All posts in Novel Notes

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Maya Angelou

Today we have lost a literary icon, an American treasure, a poet, author and inspiration, Maya Angelou. In her honor, let’s remember her as only we can, in her own words…

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman

Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

 

 Photo credit: Burns Library, Boston College

Novel Notes: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Kindle Gazer by Mike Licht

One of my favorite gifts from Christmas this year was the Kindle Fire my husband got for me…I was totally surprised, especially considering I broke the last Kindle he got me! Whoops. As much as I totally love a good, real, hold-in-your-hand, turn-paper-pages book…and I TOTALLY do…sometime the portability and speed of reading the Kindle provides is really, well, awesome.

So as soon as I got the Kindle fired up and ready to go, I was struck with the, “what should I read??” question. I mean, my to-read list is probably a mile long, but I wanted something that would be easy to pick up and a relatively quick read, while still being well written. And so I settled on The Cuckoo’s Calling written by J.K. Rowling under the pen name Robert Galbraith.

The Cuckoo's CallingI know this isn’t a brand new book, but then I’m not always the best about picking up the latest in Fiction, tending more toward the classics, but I’m glad I clicked “buy” on this one. It’s a murder mystery that follows a would-be gumshoe Robin and Cormoran Strike, the private detective she ends up temping for just as he lands the case that will save, or destroy, his business and personal life. The beautiful, young model Lula Landry turns up dead after what was ruled a suicidal jump from her luxury apartment’s balcony…but not everyone is satisfied with the police investigation. Her brother, a wealthy lawyer, is sure she was murdered and hires Strike to get to the bottom of it.

The story takes many twists and turns and moves along at a pretty good clip and I found myself not wanting to put the book down because I couldn’t stop thinking about what could’ve happened and who could have done it. By the time I was about halfway through I was on a mission and spent the next two days totally wrapped up in the story. I have to also say that one of the things I really appreciated about the book was that the characters were well-developed. So often, especially with murder-mysteries, the author relies on overwrought plot turns to drive the story forward without spending much time developing the characters and their motivations. The result leaves the reader feeling like the story was a little hollow and unfulfilling. I found myself relating to each character and the end of the story is much more believable because you did see the motivation and characters develop along the way.

Reading this book has set me on a mystery book reading tear. I’ve got two more on the docket to share with you soon. Do you have any good mystery recommendations? Did you make a resolution to read more in 2014? This is a good book to start with! It’ll keep you engaged and you’ll remember how you can truly be transported by a story.

Top image by Mike Licht

Novel Notes: My Antonia

First published in 1918, Willa Cather’s My Antonia is the story of the struggles of poor immigrants in rural Nebraska, and the coming of age of the town’s children.  It is widely considered her greatest work.

Now, before we get too far, I must confess I was pronouncing the name of this book wrong the ENTIRE time I was reading it.  It was only until I was talking to a woman from Nebraska, telling her how I was reading the book, that I learned the correct pronunciation as she kindly, subtly corrected my mistake. Oh the embarrassment! Just in case I’m not the only person in the world who was confused, it is not An-TONY-a (like Melissa Gorga’s daughter on RHONJ—I can’t believe I just used her as an example her…more shame)…it is pronounced ANT-o-knee-ya. Just so we are all clear. *wink*

This book started slow for me.  I had a hard time getting into it at first, but once I spent a little time with it, it really started to grab me.  I think the beauty of this book is that Cather tells the story in a way that tells us just enough to know who the characters are and the moments that shape them, but much of it is left to us to fill in the blanks. She tells the story in a way that the story’s drama isn’t prolonged, intense and overwhelming…instead it crops up and then calms down almost as quickly.  Just like a person’s memory of a life lived would read.  In fact, that’s exactly what we are reading.  The book opens with Jim, the story’s narrator, wanting his friend to write the story of Antonia but instead ends up writing it himself, from his perspective.  The result is a story so genuine and real it’s easy to imagine that this is the story of many of the immigrants of the late 1800s.  Even without laborious descriptions of everything happening, it seems so easy to picture the Nebraska country, the people, the homes, the town…you can feel it too.

“Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
  – Antonia, My Antonia by Willa Cather

As we follow Jim, Antonia and the other townspeople, we begin to understand what made this country so great. It wasn’t easy, but these people put their everything into not only surviving, but creating the life they desired.

I highly recommend picking up this read and taking yourself back to a time that seems all but forgotten in today’s fast paced, over stimulated world. The quiet you will find in this book, even in the struggles, is calming in a way that was unexpected for me.  And now, I want to visit Nebraska.

Photo by Shannon Ramos

Novel Notes: Atlas Shrugged

For some reason, honestly unknown to me, I decided  a couple of months ago that I would take on one of the classics that had always seemed rather daunting to me, Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. For someone who loves literature like I do, I knew embarrassingly little about what I was jumping into and had a very vague idea about the subject matter.

I must say that it was a fascinating read, especially given our current political and economic climate. There were many passages that jumped out at me as noteworthy, and much of what was written seemed at times to echo many of the arguments we hear in the elevated political rhetoric that comes with the seemingly endless election season.

