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Category: Book Reviews (page 1 of 7)

Book Review: Beyond the Label by Maureen Chiquet

What labels do you wear? I’m not talking about Coach or Gucci or Channel, I’m talking about the labels others have given you. “Supermom” is one that’s been thrown around at me. “Wife,” “Mother,” “Type-A,” “Introvert,” “Neurotic,” are others. When we receive labels, it can be hard to break out of them. I know in graduate school, receiving the label “outstanding Ph.D. candidate” made me extremely anxious. I didn’t feel like such a label fit me. In Maureen Chiquet’s Beyond The Label, she takes a hard look at the labels women have received and how we can break through from them to lead a life that is our own. 

The way she does this, however, is unique. She tells her own story of how she left college and the path that she took to become a CEO. Through her journey, she had to break out of every and label that had been set for her.  At the end of one chapter, she writes:

Long story short: No opportunity is ever too small to show you what you can accomplish, and no boss is ever so mean that you can’t learn something, even if it’s only to show you how not to lead. If you keep your eyes open, if you’re willing to reframe and recast what you’re seeing–yes to go beyond the label–you’ll find plenty of raw material to help you make your case.

It’s way easy to miss opportunities because we choose not to see beyond the label or because we choose to focus only on the negative. If instead, we turn around such experiences and look for what we can learn from them, this can help us to move forward to higher levels of success. Here’s a little insight into the way I do things: After I finish a project for a client or customer, I create a brief project closing document. In this document, I list what was involved with the project, a photo of the finished product if applicable, and I list off any challenges, opportunities, and lessons learned that cropped up. This helps me to continually improve my work process. 

Chiquet’s point is an important one – we need to rise beyond the labels we give things – both in our own lives and when looking at the opportunities and challenges that come our way.

How will you go beyond the label?

About Beyond the Label

• Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: HarperBusiness (April 18, 2017)

The former global CEO of Chanel charts her unlikely path from literature major to global chief executive, guiding readers to move beyond the confines of staid expectations and discover their own true paths, strengths, and leadership values.

Driven. Shy. Leader. Wife. Mother. We live in a world of categories — labels designed to tell the world, and ourselves, who we are and ought to be. Some we may covet, others we may fear or disdain; but creating a life that’s truly your own, means learning to define yourself on your own terms.

In Beyond the Label, Maureen Chiquet charts her unlikely path from literature major to global chief executive. Sharing the inklings, risks and (re)defining moments that have shaped her exemplary career, Chiquet seeks to inspire a new generation of women, liberal arts grads, and unconventional thinkers to cultivate a way of living and leading that is all their own.

Through vivid storytelling and provocative insights, Chiquet guides readers to consider the pressing questions and inherent paradoxes of creating a successful, fulfilling life in today’s increasingly complex and competitive world.

“Why should we separate art from business, feelings from logic, intuition from judgment?” Chiquet poses. “Who decided you can’t be determined and flexible, introspective and attuned, mother and top executive? And where does it state standing unflinchingly in your vulnerability, embracing your femininity, won’t make you stronger?”

Wise, inspiring, and deeply felt, Beyond the Label is for anyone who longs for a life without limits on who she is or who she will become.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Maureen Chiquet

Maureen Chiquet began her career in marketing at L’Oreal Paris in 1985. She has worked at The Gap, helped launch Old Navy, and was president of Banana Republic before becoming COO and President of US operations of Chanel in 2003. In 2007 she became its first Global CEO, where she oversaw the business and brand’s world-wide expansion. She left Chanel in 2016 to focus on writing, speaking, and developing new leadership initiatives. She is a Trustee to the Yale Corporation and fellow of Yale University, where she graduated in 1985.

Book Review: The Compassionate Achiever by Christopher L. Kukk, Ph.D.

One of my other projects is a blog called “Activism My Way.” It’s a project I’m passionate about and that I’d love to work on more. I use the blog to encourage others to get involved in their communities and help others. I feel that being engaged in a community and doing service work is one of the important things that makes an individual well-rounded and can really propel an individual to success. Dr. Christopher L. Kukk has dedicated an entire book, The Compassionate Achiever, to achieving new heights of success through helping others. 

Kukk starts with the premise that compassion must be taught, and then outlines how to learn compassion. His book serves both as a study of compassion and how to develop it and a workbook with exercises that will help you to cultivate compassion within yourself.  For example, Kukk spends a section on open questions vs. closed questions to help develop your communication – and listening – skills. He gives a list of examples of each – and then asks that readers then convert their own closed questions into open questions. 

The Compassionate Achiever is a must-read for anyone who would like to expand his or her repertoire of success skills. In 2017, one of the best things we can do is help others. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who would like to cultivate compassion in themselves and in their team members. 

About The Compassionate Achiever

• Hardcover: 256 pages
• Publisher: HarperOne (March 7, 2017)

A powerful, practical guide for cultivating compassion—the scientifically proven foundation for personal achievement and success at work, at home, and in the community.

For decades, we’ve been told the key to prosperity is to look out for number one. But recent science shows that to achieve durable success, we need to be more than just achievers; we need to be compassionate achievers.

New research in biology, neuroscience, and economics have found that compassion—recognizing a problem or caring about another’s pain and making a commitment to help—not only improves others’ lives; it can transform our own. Based on the most recent studies from a wide range of fields, The Compassionate Achiever reveals the profound benefits of practicing compassion including more constructive relationships, improved intelligence, and increased resiliency. To help us achieve these benefits, Christopher L. Kukk, the founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation, shares his unique 4-step program for cultivating compassion.

Kukk makes clear that practicing compassion isn’t about being a martyr or a paragon of virtue; it’s about rejecting rage and indifference and choosing instead to be a thoughtful, caring problem-solver. He identifies the skills every compassionate achiever should master—listening, understanding, connecting, and acting—and outlines how to develop each, with clear explanations, easy-to-implement strategies, actionable exercises, and real-world examples.

With the The Compassionate Achiever everyone wins—we can each achieve success in our own lives and create more productive workplaces, and healthier, less violent communities.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Christopher L. Kukk

Christopher L. Kukk, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and social science at Western Connecticut State University; founding director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation; and faculty advisor for the University and City of Compassion initiatives. He is also cofounder and CEO of InnovOwl LLC, a research and consulting start-up for solving micro and macro problems through innovative education. He was an international security fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a counterintelligence agent for the United States Army, and a research associate for Cambridge Energy Research Associates. He lives in Brookfield, Connecticut.

Find out more about Dr. Kukk at his website, and connect with him on Twitter.

Book Review: Head Strong by Dave Asprey

Years ago, in a galaxy far-far away known as junior college, I took a biological psychology class. In that class, we studied a lot of different things, but primarily focused on the brain and how its chemicals affected our personalities. It’s where I learned an overview of how to tell from a drawing if a child has been physically abused, and it was where I learned another tip that would serve me through my college years:

  • For optimal academic performance, be sure you’re in the same brain-state when you’re taking a test as you were when studying the material. If you had coffee while studying, be sure to have coffee while taking the test. If you were having a beer while studying, have a beer while taking the test. 

Now, it’s been some odd years since I took that class, so I don’t really remember the source of that advice – I can tell you that when it came to coffee, my favorite vice, I followed the advice. It appeared to hold true, but whether that is because of the coffee brain state or just because I studied well remains to be proven.

All that said, when I was offered the opportunity to review Head Strong by Dave Asprey, I was excited to take advantage of the opportunity. I am always looking for good ways to boost my brain power and be more productive, and Asprey promises results in two weeks. 

In the chapter on brain fuel, I was happy to see that my beloved coffee made the top of the list. I do kind of worry about the section on ketosis. During that alternate life in junior college, I also took a nutrition class. Ketosis is not a good thing, it’s a malnourished state. I know ketogenic diets and carb-cutting diets are very popular here in the United States, but it’s important to note that whether it is safe to induce this state is something that is highly debated among medical professionals. Taking ketosis too far can cause the breakdown of organs and muscle tissue, coma, and even death. Now, Asprey does mention that ketones can cause muscle damage. My advice? I’ve taken just one class on nutrition. It was years ago. I’m not up on the latest research. If you plan on inducing ketosis in order to create more brain energy, PLEASE check with your family doctor first.

