The Explanation for Everything – a review

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Andy is a widower trying to raise his two daughters on his own and hopefully get tenure at the crappy New Jersey collage where he teaches – not what he envisioned for himself when he was younger, but then life has thrown him several curve balls since his wife was killed by a teenaged drunk driver. He spends his time at work trying to pin down the elusive gene behind alcoholism, and his time at home writing letters (never sent) to the boy who, now a young man after six in prison, killed his wife.

Into this mix—in a scene rendered with deft timing and hilarious snarkiness—strolls his nemesis, skinny, nerdy, Christian student Lionel Shell, who is determined to stop Andy from teaching his biannual class There Is No God.

My review: The premise of this novel intrigued me before I read it. And while the debate between beliefs ended up being disappointingly reductive, the writing skill, main protagonist and story kept me reading. The two main Christian characters aptly represented some of the very young and naïve members of that belief system, spouting simplistic half understood platitudes. The two Atheists, much older, and both scientists, expressed equally didactic viewpoints. This is the only aspect where the story fell down, for me. Upon reflection, I think the premise, as advertised, worked against the novel, because if I hadn’t thought the book was meant to be a fascinating clash of paradigms, then I wouldn’t have been set up to be dissatisfied by this aspect of it, and would have just enjoyed the story for its ample merits, which are great writing and wonderful characterization, and an actual premise dealing with life, inevitable death, and the long, hard slog to forgiveness. Andy’s struggles to forgive the drunk driver who killed his wife were written with an emotional honesty that drew me deeply into the story. His stumbling vulnerability raising his two young daughters, and his faulty navigation as he attempts relationships and to carry on with life made his character both sympathetic, and believable. The characterization of Andy’s mentor, Rosenblum, a diehard Atheist, while it offered nothing new toward an argument for or against belief in a Creator, was still very engaging, and this character’s entrances and exits throughout the novel displayed a virtuosity of perfect pacing. The flitting appearances of Andy’s ghostly wife were the cherry on top of The Explanation for Everything.

Conclusion: If you want to read fiction debating the existence, or not, of God; don’t bother with this one. If you’re looking to read a wonderful literary/domestic drama novel, this one’s for you.

Read and reviewed for LibraryThing

 

Edwin – a review

The mountains, these unforgiving teeth of rock and scree that gnawed the west of the country and ran down its spine, were different. In them the day could turn from summer to winter in the time it took to spark a fire and huddle against the storm. Upon them were the wraith-haunted tombs of old, tombs that were already old during the days of the emperors, and their cold presence had terrified the soul of a young man, little more than a boy, learning the ways of warriors beneath their unblinking stare.

Edwin

I wanted to give this one five stars, and almost did, but for two aspects that kept me from it: a certain slowness in places where the plot bogs down under the weight of long scenes which probably could have been tightened up; and the distant omniscient viewpoint, which kept me from caring about the characters as deeply as I could have if we were allowed in closer to the characters. That said, the writing is otherwise very nice, even lovely, at times—such as the occasion of the burial of Forthred, the king’s lieutenant and best friend—though even that scene is told as the past, an inexplicable choice that almost robs it of its power entirely, and certainly robs it of some.

His old friend had stared up with sightless eyes at the grey clouds scudding low overhead. The wind, a cold northeasterly, was sending them in from the sea, and Edwin could smell the rain that would fall later that day, extinguishing the ashes of Forthred’s pyre. The body lay upon crossed logs outside the encampment and on the banks of the Derwent. Cofi had carried the urn that would take the ashes when the fire had eaten its fill. The king had drawn his hand down over Forthred’s face, gently closing his eyes.

“Rest well, old friend, he had said, but the words sounded hollow in his mouth.

The historical detail was gorgeous, the well-done result of research. Edwin is a king whose history many are not familiar with, myself included, and this novel was a nice introduction to the main events of his life. Especially interesting was the relationship between the old religion and the new (Christianity) though the author’s preference showed through in a sometimes mocking treatment of the Druid, Coifi.

Guest Post and Giveaway

Today’s guest post is by Jolina Petersheim, author of The Midwife.

A few weeks ago, a reporter asked what kind of research I did for my sophomore novel, The Midwife. I laughed dryly and said, “I had a baby!”

Though I meant it as a joke, I actually studied a vast amount on natural childbirth before the birth of my firstborn daughter two years ago.

I read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by – you guessed it! – the internally renowned midwife, Ina May Gaskin. “The mother of authentic midwifery,” Ms. Gaskin is the founder and director of the Farm Midwifery Center, located near Summertown, Tennessee, which is the same state where I live.

