The Silver Locket (review)

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The Silver LocketThe Silver Locket by Sophia Bar-Lev
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“ ‘I think that there’s something special happening here—a kind of “hashgacha pratis” like the Rabbi talks about. … Oh, that’s Hebrew for “an intervention of divine providence” ’ ”The Silver Locket, p. 23.

The “something special” Rosalie Lapkin refers to in the above quote (taken from a conversation with her, Sarah Rosenfeld and the Rabbi’s wife) plays out over the next 20+ years of Sophia Bar-Lev’s novel The Silver Locket. In it Rosalie’s and Sarah’s lives intertwine at the most basic level—a shared child.

The story, that is set on opposite sides of the U.S. (Massachusetts and California), encompasses the time from the conception to the marriage of Rebecca Lapkin Silver (1941 to 1965). In it we experience the minefield of mother-love, adoption, and abortion—particularly from the mothers’ points of view. We witness the powerful aftermaths of both deceit and honesty. We see how kept secrets can sap energy and steal joy. And we watch the goodness of God playing out in mercy, love, forgiveness, and second chances.

I really enjoyed the Jewish cultural setting of this book with its emphasis on family and faith, and its distinctive holidays and ceremonies.

The background material to the book states that the story is based on a true one and its plot often had he feel of actual events to me. I liked that the location and date of the action heads most chapters—helping me to keep my bearings. In lots of ways the story also felt like a time capsule with its mention of U.S. political events and the cultural trends of the time:

August 1960 – California: “By now they were on their way stopping enroute for lunch at a relatively new restaurant that was garnering a great deal of attention in 1960 with their year long advertising campaign: ‘Look for the Golden Arches’ ” p. 167.

1960 – Massachusetts: “The key turning point of the campaign was the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first presidential debates ever held” – p. 182.

November 1960 – California: “Swiss Family Robinson was playing in theaters nationwide. It was the first wide screen Disney film shot with a new technology called Panavision lenses” – p. 198.

But more than these interesting historical tidbits, the book delivers some wonderful wisdom. Listen to what Sarah says when she counsels her friend who is struggling with guilt over the two abortions she’s attempted (one of them successful):

“God always forgives when we turn to Him; and He expects us to forgive ourselves as well. … we have to learn to forgive ourselves.”

and

“Has it occurred to you that maybe God didn’t let it work? That perhaps He was protecting you from yourself? … It’s about an unborn life that has a purpose and a destiny and I want you to consider that your baby’s destiny may just be more important than your emotions” – p. 92,93.

And this bit by Rabbi Lowenstein:

“It’s time to be done with secrets. Just tell the plain truth” – p. 236.

This is a beautiful, positive, and life-affirming story that renews faith in God and people.

I received The Silver Locket as a gift for the purpose of writing a review.

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Let’s Pretend We’re Normal (review)

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Let's Pretend We're Normal: Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a FamilyLet’s Pretend We’re Normal: Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a Family by Tricia Lott Williford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Mr Responsible died, suddenly and tragically. He was sick for only twelve hours. … A thief named sepsis stole his breath and his heartbeat, and his spirit slipped right through Curly Girl’s fingers, even as she tried to save him on the floor of their bedroom only two days before Christmas.”

This grim scene from the Prologue is the background of Tricia Lott Williford’s memoir Let’s Pretend We’re Normal—Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a Family. You’d expect the story of how Williford and her two young sons, Tucker and Tyler, get back on their feet after their husband’s/father’s death to be a bummer. But it isn’t.

That’s because Williford is a great storyteller and fabulous writer. Though there are lots of sad times, she never melodramatizes them or milks them for sympathy. The only way we know she cries a lot is because her boys mention it in their conversations—of which she has wonderful recall.

In Let’s Pretend we see a mother trying to explain to two little daddy-less boys where God is in all this. We observe the three of them working through stages of grief. And Williford lives parenting before us in ways that I, if by some miracle I found myself parenting young children again, would want to copy.