He also has a chapter on foods to avoid. MSG, GMOs, Flouride, and other things I avoid because of their affects on my body and brain are in this chapter. For some people, they may call pseudoscience, but I have found if I avoid the things he talks about in this chapter, I do indeed feel better. 

The book is worth checking out and reading. I’m even more curious about trying bulletproof coffee (Apsrey happens to be the creator of the stuff) after reading it. I recommend it with the caveat that you may want to check with your doctor before making any drastic changes to diet. The book does have some great recipes and some good exercise routines for those without a lot of time. 

About Head Strong

• Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Wave (April 4, 2017)

From the creator of Bulletproof Coffee and author of the bestselling The Bulletproof Diet comes a revolutionary plan to upgrade your brainpower—in two weeks or less.

For the last decade, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Asprey has worked with world-renowned doctors and scientists to uncover the latest, most innovative methods for making humans perform better—a process known as “biohacking.” In his first book, The Bulletproof Diet, he shared his biohacking tips for taking control of your own biology. Now, in Head Strong, Asprey shows readers how to biohack their way to a sharper, smarter, faster, more resilient brain.

Imagine feeling like your mind is operating at its clearest and sharpest, and being able—possibly for the first time in your life—to do more in less time? What it suddenly became easier to do the very hardest things you do? Or if you could feel 100% confident about your intellect, and never again fear being the person in the room who just isn’t smart enough, or can’t remember something important? How would you treat people if the mood swings, short temper, and food cravings that disrupt your day could simply disappear?

In Head Strong, Asprey shows us that all of this is possible—and more. Using his simple lifestyle modifications (or “hacks”) to take advantage of how the structure of your brain works, readers will learn how to take their mental performance to the next level. Combining the latest findings in neuroscience and neurobiology with a hacker-inspired “get it done now” perspective, Asprey offers a program structured around key areas of brain performance that will help you:

  • Power the brain with exactly what it needs to perform at its best all day long
  • Eliminate the sources of “kryptonite,” both nutritional and environmental, that make the brain slower.
  • Supercharge the cellular powerhouses of our brains, the mitochondria, to eliminate cravings and turn up mental focus.
  • Reverse inflammation to perform better right now, then stay sharp and energized well into your golden years.
  • Promote neuron growth to enhance processing speed and reinforce new learning—hotwiring your brain for success.

Asprey’s easy to follow, two-week program offers a detailed plan to supercharge brain performance, including: which foods to eat and which ones to avoid, how to incorporate the right kinds of physical activity into your day, a detox protocol for your home and body; meditation and breathing for performance, recommended brain-boosting supplements; and how to adjust the lighting in your home and work space to give your brain the quality light it thrives on.

A better brain—and a happier, easier, more productive life—is within reach. You just need to get Head Strong.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Dave Asprey

DAVE ASPREY, founder of the Bulletproof Executive blog, is a Silicon Valley investor and technology entrepreneur who spent fifteen years and over $300,000 learning to hack his own biology. Dave lost one hundred pounds without counting calories or doing excessive exercise; upgraded his IQ by more than twenty points; and lowered his biological age–all the while learning to sleep better in less time. Mastering these seemingly impossible things transformed him into a better entrepreneur, a better husband and a better father. Dave’s blog reaches 1.5 million unique monthly visitors, and his #1 ranked podcast has been downloaded 5 million times.

You can also connect with Dave on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Book Review: 1001 Ways to Slow Down by Barbara Ann Kipfer

#73 “Look at beautiful photography.”

#235 “Remember, life is funny.”

#551 “If you are always ahead of schedule, then there is no need to rush.”

#831 “Take control of the information overload. What do you really want to read, reply to, or watch on TV?”

#900 “Sit quietly with a blank canvas or notebook. Wait until you are moved to act, then paint or write, guided by your soul.” 

What do the above quotes have in common? They are all pulled from Barbara Ann Kipfer’s latest list book, 1001 Ways to Slow Down. Let’s face it, we could all use a little more downtime. At least, I know I can. There are always things coming at me at 40,000 miles an hour (or so) from every direction. I figured, when offered the opportunity to review this book, that it would be a good book for me to look at. I could definitely use ideas for ways to slow down.

Oddly enough, just before reading this book, Wining Husband and I were having a conversation about how different life seems for us than it seemed looking at our parents growing up. Perhaps some of that was that we were kids, and our parents were parents, but it feels like life has sped up a whole lot since the 80s and 90s. There are more expectations and more obligations. There seems to be less leisure time – even for kids and teenagers. It’s like the bar was raised so that no matter how high you reach, it’s just out of reach. It’s like being on a hamster wheel.

Granted, some of this is brought on by ourselves. We have high expectations for ourselves. We choose to do a lot of things outside of the house to expose our kids to a lot of different experiences. We chose to have me work as well so we could afford to support a more flexible lifestyle. There is a lot of juggling involved, I’ve had to do my best at becoming a master of schedules, time management, and multi-tasking. 

That’s why books like 1001 Ways to Slow Down are so important! When you’re constantly moving at the speed of light, you’re going to get burnout. And nobody likes burnout. It can wreak havoc on a life, career, and family.  Kipfer’s book provides nice reminders and good tips for slowing down long enough to actually smell the roses we’ve planted in our yards. 

#662 “Take your time. It is your time, and it is up to you what you do with it.”

#882 “Pausing means expanding into the moment instead of feeling cramped by it.” 

#667 “Do not needlessly occupy your mind. Just be.”

About 1,001 Ways to Slow Down

• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Publisher: National Geographic (March 28, 2017)

This irresistible list book from National Geographic provides lighthearted quick hits of inspiration for those of us who feel overwhelmed—which is to say, all of us. Musings, activity suggestions, and illuminating quotes are paired with whimsical art on themes such as living in the moment, achieving balance, relieving stress, developing patience, and appreciating the world around us. “Slow living” sidebars, such as “Foods to Cook Slowly” and “Things to Do the Old-Fashioned Way,” are interspersed throughout the book.

Purchase Links

National Geographic | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Barbara Ann Kipfer

Dr. Barbara Ann Kipfer is the author of 14,000 Things to Be Happy About and the Page-a-Day calendars based on it. She has written more than 60 books, including 1,001 Ways to Live Wild, The Order of Things, Self-Meditation, Instant Karma, 8,789 Words of Wisdom, The Wish List, and 4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone, and she edited Roget’s International Thesaurus. She holds PhDs in linguistics, archaeology, and Buddhist studies. Dr. Kipfer is the Chief Lexicographer of Temnos and has worked for such companies as Answers.com, Ask Jeeves, and Dictionary.com.

Book Review: May Cause Love

In 1997, on New Years Eve, I found myself staring at a second line on a pregnancy test. I was 20 years old, living with a schmuck, not quite divorced from the other schmuck I’d left after a enduring lot of abuse in our on again-off-again high school relationship, working part time at a bookstore, and taking time off from college, which I had started at 17.  Life had moved pretty fast since I’d turned 17, and it wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. 

I knew immediately what my choice was, looking at that stick. I’d been told a couple years earlier that I’d probably never have children (HA! I know). I’d never had a positive test before. I took a deep breath, looked at schmuck number 2, and said “Well, it looks like we’re having a baby.” He looked back at me, and promptly replied “You’re having an abortion.”  The next day, we went to Planned Parenthood. I took another test there to confirm that I was pregnant.  It was most certainly confirmed. They gave me a bunch of prenatal vitamins to take and told me to make sure to sign up for WIC, so that as my next step. Schmuck was not happy.

Two weeks later, after my first OBGYN appointment, after hearing the fetal heartbeat, he still insisted that my choice ought to be to end the pregnancy. When I refused, he picked me up, and threw me into a wall, trying to cause me to have a miscarriage. Needless to say, I left him. I was much stronger then than I was with schmuck number 1. I had made my decision, and that was to carry that fetus to term. That fetus is now 18 years old, is graduating high school, and will  be attending a private college on multiple scholarships in the fall. 

That was my choice. My choice isn’t for everyone. I chose to be a single mom. I chose to have a baby that would be raised without the presence of a father-figure.

Pregnancy transforms you, whether you wind up staying pregnant or not. In 2000, I sat staring at a second positive test. I was in the middle of a semester after having finally returned to college. I was in a decent relationship with someone who probably values-wise was not the best match, but that wasn’t really apparent at the time. I made the same decision – to continue the pregnancy. I was torn. It was very emotional for me. I was embarrassed that I once again wasn’t married and that I was pregnant.  However, I did not wind up carrying that fetus to term. Instead, I went through the heart-wrenching experience of miscarriage when a pregnancy isn’t exactly being celebrated.  

