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review 2017-11-05 17:25
The Waiting Place: Learning To Appreciate Life's Little Delays by Eileen Button
The Waiting Place: Learning to Appreciate Life's Little Delays - Eileen Button

Some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else.
We all spend precious time just waiting. We wait in traffic, grocery store lines, and carpool circles. We wait to grow up, for true love, and for our children to be born. We even wait to die. But while we work hard at this business of living, life can sometimes feel like one long, boring meeting. Even today, with instant gratification at our techno-laced fingertips, we can’t escape the waiting place. Somehow, in between our texting and tweeting and living and dying, we end up there again and again. In the voice of an old friend or a wise-cracking sister, Eileen Button takes us back to the days of curling irons and camping trips, first loves and final goodbyes, big dreams and bigger reality checks. With heart-breaking candor she calls us to celebrate the tension between what we hope for tomorrow and what we live with today. Chock-full of humor and poignant insights, these stories will make you laugh and cry. They’ll challenge you to enjoy―or at least endure―the now. As Eileen has learned, “To wait is human. To find life in the waiting place, divine.”

Amazon.com

 

 

In this collection of essays, the title inspired by a portion from Dr. Seuss' The Places You Will Go, newspaper columnist Eileen Button takes us into the daily routine of her hectic life and shows up where she found the beauty in the chaos. It took work and dedication, moments of forcing herself to stop and be still, but over time she came to learn how to work past her daily life gripes and see the gifts in the small moments. 

 

"The Waiting Place is for people like me who get stuck in their precious, mundane, gorgeous, absurd lives. It is for those who work hard at the "business of living" only to find that they seem to be caught in one long, boring meeting...It's for those who wake up one day and find themselves repeatedly sighing and thinking 'This is so not the life I dreamed of living.' It's also for those who wonder what is worse: to remain in the day-in, day-out lives they have created or to risk it all and make a change, even if that change results in falling on their faces. The waiting place is never cozy. In fact, when we find ourselves there, most of us try like heck to escape...The following essays breathe life into common (and not so common) waiting places. I hope you find yourself in these pages and conclude, as I have, that some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else." ~ from Chapter 1

 

Her essays cover pivotal moments throughout her life where epiphanies slipped in under the mundane. Sometimes it wasn't right in the moment, but years later as she reflected on cherished memories. Some of the highlights: reminiscing about fishing trips as a little girl with her father; comical wedding mishaps (that were likely not so comical in the moment lol); recalling the beauty in her grandmother's hands , seeing all the life lived that showed there during family Scrabble games; revisiting her childhood home as an adult and the emotions that stirred up, turning that glass doorknob and taking in the hush of the place. Eileen also recalls lectures her grandmother would give her about her nail-biting habit, something my own grandmother rides me about to this day!

 

Eileen also discusses the struggle that comes with sometimes being defined by your spouse's occupation, in her case being the wife of a Methodist pastor.  She defines various doubts and fears that unexpectedly came along with the position of a pastor's wife as well as the he pressures and expectations that your congregation can put on you. Button reveals that she often feels she has a "dysfunctional, co-dependent" relationship with the church.

 

Additionally, there's the strain of trying to figure out what to do, how to make things work when the household income barely covers the monthly bills (Button recalls the day she swallowed her pride and applied for WIC).

 

"I reach for my daily stack of mail. Today's includes a Rite-Aid weekly flyer, the water bill, and a credit card offer that features three crosses and the message "Jesus Loves You" on the card. The credit card company writes, "Express your faith with every purchase!" There is something deeply wrong with a world in which you can own a credit card with a full color picture of Christ's object of torture printed on it."

 

 

She describes added emotional fatigue worrying over her youngest son, who was born with a condition where the upper and lower portions of the esophagus didn't connect. Speaking of her children, one thing I noticed that I found a little disappointing is how she seems to take pride in fixing meals over playing with her children. I mean, yes, it is definitely admirable that she takes the time to make nourishing meals for them, I was just a little surprised when one essay illustrates how one day her kids genuinely seemed shocked when she finally, grudgingly agrees to fly a kite with them. But it is in this moment that she has one of her revelations which she can now share with readers -- why honest presence is so important to her children! 

