Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Story of Mu by James Cordova and Mark Morse

The Story of Mu.  James Cordova and Mark Morse. Wisdom Publications MA. April 2016. 64 pp.  ISBN#: 9781614292203.

This short narrative is a picture book that tells the story of the origin of life and the story of a man who lived a regular life.  He finally sat under a tree and meditated until he was One with matter, space and time. This realization is all that could free humans from endless searching and suffering.  “I am Mu.”  This is a koan (Zen riddle) that can only “be known.” It defies logic, study, etc.

The second half of the book contains beautiful illustrations of the story told in the first part, but it will strike the reader that meditating on each picture will bring one into that Oneness. 

This is not the kind of book that one rates; one may read it on several levels.  Or perhaps one may use it as a meditation book.

While those who are familiar with Buddhism will relish this book, non-Buddhist readers should also cherish its warm, inspirational qualities.

The authors are both highly trained and practitioners of their respective fields, Dharma transmission – a school of Zen Buddhism – and art.

I received this book from Netgalley for a fair and honest review.  The story and illustrations are ones I would definitely recommend to other readers to enjoy and ponder!


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law by Katherine Wilson

Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-In-Law.  Katherine Wilson. Random House Publishing Group. April 2016. 304 pp.  ISBN#: 9780812998160.

Katherine Wilson travels to Italy but has no idea what to expect.  She’s financially comfortable, over-weight, very sensitive, and hoping her jaunt overseas will give her a new vision for the future. It’s the family tradition to spend a year abroad after college and Katherine has no idea how privileged she is. Her knowledge of the language is thin but she manages to communicate and get set up with the help of a very special family. She will be doing post-graduate work at the American Consulate thanks to family connections. What that entails she has no idea but she hopes it will be interesting. Yes, she will get what she wants and it will change her life forever.

Her introduction to Naples, Italy comes through her introduction to the Avallone family.  They are loud, warm, boisterous and absolutely obsessed with food.  Katherine confesses she’s had a binge eating problem but doesn’t realize the Avallone family is the cure for her distorted view of eating.  As a result, she begins hanging out with Salvatore Avallone and eventually falls in love with him. But this story is more about Salvatore’s mother, Raffaella, who cooks with passionate love and doesn’t really understand how Americans can eat food out of cans and find their best meals eaten in a restaurant rather than a home.

Raffaella is a miracle in disguise!  She dresses and makes up her face with perfection and yet cooks like an older Italian grandmother, spewing out questions and advice a mile a minute while cooking.  So we read delightful, savory descriptions of homemade pizza. Ragu, a casserole with pasta, béchamel and four kinds of cheeses, seafood pasta (never with Parmesan cheese according to Mamma Raffaella!) and many more dishes leaving the reader drooling and starving for a portion of each dish!
Plenty of advice makes absolute sense, especially to this reviewer who shares some of the Italian heritage.  Raffaella can’t understand how one would want to eat alone, knowing the company is part of the necessary atmosphere for a scrumptious meal.  The story is replete with funny advice and stories, like preparing one’s children for a world that is not only good but also full of lying, cheating people.  One doesn’t want one’s children to be “baccala” or “dumb as a piece of cod.”


Read this memoir!  It will fill the hours with laughter, great food and so much precious love; you may even want to read it more than once!  What a delight! Highly recommended!  

Friday, April 15, 2016

Modern Girls: A Novel by Jennifer S. Brown

Modern Girls: A Novel.  Jennifer S. Brown. Penguin Group (USA). April 2016. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451477125.

Life for woman of the Lower East Side, especially women of Russian Jewish descent, was very hard.  A pregnancy was a source of joy as Rose, already a mother of three boys and a girl, knows and her husband Ben shares that joy.  But now Rose finds she is again with child and doesn’t know if she has the physical, mental or emotional strength to withstand another pregnancy and birth.  Her daughter, Dottie, has found a good job and even been promoted as she has a gift with numbers. Add to that Dottie is really a second mother to her three brothers, giving them her undivided, devoted attention at all times.  Now, one mistake puts Dottie into a panic, for she finds she is pregnant as well.  Mother and daughter keep their secret for a very long time. 