Both experiences changed me. Two children and a fifth pregnancy later, I still wonder “What if” when it comes to the miscarriage. 

Kassi Underwood was faced with a similar decision when she was nineteen. She was in a much different situation. She was struggling with alcoholism, she did not live close to family. She did not have a good support system. She was lost and afraid and struggling. She chose to go to the abortion clinic and end her pregnancy. Once she went through it, she too was transformed. 

Underwood chronicles her transformation in the book, May Cause Love. She endures a downward spiral – drinking more alcohol and talking about her pregnancy with anyone who would listen. She wound up falling into a depression sparked by guilt and the birth of her ex-boyfriend’s baby with someone else.  She does so with a frankness that I think is important in a story like this. As I read, I could really feel how her decision affected her, every day, through re-living it as she went about her daily business, through her attempts to move past it, through her interactions with those having babies. She talks about the hard stuff – the stuff people tend to veer away from in conversations about choice. She writes about what it’s like to both know that she made the decision she felt was best for the situation she was in and to be deeply affected by that decision long after the fact.

And then, she sets out to do something, anything, to change how she feels and to move past the abortion and pregnancy. Her story is gritty, it is real, and it shows the depth for healing that we have as humans. It “goes there.” At times, the book was hard for me to read, but I kept reading. The voice and style she uses to communicate her transformation is engaging and rich.

And I suggest this book to all – even if her decision was one you may not feel was the right decision. We learn empathy and about the inner stories of others through listening to them tell us their stories. And while her choice was not my choice, it was a choice that transformed her – and it was a choice that ultimately led to love. And it’s a story told as if you are sitting across from the author in a cafe. 

About May Cause Love

• Hardcover: 352 pages
• Publisher: HarperOne (February 14, 2017)

In this powerful memoir, a fiercely honest and surprisingly funny testament to healing after abortion, a young woman travels across the United States to meet a motley crew of spiritual teachers and a caravan of new friends.

At age nineteen, Kassi Underwood discovered she was pregnant. Broke, unwed, struggling with alcohol, and living a thousand miles away from home, she checked into an abortion clinic.

While her abortion sparked her “feminist awakening,” she also felt lost and lawless, drinking to oblivion and talking about her pregnancy with her parents, her friends, strangers-anyone.

Three years later, just when she had settled into a sober life at her dream job, the ex-boyfriend with whom she had become pregnant had a baby with someone else. She shattered. In the depths of a blinding depression, Kassi refused to believe that she would “never get over” her abortion. Inspired by rebellious women in history who used spiritual practices to attain emotional freedom, Kassi embarked on a journey of recovery after abortion-a road trip with pit stops at a Buddhist “water baby” ritual, where she learns a new way to think about lost pregnancies; a Roman Catholic retreat for abortion that turns out to be staffed with clinic picketers; a crash course in grief from a Planned Parenthood counselor; a night in a motel with a “Midwife for the Soul” who teaches her how to take up space; and a Jewish “wild woman” celebration led by a wise and zany rabbi.

Dazzling with warmth and leavened by humor, May Cause Love captures one woman’s journey of self-discovery that enraged her, changed her, and ultimately enlightened her.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Kassi Underwood

Kassi Underwood grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. Her work has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic online, The Rumpus, and Refinery29. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, where she taught on the faculty of the Undergraduate Writing Program. She has been a guest on MSNBC and HuffPost Live, and a speaker at colleges, comedy shows, and faith communities nationwide. Kassi lectures about personal transformation, social justice, and the spirituality of abortion. She is a student at Harvard Divinity School and cohost of the podcast Spiritually Blonde.

Find out more about Kassi at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

TLC Tours Book Review: All Summer Long by Dorothea Benton Frank

As long-time blog readers know, two years ago come July, we moved from Northern California to Southeastern Kansas. What a transition that has been! While I do get homesick, I also really enjoy how family-friendly Wichita has been and how much further a dollar goes here than in California. Life is also not quite so fast-paced, kids are kids longer, and since we came from a small college town to a city, there’s no shortage of things to do on the weekends. In Dorothea Benton Frank’s All Summer Long, main character Olivia Ritchie also makes a big moving transition.

Olivia’s move, however is even more of a contrast than California to Kansas. She follows her husband from Manhattan to Charleston, South Carolina. Naturally, it takes some time for Olivia to adjust to life in the south. One of the great things about Dorothea Benton Frank’s storytelling ability is that she puts you right into the scene with the characters through the way she paints pictures with her words. The author was born in Sullivans Island, South Carolina and now resides in New York – meaning that she has special authority for the places she writes about in this novel. As we progress with Olivia and her husband, Nick, through the novel, we learn more about their marriage, their wealthy friends, and how a perspective can change once you leave your comfort zone. 

About All Summer Long

• Paperback: 400 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (March 7, 2017)

Filled with her trademark wit, poignant themes, and rich characters, the perennial New York Times bestselling author returns with a sensational novel that follows the travels of one couple though a tumultuous summer.

Dorothea Benton Frank’s magical stories take us deep into the heart of her beloved Carolina Lowcountry. In her novels, this lush landscape comes alive in all its vibrancy and color. She ignites all of our senses with her vivid descriptions of landscape and atmosphere. In her novels you hear the ocean washing the shore on different islands so profoundly that you can nearly hear the sea gulls squawking, too.

This is a story of people whose lives are changing—a southern gentleman returning home to lead a more peaceful life and his talented New York wife who is not quite sure she is ready to make the transition. They are moving north to south, fast pace versus slow pace, downsizing. And while they are doing this, they are getting glimpses into other people’s lives over the course of a summer, holidays that will amuse, shock and transform them.

This irresistible story is home to captivating characters as funny, complicated, and real as our best friends—husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, friends and family who wrestle with the complexities, pain, and joys familiar to us all.

Finally, we’ll come to recognize the face of love, the kind that deepens and endures but only because one woman makes a tremendous leap of faith. That leap changes them all.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Dorothea Benton Frank

New York Times bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank was born and raised on Sullivans Island, South Carolina. She resides in the New York area with her husband.

Find her on the web at www.dotfrank.com, or like her on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

Book Blitz: Darkstorm

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Blitz~ Darkstorm
Author: M.L. Spencer
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Dates: 24th of March
Hosted by: Ultimate Fantasy Book Tours

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Blurb:

Faced with an imminent cataclysm that will destroy the magical heritage of their people, a conspiracy of darkmages resolves to open the gateway to Hell. The only mages who stand a chance of opposing them are Sephana Clemley and her acolyte, Merris Bryar, along with their protectors, Braden and Quin Reis: two brothers with a turbulent past and a caustic relationship.

Will Braden and Quin be able to protect Sephana and Merris long enough to prevent the unsealing of the Well of Tears? Or will they fall victim to manipulation and become darkmages themselves?

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↓Buy Links↓
https://www.amazon.com/Darkstorm-Rhenwars-Saga-Book-1-ebook/dp/B01MT77SK9

Author Bio:

M.L. SPENCER
M.L. Spencer grew up on the works of Steven R. Donaldson, Stephen King and Frank Herbert. She wrote her first novel-length manuscript at thirteen. Her debut novel Darkmage won the 2012 IndieReader Discovery Award for Fantasy. She was also awarded 1st Place Prose in in the San Bernardino County Writing Celebration.

Ms. Spencer lives in Southern California. By day she works as a biology teacher; by night she sweats over a beaten-up keyboard. She is now in the process of expanding the Rhenwars Saga into a trilogy.
Visit her at:

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Book Review: All the News I Need by Joan Frank

My favorite thing about reading is when an author weaves his or her words together to create a movie in my mind. Joan Frank does this exact thing in All the News I Need. Even within the first few pages of this novel, the verisimilitude she creates with her words woven together is quite poetic:

Opens his eyes. Eucalyptus branches. Pearl mist evaporating as he watches, apertures of baby blue. Brine-breath from the beach. Medicine tang of leaves, acorns.

Rubs his cold hands. Should’ve used more lotion this morning. (p.4)

The language in All The News I Need isn’t the only reason that one should pick up a copy of this novel. The tight-knit story delves into the emotions of loss and loneliness while one is surrounded by people. We all have had those times where we’re in a city full of people but still feel like the only ones there. (Or at least, I have had times when I feel like I’m the only person in a room full of talkative people. I just assume others have too!) 

