Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Making Toast, Roger Rosenblatt

Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast (HarperCollins, 2010) is a book I stumbled across on a table display in good ol’ Barnes and Noble. I had never heard of it before, but the title caught my eye and once I read the back cover copy, I decided to go for it. Marketing strategies at work, people!

Premise

When the author’s only daughter, Amy, unexpectedly dies at age thirty-four from a rare heart condition, everyone she leaves behind is hurtled into the fog that comes with figuring out how to lead a life you no longer understand. For Roger and his wife, Ginny, this means rediscovering how to traverse the world of small children, as they leave their home to move in with Harris, their son-in-law, and their three grandchildren, Jessie, Sammy, and James (“Bubbies”), ages seven, four, and one, respectively. Suddenly thrust back into the world of birthday parties, soccer games, and bedtime stories, Roger and Ginny learn to take each day in stride. Three generations come together as Roger, Ginny, Harris, and the children begin to reassemble their lives, reconstruct their family, and support each other as they navigate the course of their grief.

Review

The main issue I take with many memoirs is the sense of self-importance that can so often accompany this genre. It’s understandable, I suppose, given the nature of telling your own story. (That’s where a good editor comes in!) However, Making Toast does not for one second fall into that sticky tar pit. Instead, Rosenblatt paints a witty, honest portrait of grief, showing us that it is—perhaps surprisingly—rather other-centric.

Making Toast follows a relatively nonsequential (though loosely chronological) format; for anyone well-acquainted with grief, you know this is the only way to write a book like this. Your endeavor to keep up with the hops, skips, and jumps of Rosenblatt’s flashbacks, memories, and present-day activities earns you a day pass to the surface level of Rosenblatt’s grief experience. This entails most notably his unabated anger at a God who shows no benevolence and whose presence will not be found with their family. Unfortunately, the book never seems to penetrate any further than this, as Rosenblatt keeps up a wall around his deeper feelings, leaving you constantly wishing to see just a little bit more.

The most impactful aspect of this book was the reminder to me of what a beautiful thing it is to be known. Several sections of Making Toast focus simply on personality traits and quirks of the characters—Jessie’s favorite winter coat, Bubbies’s way of sitting with his hands locked behind his head, Harris’s stoicism, Sammy’s favorite Power Ranger, each child’s breakfast preferences as R0senblatt engages in “the one household duty [he has] mastered”: making toast. And Amy. Amy as a child, Amy as a teen, Amy in medical school, Amy the doctor, Amy the wife, Amy the mother.

It is in this subtle, quiet way that Rosenblatt reveals the depth of his emotion for his family. Through his awareness of each person, that close familiarity gained through the intimacy of family and tragedy, he pays tribute to each family member. Toward the end of the narrative, Rosenblatt gives voice to my own thoughts:

“Odd that I seem to know Amy more completely in death than I did when she was alive. I do not know her any better . . . but there was so much life that I was unaware of until now. The distance of death reveals Amy’s stature to me” (141-42).

A testament to the powerful force of a united family, Rosenblatt’s memoir reminds us all of the human capacity to live with grief without ceasing to love. However, there is no room for sentimentality in Making Toast. There are books to be read, children to be raised, and, of course, toast to be made.

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Book Review: Heaven Is For Real

I’m all moved in, so I can finally write up the review for Heaven Is For Real. I’ve already told you that it’s awesome, so let’s dive right in!

The Premise

After days of misdiagnoses and prolonged severe pain, three-year-old Colton Burpo, the son of a small-town pastor, is rushed in for an emergency appendectomy. After several complications, the prognosis is so grim that the nurses are instructed not to give the family any hope about Colton’s potential for recovery. However, after a particularly intense prayer session hosted by members of the church’s congregation, Colton miraculously recovers, escaping death’s grip and returning to his “smiling and chipper” self. Four months later, Colton stuns his parents with an astounding message delivered in the casual manner of a child:

“Do you remember the hospital, Colton?”

“Yes, Mommy, I remember. . . . That’s where the angels sang to me. . . . Jesus had the angels sing to me because I was so scared.”

Over the course of the next few years, Colton reveals to his parents more details about his trip to heaven, Jesus, and the people he met there–including the daughter his mother lost to a miscarriage.

The Kicker

According to the Burpo family and those that know Colton, it’s a true story.

The Results

I’ll be honest. I went into this book expecting another The Shack, which jaded me. I tend to approach “true-story-God-is-real-and-talked-to-me-and-now-I’m-writing-this-best-seller” books with a certain degree of cynicism, even though I firmly believe those things can really happen. I believed that The Shack was based on a true story, and the combination of disappointment and embarrassment that I felt when I realized I was mistaken scared me away from Christian literature for a little while. Religious literature–Christian, in my case–is tricky. I’ve found that a good chunk of Christian literature falls into approximately three categories: 1) those who are too scared to say anything too offensive or controversial, so they wind up saying little of anything, 2)  those who want to force their beliefs and interpretations onto their readers, as though their word was as good as God’s, and 3) those who are so cheesy that I can’t even make it through (this is mainly, and unfortunately, religious fiction).

Luckily, there is a blessed (see what I did there?) fourth category–the books in which I not only find value, but actually enjoy reading. Heaven Is For Real is undoubtedly one of those books.

