Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Natalie Taylor Brings ‘Signs of Life’ to Birmingham Biggby Coffee

Signs of Life: A MemoirWhat do you do if you’re 24 years old, five months pregnant, and your husband suddenly – tragically – dies? If you’re Natalie Taylor, you write one honestly good book. Yes, we all know that shelves sag with overdone memoirs of tainted childhoods, deeds done wrong, and ruined lives, but Taylor defies the dark and opts to soar instead with this tight uplifter, Signs of Life.

Natalie’s husband Josh Taylor died on Father’s Day of 2007. He was 27 years old, married to the woman he loved, and happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Who would have thought that a quick blow to the back of his head while Carveboarding would put an end to his own life just as the one he created was beginning to bloom?

Signs of Life is the narrative compilation of Natalie Taylor’s journal entries that span the year following her husband’s death, yet Taylor’s pragmatic approach toward handling her grief is precisely what lands Signs of Life in its own little camp of the genre. Though Taylor’s voice cuts with pure pain and candor, she unwittingly softens the blow with her straight-forward sincerity and unwavering humor.

“When I decide to do something, I want it done quickly. I do not dilly-dally. When Dr. G. told me that grief takes time, I wanted to say, ‘But what about for the smart kids?’ I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Let’s talk Advanced Placement Grief. But one of the first things I realize about this stupid emotion is that AP Grief does not exist. Time goes by, weeks pass, a month passes, my belly grows, my hair grows, but when I wake up in the morning it feels exactly the same. Grief goes at its own speed.”

As Taylor begins to piece together the brokenness of her life, the fog of her grief lifts just enough to reveal a bit more of both herself and the world around her. Through Josh’s death, Taylor is inadvertently exposed to life outside of the insulated bubble in which she grew up. Instead of self-absorption with her own sorrows, Taylor finds in herself an unexpected wellspring of compassion and understanding for all walks of life.

Taylor is a high school English teacher, and she structures Signs of Life around the books she teaches and those that pass through her hands the year after Josh’s death. Seeking solace through literature, Taylor looks to some heavy hitters for help. Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are but a few of the many authors who step up to hold Taylor’s grieving hand.

Also balanced by the support of some killer friends and family, Taylor puts you on a nickname basis with Ads, Matthews, Moo and more, but it’s never overdone. Taylor’s memoir is incredibly fresh and breathes life and hilarity into the not-so-funny-at-all realm of death, darkness and grief. While Signs of Life is based on Josh Taylor’s terribly sad and untimely death, one can’t miss the budding evolution of a determined woman, a beautiful baby boy, and the incredible ongoing power of life.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

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The Ambiguous ‘Charms’ of Mitchell Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-La’

Cover ImageAs a reader I often find myself wondering about little tangential topics, quirks, or details that cushion a story. As my eyes move over one page my thoughts might still be caught a few paragraphs back, roaming around with questions that itch for a little more info. What was that war all about? Does this tiny country really exist? How did the author manage to survive?

Charms candy was that little itch for me in Lost in Shangri-La. 

It seems that Tootsie Roll Industries would have little to do with Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La. However, Tootsie Roll Industries is the owner of Charms Candy; the very candy that provided the Gremlin Special’s crash survivors with enough sustenance to survive in the jungle.

“Breakfast was water and more Charms, still their only food on the third day after the crash,” writes Zuckoff. “They separated the candies by color, eating the red ones until they tired of them, moving on to yellow, and so on.”*

Due to the hardiness of Charms Candy under a variety of conditions, the candy became a standard part of American soldiers’ military issue around the time of World War II. The individually wrapped candy squares, made from sugar and corn syrup, came in an assortment of fruit flavors and were a staple of soldier rations.

The treat meant to sustain military forces, however, has taken on a more ominous tone in recent years. The Curse of Charms Candy is of unknown origin, but superstition claims that if a soldier eats, or even keeps the candy in their possession it brings bad luck.

In the article US Marines Ditch Their Unlucky Charms, one sergeant says, “Chew on a lemon Charm and you’re heading for a vehicle breakdown. Suck on a lime and it rains. Raspberry – for the highly superstitious – means death.”

Journalist Ashley Gilbertson of the New York Times found the same beliefs among forces in Afghanistan. “Never eat the Charms, the troops say; they’re unlucky. It’s just a superstition, of course – I’ve never met a soldier who could tell me why they were unlucky – but the G.I.’s take it seriously. I sometimes think that if I ever got separated from my unit in the field, I’d just follow a trail of discarded unopened Assorted Charms to find them again.”

You can link over to BookBrowse.com where you will my full review of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La as well as thousands of reviews and intriguing sidebars.