In the midst of their pain, the main characters Frances Ferguson, a snarky widow, and Oliver Gaffney, a seriously introverted gay guy, decide to head to Paris together. This results in a crazy adventure that challenges both of them at their core – especially since they are each so dedicated to their own lives and rituals. 

If you’re looking for a beautifully written novel that gets to the core of some of the deeper questions we experience as people living in a world filled with other people, this book comes highly recommended. Get inside the heads of her characters, enjoy the beautiful word-music, and indulge yourself in this literary work. 

About All the News I Need

• Paperback: 210 pages
• Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press (January 17, 2017)

All The News I Need probes the modern American response to inevitable, ancient riddles—of love and sex and mortality.

Frances Ferguson is a lonely, sharp-tongued widow who lives in the wine country. Oliver Gaffney is a painfully shy gay man who guards a secret and lives out equally lonely days in San Francisco. Friends by default, Fran and Ollie nurse the deep anomie of loss and the creeping, animal betrayal of aging. Each loves routine but is anxious that life might be passing by. To crack open this stalemate, Fran insists the two travel together to Paris. The aftermath of their funny, bittersweet journey suggests those small changes, within our reach, that may help us save ourselves—somewhere toward the end.

Praise

“Joan Frank has gifted us with two unforgettable characters in a novel filled to bursting with hard truths and shimmering beauty.” —Bob Wake, Cambridge Book Review

Joan Frank is a human insight machine.” —Carolyn Cooke

“I will be quoting her ‘rules for aging’ at many dinner parties!” —Natalie Serber

Purchase Links

University of Massachusetts Press | Amazon*

Joan FrankAbout Joan Frank

Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction and a collection of essays on the writing life. She lives in Northern California with her husband, playwright Bob Duxbury. Visit her at www.joanfrank.org.

*This is an affiliate link; making a purchase using this link will give me a small commission at no additional cost to yourself. Such purchases help me to support my family and keep this blog running. 

Book Tour: Evanthia’s Gift & Waiting for Aegina

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is one of my favorite classic films. I love the story that is woven in the movie, and I think the family saga is really fascinating. It’s a peek inside Greek-American culture, and it’s a tale that weaves together the tension between tradition and modernity. In light of this, when I had the opportunity to review Effie Kammenou’s first two books in The Gift Saga, I was happy to do so. Both books deal with that same Greek-American look at life, and the interplay of family members.

Unlike My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Evanthia’s Gift & Waiting for Aegina are family sagas that take place over the course of several decades. Whereas we get a piece of Toula Portokalos’s life in the film, we get to know the Fotopolous family in-depth. This epic look at the lives of these people is riveting. In the vein of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Kammenou weaves together the stories of family in a way where it’s hard to stop reading. Kammenou grabs you from page on, where she begins the story in the middle – and at the beginning of all stories – with an unplanned pregnancy. 

While many stories lose their luster and movement come a sequel, Waiting for Aegina avoids this problem. The power of friendship and the depth of love that true friends offer is a highlight of this novel. Both of these novels will stick with you long after reading them – they deal with the deep stuff – teen pregnancies, suicide, alcoholism, and more Kammenou doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. 

Evanthia’s Gift  

Date Published: August 7, 2015   

In the year 1956, Anastacia Fotopoulos finds herself pregnant and betrayed, fleeing from a bad marriage. With the love and support of her dear friends Stavros and Soula Papadakis, Ana is able to face the challenges of single motherhood. Left with emotional wounds, she resists her growing affection for Alexandros Giannakos, an old acquaintance. But his persistence and unconditional love for Ana and her child is eventually rewarded and his love is returned. In a misguided, but well-intentioned effort to protect the ones they love, both Ana and Alex keep secrets – ones that could threaten the delicate balance of their family.

The story continues in the 1970’s as Dean and Demi Papadakis, and Sophia Giannakos attempt to negotiate between two cultures. Now Greek-American teenagers, Sophia and Dean, who have shared a special connection since childhood, become lovers. Sophia is shattered when Dean rebels against the pressure his father places on him to uphold his Greek heritage and hides his feelings for her. When he pulls away from his family, culture and ultimately his love for her, Sophia is left with no choice but to find a life different from the one she’d hoped for.

EVANTHIA’S GIFT is a multigenerational love story spanning fifty years and crossing two continents, chronicling the lives that unify two families.

 

Waiting for Aegina

Date Published – January 7, 2016

Book Two in The Gift Saga: The continuation of Evanthia’s Gift…

In 1961, five little girls moved into a suburban neighborhood and became inseparable, lifelong friends. They called themselves the ‘Honey Hill Girls,’ named after the street on which they lived. As teenagers they shared one another’s ambitions and dreams, secrets and heartaches. Now, more than thirty years later, they remain devoted and loyal, supporting each other through triumphs and sorrows.

Evanthia’s Gift follows the life of Sophia Giannakos. In Waiting for Aegina the saga continues from the perspectives of Sophia and her friends as the story drifts back and forth in time, filling in the gaps as the women grow to adulthood.

Naive teenage ideals are later challenged by harsh realities, as each of their lives takes unexpected turns. Now nearing their fiftieth year, Sophia, Demi, Amy, Mindy and Donna stand together through life-altering obstacles while they try to regain the lighthearted optimism of their youth.

About the Author, Effie Kammenou

Effie Kammenou is a believer that it is never too late to chase your dreams, follow your heart or change your career. She is proof of that. At one time, long ago, she’d thought that, by her age, she would have had an Oscar in her hand after a successful career as an actor. Instead, she worked in the optical field for 40 years and is the proud mother of two accomplished young women.

Her debut novel, Evanthia’s Gift, is a women’s fiction multigenerational love story and family saga, influenced by her Greek heritage, and the many real life accounts that have been passed down. She continues to pick her father’s brain for stories of his family’s life in Lesvos, Greece, and their journey to America. Her interview with him was published in a nationally circulated magazine.

Evanthia’s Gift: Book One in The Gift Saga was a 2016 award finalist in the Readers Favorite Awards in the Women’s Fiction category.  Waiting for Aegina: Book Two in The Gift Saga is Kammenou’s latest release.

Effie Kammenou is a first generation Greek-American who lives on Long Island with her husband and two daughters. When she’s not writing, or posting recipes on her food blog, cheffieskitchen.wordpress.com, you can find her cooking for her family and friends.

As an avid cook and baker, a skill she learned from watching her Athenian mother, she incorporated traditional Greek family recipes throughout the books. 

She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Theater Arts from Hofstra University.

Author Contact Information

Website: (food blog)

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Purchase Links*

Amazon: Evanthia’s Gift

Amazon: Waiting For Aegina 

Landing page for both books –

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Be sure to check these books out! If you have read them, please post your thoughts in the comments section. 

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Book Excerpt: Worthy of This Great City

I’m excited to have had the opportunity to read Worthy of This Great City by Mike Miller, and share this excerpt from the book with my readers. As you may know, I was a philosophy major in college, and my MA degree and Ph.D. work are both in philosophy – particularly social and political theory. When I had the call for tour participants come across my email, I was happy to sign up to participate. This book has philosophical undertones, and it’s quite an amusing read – especially in light of our contemporary political climate. If you’ve been waiting for a light-hearted look at politics, ethics, and “the end of virtue,” you won’t want to miss Mike Miller’s Worthy of This Great City.

About the Novel
Literary / Satire

Date Published: October 2016

Publisher: JAM Publishing

Ruth Askew, a minor celebrity, is spouting some highly incompetent philosophy about the end of virtue. Con Manos, a journalist, is attempting to uncover a political scandal or two. Add some undistinguished members of City Council, an easy listening radio station, a disorganized charity, a prestigious Philadelphia newspaper, and any number of lawyers and other professional criminals. In Worthy Of This Great City the compelling stories of two stubborn individualists intertwine in a brisk, scathing satire that invites you to question everything you think you think about today’s most discussed issues: populism and elitism, the possibility of truth, the reach of profound stupidity, and the limits of personal responsibility in these post-truth, morally uncertain times.