Atlas Shrugged is widely regarded as Rand’s greatest work, her magnum opus. Published in 1957, it has sold over 7 Million copies and each year the Ayn Rand Institute donates 400,000 copies of the books to schools. To say that this book hasn’t had a profound impact on the thinking of our society would be ludicrous.  In it, Rand lays out for us her personal philosophy, Objectivism, which says that we are all purely rational individuals whose moral code is determined by our choices and our value based on what we produce and create.

I will admit I initially got swept up in the idea that, yes, if I just produce to the best of my ability and only worry about myself, that the rest will fall into place. That my value will be determined by what I can offer.  It sounds nice…

“Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” —Francisco d’Anconia, Atlas Shrugged (Part 1, Chapter 1)

“You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you, you create them, you own the one and only tool of production.” —Dagny TaggartAtlas Shrugged (Part 2, Chapter 8)

“Any man who’s afraid of hiring the best ability he can find, is a cheat who’s in a business where he doesn’t belong.” –Ken Danagger, Atlas Shrugged (Part 3, Chapter 1)

…But it also sounds incredibly simplistic. What Rand does not take into account is that humans are, in fact, humans. We are rational beings, but we are also emotional beings and have morals based on more than just our ability to produce and think.  The idea that we could just walk away from our current lives because society is not properly valuing our contributions, and go to this utopia where we are only responsible to ourselves  seems to take away the very essence of what it means to be human.

While I do think we all need to be responsible for ourselves and our decisions, and we have become increasingly passive in allowing people to shirk their responsibilities and giving them a free pass, I also think we have an important responsibility to our fellow beings. Rand neglects to take into account the world we do live in and instead chooses to over simplify and downplays the value of our non-rational characteristics.

While doing more research on Rand and her body of work I stumbled upon an interesting lecture by Donald DeMarco given to the Lumen Christi at the University of Chicago entitled “A Critical Look at Ayn Rand.” In his lecture, DeMarco gives us a look into Rand and her motivations, but also the searing critiques of her works. One of his most interesting points focused on Rand’s philosophy of Objectivity, describing for us how she, incorrectly, believed that because communism and Marxism were wrong, radical individualism must therefore be right. Well, as DeMarco explains to us through Aristotle’s logic, just because one thing is wrong, does not mean that another is not wrong as well.

Communism and Radical Individualism are neither 100 percent wrong, nor 100 percent right. Part of both are true. We are part of the collective whole, but not exclusively; we are individuals to be sure, but again, not exclusive of the collective whole.

It’s funny, I never fancied myself much of a philosophy fan, but there is something very interesting about how people come to their conclusions, don’t you think?

All of that said, I do think Atlas Shrugged is an important book to read as there as so many references to in throughout our society and culture.  Even just as I was driving through Dallas the other day I spotted the Atlas Metal Works. If that’s not a literary reference I don’t know what is. I enjoyed reading this and took a lot away from it. If nothing else, it gave my critical thinking skills a good workout.

Have you read Atlas Shrugged? If not, will you?

Novel Notes: Look At My Eyes

I am so excited to get to share this with you all today.  This is a little outside the genre I would usually cover here in Novel Notes, but I absolutely believe this is a book we should all pick up and read.  Look At  My Eyes is the product of one couple’s journey to find treatment, support and coverage for their son William, who was diagnosed with Autism at an early age.

Written by Melanie Fowler, the book is full of insights and narratives from her experiences navigating the healthcare and insurance systems as well as observations from a father’s perspective from her husband Seth.

I had the great pleasure of getting to know The Fowlers, along with so many other incredibly inspiring families, during my time at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth.  From the moment Melanie and Seth walked into my office, I knew they were people who would get things done. And I was right. Working with them both on a number of committees, I was always blown away with the passion and commitment they had to getting the word out and raising money for this important cause.  (I have to say, people like the Fowlers are a fundraiser’s dream come true!) I really learned through this family what it meant when people say that nobody’s passion can match that of a parent’s for his/her child.

Melanie and Seth would stop at nothing to help their child as well as other children and families facing the same struggles, and joys.  They are advocates for families not only on the local level, but also regionally and state-wide.  They can regularly be heard expounding on the importance of early diagnosis and intervention, and the need for insurance coverage of these important treatment and therapies.

When I first heard that Melanie had written a book, I immediately though, “Of course she did!” I am convinced there is nothing these two can’t do. 

 Part of what makes the Fowlers’ story so powerful is the honesty with which they share it.  On the Look At My Eyes blog, Seth shares his hopes and his sadness, but most of all his love for his son William.  He puts our struggles, and the simple things in life that we so often take for granted, into such relevant perspective. It’s real.