 

This collection also touches upon the topic of depression. Button shares moments where she deeply hurt for loved ones who had fallen into immense emotional darkness and her inner aggravation at feeling helpless to save them. Here again, she shares the calming takeaways she eventually came to realize are born in life's harder moments. For readers reaching for this book at a time when they find themselves saying, "This is not the life I signed up for," she offers this to marinate on: "To live is to wait. It's how we wait that makes all the difference." Hang in there long enough, you'll find your way to the brass ring. 

 

As a whole, these essays are so enjoyable largely because Button writes in the tone of a good friend who speaks in soft tones but still makes it clear she's been through the wringer in her day and, at least on some level, knows of what she speaks.  It's also a kick to see her East Coast upbringing infused into her wording:  "wicked dark' "wicked ugly". Her humor balances the heavier bits and I give her bonus points for working in a "Come On Eileen", a nod to my favorite 80s song :-D

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review 2017-11-05 10:55
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment In Relishing The Season by Alexandra Kuykendall
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment in Relishing the Season - Alexandra Kuykendall

The Christmas season is a particularly difficult time for women to slow down and relish what's right in front of them. An annual marker for many, it is a holiday that can often remind us how life is not going as we'd planned. Our family relationships remain strained, our finances stretched, and our schedules stuffed with too much to do in too little time. Following the formula of her successful Loving My Actual Life, Alexandra Kuykendall shares with readers her own personal experiment to be completely present in her life as it is during the holiday season. Addressing the themes of Advent and Christmas, she reflects on hope, love, joy, peace, and relishing the season, with practical pullouts on common Christmas stressors, such as finances, schedules, and extended family. Kuykendall's signature candor helps women go easy on themselves, remember what truly matters, and find joy in their imperfect Christmases.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

It all started with Alexandra Kuykendall's previous release, Loving My Actual Life, in which for an entire year she challenged herself to slow down a bit and take in the actual life she was living rather than the one she was obsessively trying to achieve through insane schedules, a go-go-go lifestyle and maybe a touch of subconsciously trying to compete with friends and neighbors for a mythical "best life" award. Using the format of that experiment, Kuykendall challenges herself once again, this time tackling the seemingly inevitable stress that comes with each year's impending holiday season -- the days packed with endless holiday festivities, the decorating, the blown out holiday budget that depresses her come January. She explains that her inspiration this time around was the realization that she did not want her daughters to grow up and have their dominant holiday memories be of stressed out, edgy and resentful parents. Instead, she wanted to put the need for perfection aside and just try to be present and authentically capture the true magic of Christmas for her girls. This year, Kuykendall wants to put the focus back on true family togetherness, charity, kindness, all those warm fuzzy emotions we ALL desperately need a good dose of right about now. 

 

Can I do this? Create an experiment where I'm able to savor the season in front of me without ending up overwhelmed and bitter? Where I avoid needing a detox from the fa-la-la-la and the mistletoe? It is worth the try. Because hope, peace, joy, and love are certainly words I want to associate with this time of year. Rather than overspending, overeating, undersleeping and underrejoicing, I want to notice the goodness God has offered in the here and now. In this year. This Christmas. Regardless of the circumstances. Because I don't want to resent this actual Christmas. I want to love it. 

 

 

It's a tough year for Kuykendall, as it's the year her stepfather passed away, a man she had come to rely on as a loving, reliable male figure in her life (for more on the difficult relationship Kuykendall has with her birth father, check out her memoir, The Artist's Daughter). Hard as it will be to tackle a season of family gatherings without this important man there for her, Kuykendall works hard not to let the sadness tarnish the warm memories she wants to cultivate for her family. 

