Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book review: Leaving Yesterday by Kathryn Cushman

Title: Leaving Yesterday
Author: Kathryn Cushman
Publisher: Bethany House, October 1, 2009, paperback, 320 pages. 
ISBN-10: 0764203827 
ISBN-13: 978-0764203824

What business could a police officer have with her except to bear the bad news that her son Kurt has been found dead, Alisa Stewart wonders as Detective Thompson’s car turns into her driveway. But a few minutes later she is saddled with an even greater burden as she discovers her 21-year-old drug addicted son is wanted for questioning about a murder. When he calls home a few days later with the news that he’s been in rehab – and for a while – she reasons it couldn’t be him, could it?

In Leaving Home Kathryn Cushman combines what Alisa finds in a box of Kurt’s things with old frictions between Alisa and her estranged husband, the need to keep up appearances at her church and, above all, the determination that her son will have the new start he deserves to give us the tug-of-war tale of a mother’s love.

The story, told in first person by Alisa, has a rapidly thickening plot. Pressure on her to look good in her position of women’s ministry leader mounts even as her relationship with her husband Rick deteriorates and questions about Kurt multiply. She finds she can be most herself with her neighbor Lacey, a retired lawyer who is canny, pragmatic and a mistress of rationalization. Cushman takes Alisa and the whole family through some tough situations and decisions in a book that is hard to put down.

Character-wise I found myself with mixed feelings about Alisa. Though I sympathized with her as a mom and understood her mother bear impulses, there was something Barbie-dollish and plastic about her too. She came off as shallow in her role as wife and women’s pastor, and smug as a public speaker. My favorite character was her 10-year-old daughter Caroline who was completely believable with her bouncy ways and excitable, dramatic clinginess. Alisa’s husband Rick rang true as well – even though he was a bit of a downer. Jodi and Monte were recognizable and fun as aging hippies. I wasn’t sure what to make of Kurt. He was sweet and genuine on the surface but showed just enough deviousness to keep me wondering, through most of the book, just how genuine his reformation really was.

Cushman does a good job of bringing up some weighty themes even as she weaves this entertaining story. No mother will be able to read this book without asking herself if she would she go to the lengths Alisa did if she were in the same shoes. The story touches on other issues of parenting as well, like permissiveness, tough love and the possibility that parents drive their kids to self-destructive behaviors with dysfunctional parenting. Cushman introduces God the Father as the greatest example of a parent. The story also makes us think a lot about guilt.

For a hard-to-put-down read that will prompt you to take a thoughtful look at your role as a parent and as a child, Leaving Yesterday is a good choice. 

Reading Group Guide for this book.

(I received this book from Bethany House for the purpose of writing a review.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book review: Things Worth Remembering by Jackina Stark

Title: Things Worth Remembering
Author: Jackina Stark
Publisher: Bethany House, October 2009, paperback, 320 pages

ISBN-10: 0764207113 
ISBN-13: 978-0764207112

Kendy Laswell can’t wait for her daughter Maisey and fiancĂ© Marcus to get home this third Monday in July. It’s a mere six days till Maisey’s wedding and there must be a thousand things to do – though Masey hasn’t told her much.

But when the kids arrive, Maisey says she’s tired and goes straight to bed. Kendy hides her disappointment but inside asks, for the thousandth time, what is at the root of her daughter’s avoidance? The only thing she can think of is the months-long depression she suffered when Maisey was 13. Things have never been right between them since that dreadful summer nine years ago. Now, though, they still have the rest of the week to patch things up.

In Things Worth Remembering, Jackina Stark takes us through the week before Maisey’s wedding. Through the first-person voices of Kendy and Maisey we live those memorable six days, but much more, as incidents trigger memories. These, plus Maisey’s surprising outburst on Wednesday and a health crisis on Thursday work together to create a heart-wrenching story about mothers and daughters, marriage and marital unfaithfulness, family, love, and forgiveness.

In Kendy and Maisey, Stark has created two flawed but sympathetic main characters. The supporting cast of Luke (Kendy’s husband), Marcus, Jackie and others also feel real and convincing. Stark’s style of writing current happenings in present tense with the back story in past tense helps dispel any confusion about now and then. Her contemporary American setting feels absolutely believable and authentic.

The story is seen through the lens of a Christian worldview. Stark works the faith of her characters into the story seamlessly and in a way that feels organic to its plot and characters. To underline how integral faith is to the story, we find that even the title hearkens back to a discussion of it:

Luke (to Maisey): “’Children of dust, Maisey, children of dust. That’s not an insult to the human race; it’s just a fact. Making mistakes is unavoidable; we are the created not the Creator. But it is also a fact that God loves us despite our frailty. And it’s a fact that life is good when we choose love and forgiveness.’

I close my eyes against his words.

Dad puts his hands over mine and I dare to look at him.

‘These things are worth remembering, Maisey – they really are.’”  248-9

Being a daughter myself and the mother of a daughter (with whom I planned a wedding a few years ago) I related to Kendy at a gut level. Maisey’s rudeness to her mother and the  way she shut her out of all her wedding plans and activities made me wish I could take Kendy aside and tell her she’d better stop acting so passive and make an effort to get to the bottom of their rift. Yet Kendy downplays her hurt to the extent that at times she seems almost stoic when one would expect her to be falling apart. However, this downplaying is probably safer than over emotionalizing, as Stark has created an emotional minefield of a situation, and the tone of Kendy’s telling could easily have degenerated into sentimentality and self-pity.

Altogether the book flew by far too fast for me. The way it explores the mother-daughter relationship and forgiveness would make it an excellent choice for individuals or reading groups.  Discussion questions are here. Read an excerpt here.

(I received this book from Bethany House for the purpose of writing a review.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

November is coming!

And what is there to get excited about in November, you ask.

It's the month of two ambitious writing challenges that, should you decide to accept them, will have you swimming in words.

November Chapbook Challenge at Poetic Asides:
Write one poem a day in November (Robert Brewer will post daily prompts), use December to preen those poems, then submit your best 10-20 pages - 1 poem/page -  to Robert by January 2/2010 to enter the chapbook challenge.

NaNo WriMo (National Novel-writing month)
Write a short novel (50,000 words) during the month of November (quantity, not quality is the watchword here). Read all  the details at the NaNo WriMo web site.

Are you up for either - or both?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Does your poem pass the sound check?

Of all the things I find difficult about writing poetry, choosing words that flow over the tongue and sound musical may be my biggest challenge. It seems I naturally gravitate towards alliteration, ending up with all kinds of harsh and tongue-twisty bits. That's one of the reasons I chose to write about the sound of poetry in my latest Poet's Classroom column.

In researching the article, I found out lots of good stuff about the texture of words, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyme, repetition and more. Check out "The Sound of a Poem" here.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Top Ten Blogs for Writers

Want to add the best writing blogs to your reading list? Michael Stelzner of the Writing White Papers runs a yearly top blogs for writers competition. On September 22nd he announced the top ten writer blogs for 2008/2009. Here they are. (I can personally vouch for number 1. I follow Copyblogger on twitter and his articles are excellent.)

1. Copyblogger (Brian Clark)

2. Men with Pens (James Chartrand and Harry McLeod)

3. Freelance Writing Jobs (Deb Ng founder)

4. Write to Done (Leo Babauta)

5. Confident Writing (Joanna Young)

6. The Renegade Writer (Linda Formichelli and Diana Burell)

7. Remarkable Communication (Sonia Simone)

8. Writing Journey (Bob Younce)

9. Freelance Parent (Lorna Doone Brewer and Tamara Berry)

10. Urban Muse (Susan Johnston)

Hat-tip: @JanalynVoigt