There’s lots of humor too and scenes that any modern, busy, technology-blessed North American family can relate to. Plus there are stories that tug at the heart.

One of my favorites is of Williford buying a homeless man, Dave, a Happy Meal—and him coming back at her with encouragement from the Bible. Her conclusion:

“… I wondered if perhaps I had just had lunch with an angel sent on a mission” – Kindle Location 1180.

Another is the conversation she has with her boys one night after reading the story of God testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Discussing their family’s test of losing husband/father, her older son asks:

“’But Mom, do you think God has an important job for you to do? And that’s why he asked you to give up my dad? … Mommy, do you know God has picked you to write these books. He made you a writer to tell stories. And so maybe God had to know you would trust him no matter what” – Kindle Location 2275.‘”

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends will gain insight, compassion, and wisdom from Tricia Lott Williford’s faith-saturated story of family, grief, and recovery.

I received Let’s Pretend We’re Normal as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe (review)

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds CafeMiracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe by Max Lucado

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After Chelsea Chambers discovers that her NFL husband Sawyer has been cheating on her, inheriting the family café and coffee shop in San Antonia is the perfect out. She, with 12-year-old Hancock and six-year-old Emily move into the upper floor of the Victorian house above the Higher Grounds Café, determined to put new life into the family’s 40+-year-old establishment.

But just after she opens, a letter from the IRS arrives demanding back taxes. When she contacts Sawyer about releasing funds for this, she discovers he has spent all her nest egg on his own money problems. Is her dream of running her own business doomed before it ever gets underway?

Chelsea’s dilemma alerts heaven’s minions and soon Samuel, her clumsy but loveable guardian angel is up to his neck in her daily affairs.

Fantasy intersects reality in Max Lucado’s novel Miracle at the Higher Grounds Café—a book that addresses issues of family, prayer, forgiveness and second chances. It’s an easy read and Lucado’s signature deftness with words makes it a fun read as well:

“ ‘ Who’s that?’ said the young magician who had turned his smartphone into an IMAX screen. The image stretched as far as the east is from the west: Sawyer Chambers in the arms of another woman. A redheaded beauty. A triple threat—younger, thinner, and prettier” – Kindle Location 289.

Discussion questions at the end help us hone in on the timeless truths this story delivers with subtlety and grace. Readers of all ages will enjoy this inspirational, ends-well tale.

I received Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Borrowed Gardens – new poetry anthology

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It’s here at last–the project that’s been in the works for over a year! And just in time for Christmas too.

Borrowed Gardens - poetry anthologyBorrowed Gardens

Authors: Bertoia, Jeannine; Fisher, Tracie; McNulty, Del; Nesdoly, Violet

Publisher: SparrowSong Press (printed by First Choice Books), December, 2014, Paperback, 128 pages

ISBN: 978-1-77084-501-5

About the Book (cover text)

“A collection of poems to touch hearts. They are personal—time and circumstance snapped through the lenses of four women. In their word photos memories abound, family is honoured, love is voiced. Together they speak to a mosaic of people and places, in lands far and near, to times lived and yet to live.”

About the Writers (cover text)

“The pieces represented in this collection are the work of four Vancouver Lower Mainland women. Jeannine Bertoia and Tracie Fisher met in the Fine Arts Department of Kwantlen Polytechnic University. They began to share their poetry in 2005. They were joined in 2006 by freelance writer and poet Del McNulty and finally by author and poet Violet Nesdoly in 2007. The group meets regularly to support and further each other’s creative endeavours.”

A personal note:

I’m so proud of this book—the joint effort of all four of us.

The cover is a painting by Jeannine: “Spring Garden.”

Del conceived the cover design with its stylish bookmark flaps.

The title is taken from one of Tracie’s poems and reflects the theme of gardens, plants, and flowers—one of the subjects that runs through the book. (Other topics that keep recurring are home, family, nature and travel.)