 

In Loving My Actual Christmas, Kuykendall admits from the very beginning that this round will be slightly different because she is not working within the luxury of an entire year. We are talking about a season. So she gets the ball rolling in November, jumping right into family gatherings and activities around Thanksgiving, Christmas right around the corner. After moving passed Christmas, the book closes out a few days past the New Year (this past January 2017, as she notes that she started writing this book during 2016 holiday season).

 

Though she may not have a full year to work through, to give herself some sense of structure to this experiment, Kuykendall plots out the time frame of the experiment using the window of Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas Day) as well as Christmastide (more commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas), carrying through to just after New Year's celebrations. This book has the same diary-like layout as Loving My Actual Life. From day one, Kuykendall makes entries for every day of every week, giving readers a rundown of what the day's activities looked like, what she hopes to accomplish with that day, what she comes away with (lesson-wise) at day's end, and what Scripture she used that day to ponder on as she worked through each day's schedule. The entries are divided by Advent week and for each week she gives herself an overall theme to focus on: 

 

  • Week 1 = HOPE
  • Week 2 = LOVE
  • Week 3 = JOY
  • Week 4 = PEACE
  • * and then a section that does an overview on her Christmastide experience

 

Each chapter closes on "Questions for Reflection", questions that help guide readers on their own journey of better appreciating the season. She also offers relevant scripture, so this book (as well as her previous experiment book) have potential to be used as devotional supplements. Kuykendall is quick to address that a lot of the issues / stressors she tackles in this book will likely come of as #firstworldproblems, but as she points out -- the experiments are called MY ACTUAL LIFE and MY ACTUAL CHRISTMAS... it might seem first world, but it is the life SHE is personally living, so we gotta let her do her thing. 

 

What I love about these experiments of hers is that Kuykendall gives it to her readers honestly, warts and all. She fully admits to being human, starting with the best intentions and then getting in the moment and seriously wanting to throw in the towel instead. Immediately from Day 1 of her Christmas experiment she hits a wall. Not a good start, but a humorous and relatable one! She talks of facing the living room mantel, realizing she has to take down all the "harvest" decor to set up the Nativity scene... and she's honestly just not feelin' it, y'all! Who hasn't been there!

 

Also on this day she's hit with the first wave of holiday family travel plans (orchestrating all that) as well as trying to find time to sit down to do the obligatory Christmas cards. Those Christmas cards haunt her through many of the days, leading her to tell a story of when she just decided to NOT do cards one year, and guess what? There was a little guilt involved on her part, but no one died and no one disowned her. This spoke to my soul as it's exactly where I was last Christmas, and frankly I don't know that I'm feeling much for the cards this year, so it was nice to get a sense of camaraderie from that. Kuykendall encourages readers to still do cards, but do them for the right reason. Do it because you honestly love and miss these people and WANT to connect, don't just make it a chore to scratch off because you don't want things to get awkward later. 

 

No big surprise, but one of Kuykendall's big takeaways from this project is that the best gift is really just giving someone time / attention / respect / love. If you love the act of bestowing physical gifts, just make sure that the gifts show you LISTEN TO THEM. Don't get caught up in getting what everyone else seems to be buying -- unless, I guess, your people have expressed that's truly what they want with all their hearts. But in general, it's nice to give gifts that give a nod to something said in passing that shows you were listening even when they thought you weren't! ;-)

 

Other main points:

 

* Decide on a holiday budget and STICK TO IT. Also, it might help to make an inventory of all expected costs for the season -- what you anticipate to spend on holiday meals, outings, travel, holiday clothing, etc. Factor that into the overall "holiday budget" at the beginning of the season and you probably won't have quite as much sticker shock come January. 

 

* As Kuykendall's husband kept telling her throughout this process: "No bad-mouthing Christmas!" Your season might still have an element of stress no matter what you do but don't blame the season, just find your zen again and remember the real "reason for the season".

 

As I carried out the experiment, I was reminded that this holiday becomes a circus because we are operating out of our longings. We long for memories and fun and happiness. We long for meaning and purpose. We know it must be hidden somewhere among the decorations and the fuss. And when I stopped and paid attention, this is what stood out to me about why we do all of this Christmas making in the first place. 

