ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Autobiography, Christian Fiction, Fiction, Magical Realism, Series & Collections

November Reads 2022

I read ten books in November. Not bad! I did reviews on the ones that had the most impact on me, but here’s a quick summary.

Best Memoir (which is also nominated for a Goodreads award): Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, by Matthew Perry. Both fascinating and heart-breaking. Just be prepared for a lot of F-bombs.

Best Romantic Comedy: Hello Stranger, by Katherine Center. This comes out in July 2023, but keep it on your TBR (to be read) list. It’s a winner! A journey of self-discovery and growth while facing challenges and falling in love.

Best Magical Realism: The Magic of Lemon Drop Pie, by Rachel Linden. Word is out on this wonderful story of second chances and glimpses into the future. Everyone I’ve recommended this book to who has read it, has loved it!

Best Book Duo: All That Really Matters and All That It Takes by Nicole Deese. Even though I rated them differently, they’re both excellent and worth your time. Clean, Christian fiction, full of flawed but decent people who learn the value of faith, embracing differences, and serving others.

In my opinion, these are the best of the bunch. Rachel Linden and Nicole Deese are new authors for me, but I definitely want to read more of their books. Hopefully something catches your eye!

Autobiography, Memoir, Nonfiction

Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, by Matthew Perry

It’s 1995, FRIENDS has been on the air for a year. (As soon as I saw a promo for it in 1994, I knew I wanted to watch this series. And I did–every episode of every season for ten seasons. I still kick myself that I never attended a taping.) Now I’m at Disneyland with my mom, aunt, and cousin, Laura. My aunt had recently been hired at Disney Imagineering and was able to get us into the park for free. It was a blast.

Halfway through the day we’re in New Orleans Square (my favorite section) and Laura says to me, “Hey, isn’t that Matthew Perry?” Yes, it was. Celebrity sightings–one of the perks of growing up in Southern California. There was Matthew Perry, aka Chandler Bing, wearing (I’ll never forget) a white leather letterman’s-style jacket, holding court in the middle of an entourage of 6-8 friends, with a glow and a swagger that showed he was on top of the world. The guy oozed charisma.

We headed over to the Haunted Mansion. Matthew and group probably entered through some VIP back door without waiting in line because suddenly, we were all in the “stretching room”–our group, his group, and a few other people who probably didn’t love the show FRIENDS as much as I did. I can only assume.

Yes, I stared. This was a big deal. I have a faint memory of catching his eye and a hopeful, selective memory that there was a small grin returned only for me, but it could just be my imagination. I don’t care. It was dang cool. After the ride we only saw the backs of him and his group. Moment over, but not forgotten.

Some shows are just a part of us. FRIENDS is one of those shows for me. It started right as I earned my college degree, saw me through getting my first apartment, my first “real job,” and all of those milestones that make you feel grown up (except getting married, that came later.)

Of course we knew that, of all the cast members, Matthew Perry was the one struggling the most. We just didn’t know how much. Fast forward 20+ years to last Monday, when my husband and I watched his interview with Diane Sawyer. He’s uber famous, uber wealthy, starred in one of the most beloved shows of all time, and my first thought was, “He seems like a really lonely guy.” The swagger and smirk I saw in 1995 was replaced with a man slightly older than me, but wearing decades of trauma on his face.

I had to read the book. What a life. What an exhausting, sad, tortured, lonely life. I’ve never really understood addiction, but this is probably the closest I’ll ever get. His memoir is that raw. And it is heartbreaking. As a highly sensitive empath, I absorb other people’s pain more than most, and I felt like I was right there with every relapse of drinking and pills and their accompanying horrific consequences. This book is both fascinating and painful. Never once does he play the victim.

If you’ve been on the FRIENDS journey at all since its inception, read about Matthew’s journey and see what he went through. It’s a miracle he’s even still alive. And it’s a lesson of where fulfillment can truly be found. Hint: it isn’t fame and fortune. 9/10 Stars

Autobiography, Memoir

Deaf Utopia, by Nyle DiMarco

“As a Deaf person, I came from a beautiful and unique heritage that included a multilayered culture, a visual language, and a wealth of stories.”

I cannot remember the last time, if ever, that I learned so much from a memoir. Nyle DiMarco’s Deaf Utopia should be required reading for everyone.

Nyle DiMarco won hearts by winning both America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars, breaking barriers and bringing awareness to a beautiful silent world that many of us, myself included, don’t think about much. Part of a multi-generational Deaf family, this love letter to Deaf culture is sometimes joyful and, at other times, heart-breaking.