Rose has big dreams for Dottie and has been planning for years.  Dottie’s current boyfriend, Abe Rabinowitz, is planning on their marriage but not just yet.  He wants financial security before he even asks for Dottie’s hand and Dottie is plotting to seduce him to make him marry her before the disgraceful secret is out, a revelation that would absolutely ruin her future in the judgmental times of 1935. Or is her future with the father, Willie Klein, known as irresponsible and a lady’s man wherever he can ensnare an admiring female?

The remainder of this tale is a tribute to love and familial support, despite the unexpected turns of events.  Jennifer S. Brown portrays Dottie as the model “American Woman,” with her talents and foibles.  This woman is not only gifted in the external world but finds within herself reserves of strength and purpose that the reader must admire, respect beyond the mistakes and vicissitudes of daily life that were ever-present in this particular time period in American history.

Choices are difficult enough to handle in the year 2016, but multiply that by hundreds to fully appreciate the decisions made by Rose and Dottie. The cost and consequences are the essence of this realistic novel that Jennifer Brown has crafted that never fails to captivate the reader on every page!

Fine, fine historical novel with several touches of troubled and sweet romance! A poignant tribute to the quest for equality!


Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Ones Who Matter Most by Rachel Herron

The Ones Who Matter Most. Rachel Herron. New American Library/Penguin Publishing Group. April 2016. 342 pp.  ISBN#: 978451476760.

Abby Roberts is beyond infuriated when she discovers that her husband, Scott, had a vasectomy after she had three miscarriages.  After uttering four words to him, he slams into the bathroom when Abby hears a crash and then silence.  Ten minutes later, Scott is dead, the victim of a massive heart attack.  The feelings that race through Abby’s heart and head in the days that follow defy description.

Imagine her shock anew when she finds pictures that reveal Scott was once married to Fern and had a son, Mattie.  So she does what very few women would have done; she sets out to Fern’s home.  The initial reception is cool and awkward indeed, ending with an  invitation to Fern and Mattie to attend Scotts funeral and cremation.  Here begins a story fraught with ambivalence, suspicion, anger, neediness, rejection and acceptance. 

Fern drives a public bus for a living but can barely pay her bills and now without Scott’s child support she’s in a desperate situation.  She has overwhelmingly mixed feelings about Abby and surely doesn’t understand why Abby wants to get to know Mattie better.  Mattie, however, gradually will warm up to Abby, but Fern is determined that Abby will never have her son’s total loyalty and devotion as much as she does.

The essence of this unusual story is the tormented journey both Abby and Fern must experience that is really more about grieving for Scott and the past and learning to trust again.  Abby seems a more generous, forgiving character but she also is financially safe enough that she’s not as worn out with fear and apprehension about the future.  Both women have been betrayed and still have feelings for Scott which they must work through.  Eventually, the bond they forge is unbreakable and both become open to new possibilities with men and their place in the larger work world.
Rachel Herron does a superb job of crafting a tense, volatile story with just enough tenderness to keep both women from eternal bitterness, choosing instead to embrace trust.  It’s about allowing relationships that normally would never develop to go where they must.  Romance, mystery and hope will rule the day after one can let go of the past enough to bloom like those flowers and plants that Abby so naturally grows and nurtures into birth.  Very nicely done, Rachel Herron!


Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman's Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life by Shannon Kopp

Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life.  Shannon Kopp. HarperCollins Publishers.  October 2015. 218 pp.  ISBN#: 9780062370228.

Shannon Kopp grows up in a very painful home with an alcoholic father who betrayed Shannon with broken promises over and over.  The cumulative result was a terrible void within that she could only satisfy, temporarily, by binging and vomiting huge quantities of food.  Shannon knew she was sick but had zilch control over what became a major eating disorder, bulimia, that only increased in severity over the years. 
Shannon fell in love with a truly caring guy, who tried to help her but eventually knew it was a losing battle.  Shannon knew she had to help herself but all of her efforts with support groups failed to end the cycles of destruction.  That began to change when she got a job with the San Diego Humane Society and SPA.  Her love for the dogs she encountered is so obvious.  In their acceptance and suffering, she found compassion and love for not only them but also for herself. 

