Rod Dreher is a columnist for The American Conservative, author of several books, and blogger about topics like religion, politics, film, and culture. He was brought to his knees by the death of his little sister Ruthie. When she was diagnosed at the age of forty with a hugely aggressive cancer, Rod returned to the small town where he grew up but had left behind in his youth. When he returned, he was surprised and humbled by the great love he witnessed in the community. His relationship with this town was fraught and his ties to family sometimes misunderstood and thin. Through a hard won lesson, Dreher learned that living in a small town did not mean living a small life. Rod wrote this memoir as a tribute to his sister, being brutally honest about loss and love, faith and family, struggle and sacrifice. He tells this true story well and honestly, discovering even things about himself along the way that he did not know. What he did know in the end, was that his sister’s death taught him how to live.
I once heard American writer Rhoda Janzen speak about memoir at a writer’s conference. She said memoir should be more than the story of a life, it should point to something beyond, some further resolve or purpose. She did this beautifully in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as does Dreher in this book. The books are very different stories but come to very similar conclusions. Both authors, in an unsentimental and thought provoking manner, rediscover their roots and humbly realize the warmth and joy of coming home.
NPR Interview with the author:
A Grieving Brother Finds Solace in his Sister’s ‘Small Town’
Tom Brackett has not had the perfect childhood. His mother began acting strangely after the birth of his sister Beverly and his Dad is distant, although not uncaring. One day he is whisked away from his parents without warning or explanation and is sent to live with his grandmother. Eventually we learn that his mother has a serious mental illness and his father is alcohol addicted.
Now Tom has created the perfect world for himself, despite all odds; he has a good job, a supportive wife, two kids, a mini-van, and even a golden retriever. But then, one day, something overcomes him to commit a sudden and terrifying act of violence that changes everything.
This is a compassionate look at the life and mind of someone trying hard to control his own life while struggling with mental illness. It is beautifully rendered and unflinching. Mental illness is handled much better now-a-days than say 50 years ago, but still needs more honest exposure, understanding, and open conversation. This book delivers a glimpse into a personal journey (albeit fictional) that is brutal, but not without hope. In what is actually more of an extended short story, Colford provides one view into the complexities of mental health, and it is just that. He doesn’t give any advice or definitive answers or happy endings, and for that I applaud him.
In researching this Canadian author, on his blog, I ran across his idea of what a good read should look like, and I wholeheartedly agree:
“…an engaging story told with verve and imagination and a sensitivity to language. I want to be pulled into the lives of characters I care about. I want to turn the pages because I have to find out what happens next. But I don’t want to be comforted or coddled. I want to be surprised, maybe even shocked, and definitely thrown off balance. If the writer can challenge me by shattering my expectations while also bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, so much the better.”
There’s a lot of things I liked about this book (the cover art is great!) but I wouldn’t highly recommend it. It’s ok, but it felt a bit like a waste of time in the end, to be honest. It’s a bit like The Girl on the Train meets Agatha Christie–a contemporary old style whodunit with an unreliable narrator, all of the characters contained in one place, and the killer hiding in plain sight–on a cruise ship.
Laura (Lo) Blacklock can’t believe her good fortune when she ends up with an assignment on a luxury liner, cruising the fjords in the North Sea. A journalist for a travel magazine, it’s the trip of a lifetime for Lo, except that she unwittingly gets caught up in a murderous plot that threatens to take her life. The cruise ship setting was intriguing, as was the premise, but it ended up being a bit slow and boring at times. I found some parts of the story confusing and illogical which I found annoying. I did want to find out what happened so I kept reading and finished it, but I don’t think it was worth it in the end. If you are marooned on a desert island when your boutique boat has sunk, and this is the only book available, by all means go for it, but there was nothing special about it from my perspective.
“It all sounds quite Gothic,” he said. “A huge old house, stuck on an island in bad weather, an unsolved murder, mysterious encounters with ghosts and rude townspeople, even the eerie old maid.”
Hallie James was raised by her father, being told, as a child, that her mother had died in a fire. Naturally, she’s shocked to receive a letter years later stating that her mother just died recently. Anxious to know what really happened, Hallie travels to a beautiful but remote island in the Great Lakes where her mother lived. Hallie isn’t exactly embraced warmly by the locals, and she realizes the secrets to her past are likely to be revealed on this mysterious and strange island.
A nice spine tingling romantic ghost story for a windy night curled up in front of the fire with a steaming cup of tea. But not so scary that you can’t let your husband go up to bed early, leaving you alone. I liked the creative premise and felt intrigued by the journey Hallie takes to find out who she really is. It reminded me of The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas, which I also really enjoyed. Although I believe in the spirit world, I’ve never encountered any ghosts, so that keeps me always looking for and preferring reasonable living explanations for the naughty souls long passed who keep doing weird things and just won’t go away!
A light contemporary spooky read that is also warm and fuzzy and kept my attention throughout! I think I have found a new author to return to for horror-lite!
“When hands on the street are held out, it isn’t always alms that are beggared; it’s life, contact, touch, generosity of spirit…”
Ragged Company is about a group of homeless people who win the lottery (13.5 million) but can’t collect because they don’t have a fixed address! It’s been on my to-read pile for ages but I bumped it to the top after the recent passing of this great Canadian author Richard Wagamese. Like Medicine Walk, this book is a real, elegant, earthy, funny, and gentle story well told. Parts of it are delicious reflective prose and though it isn’t a quick read, I did fly through it and couldn’t put it down. It is deeply compelling and healing as a human reflection on the meaning of ‘home’ but also is intriguing to see what happens to people when they suddenly have an unlimited source of money and go from getting enough for each day to having enough for each day. Wagamese explores the development of the inner lives of four homeless people, as well as the lonely jaded journalist who befriends them and the lawyer who helps them. They become a rather odd ragged company, but isn’t that what all of us are in the end?
What does it mean to belong, to be needed, to be free, and to be in community? After reading this book I feel even more strongly that when giving to the homeless it should always include a gesture of human connection as well…get a name, have a brief conversation, give a blessing–do not allow them to be invisible. Do not make assumptions about them or consider them all alike–they each have a unique past and a story, as do we all. Wagamese turns our conventional ideas upside down and makes us think in new ways about winners and losers, rich and poor, bondage and freedom, love and friendship, value and worthlessness, support and community, faithfulness and rejection…all through a powerful story. Rest in peace Richard Wagamese. You have taught us that we are story and we are grateful.
The New York Times Obituary
Every dog happens for a reason.
If you’re a dog lover like me, you wonder why every animal story has to end with a tragic death. You read carefully through your eyelashes with a guarded heart because you know it’s going to be gut-wrenching. Well, this book is different, but not in the way you might think.
In this story the dog dies several times, and each time is reincarnated into a different dog, yet with his own inner self intact. In this manner, he learns and grows as an individual in each life, accumulating wisdom that eventually brings him to his ultimate noble purpose. In this way, he never really dies. Nifty premise!
The problem with a dog narrating the novel, is that I’ve always felt that dogs would be much less interesting if they could talk! Part of the charm of a relationship with a dog is guessing what he’s thinking, so in a sense the narration feels like too much information!
Although bordering on sentimental, I think the author did a pretty good job of it (52 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list), but in my opinion not as good as The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. There is a companion novel which follows on seamlessly from this book called A Dog’s Journey. The best news yet is that the movie just came out and my guess from this trailer is that it’s going to be better than the book–my advice–skip to the movie! 🙂