According to the bio information on her website, by 2011, the Farm Midwifery Center, founded in 1971, had handled approximately 3000 births, with remarkably good outcomes. Ms. Gaskin herself has attended more than 1200 births.

Though I was too intimidated by all the tie-dye and patchouli-doused hippies to give birth at The Farm, I still read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth like it was a fragment from the Holy Grail. (FYI: take it from me, it’s not coffee table material.) Spurred by her low intervention birthing stories and Kumbaya experiences, I signed up for the birthing center located in the town near where I live.

My husband and I attended classes where—to test our level of natural birth commitment, I suppose—we watched a footling breech water birth video that could not be made soothing, regardless of the instrumental music that drowned out all other sound. (I spent the entire hour with my knees pressed together and my nails gouged into the fake leather sofa; my husband, afterward, had the dazed look of a car wreck victim.)

We heard statistics that were startling. For instance (again according to Ina May’s website), the United States has a higher ratio of maternal deaths than at least 40 other countries, even though it spends more money per capita for maternity care than any other.

Terrified by these statistics—which are accelerated by modern-day interventions such as Pitocin and epidurals, which slow labor down—I was determined to also have a Kumbaya birthing experience like those on The Farm.

Oh, yes. I would simply relax my facial muscles into an “O” like Ina May instructs, make a slight “swoosh-swoosh” noise, and my daughter would pop out in the tub, blinking at her surroundings before the midwife gently scooped her from the tepid water and wrapped the wee babe in her tie-dye sarong.

Of course, despite my naivety, I should’ve known this would not happen. Regardless of my Tupperware container of frozen grapes, gargantuan jug of raspberry leaf tea, and mad sprints up and down the fire escape stairs with my belly swaying, my labor did not progress.

At seven in the morning, I was whisked from the beautiful Zen room in the birthing center and transferred to the closest hospital where I was forced to put on the hospital gown, which—in my mind—was like losing a foothold in a landslide of interventions.

However, after twenty-four hours of labor, the dreaded Pitocin drip, an internal baby monitor, a dozen ice pops (I’d forgotten my grapes in the Zen room’s fridge and no longer cared about red food coloring and high fructose syrup), and—finally—an epidural that left me snoring in the hospital bed while my husband paced the floor, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl whose head barely showed the posterior (sunny side up) position she’d been in and which had inhibited a lickety-split, Kumbayah birth.

I wish I could say the hours of pain all melted away the instant she was placed in my arms, but I was honestly so emotionally and physically exhausted (not to mention drugged) that I didn’t feel the aura of new motherhood like I had expected from the experiences depicted in Ina May’s books.

Yet now—albeit, over two years later—I can recall my birthing experience and smile as I feel my second daughter rippling inside my womb. I realize that all that natural birth knowledge I acquired before my firstborn’s birth has not been for naught. Not only did that difficult birth prepare me for the difficult birthing scenes in The Midwife, it also took away the fear of birthing itself.

Regardless if I give birth at home, the birthing center, or the hospital, I know that the perfect birthing experience cannot be acquired through electric candles and instrumental music; it can only be acquired through trust in my body’s ability to know what it needs to do and when.

And that is what the renowned midwife, Ina May Gaskin, taught me . . . along with a pleasant appreciation for tie-dye and patchouli perfume.

 

Let’s be honest . . . a caffeine boost never hurts. For author Jolina Petersheim, it’s especially helpful to have her favorite drink on hand when she’s racing toward a manuscript deadline. In celebration of the release of her sophomore novel, The Midwife, Tyndale’s Crazy4Fiction team would love to enable your caffeine addiction and give you a taste of Jolina’s beautiful prose. For a chance at a $25 Starbucks gift card, an authentic Amish wall hanging, and your choice of Jolina’s novels (either The Outcast or The Midwife), enter through the Rafflecopter giveaway.

Jolina holding her novel
 Jolina Petersheim is the award-winning author of The Midwife and The Outcast, which Library Journal gave a starred review and named one of the best books of 2013. The Outcast also became an ECPA, CBA, and Amazon bestseller, and was featured in Huffington Post’s Fall Picks, World Magazine’s Notable Books, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, and The Tennessean. Jolina and her husband’s unique Amish and Mennonite heritage originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They now live in the mountains of Tennessee with their young daughter. Whenever she’s not busy chasing this adorable toddler, Jolina is hard at work on her next novel.