About the Author

If you know my website and Twitter addresses (asmikemiller.com and asmikemiller, respectively), you must realize Mike Miller is only an author name. It’s not a matter of privacy 
or secrecy; anybody can find me with minimal effort. It’s about keeping things separate. My writing is about what appears on the page. It’s not about my personal politics or religion or history. 
 
Worthy Of This Great City is a B-game book. I’m ambiguous about this, being interested in money like most people, but I don’t want to compete with a slick professional cover or smooth editing so I’ve stuck to a sort of reasonable, human middle ground. I value those things for what they are, of course, but I see them as artifacts, part of a system of publishing that fought like hell for a week’s worth of shelf space, that fought to catch the eye, not the mind or heart. 
 
As my character Con Manos says: “It’s a revolution, isn’t it?” I say: Why fight on the side of the enemy? Why imitate and thus perpetuate a business model that stifles originality? Just to show you can? Unless, of course, you’re fighting to attract the eye, not the mind or heart.
 
I’ve played a joke with this novel – my first, incidentally. Played with the idea of narration and who can be speaking after all. It’s all very literary.
 

Worthy of This Great City 

CHAPTER ONE

Worthy of This Great City Mike MillerEarlier that day, I lay in the shade with only my bare toes exposed to the vicious sun, part of a modest audience similarly disposed beneath the modest fringe of trees surrounding the field. Light fell down through the foliage, thick victorious beams that described powerful angles in their descent inside the usual breathtaking green cathedral. Around me the grass was withered and compressed into a flattened mat over ground still saturated from the previous night’s thunderstorms; everything smelled of baking wet earth, sunscreen, and greasy event food. I don’t remember any intrusive insects or even visible birds except for a couple of extremely distant hawks, dull specks in the otherwise empty sky.

Another respectable scattering of spectators occupied the baking field, most sprawled directly in front of the small Camp Stage, true fans eagerly upright despite the merciless heat. So just as expected, one of those perfectly innocent afternoons you buy with the ticket, monotonous while deeply nourishing, readily absorbed through the whole skin like childhood summers.

 didn’t know about the witches yet, but they were out in force. Yeah, it’s a silly description but I don’t know how else to capture the awful effect of those damn women. So they were witches who’d been summoned by a highly demanding assembly of affluent suburbanites, people accustomed to commanding natural forces. And while arguably these were all benevolent females who only meant well, with witches you never know how it’s going to turn out.

Every August for more than a decade I’ve headed out to Schwenksville for this dependable throwback party. And not precisely to enjoy the music, because although it commands my absolute respect I find it too intense for everyday entertainment. It’s a kind of church music, an unashamed church of humanity: pure sound, plaintive and honest, twanging and rambunctious, dulcimer gentle. Fitting, then, for this late-summer pagan rite in honor of righteousness, and I immerse myself in it to perform a spiritual cleansing of sorts, processing across the fields from one rustic venue to another, affirming a succession of bluegrass pickers and ballad wailers and theatrical tellers of old tales. And it’s a mildly uncomfortable ritual in another sense, but that’s because of the mostly undamaged people, the one’s who wholeheartedly enjoy everything and applaud too often.

As with anything religious, there are incredibly subversive undercurrents longing to manifest, easy to exploit by those portending witches. Two of them performed that day, one with such tragic skill and clarity it unintentionally aroused huge amounts of self-loathing and subsequently resentment, at least in me. The second inspired a joy vigorous enough to move the plot. And the third exerted an indirect but equally damning influence courtesy of her own celebrity, her mere idea inciting a shaming nostalgia. In fact it was dangerously stupid to speak her name aloud. All three arrived wearing absolute certainty.

This current festival setting, the Old Pool Farm, is perfectly suited to the occasion. There are wide fields to accommodate the generous crowds, a nicely crisp and sparkly creek, and the requisite gates and groves, all at a situation remote enough to evoke a wholly separate culture despite easy proximity to the city. Although that’s not difficult, because even today you only have to poke your nose outside the nearer suburbs to spot a rusty silo on some decrepit farm with another of those filthy black-and-white, diarrhea-spewing dairy cows leaning against a sagging wire fence, its pelvis practically poking through its muddy hide. Peeling paint and hay bales directly across the road from another mushrooming pretentious development, a slum of dull, identical cheapjack townhouses. So despite the fervent country claptrap the festival is essentially a metropolitan scene, drawing a sophisticated crowd, and therefore in one sense condescending, an insult.

Murmurs of anticipation brought me up on my elbows to discover Hannah Lynch already onstage, a typically modest entrance. I sat up and paid attention, catching sight of her inside an amiable circle of probable musicians, a glimpse of her face and one thin shoulder between competent-looking backs in cowboy or cotton work shirts, all of them endlessly conversing there in surprisingly gentle voices.

Until finally they broke apart and here she came gliding towards the front of the tiny platform, moving within a reputation so illustrious it made her physical presence unlikely and you had to struggle for it. A tiny bird of a woman, an elderly, fragile sparrow with fine gray hair and hazel eyes and translucent skin, nodding to us and smiling nicely with small unremarkable teeth while seating herself on a wooden folding chair. She was dressed like good people, like a decent Christian farmwife in a faded print skirt and cotton blouse of mixed pastels, pink and beige and blue. Only with dangling silver jewelry to be noticed, since after all she was a major star.

With this one unshakable article of faith: that her famously quavering soprano was entirely unrelated to her own ordinary self, more of an imposition or a trust, an undeserved gift from God that in no way merited personal praise. So she has stated. And accordingly she exuded genuine empathy with all of us waiting out there for her, straining forward to better capture the spirit and stamina investing each word. A curve of laughter lit her face, and there was grief there too, but nothing to diminish that serene spirit.

Beside me Crystal, blatantly artificial trendoid in that audience of cosmopolitan pseudo-naturals, for once had the good sense to keep her mouth shut. Crystal, please note, was present only because she suspected this event mattered to me and meant to chain herself to it in my memory. She was an unashamed criminal, and really sweet, and I admired her.

Lynch sat there looking at us and hugging her guitar, once giving it a surreptitious pat like a favorite pet before launching into one of those unexpectedly piercing old songs, a rather shocking rush of raw bitterness and despair – nothing silvered there – railing rather than mourning yet cleanly tragic because without any confusion of entitlement or excuse, in fact totally untainted by melodrama, an expression of rightful fury to upend your sensibilities and make you cringe inside your pampered, complacent soul.

And onward, commanding that summer hour with a repertoire of futile longing, black misery, true love, unalloyed injustice, and journeying away as only the truly dispossessed can journey. How inadequate we were by comparison, what undeserved good fortune to be sitting there vicariously sharing the infinite human endurance of those former generations, thus beatified now. Sharing a deep pride in our good taste and our faultless fundamental values.

And that’s how this festival always goes for me: a fusion of rapture and fleeting realization, of purging and rebirth I suppose. We avid celebrants being served by true vicars, unassuming conduits of grace because essentially craftspeople evincing the unquestioning self-respect of their kind, therefore automatically accepting us as equals and worthy of their respect, refusing to cater. That’s how Lynch and her ilk deliver their deadly blows, how they incite our reckless, self-destructive impulses.

Because the problem is, nothing is enough and never can be, not in any case. And in addition to that, this particular event carries an impossible burden of triumphant civil rights baggage. A weight of expectation, purest gold and just as heavy, presses down on those fields like an approaching storm, flattening the trees, placing an unbearable strain on our moral muscles, making even the most authentic and engaged participant stagger for reasons most often never identified.

You see there’s no battle here anymore, a situation as frustrating as it is pathetic. I mean, what’s so pitiable as striving mightily to wage a war already won, or achieve a moral victory already popularly embraced? Like you’re on some lone and dangerous crusade instead of enjoying a mere reenactment, an amusement park ride. As if any real social hazard or physical extremity ever threatened most of these initiates. As if they could face the real front line today. Come to that, what in the world ever sprang from this placid piece of Pennsylvania countryside anyway, or even its nearby metropolis, so far from the bloody front lines of decades past? What justifies this hallowed ambience? Everyone knows the real struggle was over in another state, in the deep South or New York or California, all that televised passion and pain. Yet here’s a similar legacy, an undeserved renown.

Seriously, you have to consider this heritage of the sixties, that era of righteousness and innocence and victory, you have to ponder the connection to the contemporary lives and events I’m describing here. Resurrect that intoxicating scent of possibility. Realize how strong it is, what it can do. Watch any old news film and it’s literally like viewing creatures from another planet, those young people are so alien, their gestures and expressions so certain and strident, an entire new world in their angry, accusatory eyes. What can any of that mean in this age of spent possibility?