* Taken from Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredibly Rescue Mission of World War II

-Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer


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Filed under Authors, Book Reviews, Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff

Fallada Lives on in ‘Every Man Dies Alone’

Cover ImageAfter finishing Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, I needed some time to sit and really think about the book. In itself, the story is extremely powerful, but the fact that Fallada lived, breathed and navigated the ruthless currents of Nazi Germany brings a frightening credibility to the tension of this novel.

Otto Quangel is considered a simple man by all those around him. He quietly heads to the factory each morning, efficiently runs his lines, and methodically returns to his gray flat in the same manner. His wife Anna awaits, laying low and fretting in spades for the safety of his daily return.

Otto and Anna have lost their Germany. They are quiet people by nature, but speak sparingly due to the invisible eyes that are always watching. Neighbors are turning. People are hiding. Death and corruption are everywhere. Nazi rule has spread, and with it the trepidation and horror of rumored camps and prisons.

The strength of Every Man Dies Alone, however, lies not so much in the depiction of the torturous treatment and silencing at the hands of the Nazis, but rather in Fallada’s shrewd ability to convey the thrill of fear, and the enormity of risk, as the Quangel’s conspire to take a stand.

If you could muster the courage, how would you stand up to such a staunch and brutal regime? Would you mobilize a coup or a riot? Or would it be something more covert like an underground press or subversive leafleting? What if you were just an everyday man who could hide behind an everyday routine like Otto – would you take any action at all?

I would be cheating you of a magnificent read if I provided any plot spoilers. You should know that Every Man Dies Alone is based on the brave, true story of a couple who decided to resist, and in so doing, showed that the smallest of actions often provide incredible, unintended results. Through the deft skills of Hans Fallada, their small story resounds decades later.

Of Note: Hans Fallada (nee Rudolph Ditzen) wrote Every Man Dies Alone in a feverish twenty-four days, soon after the end of World War II and his release from a Nazi insane asylum. He did not live to see its publication.* Informative sections of Fallada and his life among the Nazi system is provided in the Melville House Publishing paperback version.

– Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

*taken from book jacket

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Happily ‘Lost in Shangri – La’

Where are you  this Fourth of July?

I’m happily Lost in Shangri – La with Mitchell Zuckoff…

* Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

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Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ Certain to Leave You Wondering

Cover ImageWe’ve come to expect big things from bestselling author Ann Patchett. As winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for her international beauty Bel Canto back in 2002, Patchett unwittingly raised her literary bar and cleared the way for a large and loyal fan base.

Highlighted by the success of Bel Canto, Patchett has amassed a reliable readership and now publishes to eager, outstretched hands. With five praised novels to her name and one currently situated on several prominent reading lists, Patchett has been slow to disappoint. In her latest novel State of Wonder, however, Patchett just might find devotees a touch disenchanted.

Patchett’s State of Wonder boldly tackles the snarled, cacophonous wilds of the Amazonian jungle. Yet for all of the novel’s shimmering flora, pulsating hues, masticating insects, shrieking monkeys and tribal ululations, why are we left hearing only crickets?

State of Wonder starts out strong despite its floppy premise. The introduction of key characters and plot lines instantly hook and anticipation builds at the first hint of scandal. Like the exhilarating, paced ascent of a roller coaster readying for the ride, readers sense big thrills to come. Alas, as the setting switches from the midwest to Brazil, State of Wonder peters out at the perch and clambers down into a disjointed tale of outlandish proportion.

“It’s not that I don’t have any idea; it’s that I sometimes have too many ideas,” shared Patchett in a recent Tin House interview, and this is no doubt the troubling case in State of Wonder. Bioethics, biracialism, corporate greed and cultural integrity are but a few of the many story threads that still remain slack at the conclusion of Patchett’s work.

Despite the medicinal treasures that potentially abound in the Amazonian underbrush, Patchett overplays the topic in State of Wonder and takes it a bit too far. “Science came in for the first time with Run,” Patchett tells Tin House, “and then it just kind of blew up into something a lot bigger in State of Wonder… .”

Well put. An author can only take their audience so far before they run the risk of losing them in their own imaginative flight. By the time Patchett has Marina eating bark off the trees and the Lakashi tribe swabbing their private parts for the sake of modern science, it’s fairly safe to say that Patchett has left her readers staring into space.

That said, Patchett does have a gift for beautiful prose and her depth of character and relationship are at times palpable. In addition, the lush, layered descriptions of the Amazon and its foreboding tributaries are striking. In all fairness, State of Wonder offers significant literary style if not grace.

It’s possible that I might be in my own camp on this one, though it wouldn’t be the first time. State of Wonder  was just released on June 7th and is steadily climbing the charts and garnering written raves. Not only does State of Wonder grace the current cover of BookPage, but it’s also a June 2011 Indie Next List selection and was recently featured on The Diane Rehm Show. If you’ve read State of Wonder, NLR would love to know what you think.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

New York Times book review

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Filed under Ann Patchett, Authors, Book Reviews, State of Wonder

‘A Red Herring Without Mustard’ is Oh So Delicious!