What about you, readers? What drink of choice kick-starts your creativity and helps you keep moving?

Boils and Churchmen

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There’s a writing process blog tour making the rounds. It’s a pretty interesting one, to me. I’m always curious about other writers’ writing habits. Not just what they are working on, but how they go about it, and why.

So when Jackie Cangro tagged me, I said yes! Jackie’s Friday posting is one that I look forward to at the end of each week. She’s a funny gal with an adorable sidekick named Reggie. They live in The Big Apple. Jackie’s posts are laced with humor and wit, and humanitarianism. I highly recommend popping over to visit Reggie and Jackie if you haven’t met them (and if you have, you already know why I like them so much). If you shop for your reading on Amazon here’s the place to find Jacqueline Cangro’s published work.

My Writing Process

What are you working on?

I have two novels underway: one set in the modern day world (my business world – to be specific, in a vague sort of way), which I won’t be talking about here; and an historical. The historical is set in 1348. Those of you who are history buffs will immediately know what this portends. For those of you who aren’t and don’t: it means people keeling over in streets that ring to cries of Bring out yur dead! Yup; the black plague, the great pestilence, that prodigious and awful smiting by God (at least from the medieval perspective) that killed, by some accounts, half the population in many countries in Europe and the Middle East.

The other blight upon this time in history was the inquisition. Not the Big Badass one hosted by Isabella and Ferdinand a hundred years or so hence, but the inquisition with a small ‘i’, which was nonetheless devastating in its overall effect. People were tortured, people were murdered; it was done in God’s name—like a lot of heinous stuff—but that was just bad PR.

My tale is set in Italy’s beautiful breadbasket, the Po River Valley; and in southern France, in Avignon, which was the papal seat at the time. The two main characters are a woman and a Dominican friar.

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

It’s said we should write the book we’d most like to read. I like to know what characters are wearing and who they are pining after, and have a great deal of fun with these topics. But I also like writing about survival: people who find themselves thrust into extremis; and guys being guys (or, in some cases, an armor-wearing female). My husband is retired military; I’ve had ample opportunity to observe the camaraderie of warriors up close: They have feasted at my table, drunk my mead, and slept in my hall—so to speak. Being often disappointed by otherwise good historicals that lack lovely writing, I make every effort to bring my best prose. Lastly, anywhere humor can be interjected, I go for it—who doesn’t like to laugh? Judging by all the weird art that came out of the time period of my present WIP, it’s clear that even the whisper of Death’s breath on their necks couldn’t suppress a morbid sense of humor in the hearts and minds of the survivors.

Why do you write what you do?

I write historicals because it’s F.U.N. And it’s my favorite genre to read. Right now I’m absorbed by the 14th century. I’m reading two books as part of my research: A Distant Mirror, the calamitous 14th century, by historian Barbara W. Tuchman; and The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual, a history of terror in the name of God, by Jonathan Kirsch. I’m a bit of a social scientist. People are fascinating. I’m always striving for greater understanding of who and what we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and why we behave as we do; the process of human evolution. This curiosity fuels my research and writing.

The people in the past were us, but they were culturally different. If you’ve ever travelled to a foreign country and been stunned by the sense of unfamiliarity, you’ve experienced a taste of what it would be like to travel into the past. When I accompanied my husband to duty stations in other countries the military required us to take classes to help soften Culture Shock’s effects. The classes were wonderful, (and often hilarious) though they never totally prepared us. Nothing could.

I believe those differences are the very reason so many of us are drawn to historicals as readers. It’s fun to sit safely in our armchairs and read about a place and time so different from our own.

How does your writing process work?

Some things stick in my head. Writing helps me understand them and also purge them. It’s as simple as that! I see something happen, or read about it. The next thing I know it’s occupying my thoughts in the shower, while washing the car, while driving to work or cleaning the pool; a story begins to grow up around it. Characters emerge. I hear them talking, see them living their lives, making choices. I ask, what if? I read research materials and get ideas. I listen to period music and watch period movies.

Other than that, I simply get up every morning at 5am, pour in coffee, sit at my laptop, and write, write, write. I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. At some point I brave submitting what I’ve written to my workshop group—then I wipe up the blood, and do some more rewrites.

I’ve tagged author Diana Douglas to play next. She’s a gentle and perceptive critique partner, and a wonderful writer who has two published novels. She can be found on her website, and on Twitter.

(Apologies to those who asked me to play earlier—a very busy spring relegated blogging to the bottom of the to-do list for a while.)