 

* Learn to say "no" sometimes and be okay with it. Much of the stress of the season comes from us allowing ourselves to be roped into doing every little thing to ensure everyone else has the perfect season. Once in awhile, stop and say no. And then go let yourself have some you time so YOU can enjoy the season. 

 

At the back of the book, Kuykendall also offers supplemental guides such as "Practical Tips and Strategies" where she outlines just how exactly she pulled off this experiment and how you can try it yourself. Within the guides she also encourages readers to engage in some moments of contemplation: evaluate family holiday traditions, WHY you still do them and should you continue with them or are you merely doing it out of habit? (Think: are the kids too old for it? Are there enough people that still enjoy the tradition or are you just forcing them through?). She gives you a really handy guide on ways to be more economical during the season as well as a pep talk on the power of "no thank you".

She closes with the plea to readers that while they go through this process (should they choose to, that is), in all things always strive to continually be kind, gracious and compassionate. 

 

Near the end of the experiment, Kuykendall points out that throughout this process it is important to keep in mind that you can't (or at the very least, shouldn't) gloss over the hurts and struggles of the year with a simple dusting of tinsel, a few rounds of carols and a nice mug of eggnog (if eggnog is your thing). Kuykendall advises readers to remember the Nativity story: all the struggles that were going on in that time in history, how so many people craved a positive change for peace... and what happened? A star suddenly appeared in the night sky shining a light so bright as to leave any observer awe-struck, so bright as to be able to guide three wise men to a random manger. A light in the darkness. The darkness doesn't go away for good, but having your heart in the right place helps keeps the hardships at bay. That's the idea here. Acknowledge the struggles but embrace the joy and grace found behind them. We will likely always be trying to fight off one evil or another in the world, but Kuykendall encourages you, when faced with dark times, to allow yourself to still be in awe of the marvels & beauties in the world, because if you keep yourself open enough, they will remind you that they are still out there. As she says, "This is a year to celebrate the good news within the context of our actual lives."

 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  Baker Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2017-11-04 18:32
The Four Doors by Richard Paul Evans
The Four Doors - Richard Paul Evans

The Four Doors is Evans’s message to those who seek inspiration in their lives. It began as a talk he gave on the spur of the moment, and over the course of ten years, it has evolved into a message he has shared with successful business people, students, and even addicts and prisoners. It includes stories his readers have told him, stories about great achievers who overcame hardships, and stories about his own struggle growing up in a large family with financial difficulties and a suicidal mother, and about his diagnosis of Tourette’s Syndrome later in life. These inspiring stories are woven through his identification and careful explanation of the four doors to a more fulfilling life:

BELIEVE THERE’ S A REASON YOU WERE BORN

FREE YOURSELF FROM LIMITATION

MAGNIFY YOUR LIFE

DEVELOP A LOVE-CENTERED MAP

Evans believes that we all want to know the meaning of our lives. In The Four Doors, he shows how even the most quiet life can be full of purpose and joy, if we choose to take that first step over the threshold.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In his foreword, literally entitled "Why I Wrote This Book", author Richard Paul Evans explains that the idea for this came from a sort of off-the-cuff talk he gave to a room full of high schoolers. It was then honed into a speech he presented, at various times and in varying venues, to business people, criminals and drug addicts. A decade later, he expanded on the ideas he first presented and fashioned them into book form so that his blueprint for a more fulfilling life might reach the masses in general. 

 

Boiled down to their essential form, the four "doors" or basic principles Evans works off of are:

 

BELIEVE THERE’ S A REASON YOU WERE BORN

FREE YOURSELF FROM LIMITATION

MAGNIFY YOUR LIFE

DEVELOP A LOVE-CENTERED MAP

 

 

From there, he delves deeper into topics such as self will, spiritual evolution, and the classic, "the only constant is change". 