I must confess I have not yet read Melanie’s book, but I am excited to pick it up tonight at the book’s launch party.  It is a one I truly think we can all benefit from reading. It will certainly provide a valuable roadmap and insight and comfort for families who are wondering where to go and what the next steps should be. And for the rest of us, the co-workers, the friends, the person standing in line next to the child who is having a meltdown, the teachers of these special children, maybe it will give us a little insight into what these courageous parents and siblings and grandparents are facing each and every day; make us a little more compassionate, more considerate, more willing to lend a helping hand, or a caring remark, or calm patience.  After all, we can all use some of that once in a while. 

I encourage you all to pick up Look At My Eyes—and don’t wait! Melanie and Seth are generously donating a portion of the books’ sales to the Child Study Center, another very worthy cause.  For more information on the book, and the mighty Fowler Four, visit lookatmyeyes.com. And for information on Child Study Center, visit cscfw.org

Excerpt from the Book:

Seth Says…

“I’m not saying it’s easy or that the sorrow automatically goes away, because it doesn’t. It will always pain me to think that my son might not ever want to go to see the Texas Longhorns play a football game, or that he might never be able to sit still and be attentive enough to watch Star Wars for the first time. It flat out rips my heart out. But I love my boy. I’m proud of my son. No, he might not be something that I would have chosen, but he’s mine and will always be my boy and my pride and joy. I crave for my expectations to be fulfilled, but some of them might never be. And as soon as I accepted that, as soon as I told myself to get over it, I noticed a difference in my relationship with him.”

Novel Notes: The Widow Clicquot

The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

By Tilar J. Mazzeo

When I walked by this book in the book store, it immediately caught my attention. The cover is the same golden yellow that is now synonymous with what many belive to be the world’s finest champagne: Veuve Clicquot. A book about champagne? What couldn’t be great about that?! Add to that the story of a woman who built the champagne house into one of the most recognized, prestigious luxury brands today and I knew I had to read it.

Opening a new book is very much like opening a bottle of champagne. There has to be the right blend of storylines, or flavors. Does it pop when you open it? Does it have the right balance of bubble and substance? Is it full-bodied, or does it fall flat?  Does it tickle your senses or leave you feeling like something is missing?  All of these questions come into play when you start a new book.

Clearly, we are fans of champagne.

Mazzeo must have found herself in a bit of a quandary and she worked on the story of the Grande Dame of Champagne. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin is undoubtably an intriguing character. She lived through a tumultuous period in France’s history and, following the death of her husband, took on the wine business they had dreamed of building together. She saw high times, and low times throughout her life and was a monumental force in the highly competitive champagne wine trade. She revolutionized the way champagne was made and sold and was fearless in the face of danger. She made Veuve Clicquot into one of the most respected, prestigious champagne houses in history.

The trouble is, very little of her personal history has been recorded, and Mazzeo is upfront and open about that right from the get go. With that, however, the Widow’s story often takes on a manufactured quality at the author’s hand. I found myself often questioning how much of the story was based in fact, and how much was legend passed down through the years.  I think we all expect a certain amount of “filling in the gaps” from authors who don’t have much historical documentation to work from. But it’s starts to feel as though there was almost no information available to Mazzeo and that she was trying to create a story that didn’t exist, without straying from the bits and pieces of information she had.

Information is often repeated throughout the book and tends to lack much of a punch. It is a very short book to begin with, under 200 pages, but it really could’ve have been cut down further. Even through the trials and tribulations of Barbe-Nicole’s life and business, I was left feeling little attachment to a story, a woman, I so wanted to feel a connection to. I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to empathise with what she went through to make her business what it is today. I wanted to feel the anxiety she must have felt as she risked everything to get her champagne through barricades and threatening weather in order to give her company a fighting chance. But somewhere along the way Mazzeo lost sight of the woman, the person, she was writing about. Instead, we are forced to recount needless details, but in no depth, over and over again.

 

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin

I find myself in another sort of quandary now. I do think there is much inspiration and information to be gleaned from the woman who was the Veuve (widow) Clicquot. And seeing as few have written her story (perhaps because of the issues that ultimately were the undoing of this attempt) I hate to discourage you from picking up this book. So I will say this with a disclaimer: Read The Widow Clicquot, but go into it knowing you will be left wanting more body, and less froth, from the story of the woman who built an empire, much like you would want from a good bottle of champagne.

Cheers, my dears.

Novel Notes: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Last week Dallas was hit with what, to us, seemed like a winter storm for the end of times. While pent-up in the confines of home, the storm gave me the opportunity to dive into another world–a world so poignant and poetic that I found I didn’t want to leave.

“The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.”

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is this hauntingly beautiful story of innocence and innocence lost at the hand of another. It paints this powerful picture of how our decisions and prejudices are all so intertwined. How our own seemingly inconsequential and insignificant decisions can so drastically alter another person’s path and life. And yet, through all the turmoil and sorrow, our young heroine Tess shows us that we must persevere.

 

“Don’t think of what’s past!” said she. “I am not going to think outside of now. Why should we! Who knows what tomorrow has in store?”

Have you read Tess? Have you had an experience that made you so present in that moment that you forgot everything else? What are some of your favorite classic literary works?

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