So today the Folk Fest is largely a masturbatory farce of self-congratulation, courtesy of this pushy, upscale audience basking in its accustomed sunshine, displaying that forceful amiability that means money, smiling too brightly over bare freckled shoulders. Uniformly pale people displaying their ease on this bucolic faux battlefield, all aggressively self-aware. And meanwhile a barely perceptible, slightly demented energy flutters along at grass level, an intrepid narcissism bent on having a significant experience and more than a little desperate to measure up to itself.

I’m as progressive as anyone, I secretly gloat over my superiority, so for me all this underlying energy eventually manifests as low-grade irritation, and the fact that bad temper is implicitly verboten at this event only makes it that much worse. And then here comes Lynch to further emphasize everyone’s obvious unworthiness and what can you do but silently seethe with frustrated moral ambition. This is the one Folk Fest constant I always dismiss until it’s too late and I’m climbing aboard one of the yellow school buses that shuttle people in from the parking fields, listening to all the boisterous but balanced chatter. Probably a deliberate amnesia, because as I say, for me it’s a religious event.

So by later that Saturday afternoon I was largely disgusted with myself and as you can imagine, wonderful company. Once again stretched out on my back but this time my whole body obstinately exposed to the brutal heat, and while I had a bucket hat shielding my face I’d raised my knees to better facilitate the burn penetrating my jeans. I reached my left hand out past the edge of Crystal’s spongy blue blanket, feeling for the heart of the earth deep underneath the dispirited vegetation, Edna Millay style.

There we greeted the second witch, and for an interlude of spontaneous revelry the whole phony carnival dissolved, wiping away our precious fictions to reveal the one face behind the infinitely varied masks. Rather commonplace moments to underline the supertext, a brief but blessed release from introspective angst, an intoxicated dance that anyway began wholeheartedly but inevitably dwindled into posturing before ultimately discarding us back into isolated, shattered pieces of humanity scattered over a sunlit field.

We were in front of the main stage, the Martin Guitar Stage, a venue that backs into some tame leftover woods. The smaller Tank Stage was to my right, with behind it a private area for performers, and to my left the equally small Craft Stage. Further left was all the familiar festival retail, folkie variety, striped tents selling hippie throwback goods like handcrafted ceramics, carved wooden bowls, tie-dye skirts, hand-strung glass beads, and bad art. In between the main and Craft Stages a tiny dirt path paralleled a shallow creek of sparkling mica and soft mud; both disappeared into the dim coolness of the Dulcimer Grove, a rather precious habitat of jugglers and magicians and others of that Renaissance Faire ilk, a determinedly magical place more or less reserved to scantily clad or frankly naked children, their cheeks painted with stars and moons in indigo and crimson. Either they’re truly mesmerized by these archaic amusements or they’re convinced they should be by the adults and the daycare atmosphere, because they all sit there expending fierce concentration on colored sand and sparkly fairy dust, their little pink tongues extended in effort. I mean, all the world is fake, even the kids. Around them circles a protective hillside of slender trees roped together by string hammocks in bright primary colors, a haphazard effect of beggars’ rags pegged out to dry.

If you follow that same path straight on you come out on field with more dry grass, more distant trees, and another vacant horizon. On the right is the Camp Stage, site of Lynch’s morning concert; on the left an unremarkable gate gives onto the campers’ settlement, one of those ephemeral constructions of funky tent-and-RV fantasies, castles and pyramids and suburban estates complete with lawn furniture and barbeques and anything else you need for rustic comfort. The affable professional performers come here after the regular shows to sit and drink and play their music well into the summer nights, just for these special stalwarts. Notice how everyone’s personal effects are carefully positioned to define private family spaces but without absolutely excluding the requisite hobnobbing community, because that would repudiate the spirit of the thing.

And anywhere you care to look there are all these exceptionally pleasant people, a seasonal confluence of the enlightened: middle-aged, nattily-bearded men with thick hairy ankles showing beneath those long gauzy skirts; visibly well-educated younger couples falling all over each other in reassuring mutual recognition; friendly teens aglow with their own laudable social spirit or familiarity with meaningful music or both; and grimy toddlers in T-shirts and shimmering plastic haloes with their baby curls shining and their fingers to their mouths and their tiny feet covered with dirt. Skimpy tank tops and glittery backpacks, idiosyncratic witches cones and sombreros and straw cowboy hats covered in button collections, pale muscled calves and freckled backs red with sun and damp with perspiration.

All these regulation types navigate cordially across the fields, buying and eating and exercising their approval, until later in the afternoon when the heat is truly intolerable and it’s a matter of claiming a place for the folding chairs and coolers and settling in for the afternoon concert. When for a couple of hours all these enervated devotees create for themselves an enormous patchwork quilt of blankets and tarps, an American prayer rug rolled out beneath the glare.

I among them, hiding under my hat, squinting up from under the brim, intending not so much to watch the performances as to absorb them from a neutral distance. Meanwhile I was relishing the sense of Crystal beside me, resentful at having to endure all this legitimate music.

When here came a second celebrated woman into this extraordinary and disorganized day, an ineffably cosmopolitan presence in a white silk shirt that billowed out over notably slim hips and tight black jeans tucked into cowboy boots. The costume only emphasized the unmistakable sophistication in the sharp angle of her jaw and the sleek black bob swinging at her shoulder. That taut body edged itself onto the stage and into our attention, anticipation suffusing her narrow face, her whole person radiating the intrinsically cool self-content of a magician about to pull off the big illusion and astonish us all.

Lifting fiddle and bow, lowering them to call a comment offstage, bringing them back up to her pointed chin experimentally while a guitarist, drummer, and another violinist fooled with getting into position, and around me an expectant rustle shook off the afternoon lethargy, and once again I sat up and wiped the sweat and sunscreen from my forehead.

She leaned forward a fraction to acknowledge us.

“Hello all you very special people.” Now decisively raising her instrument. “Three jigs.”

Well, you know that kind of tritely manipulative music, but then her exceptional skill, that energy climbing into a frenzy, the first notes reaching us with the adolescent enthusiasm of uncurling spring leaves. Music so familiar and yet astonishingly fresh, something behind the insistence of it transcending its own rather sentimental imagining. Passages as fleet but powerful as pure energy, and you’d actually have to defend against the physical impact but why would you bother to fight off such delirious joy?

They have a reserved seating section in front of the main stage, a modest pen containing rows of wooden folding chairs surrounded by a fence of deliberately rickety palings. It was largely unpopulated for the afternoon performance. A dirt lane about ten feet wide separated this area from the field of common folk. Crystal and I were up front, right near the dusty edge of this path, and close to us, in the lane itself and with one tiny hand firmly grasping the enclosure fence, stood a fairy-slim blonde girl of five or six. Just as I fully noticed her she launched into the familiar steps of an Irish jig, lifting first one exquisite bare foot and then the other into tentative arcs, curving each arm alternately above her head. From her shoulders a pastel summer dress floated out in the shape of a loose triangle, and her movements caused her hair to caress her perfect little back.

With the increasing confidence of the music her delicate feet, fragile pale-pink petals, rose and crossed each other in an assured sequence that bespoke formal lessons, and meanwhile her eyes never lifted from her toes and her pallid face was tense in concentration. Only once did she manage a quick glance up to a middle-aged scholarly type, probably her father, who nodded mild encouragement but displayed, I thought, some slight annoyance.

Now complex annotations around the tune turned tight elegant spirals; it was all self-interest now, you understand, nothing to do with us but instead its own internal voyage. In the path the child reworked her steps, her frown expressing frustration with her own limited expertise.

When suddenly appeared two barefoot, competent-looking women in their early thirties skipping down the lane, then widely twirling, then skipping again, their hands clasped and arms outstretched to form a traveling arrow. Both flaunting gauzy pastel skirts and silvery tank tops that exposed perspiring firm flesh, both draped with multiple glittering strands of Mardi Gras beads flashing purple and green and mauve. They acknowledged the blond child with an upward swing of their joined hands high over her head, a bridal arch speeding by on either side. It made her giggle but move closer to the fence.

The fiddler was bending practically in half over her bow and the second fiddler not being any slouch either, their hands and arms pushing towards the absolute limits of muscular possibility, straining against themselves to maintain their momentum.