I did the layout and typeset the book’s contents.

Here to whet your appetite are some of my favourite lines from my fellow poets:

From Jeannine’s prose poem “Stories”

“…Huddled on a grey rock, a yellow towel on our laps we told each other stories, yours a stream of laughter, mine told over and over until we became the story. I felt the child under my skin and her face a reflection of my mother and daughter…”  – p. 35

From Del’s poem “The Going”

You will go
it will be so tomorrow
where harvest sun
flames the path no longer narrow
we will part then
as light simmers on leaf and limb…”

– p. 66 – this poem won the 2010 Surrey International Writers Conference Poetry Award.

And from Tracie’s title poem “Borrowed gardens”

I wander in borrowed gardens
on pollen-painted legs
trail my hands
through rivers of rosemary
rows of lavender
my fingers retain
lingering aromas…”

– p. 112.

Borrowed Gardens is available from the individual authors.

Price: $15 Cdn. + postage (I will post exact price to mail within Canada & to the U.S. shortly)

Order from me by email (Please put “Borrowed Gardens Order” in the subject line)

Payment by personal cheque or money order.

Consider the Sunflowers (review)

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Consider the Sunflowers - Elma SchemenauerTina Janz feels torn between her parents’ wishes that she marry an upstanding (but boring) Mennonite boy and her desire for the man she loves—Frank Warkentin, the son of a Mennonite father and Gypsy mother. But the tug-of-war in Elma Schemenauer’s novel Consider the Sunflowers is more than between just Tina and her parents. For handsome, dashing, funny Frank doesn’t share Tina’s Mennonite faith. She soon discovers he has a violent temper. And his farm is far from town—something that doesn’t suit Tina well at all.

Schemenauer takes us on a literary journey that spans the years from 1940-1947 in the lives of Tina and Frank. The place is Coyote, Saskatchewan—a fictional town near Outlook, populated by a Mennonite and non-Mennonite mix. Frank is attracted to other Mennonite outcasts like Dorrie Harms and hangs out with Scandinavian friends Thor and Leif while Tina feels torn between both worlds.

Schemenauer’s familiarity with the Mennonite lifestyle, ways of thinking, and speech mannerisms is evident throughout the book (she is of Mennonite extraction). Thus from the opening words I felt I was in an authentic world. All the Na yo’s (p. 28), sentences ending in yet (“In Saskatoon yet” – p. 128), already, and nicht (“We should have your wedding on Saturday nicht?” p. 153) rang true for me, as someone who grew up in the same people group.

The story, told through Tina and Frank’s points of view, follows the ups and downs of their relationship all the while exploring many themes: how we’re molded by early experiences, what comprises love, aspects of marriage including the importance of honesty and transparency, how choices we make have consequences, what it’s like to be a Mennonite, what it’s like to be a Mennonite on the fringes, how religion and faith differ, and the overarching importance of forgiveness and trust in God no matter what the fine points of one’s creed might be.

Tina’s realization of this comes after a long crisis of faith. Told in Schemenauer’s understated yet picturesque style, it is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

A coyote howled in the pasture. A gust of wind ruffled Slim’s coat. As it lifted Tina’s hair off her forehead, Jesus seemed to speak to her. Not in words. More like flowers opening in her heart. I love you, he said. Do you believe that?

Her reaction after she senses her brief conversation with Jesus is over is similarly subtle but full of wisdom that resonates with truth:

“…she expected to feel something like holy fireworks in her heart. Instead she felt only a new orderliness, like her thoughts were sorting themselves into new file folders. She crossed the silent kitchen, climbed the stairs, and eased herself into bed” – p. 157.

“Consider the lilies…” Jesus said, as He pointed out the necessity of a simple day-to-day faith in God to counter the fears and anxieties of life. In Consider the Sunflowers Schemenauer draws our attention, through Tina and Frank, to the God who still longs to be trusted with the minutiae of ordinary existence.