Cover ImageAlan Bradley is back at it and his readers couldn’t be more pleased. Flavia de Luce is saucier than ever in A Red Herring Without Mustard, Bradley’s third and latest installment of the Flavia de Luce mystery series.

Bradley’s de Luce books are a bit like a literary Christmas; they come once a year, are full of mystery, and guarantee a wink and a smile when they’re over. If you haven’t yet caught Flavia or Bradley’s clever style in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie or The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (the first and second books in the series), I strongly suggest backing up to the beginning for maximum enjoyment.

Flavia is a wonder to behold. Not only does she fearlessly make her way through the creepiest of spine-tingling situations, but she also knows how to fire it up in her chemical laboratory. It’s in Flavia’s beloved lab that sass turns to spark as she calmly sifts through the bizarre clues she’s collected along the way to solving the latest mystery in England’s Bishop’s Lacey.

A Red Herring Without Mustard is no exception to Bradley’s shrewd yet perky series, and easily falls in with Flavia’s past footsteps of messy murder and mischief. Once again, the cheeky eleven-year-old super sleuth has found herself a fresh body (dead, of course) on the old Buckshaw estate and aims to get to the bottom of things.

“I have no fear of the dead,” quips Flavia. “Indeed, in my own limited experience I have found them to produce in me a feeling that is quite the opposite of fear. A dead body is much more fascinating than a live one, and I have learned that most corpses tell better stories.”

And a good story it is. Though from a comparative standpoint Herring fizzled a touch for me at the end, its ramped-up eerie factor brought about a fine balance making A Red Herring Without Mustard a delicious read.

For those of you who are already hooked on the series, Bradley’s next Flavia de Luce novel is titled I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, and will be released in the United States on November 1, 2011. Yes, just in time for Christmas.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

NLR’s review of The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

– Review of Red Herring from National Post

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Filed under A Red Herring Without Mustard, Alan Bradley, Authors, Book Reviews

Natalie Taylor Soars in ‘Signs of Life’

Cover ImageWhat do you do if you’re 24 years old, five months pregnant, and your husband suddenly – tragically – dies? If you’re Natalie Taylor you write one honestly good book. Yes, we all know that shelves sag with overdone memoirs of tainted childhoods, deeds done wrong, and ruined lives, but Taylor defies the dark and opts to soar instead with this tight uplifter, Signs of Life.

Natalie’s husband Josh Taylor died on Father’s Day of 2007. He was 27 years old, married to the woman he loved, and happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Who would have thought that a quick blow to the back of his head while Carveboarding would put an end to his own life just as the one he created was beginning to bloom?

Signs of Life is the narrative compilation of Natalie Taylor’s journal entries that span the year following her husband’s death, yet Taylor’s pragmatic approach toward handling her grief is precisely what lands Signs of Life in its own little camp of the genre. Though Taylor’s voice cuts with pure pain and candor, she unwittingly softens the blow with her straight-forward sincerity and unwavering humor.

“When I decide to do something, I want it done quickly. I do not dilly-dally. When Dr. G. told me that grief takes time, I wanted to say, ‘But what about for the smart kids?’ I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Let’s talk Advanced Placement Grief. But one of the first things I realize about this stupid emotion is that AP Grief does not exist. Time goes by, weeks pass, a month passes, my belly grows, my hair grows, but when I wake up in the morning it feels exactly the same. Grief goes at its own speed.”*

As Taylor begins to piece together the brokenness of her life, the fog of her grief lifts just enough to reveal a bit more of both herself and the world around her. Through Josh’s death, Taylor is inadvertently exposed to life outside of the insulated bubble in which she grew up. Instead of self-absorption with her own sorrows, however, Taylor finds in herself an unexpected wellspring of compassion and understanding for all walks of life.

Taylor is a high school English teacher and she structures Signs of Life around the books she teaches and those that pass through her hands the year after Josh’s death. Seeking solace through literature, Taylor looks to some heavy hitters for help. Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are but a few of the many authors who step up to hold Taylor’s grieving hand.

Also balanced by the support of some killer friends and family, Taylor puts you on a nickname basis with Ads, Matthews, Moo and more, but it’s never overdone. Taylor’s memoir is incredibly fresh and breathes life and hilarity into the not-so-funny-at-all topics of death, darkness and grief. While Signs of Life is based on Josh Taylor’s terribly sad and untimely death, one can’t miss the budding evolution of a determined woman, a beautiful baby boy, and the incredible ongoing power of life.

-Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer

*Passage taken from review copy of Signs of Life

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Filed under Authors, Book Reviews, Natalie Taylor, Signs of Life