Not once did I feel like the authors were pushing their agenda on me, straining to make me see things their way, or censoring themselves for fear of push-back. Colton’s story is presented in a refreshingly simple manner, with what the back cover copy describes as “disarming innocence and . . . plainspoken boldness.” It feels as if you are sitting in the Burpos’ living room, enjoying a cup of coffee while listening to them tell this amazing story. There is an attitude of “This is what happened. We were shocked too. But it’s true.”

The beauty of this book lies in its simplicity and honesty. There is a sweetness to the text that lets you know that these are sincere people with a beautiful story that they want to share with anyone who will listen.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: read this book.

Pearls earned.

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Double Digits

What better way to celebrate Pearls’s tenth post–I made it to double digits!–than sharing with you, dear reader, a joyous discovery I made yesterday?

Look what I picked up at Target (which has a surprisingly good selection of books)!

I would love to ask you, Betty! (Putnam, 2011)

I can’t wait to read this! The Golden Girls is one of my all-time favorite shows, and I just know I’m going to hear it all narrated in Rose Nylund’s voice. My mom and I are going to visit my sister in NYC this weekend; I think this will be the perfect plane read–if I can wait until then! I’ll definitely let you know how it goes.

What’s your favorite Betty White moment?

(I know you all have one–admit it, you love her!)

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This Book Is For Real

Today and tomorrow are moving days for my roommate and me. After three glorious years of roomie-dom, she is heading off to grad school and I am moving in with two other fantastic friends of mine. Needless to say, things are a bit hectic!

This means that I haven’t yet had a chance to write up a review for Heaven Is For Real (Thomas Nelson, 2010), which I recently finished. I finally decided that I don’t want you to wait until I officially review it for you to get this bottom-line message: Go read this book! Now! If you were on the fence about it at all (like I was), then I am confident in saying that it is a worthwhile read.

A full review is to come. Until then, get your hands on a copy so we can talk about it!

 

How great is this cover? I'm in love with the color.


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Review: The Friday Night Knitting Club

Last week I finished up Kate Jacobs’s The Friday Night Knitting Club (New York: Penguin Group, 2007). I went in with high expectations—always dangerous. I had seen it around since back in the day when I worked at Barnes & Noble. I thought that it looked cute—the power of a great cover strikes again—but I never picked it up. One day I saw it when perusing the clearance section at Half Price Books. One dollar for a book I’m already interested in reading? I’ll take it!

Literally years of anticipation and expectations went into my cracking open this book, and, as it usually goes with things like this, I was a bit disappointed by the reality. The premise of the book seemed to offer everything I was looking for—a group of fun, powerful women, crafting, and the relief of an easy read as an escape from editing manuscripts. While all of those aspects were present, they just didn’t quite come together they way that I so wanted them to.

The Premise

Georgia Walker, a single mother of a twelve-year-old girl named Dakota, runs her own knitting shop—Walker and Daughter. She lives a quiet, fulfilling life, but she is plagued by a lack of closure from various areas in her past. Georgia and five of her friends begin the Friday Night Knitting Club, a place to escape from the stress of life and gab over delicious snacks. Though life throws a few curveballs at each woman, they continue to come together once a week—even after the most unexpected trial of all.

The Results

Jacobs successfully incorporates some twists and turns—a difficult feat nowadays, especially in books—and the book itself has some great unique elements. Each section begins with a bit of knitting philosophy as it relates to life, and the back matter includes a knitting pattern and a muffin recipe—such a cute, personalized addition. I loved it!

However, in addition to the tendency to err on the cheesy side (sometimes I could feel my cholesterol rising), my main issue with the text was this: the lives of the seven main women characters do not intersect in a Love Actually kind of style, like I had expected, but are instead minimally stitched together by the threads of the club’s weekly meeting. I found that this style severely limited the possibilities for character development in regard to the reader’s connection with each character. With so many subplots occurring on the side, none of the supporting characters felt adequately explored. The women simply do not seem involved enough in each other’s lives to have the kind of impact that they supposedly have on one another.

Had I worked on this novel, the above would have been the main focus of my edit. The relationships between all of the Friday Night Knitters do not truly begin to feel real until the arrival of the book’s largest plot twist, which occurs rather late in the text. True, a traumatic event often cements friendships, but there needs to be more of a foundation in place before this happens—particularly when the reader has already devoted themselves to 250+ pages before everything really gets going. Especially with the slow pace of the novel, there is plenty of time to develop these aspects further. Up until this point, the reader hardly ever sees the women meet with each other or talk outside of the club—with the exception of the pairings of Anita and Georgia and Darwin and Lucie. These narratives could have been woven together into one beautiful, multifaceted quilt, complete with each character’s own thoughts and unique interactions with others. Instead I feel I was left with one sweater, a scarf or two, and several pot holders.

However, none of these deficiencies inhibited what I believe is the book’s main success: I’ve already begun talking with a friend about lining up some knitting lessons. While it may not be a the next great American novel, there is no doubt that, as USA Today said, The Friday Night Knitting Club “makes you yearn for yarn.”

And who doesn’t love learning a new crafty hobby? Knitting, here I come!

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