The story is supplemented by a Mennonite timeline explaining the origin and migrations of this ethnic and religious minority. Study questions at the end of the book will be helpful for reading clubs and home school study.

Author Elma Schemenauer

Author Elma Schemenauer

Title: Consider the Sunflowers
Author: Elma Schemenauer
Publisher: Borealis Press, November 10, 2014, Paperback 299 pages
ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4,

 

AVAILABLE FROM THE PUBLISHER, Borealis Press – $19.95

Also available online at Chapters Indigo  by about November 15.

E-book coming in 2015.

For more information, please visit http://elmams.wix.com/sflwrs

No Place to Hide (review)

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No Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon S Long Journey Home from the Iraq WarNo Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon S Long Journey Home from the Iraq War by W. Lee Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dr. W. Lee Warren arrived at the 332nd Theater Hospital in Balad ab, Iraq in late 2004. His term of duty as a neurosurgeon ended four months later at the end of April, 2005. No Place to Hide – A Brain Surgeon’s Long Journey Home From the Iraq War is the story of those months. But it is more.

Warren went to Iraq at a time when his marriage was teetering on the edge. His experience in Iraq is framed by the turmoil in his personal life. The dangers, pressure, and extreme injuries he faces every day in his work have him yearning to hear the voices of his young children, who don’t yet know of their parents’ impending divorce. As control of his life slips from his hands on all fronts, he is forced to rely on God in new ways. His story includes his spiritual pilgrimage during his time in the combat zone and also relates significant spiritual and psychological markers on his road to recovery after returning to the States.

The book is detailed and graphic. It contains precise accounts of injuries, the surgeries Warren performed, remembered conversations, and emails home. We slog through the mud with him on the way from his sleeping quarters to the tent hospital during the rainy season, choke in dust and smoke during hot dry weather, smell the blood, sweat and unwashed bodies in the O.R., and hear mortars, shells and rockets exploding at all hours of the day and night. His explanation, at the end (when he faced the post-traumatic stress he experienced years after returning from Iraq) sheds light on his detailed recall of events. For he brought back with him, and finally unpacked, a bag of memorabilia—bullet bits, shards of shrapnel, segments of rockets—along with hundreds of photos documenting his experiences both in and out of the operating room.

I personally wanted to read No Place to Hide to understand why so many war veterans return home only to continue to suffer symptoms of stress. This book is a good one to help one gain such an understanding. It’s an intense read as Warren’s stories reflect the non-stop pressure of life as a battlefield surgeon. Though well-written and captivating it is hard enough reading through such a litany of never-ending horrors. I can’t imagine living them!

Warren’s memoir also shows a different side of the U.S. army than that broadcast by mainstream media. The 332nd Hospital had a policy of taking in friend and foe alike, treating Iraqi militants and civilians no matter whose side they were on. Though Warren doesn’t deny that mistreatment of prisoners of war happened at the hands of U.S. soldiers, his stories illustrate that U.S. doctors worked long, hard, and often to save enemy lives.

Photos at the back of the book bring to life Dr. Warren and the scenes he describes.

I recommend this book not only as a way to experience war vicariously, but also as a wonderful testimony to God’s keeping power during the toughest of times.

I received No Place to Hide as a gift from the publisher, Zondervan, for the purpose of writing a review.

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A Child’s Christmas in Saskatchewan

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It’s Christmas Eve, the time our thoughts turn to all things holy—and presents! How crass. But how real, especially if you’re a kid.

A few weeks ago when I was cleaning out some papers, I came across a picture book I wrote and illustrated way back when. It was one of my course requirements at UBC, (College of Education). It’s my memories of childhood Christmases on our farm in Saskatchewan. I hope you enjoy.

A Child's Christmas In Saskatchewan - Cover

A Child’s Christmas in Saskatchewan – Cover

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Now a Merry Christmas to all who read here!