 

The gist of what he covers here:

 

SELF WILL: Nothing happens without you propelling yourself either into or out of a situation. Even the act of relinquishing freedom is a choice. Basically, anything that has you throwing even a thought at it is a choice on some level. Evans encourages readers to learn the power of discernment and to find the courage to filter out some of the garbage out there that people will sometimes feed you that could pull you away from your true path. 

 

SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION: Nothing happens by chance or accident. Your life definitely has a purpose. Your life on Earth is meant to be a schooling for your soul to spiritually evolve.

 

But Evans also reminds readers to keep in mind that true greatness in a person will not always equate to fame. 

 

THE TRUE MEASURE OF GREATNESS

I have found that some people, in searching for a meaningful life, have confused greatness with fame. In spite of our culture's obsession with celebrity, a successful life does not have to include fame and, in most cases, shouldn't. Fame and greatness are not the same thing. There are great people in this world -- people of great accomplishment and service to humanity -- who are not famous. There are scores of famous people who are not great. In most cases, true greatness is a silent and lonely affair, unaccompanied by the trumpeted fanfare of acclaim. More important than being known is being of value. The great impact of a loving parent may shake nations. One can only wonder how different the world would be had Adolf Hitler been raised by two kind, happy, and loving parents. Likewise, the spark lit (or extinguished) by a caring and wise teacher may have saved the world more than once. 

To be of value to others is a far greater ambition than the vain hope for the world's fleeting applause and fickle admiration. In the end, it is better to be loved by one person who knows your soul than a million people who don't even know your phone number. 

 

ONLY CONSTANT IS CHANGE: Both our spiritual and physical states are in constant flux. The change is necessary because remaining stationary would mean we would inevitable start to diminish. 

 

There are moments here where Evans gives readers some solid food for thought. A few of the topics I found interesting:

 

* Thinking about how all big inventions, marvels of architecture, world religions, democracy, all that.. started as a seed of an idea in one person's mind.. something to keep in mind when we feel too insignificant to create change or develop great art or inventions! 

 

* During times of hardship, don't give into victimhood. Don't give the power of your life and well-being to someone (or something) else. We can't learn and mature without facing adversity from time to time. 

 

* The mention of a survey once done at UCLA where over 1000 people were asked, "If you could be given a pill that would take away all disability from the body, but it would mean you would lose all the experience and wisdom you learned from living with the disability, would you take the pill?" Honestly, that would be a tough call for me. I appreciate life experience but chronic pain is a witch to live with. 

 

Inspiring as this book is meant to be, Evans doesn't really cover new ground all that much. There were also a few things about the guy himself that just bugged me. I find it off-putting when authors heavily quote themselves in their own books. To me it just reeks of "look how genius I am! and humble too!" I really cringed at one point in this book when Evans says "I think every home in America should have this quote" and of course it was one of his own. UGH. 

 

His story about the book signing also bothered me. He presented it as an example of him going for his dreams, tackling a goal he wanted... but in this instance, he describes taking the seat at an author book signing of an author who was apparently either late or a no-show. Evans presented himself as the author, got staff at the venue to wait on him as if he were the scheduled celebrity and then presented himself to an audience as an established author. This moment apparently helped launch his professional career. He was clearly proud of himself but I kinda saw it as him coming to his fame by somewhat dishonest means. Not classy. Granted, it's impressive to see him with such a success story professionally after having a lifelong struggle with Tourette's Syndrome as well as having a suicidal mother ... but still, for someone writing a motivational / self-help style work, closing on that book signing story was a disappointment for me. 