Then four ethereally lithe teenage girls forming two pairs, and they were in regulation T-shirts and shorts except all bore silvery translucent wings that flapped at their slim shoulders; they went whirling around and around each other and simultaneously forward, delightful gyroscopes with their feet stomping hard on the infectious strain yet for all that maintaining the ludicrously disinterested expressions of runway models.

Promptly followed by a young couple charging along in an outright polka, aggressive but a tiny bit shamefaced, too: he was slim and wore a neatly-trimmed dark beard; she was sturdy and short with a pixie haircut and a refined air, like an educator. The little dancer flattened herself against the fence but continued a rhythmic bopping, presenting no less enchanting an image. And she was proved wise, because here came the same young couple back again, being the kind of people who need to underline the obvious.

Passing midway an approaching male pair, seeming now a little more obliged than inspired, their muscular calves flashing below their khaki kilts: one was broad in the shoulders and chest with a thin ass and spindly legs; his partner was entirely slim, remarkably tall, and balding. Presenting the impression although little of the force of a strong wind, they nevertheless managed to turn the little dancer halfway round, her moist mouth open in wonder. She paused there, staring after them.

Now the dancing was everywhere. I stood up to confirm a modest sea of erratically bobbing heads at every side but especially to the right, past the Tank Stage: enlightened middlebrows and emotionally stranded hippies and likeable healthy teens and self-disciplined mandolin players and confident cultural elitists and miscellaneous commonsensical types engaged in a nearly impromptu production number, for one bright second emerged from behind the mask of individualism, openly expressing one joyously creative soul.

Well, we were dancing out in the field as well, all of us to some extent, the more exhibitionist characters gyrating on their bright blue tarps and lifting their hands in the air, and some efficient types illegally occupying the marked-off aisles, prancing with impudent liberty up and back. Patrons excessively enthusiastic or self-consciously hesitant but almost everyone involving themselves in the music. I was dancing too, not to make a spectacle of myself or anything but feeling myself a part of the gala. And about then I realized it was already ending because that’s how these things always go.

Frenzied vibrations, faster than you could believe, and we listeners attended first with our ears and then with our bodies, stilling them now, desperate to capture every last second until inevitably all of it was swiftly and immaculately recalled into one compact point of silence and we found ourselves abandoned to our accustomed exile, returned to the pretense of our separate selves.

She played two more sets, we in her audience dutifully imitating our initial enthusiasm, grateful for the continuing reprieve. I’ve said it before: reality moves so fast anymore, we’ve all become experts at polite deceit.

Folk Fest protocol is to kick everyone out around six, sweep the grounds, then ticket everyone back in for the evening concert. You wait in a cattle shoot, at least if you’re fairly close to the gate, or anywhere nearby if you’re not, until finally the loudspeakers blare a Sousa march and you grab your chairs and blankets and coolers and run like hell to beat the other folkies to a premium patch of grass. Therefore it’s prudent to leave early enough to ensure you’re at the front of the return pack, and that afternoon, as usual, the knowledgeable attendees ignored the high, unrelenting sun, ignored even the name performer just introducing himself, and started unobtrusively filtering out.

I was making my own preliminary moves when I recognized Ruth off to the right, by herself and slightly beyond the audience proper. She was rather elaborately brushing grass off her shirt, and her hair was drifting into her face as usual; her entire aspect projected excruciating self-consciousness. It was the intricate performance of a woman uncoordinated at life yet used to being watched. She was in a lacy peasant blouse that didn’t suit her big-boned frame – it was lavender, too, which didn’t help – and loose black jeans over black cowboy boots. Her attention shifted to getting the blouse centered correctly; when finally she noticed me, that man standing perfectly still and staring at her, I waved a hand over my head in greeting. I have no idea why I didn’t just avoid her.

She assumed an automatic grin but then recognized me back and her smile turned beaming, and with it she transformed herself into a reasonably attractive woman, an odd but intriguing combination of big straight white teeth, thick dirty-blond hair, low forehead, pale freckles, and a long, arched nose that enlivened her profile with an aquiline swiftness.

Behind me Crystal was standing with our blanket gathered up in a big, baby blue synthetic wad; we watched Ruth maneuver through the half-seated, half-moving spectators, visibly enduring our inspection. When she got closer you noticed the deep frown lines between her brows and realized how much older she was than you’d assumed from the juvenile posturing.

A forthright greeting to Crystal and a frankly offered hand, all fraught with the deep disdain of the intelligent, accomplished woman encountering the undeserved self-esteem of the merely lovely. To which assault Crystal responded with her typical flaccid grip and a near shrug, an implied refusal to expend any more of her precious personal energy on uninteresting shit. Ruth turned away from us, towards the stage, where an athletic-looking but otherwise unassuming man of about forty in a tired cowboy hat was inaudibly explaining a song. That duty done, she faced us again.

“This is all new to me. It’s wonderful! That dancing.” She opened her arms wide to encompass the stage, the field, and the discreetly dispersing audience. “Very Caucasian.”

Well. The cowboy strummed an acoustic guitar, meanwhile calmly examining his surroundings for concealed gunslingers. And naturally I remembered our lunch but that was months ago, so surely whatever she was babbling about then was probably old news and anyway too vague to reference or be embarrassed over now.

She was brushing at her jeans for no discernable reason. “Did I tell you about Leticia Rowan?”

Just typical. What about Leticia Rowan? How aggravating when I hadn’t seen Ruth for months! I knew Rowan was the night’s closing act. Meanwhile my brain was automatically playing familiar media images backed by the old uplifting refrains: that bold soprano keening from the Capitol steps, debunking the myth of American justice; the slim, avid girl of the famous photograph where she’s perched on a stool in a Greenwich Village coffee house, radiant with the novel excitement of causing real change. Set on living a validated life, perfectly exemplifying those decisive, glorious years, that age of energy and faith. Today still socially engaged, as you would expect, and while no longer that wondrous sylph just as lovely in the clean bone beneath the motherly padding. But most often appearing during those public broadcasting fund-raisers, programs aimed at prosperous boomers eager to relive a spurious past.

“I’m introducing her tonight.”

“The hell you are.” It was such a stupid lie, not even remotely sustainable. Especially outrageous when you considered Ruth’s musical identity: her morning drive-time show featured one of those feel-good formats: generic soft rock interspersed with headlines, traffic, celebrity gossip, and a few carefully screened listener calls. Media hypocrisy providing a safe harbor for the harried immature listener, carefully friendly and slick and sympathetic and definitely never politically or socially oriented when that might mean causing offense. Also never mind that Gene Shay, comfortably stout folkie radio program host from a very different station, legendary teller of truly horrendous jokes, always introduced the performers here, world without end, amen. Come on.

“Right, you know everything. I forgot. And you’re never wrong.” I suppose that was an ostensibly genial poke at my renowned erudition. I happen to think if someone asks you a question they should have the courtesy to listen to the answer.

“I’m speaking after Gene.” Gene! And she was looking repulsively self-satisfied. “I asked Leticia Rowan if I could say a few words and she agreed, for some strange reason.” Now slipping into her professional mode, that rather arch blend of certainty and faux intimacy delivered with an indelible Lina Lamont slur: cay-unt um-an-jin. Fingering the silver holy medals at her throat, a crucifix and two others piled up together on a single delicate silver chain: Jude of the impossible and the Virgin Mary.

And she laughed at my horrified expression and launched into what I assume was a fairly mendacious account of a reception for Women in the Media at the lovely old Bellevue, where at that sort of event there’s a rigid social hierarchy: the unfed proletariat leaning forward from chairs up on the mezzanine to watch on monitors, and the elite dining at tables down on the ballroom floor. Ruth skipped over who was speaking on what and cut straight to dessert for the privileged few, she naturally among them being her gracious public self, wandering around being affable and networking with vibrant women in suits too bright for an office and intelligent men with refined, open faces, clearly expensive slacks and jackets, and beautifully cut hair.

And there was Leticia Rowan already in town and seated comfortably in a corner behind a tortured centerpiece of bamboo and tiny orange orchids, casually chatting with a couple of intimates. So Ruth went up and offered another of those frank handshakes. “I’m truly awed.” Basically insinuating herself into the party, making it clear who was honoring whom.