The scenes where she was able to reach out to these hurting animals are moving indeed, even the ones in which she cannot help those who wound up being euthanized for various reasons.  There are several dogs, however, who truly become a part of her life, enough to push her to the brink of a final decision to help herself.  That part of this story is for you, the reader, to relish, as well as an accidental, unintended consequence that happens unexpectedly.

The reader may not have bulimia but surely can identify those moments when there is a spate of loneliness and looking for something more to satisfy the soul or emotions, depending on one’s point of view.  This, then, is why one wants to hang in through some very harrowing scenes in order to reach the point of salvation and redemption of a kind. 

Truthful, poignant, and full of passionate empathy between woman and animal, Pound for Pound is a unique, fulfilling memoir that might help others with similar conditions and will stretch others to a more compassionate and caring attitude toward those eternally searching for that “something more.”


Finding Fraser: A Novel by K. C. Dyer

Finding Fraser: A Novel.  K. C. Dyer. Penguin Group (USA). February 2016. 368 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399584374.

Emma Sheridan has read Diana Gabaldon’s novel, Outlander, multiple times and finds its main character, James Alexander Malcolm MacKensie Fraser or Jamie, more endearing with each read. Now thirty years old and fired from her job, Emma sets out to Scotland to find a real live Jamie.  Her practical sister thinks Emma has gone bonkers.  Emma has decided to record her adventures on an internet blog and gets enthusiastic support from Japanese readers also obsessed with the fictional Jamie in the world-wide popular novel. 

Emma’s journey is partly crazy, partly endearing and partly comic as she checks out numerous men on her travels.  On the trip we read beautiful descriptions of the gorgeous scenery she encounters in between hair-raising scenes of having her money and computer stolen, having weird Outlander fans highlighting sexual conquests, and so much more.

At a certain point, the plot gets downright silly but is saved when Emma actually finds Mr. Right by abandoning her idealistic, naïve demands and reaches out to someone whose kindness invites reciprocal care in a crisis.  While Emma may not be totally converted to reality, we do have hope by the end of this story that she knows herself so much better and is therefore more accessible to a realistic love.

Interesting play on the Outlander story, a tongue-in-cheek look at the fantasy behind the story which is fine for a great escape read (and which has been transformed in movie version) but a bit harried and chaotic when put into the 21st century.


The Italian Divide: A Craig Page Thriller by Allan Topol

The Italian Divide: A Craig Page Thriller. Allan Topol. SelectBooks, Inc. March 16, 2016. 304 pp.  ISBN#: 9781590793411.

Former CIA Director Craig Page has reinvented his life after being involved with an international conflict that caused the death of a family member and also being responsible for the death of a Chinese leader’s brother.  Now Page, after undergoing drastic plastic surgery, is famous as an Italian racecar driver, Enrico Marino.  His love of the sport has made him happier than he has been in years. However, that new life is about to undergo a major disruption as a result of the death of a Florentine banker and friend, Frederico Castiglione. Page speaks to a friend of Castiglione, an Italian banker, Andrew Goldoni. The two bankers had been first politely sell a large percentage of their bank shares and then threatened with physical harm if they refused. 

The coercion is first carried out by Chinese agents and then Russian muscle men.  Page decides he owes it to Castiglione to prove that his death was not a jewelry heist gone awry.  His suspicions grow stronger after learning that an Italian politician, who is running on a ticket advocating that Northern and Southern Italy become separate independent states, is involved with strange bedfellows lending him money in return for ignoring Asian takeovers of Italian businesses.  It’s an unhappy and violent turn of events that Page is insistent on proving, coupled with an unspoken desire for revenge on Zhou Yun. 

Page is assisted by two CIA agents and a counter-terrorism director. The criminal elements underestimate Page’s perseverance in uncovering the crime with severe ramifications for the governments of Italy, America and eventually the world  To say more would spoil a phenomenal international thriller plot that twists and turns in unpredictable ways that leave the reader exhilarated and anxious to learn the end that could be a blessing or could be an international calamity.

Alan Topol writes with shades of style comparable with the old novels of Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsythe.  Just when the tension ratchets up to what feels like a climactic turn of events, the plot thickens even further.  The Italian Divide… is an international thriller of the highest order, one which this reviewer eagerly recommends for those who love this dynamic genre of writing.