberry slab pie.  Recalling grandmother Willo’s advice to bake it whenever she wants to demonstrate the fact that appearances are not important, and what is inside is all that matters, Sam puts together the pastry. She watches with satisfaction as her boss and two others react positively to the finished product. Yet, Chef Dimples quickly reverts to his true form and dumps the slab pie into the garbage. Infuriated, Sam becomes the second pastry chef in a day to walk out.

A confused Sam returns home to northern Michigan (feeling like a dog with its tail between its legs), but does not tell anyone what happened. However, her wise yet young-at-heart grandmother, along with mother Deana and father Greg, understand that Sam is hiding something. Rather than pressure the young woman, they tell stories about their own experiences. These tales, presented as a series of flashbacks, and the loving concern of their tellers finally convince a distraught Sam to tell the truth.

Sam’s journey of discovery is the stuff of memorable novels. Her story, masterfully told by an author who tells this powerful yet lovely multigenerational gem with simplicity and grace, is refreshingly free of sex and strong language–unusual for a modern novel written for teens and adults. The Recipe Box is scheduled for publication on March 20, 2018. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and treat yourself to the delectable story of Sam and her family.

Let me know if you think 900 words are too many to describe this magnificent book.

 

The Big 65

I’ve made it. Yesterday was the birthday marking a milestone–reaching 65 years of age. (It was actually a double. Observant Jews observe their birthdays according to the date on the Hebrew calendar. This year, both Jewish and secular dates came out on the same day. How often does that happen?) Since I now qualify for Medicare (and have already put the plan to use) and reduced fares on New York City subways and buses, it must mean I am officially a senior citizen.

My body has been telling me for some time that I am not as young as I used to be. Whereas a few years ago, we could take long walks and navigate uneven and hilly country terrain, such activities are now challenging. Vacations are as much for relaxing at the hotel as exploring the local attractions.

Yet there are perks beyond assistance with health insurance and half-priced transit fares. We no longer feel the pressure to take part in activities that we do not feel up to. And there is a marvelous bonus: grandchildren! Nothing beats the enjoyment of cuddling an offspring’s infant, reading one story after another that a two-year-old keeps bringing, or watching a video of a not-yet-literate youngster “reading” a book from start to finish without missing a word.

You might have noticed that two of the above examples involve one of my favorite pastimes. And since reading is a pleasure that being elderly has not diminished, I naturally think of several books that touch on the grandparent-grandchild relationship.

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For starters, there is the delightful Silly Frilly Grandma Tillie by Laurie Jacobs. When their parents go out for the evening and Grandma comes to babysit, Sophie and Chloe know that the fun is about to begin. Grandma Tillie has a way of disappearing as a remarkable character shows up. For example, there’s Chef Silly Tillie and her menu of hilariously delectable treats. The fun doesn’t stop until the youngsters are asleep–dreaming, I would think, of the next time Grandma Tillie comes to babysit.

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On a more serious note, Getting to Know Ruben Plotnick by Roz Rosenbluth is an unforgettable tale of friendship, first impressions (which do not always tell the whole story), and family relationships. David has mixed feelings when exuberant Ruben Plotnick wants to come over to do homework. He’s excited that the most fun kid in the class is interested in him–and nervous about what Ruben will think of his increasingly senile grandmother. David in in for a pleasant surprise when the two meet.

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Grandpa for Sale by Dotti Enderle opens with 11-year-old Lizzie taking care of her grandfather’s antique store while he takes a nap on a sofa. When wealthy Mrs. Larchmont enters the establishment and decides there is only one thing she wants–Grandpa–and offers an exorbitant sum for him, Lizzie thinks of all the things she could do with the money. Yet would any of them be any fun without Grandpa to enjoy them with?

(I realized that all these books were published by the phenomenal Flashlight Press. I have no official relationship with the publisher!)

As the stories illustrate, grandparenthood is not something that happens as we approach the sunset years. It’s the beginning of a new, exciting chapter in our lives.

 

It’s That Time–Again

Time has a way of moving quickly. It seems like it was just last week, or last month, or even last year. When I read the last article I posted on this blog (eleven months ago!), it felt like something newly written. And how could it snow when my summer clothes are yet residing in closet and dresser? After I dug out my boots and fleece tights, it seemed like only yesterday that I wore them.

Maybe the sensation that time is passing quickly–too quickly–is a product of age. After all, next month (thank G-d) I reach the big 65 and join the ranks of those on Medicare. (Social Security payments are already partially replacing the income lost when my job of twenty-four years was eliminated. But that’s another story.)

With time galloping like champion race horses, I have the feeling of being left in the dust at the starting gate. When the question pops into my head as to what I really accomplish, the answer all too often is “not much.”

So, when family members began looking forward to and making plans for Chanukah, I decided to ignore the feeling that we had just celebrated the festival–and tackle something that’s been on my to-do list for some time.

Some years ago, our eldest son gave us a large and lovely menorah–the candelabra used to kindle the festival lights. To our offspring’s disappointment, my husband preferred to use another one. The menorah was put aside and gradually lost its shine as tarnish took over. The situation was such that an earlier attempt at restoring its luster was unsuccessful.

This week, hours before the commencement of the holiday, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled the blackened menorah. To my delight, after a half hour of applying liberal amounts of polish and determined rubbing, the tarnish (mostly) gave way to shine. This was, I thought, a labor of love; I did not expect my husband to actually use our son’s menorah. Perhaps realizing how much work went into restoring the menorah, my better half surprised and pleased me by choosing to light it this year.

This small success got me thinking. After all, wasn’t the miracle brought about by an inspired group who believed in their cause? The philosophy-loving Greek occupiers of the Holy Land had no problem with Jewish teachings as long as the will of the Creator was not part of the equation. This situation was unacceptable to the members of the above-mentioned group. So, with a rallying cry calling to those who were for G-d, a small fighting force met and faced down the mighty Greek military machine. When the victors entered the Holy Temple,  they discovered all the oil used to light the menorah had been defiled by the pagans–except for one bottle.

The fact that one day’s supply burned for eight, which gave rise to the festival known as Chanukah (dedication), continues to inspire us today. And makes this member of our people realize that small actions–even those that do not seem significant–can have positive effects beyond anything believed possible.

 

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