 

 

 

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review 2017-11-04 16:59
Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises
Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises: Straightforward Solutions to Life's Puzzling Problems - Mother Angelica

From the founder of EWTN Global Catholic Network comes this profoundly practical, humorous, and common-sense approach to answering life's most vexing questions. Mother Angelica gently confronts your real-life struggles, lifting your heart to God and leading your soul to heaven as she provides answers from a life dedicated to God not the promises of a world entrenched in vice. Mother Angelica will become your trusted companion in the battle for virtue as you read through her advice and answer her call to grow closer to Christ. She'll help you conquer your most deeply rooted sins, and she'll lead you to overcome the fear of death, the pain of guilt, and the seemingly benign attachments you have to the things of this world. She'll also lead you to a more profound understanding of the spiritual life, explaining why it's so hard to be good, why suffering must happen to even the best of us, and why God doesn't answer all your prayers.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Mother Angelica became a Franciscan nun at the age of 21. After becoming a cloistered nun based in Birmingham, Alabama, she went on to become one of the founders of EWTN (Eternal World Television Network), a television channel dedicated to broadcasting Catholic-themed programming. EWTN's home base was initially set up right on the grounds of Mother Angelica's convent and the non-profit channel was run solely on donations. Programming reached viewers worldwide, leading Mother Angelica to get mountains of letters each week, letters that asked for requests and posed deep life questions. In this book, she takes some of the most common topics / concerns people seemed to consistently lay at her feet and answers them to the best of her ability. 

 

For starters, Mother Angelica breaks down the different types of suffering a person can experience  -- we're talking about Catholicism so you know we gotta hit upon suffering lol -- and offers possible positive take-aways in each situation:

 

Preventative Suffering = God blocking you from a bad choice because something better is in the works for you. You won't necessarily be protected from experiencing pain, but the experience will likely teach you courage during times of adversity, and possibly how to find peace and acceptance later on down the road. It's during this section that she also gets into Permitting Will vs Ordaining Will and what she calls Supernatural Hope:

 

"Supernatural Hope is the balance between expecting a miracle and accepting God's Will even if it results in pain or death. There is a certain serenity that comes from Supernatural Hope... hope tells us to move along, that it's all right... Hope gives us joy in sorrow and peace amidst the turmoil of daily life. In certain ways, I think it is the virtue we need most of all."

 

Mother Angelica also mentions Supernatural Love -- kind of along the same lines as Supernatural Hope, but with the love variety she says:

 

The person who posesses Supernatural Love is able to keep loving when reason says it's time to give up. It's what makes us able to forgive, and to keep forgiving, when what we really want to do is throw in the towel and be forever angry at the person who keeps hurting us....Supernatural Love is what enables you to keep loving your spouse or your children or your best friend when at the moment you are hard pressed to find anything lovable about them. It allows you to keep in mind that everyday annoyances that can drive you crazy are small items in the overall scope of things. How? By making you aware that love is a decision, not just a feeling, and that you can decide to love as God loves -- freely and endlessly. Supernatural Love is the kind of love that keeps marriages vibrant, families solid, friendships strong... Supernatural Love doesn't judge or ask questions. It simply gives. 

 

Can I just interject here and say that as beautiful and inspiring as I found this passage, Lord forgive me but I could help but hear the song "Electric Love" from Bob's Burgers in my head right after. X-D I know! I'M SORRY. (but kinda not really)

 

Corrective Suffering = The damage from the problem has already been done, but you're meant to go through it because the experience of the suffering is put forth to correct something undesirable within your soul, help you see the error of going further down that path, etc (think maybe losing people / jobs because of anger issues, drug / alcohol addiction, something like that). 

 

Repentant Suffering = basically, a painful experience that is meant to humble you if you're "getting too big for yer' britches" as the country folk in my family say ;-)

 

She also touches upon the idea of "false martyrdom". As she says, "Suffering in itself doesn't make you holy."

 

 

I picked up this book as a secondhand books shopping find shortly after my mother's passing. Naturally, I had her on my mind and seeing this book made it even more so as I come from a largely Irish Catholic family and my mom often spoke of how she seriously considered joining a convent and living the nun life prior to meeting my father. I'd never heard of this nun before and had only vaguely remembered seeing EWTN on my cable menu listing, but I was curious to see if she had anything to offer my mind during my time of mourning. 