 

The Midwife

The Midwife

The Midwife, by Jolina Petersheim releases today!

From the publisher:

The Past — Graduate student Beth Winslow was sure she was ready to navigate the challenges of becoming a surrogate. But when early tests indicate possible abnormalities with the baby, Beth is unprepared for the parents’ decision to end the pregnancy — and for the fierce love she feels for this unborn child. Desperate, she flees the city and seeks refuge at Hopen Haus, a home for unwed mothers deep in a Tennessee Mennonite community.

The Present — As head midwife of Hopen Haus, Rhoda Mummau delivers babies with a confident though stoic ease. Except in rare moments, not even those who work alongside her would guess that each newborn cry, each starry-eyed glance from mother to child, nearly renders a fault through Rhoda’s heart, reminding her of a past she has carefully concealed.

Past and present collide when a young woman named Amelia arrives in the sweeping countryside bearing secrets of her own. As Amelia’s due date draws near, Rhoda must face her regrets and those she left behind in order for the healing power of love and forgiveness to set them all free.

 

My review…

The September morning I was baptized into the old Order Mennonite church, fog swaddled the valley below Hopen Haus like cotton bunting. The trees had turned since the premature frost. Their branches now resembled paintbrushes whose tassels had been dipped in pots of yellow, red, and gold. I had asked to be baptized in the wash-out creek running down the mountain behind Jonah and Miriam Fisher’s haus. Submersion seemed more definite than standard sprinkling, and I hoped that when Bishop Yoder drew me out of the water, the part of my spirit that had dried up after my mother’s departure would be replenished and whole.

Jolina Petersheim’s new novel, The Midwife, is every bit as good as her first one, and may even be better. The characters and their relationships draw the reader right into a Gordian’s knot of secrets, regrets, and maternal devotion.

In 1996 Beth is baited into a surrogacy undertaken for all the wrong reasons, one that is certain to tear her wounded heart out, no matter how it ends.

My rattled mind echoed with the words I had thought in the beginning: This is a business transaction; that is all. But it no longer was just a business transaction, and if I was honest with myself, it never had been. I had been coerced into this business transaction not by the promise of money, but by the phantom promise of Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick’s love. I realized—sitting there, cradling my womb beneath protective hands—that love not for the father, but for the child herself, was the reason I wanted to weep over the loss that was sure to come.

But Beth never suspects how truly intolerable her choices will become until it is far too late.

The Midwife is beautifully written, engrossing and heartwarming.

Watch for the giveaway later this month!

Stolen Books

Discard

 

As I sit here on this Memorial Day Monday, my husband is off working with a friend, my daughter is in Scottsdale with her husband, and my son is spending time with his girlfriend. It’s just the dog and me, and he is as inclined to sleep as I am to laze beside the sunny pool and read. I scored Ursula Hegi’s Hotel of the Saints, a while back, hardback, for 25 cents at the local library book sale, and I’ve been waiting for a quiet moment to dip into it.

My bookshelves are stippled with library booksale finds. I like that they are covered with that durable sheet of clear plastic, and never remove it. I take special care to leave the discard stamp wherever it is, and have told my family that if anything should happen to me, these books were purchased; I own them. They laugh at me, bemused, for my bringing this to their specific attention.

When I was a teenager living on my own for the first time, my mother and much older sister discovered some “stolen library books” in my old room; a whole shelf of them. They took it upon themselves to take them all back to the high school and apologize on my behalf. When I was informed of this the event was long past, so there was no correcting it; no going down to our town’s high school and retrieving the books, which no doubt were seen to be what they were once someone had a close look at them, and perhaps checked the titles against past actions recorded by the librarian.

I bit back the quiet rage at having a portion of my book collection stolen, and under such circumstances, and also the hurt at being so doubted and misunderstood by the very people who should have known better, and informed my mother that the books in question were culled from the stacks by the school librarian for discard, and I, being her library assistant for that year, and seeing as how I loved to read so much, had been given the privilege of first choice to take any of them I liked home—for free.

I recall all this now, as I scrape a green 25 cent sticker off the plastic cover of the book in my hands. The mix-up no longer has the power to piss me off or hurt me. It’s just one of life’s events: grist for self-awareness, and today, grist for the writing mill.

Still; I must make certain my present day family understands, and so I have made a point of telling them: the old library books on my shelves were purchased, not stolen.

We already know that, they assure me, unaware of the genesis of my concern. Their amused expressions tell me they attribute it to some inner quirkiness that they can’t fathom, but accept.