Then went prattling on in her practiced glib fashion about youthful idealism and her own fictitious activist past, seasoning it with ingenuous regret over her current disengaged state to smooth along the manipulation. Although this with a woman surely inured to dubious approaches? There’s something unconvincing about this I haven’t the time to investigate but the result must hinge on Ruth’s accumulating nervous tension, the months if not years behind the coming explosion. That kind of stress sets you performing impulsive actions, forcing unaccountable outcomes.

In retrospect I think Ruth once again mistook a fortuitous encounter for the hand of destiny and just barged ahead. Either that, or else she fell victim to that common desire to cleave to what one professes to despise.

I was dumbfounded. “Why?”

“Oh, envy I guess. I wanted to be part of it.” Charmingly stated, her forehead furrowed in recollection. And what was I supposed to say to any of it?

Behind us the cowboy mooed through a mild dirge, disrupting nothing; around us the field was nearly empty, abandoned to the insistent sun. And Ruth was standing before me explaining too much and nothing at all, once again too intense, setting off all sorts of warning bells.

Crystal lifted a pastel spaghetti strap from a pink shoulder and raised her impudent big gray eyes, looking at Ruth with that innocent expression women use to express contempt. Her private opinion of Ruth: “Nobody has to be seen looking like that.”

Crystal was another communications major and model manqué hoping to become, of all things, a personality. That ubiquitous blond hair, the pleasant features of no special distinction just slightly out of proportion: another responsibly raised, college-educated harpy bereft of individuality because nature abhors individuality. Instead she emanates sex, it’s in her bones and baby face, her short upper lip and outrageous ambition. Don’t expect her to evolve, because she’ll never be other than she is right now. Fortunately she’s immune to jealous criticism, not being that kind of stupid nor shy to succeed. She held some kind of entry-level management job at the Center City Holiday Inn Express, an occupation that never seemed to seriously impact her real life. Crystal is her birth name.

“Thom here?” I asked.

Ruth’s husband, a frequent guest on her program as either political insider or amiable comic foil, was a local celebrity in his own right, a Philadelphia familiar, a compendium of agreeable ugliness, frightening intelligence, crooked teeth in a moist marshmallow grin, Ivy League polish, loud patterned shirts, genuine charm, horrible posture, an unrepentant gift for outrageous flattery, and an impudent, cutting wit. Outsiders considered him the epitome of Main Line class.

“He’s in Harrisburg.” Acknowledging my disquiet, looking amused for my benefit, but her eyes were shading into wariness. She pushed that uncontrollable hair from her damp forehead. “I’m running around loose today.”

And she gave me a minor, tight smile, raised a few fingers in a little goodbye salute, and strode purposefully towards the gate.

“Hunh!” Crystal said for both of us.

Festival security is handled by costumed volunteers: polite, energetic young people impersonating funky pirates or medieval wizards or just nameless creatures of purely idiosyncratic design. This clean-cut constabulary was now shepherding we stragglers to the main gate with cordial efficiency, their intricate hats, adorned with oversized badges of authority, visibly bobbing over the heads of the crowd. The cowboy singer had vanished.

I stood there in the empty afternoon glare, again hunting around for a rational line of thought but failing to find one. Finally, today, I have an insight: my being there that afternoon helped determine the event.

I navigated us out of the grounds and smuggled us under the rope to a decent spot not too far back in the queue; none of the polite people already there objected. Crystal was perking up now she could catch the scent of approaching evening, her posture opening up to opportunity, her eyes brightly observant. I ducked back under the ropes to get a couple of Cokes from a vending machine and together we waited out the forced restorative lull, letting the afternoon settle down around us, watching the families in lawn chairs eating their dinners, relaxing in public. At length the loudspeakers sounded and we all pushed forward through the gates and launched into the usual painfully hilarious sprint. I got us fairly far up front on the center aisle and bent over gratefully, hands to knees, while from the corner of my blurred vision I saw Crystal plop herself down with her mildly victimized face.

Faint applause, which had to be for the traditional bagpipe welcome; a moment later I could hear the piper myself, and then came Gene Shay with his terrible jokes. By twilight we were enduring a young bluegrass quartet of some nascent merit but an unfortunate air of artsy superiority. Then an enjoyable mambo interlude evoking romantic images out of fifties movies, and by full darkness the Jumbotron screens displayed a close-up of a frail, dedicated Canadian singer-songwriter, another of those admirable females. Insidious damp was seeping through my jeans and sweatshirt, chilling my ass. Disembodied light-sticks moved at random, children giggled, and the kindly scent of marijuana wafted by in sporadic gusts.

Crystal and I outlasted the Canadian over strawberry smoothies doctored with vodka while around us the night coalesced into a blackness that seemed physical and bulky, something you could push aside like drapes. Then there was that huge yellowed moon illuminating the speeding brown clouds, making the entire universe feel unusually sentient.

Gene Shay was back with even more of those horrendous jokes, to be replaced by a middle-aged dignitary in a blazer over jeans, quietly defiant.

“We are the light of truth, the truth the capitalists and the banks and the conglomerates want forgotten. But we’re still here, still burning bright through the darkness.” He actually said that, sure of the personal politics of these many music lovers, all these people who could afford to share his opinion. Declaiming thus in an understated but confident bass, Main Line meets simple country boy to produce unfaltering self-respect. Positions shuffled onstage and there was Gene Shay back, leaning sideways into the standing mike to signal brevity.

“And now let’s talk about one particular brilliant candle shining through the darkness, brighter than almost any other, one of the iconic voices of an era of civil renaissance: the inimitable Leticia Rowan.” Grinning back offstage as if to a good friend, as maybe she was. “And just to underline how special this really is, we have an additional guest, because Philly’s very own Ruth Askew is going to provide us a more personal introduction.”

There was a kind of group shrug but nothing worrisome.

A further positional dance, the screens displaying indistinct blobs and random emptiness, and finally there was Ruth behind the microphone. We observed her taking us in: waving lights skittering over dull shapes, anticipatory shifting and murmurs, a few people in motion pausing on their way somewhere to see if it was worth the wait. Magnified, she looked brutally plain, with noticeable lines around her mouth and those disproportionately large, disturbingly vulnerable blue eyes.

And she just stood there, absolutely rigid, until we all paid complete attention. I think she was overwhelmed by pure contempt, that it confounded her ability to speak, so instead she spat at us

When everyone instinctively recoiled, as you can imagine, but now she was past her initial paralysis. More, she was beyond pretense, out in the wild ether, and you could almost see the crazy. We instinctively coalesced into a tight defensive silence.

“That’s for all you virtue thieves.” She’d struck this theatrical posture of aggressive confidence, all very square and speaking directly down to us.

“But unfortunately for you, we’ve reached the end of righteousness. Not in this electronic age. No more fleeing consequences and calling yourself good. Time itself is nothing but our continual separating away from the primordial dead nothingness of absolute truth and rightness.”

It’s almost over, but I hope you see how excruciating it was. I’m sorry to have to assault your sensibilities with this shit but we were all squirming in unforgivable embarrassment and you should understand.

And to be fair, is your religion less silly? Isn’t every great religion or even philosophy as impossibly childish? And here’s something else: she was handing us a diagram of her own psyche and circumstances, issuing a perfectly clear warning that went ignored simply because it was way too obvious. Because this is, after all, a story about stupidity where everything is fucking clear if you just pay attention.

Ruth put a hand to the mike, still keeping that confident posture.

“This is the next great evolutionary leap. We will claim the future responsibly, and we will become more like God.”

Just at that moment, the words flown, the energy abating, I could sense her dawning comprehension of the enormity of her situation. She looked to her side – for something, someone? And then she sent a little nod out to us, to the compact, alert darkness.

“Then to the elements be free, and fare thou well!”

That’s Prospero, retiring his magic and releasing the slave-spirit Ariel at the end of The Tempest.

But Ruth stayed out there, holding that same strong, taut pose until a calm Gene Shay was suddenly present and gently thanking her from the stage, sending us a tolerant nod while herding her aside. And there at last was the great Leticia Rowan herself, that vast, benign goddess in a golden caftan, smiling an unrestrained country smile, exuding inexhaustible strength and kindness. Clearly decent people, both of them.

Ruth was barely visible now, but I saw her turn to take a final glance back at us, her face for one moment revealed to the giant screens, then as abruptly absent. Terrified of course, because terror is her resting state, and still insolent, and definitely smug. 

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