 

To be honest, I brushed over a lot of it. There was a bunch here that was similar to ideas I was already raised with, other ideas I didn't entirely agree with. Some of her opinions definitely didn't mesh with my beliefs at all. While I appreciated her sassy, fun delivery, I was bothered by the way she knocks the gay community as well as couples who choose to live together and engage in pre-marital sex. Again, Catholic nun, shouldn't really be all that surprised that she disagrees with these practices, it was just her tone on these topics that I didn't particularly like. She had this way of dismissing people making grown decisions for themselves that feel right for them and their lives: "Feelings are not evil, but they are not reliable either." Maybe not, but you gotta let people live for themselves. She also slams the idea of positive thinking, but the examples she uses to illustrate where it's at fault tells me she doesn't entirely understand the concept. 

 

Also, I gotta say, Mother Angelica's vision of heaven sounds just AWFUL to me! An eternity of nonstop praying, no pets, and being satisfied with just being with God and letting his presence complete you?! Sorry girl, but you lost me at NO PETS.  

 

Some good bits here and there but not a keeper collection for me. It was worth a try! 

 

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text 2017-11-04 06:59
Some Small Magic by Billy Coffey
Some Small Magic - Billy Coffey

All Abel wants is a little bit of magic in his life. Enough money so his mom doesn’t cry at night. Healing for his broken body. And maybe a few answers about his past. When Abel discovers letters to him from the father he believed dead, he wonders if magic has come to the hills of Mattingly, Virginia, after all. But not everything is as it seems. With a lot of questions and a little bit of hope, Abel decides to run away to find the truth. But danger follows him from the moment he jumps his first boxcar, forcing Abel to rely on his simpleminded friend Willie—a man wanted for murder who knows more about truth than most—and a beautiful young woman they met on the train. From Appalachia to the Tennessee wilds and through the Carolina mountains, the name of a single small town beckons: Fairhope. That is where Abel believes his magic lays. But will it be the sort that will bring a broken boy healing? And is it the magic that will one day lead him home?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Our protagonist, young Abel (I believe he's possibly in his teens at the story's opening?) was born with a medical condition that causes his bones to remain very brittle and his spine crooked. This also leads him to have disfigured limbs that make movement difficult. Abel hates that his health problems cause his mother so much stress and financial strain. Both he and his mother try to live good, honest lives, Lisa (the mother) putting in long hours a local diner in their little town of Mattingly, Virginia, often working double shifts to just to barely make ends meet. Abel suffers through bullying at school but tries to make the best of it until one day he just reaches the end of his fuse and fights back in a rather unique way. Though it's well known who the main school bully is, Abel still seems to get the short end of the stick when the bulk of the disciplinary action falls on him.

 

"What if things could be better?" he asks.

"They can't, Abel."

"But what if they could? Would you be happy?"

"I'm happy now."

"Maybe you ain't. Maybe you been sad for so long, you think that's what being happy is."

Lisa cannot answer this. 

"Don't worry, Momma."

"About what?"

"About nothing."

 He gets up from the table and leans in close for what Lisa believes will be a kiss. Instead, he snatches a nickel from behind her ear and places it on the table. 

"What's this for?"

"For what I owe. I know it's not all of it, but I'll take care of the rest too."

 He walks inside, letting the screen door shut behind him. Lisa can only sit and drink her beer. She fingers the nickel and wonders how long Abel had been carrying that around, wonders what just happened, and whether it was Abel who just got punished, or her. 

 

 

One night, while he remains home alone while Lisa works through another late shift, Abel comes across a box of letters addressed to him that he's never seen before. He doesn't recognize the North Carolina address but when he opens one letter he finds the writer signs off as "Dad". Lisa had always told Abel that his father passed away when Abel was just a baby, but these letters seem rather recent. 

 

Make sure you laugh and love and stop to watch the sun fall. Keep your eyes on the things that matter and don't, and learn to know the difference. 

~an excerpt from one of the letters

 

Abel decides on a plan to jump the first train boxcar out of town, taking along his best friend, Willie Farmer. Willie, known to most of Mattingly as "Dumb Willie" (for being mentally challenged) is in his early 20s but has the mental development of a small child... and the physical strength of a superhero. Due to an unplanned scuffle with a local meanie, Willie is now possibly wanted for murder, so it's important Abel keep his friend by his side. Meanwhile, Abel is also hoping that the trip will lead him to meeting his father face to face and give him the answers to a better, more comfortable life for him and his mom. 

 

Once on the train, Abel & Willie meet an enigmatic young girl who doesn't readily give up her name, so Abel, inspired by his love of The Wizard of Oz, names her Dorothy. Dorothy has something mysterious & special about her, and her utterances here and there -- such as "It was a mistake, bringing them here." -- clue the reader in on the idea that her presence isn't entirely by chance. *If you've read Billy Coffey's work before, you likely remember that he likes to play with light themes of supernatural and even touches of magical realism, so you can likely make a good guess of where the story heads from this point.

 

Abel stares down at his cast, which has been left dented but whole. He stares and will not look away, because even now he can feel the girl's eyes upon him, those pretty blue ones set inside that pretty face. He feels that look as one that speaks not of friendship, but of options weighed and regrets counted. 

 

The perspective of the story shifts ever so slightly between our three key players -- Abel, Willie and "Dorothy". Coffey does an especially nice job of subtly bringing in Willie's voice. Without changing the rhythm of the writing in a jarring fashion, Coffey changes his writing just a touch -- making it more simple in style or writing words in a more phonetic way -- to quietly let readers know they've shifted from the thoughts of Abel to Willie (and back again, later). Coffey's way of laying all this out brought to mind John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. 

 

Willie is one of the most endearing characters here, drawing readers in with his boundless love and faith in good people, even when Abel lets you in on his friend's story. Willie's mental slowness? His parents claim it was caused by him falling off a wagon as a child, but Abel suspects the source is more along the lines of Willie's father beating and abusing him for years, Willie's parents treating him more like a burden / source of free labor than a beloved son. Abel's suspicions seem confirmed one day when Abel goes to Willie's house to find him chained up with just a small jug of water at his side, parents nowhere to be found. It breaks your heart and at the same time makes you think of Willie as the kind of soul too good for this world.

 

"Then you got ones like Dumb Willie. They're the special ones, Abel, and you know why? Because they ain't meant for this life at all. They're so tuned to the next world that it leaks into this one here, turning it all to a wonder they can't bear up against. You tell me Dumb Willie's pa is the one broke Dumb Willie's mind. I don't know about that. I think maybe it's more Dumb Willie's always been so full of heaven that he ain't got much use for earth. That's how it is for those few blessed enough that their souls point to other lands, but cursed such that they got to live in this one. Folk call them dumb. Call them crazy. But they ain't neither. All they are's closer to heaven than anybody else." ~Dorothy

 

This turned out to be my favorite of Coffey's books to date. The novel warmly touches upon the theme of family and friendship, the lengths we go to to creating (or at least contributing to) a fulfilling life for the ones we love. Some Small Magic also ends up being a nice illustration of just how far a little hope, a dash of that "faith of a mustard seed", can take a person in life. Key characters are living out hollow, painful, sad existences, punishing themselves for things largely beyond their control. Depressing as that sounds, Coffey turns it around, showing that no matter how far gone one's situation seems, there's always time to learn how to let go and live for joy again.

 

For the first time in a long while and perhaps even forever, laughter filled this small patch of forgotten wood in the midst of a bustling mountain town. The noise is full and whole and worthy of wonder. It is magic, this laughter, and one not so small as to slip through Abel's knowing. The feel of it lodges into the cracked places of his insides where not even his brittle bones dwell, telling him things will be all right now. Wherever that dark road leads, Dorothy and Dumb Willie will travel with him. And Abel's daddy will be at its end, and healing, and the world will be made right. Yes, that is how Abel knows it will be.. because most every road is a dark one. Especially the ones that hold a light at their end. 

 

For those interested in using this as a possible book club pick, a page of discussion questions are included at the back of the book.

 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

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