The writing is exquisite. I learned about the frustratingly slow evolution of allowing Deaf students to use American Sign Language, as opposed to forcing speech and oral education, in schools for the Deaf. I learned about the Milan Conference, a group of decision makers in the 1800s who made crucial choices about educating Deaf children when only one of the members was Deaf himself. I learned about Alexander Graham Bell, who has always been heralded as a pioneer, and his belief that if Deaf couples didn’t marry and procreate, the “deaf gene” would eventually be “bred out” of the human race.

As an elementary school teacher, I firmly agree with DiMarco’s statement “Kids need a language rich environment for their brains to acquire the rhythm and pattern of language.” It seems so basic, and this is why we sing a lot of songs in kindergarten about numbers, the days of the week, the months of the year, etc. It is why, even when I taught fifth grade, I still set aside at least half an hour a day for “story time,” where I read to my students and tried to exemplify a love of words and language.

In a school for the Deaf, this love is best conveyed through their native language, ASL, which DiMarco describes as “…something uniquely ours, a beautiful creation made with Deaf minds, hands, and bodies. When we use it, we feel truly content, truly ourselves.” Which makes the decades of systemic resistance to using it even more shocking. The more Deaf children have access to ASL-rich classrooms, the more they thrive and learn a variety of subjects. When the emphasis is all about speech and lip-reading, gaps can form in the child’s education. His family has members across the spectrum with all these experiences. The consequences, both good and bad, last a lifetime.

Discussing the book would not be complete without mentioning Nyle DiMarco’s amazing mother, Donna, who is also Deaf, and raised her three Deaf sons pretty much single-handedly. The way she fought for them, advocated for their education, nurtured them, and supported them is nothing short of heroic. If there was a school that was better, they moved there. If there was unfairness in the system, she challenged it. All of her sons are graduates of the prestigious Gallaudet University. Seriously, this lady deserves her own biography.

This book is revelatory. It is also fun and anecdotal. There’s mischief, love, setbacks, and creative solutions on nearly every page. I recommend it highly. Like with any culture, the only way to understand it better is to learn about it. I was honored to learn about Deaf culture, which is larger than we realize and has much to teach us.

10/10 Stars

May 8, 2022 video addition: There are lots of videos of Nyle DiMarco modeling, dancing, and being interviewed. But if you read this book you’ll learn that the foundation for all of his success was early language acquisition. (Not speech, but LANGUAGE. There’s a difference.) He’s very passionate about it. (I agree!) In that respect, I think these two videos are the best ones to post here.

This is so powerful.
Autobiography, Faith, Memoir, Nonfiction

Hope Unseen, by Captain Scotty Smiley and Doug Crandall

“I’m not sure what God is going to do with my life, but I know that there are good things in store and that He has a purpose for me.”

I first heard about Scott Smiley a few weeks ago. He was a guest speaker at an event hosted by a state congressional candidate I follow on Facebook. I had no idea who he was and what made him so inspiring. As I learned more about him and his story, I was reminded how backwards this world is, in that so many famous people have done very little for others, basking in the light of their own glory, while those who truly deserve our attention are often relegated to smaller venues.

One of seven children, a West Point graduate who married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany, Scotty Smiley’s life dramatically changed on April 6, 2005. While leading a 40-man platoon in Iraq charged with finding car bombs stationed throughout a residential area, Smiley confronted a suicide bomber at the moment of detonation. At that instant his world went black. He was blinded and partially paralyzed.

This book tells of Captain Smiley’s journey from that day to recovery, rehabilitation, and finding a new purpose in life. Make no mistake, this man had his gloomy days–lots of them–despite being blessed with an incredible support system of family and friends. Going from an independent, highly motivated Army officer to a man who could get lost walking in a parking lot was a huge blow. It challenged his sense of self and his lifelong faith down to their very cores.

Certainly, his story is one like many veterans who return home with physical and emotional scars that can last a lifetime. Living in a country that hasn’t seen war on its own soil for such a long time can make us feel distanced from the sacrifices made on a daily basis by people who dedicate their lives to preserving freedom for ourselves and others. No doubt, his story, faith, and determination are worthy of 10 stars. As a piece of writing I do wish it was more linear with less detours. There were several, although it may be the style of his coauthor. But overall, Scotty Smiley does make you want to try harder and be better, remembering that through God, all things are possible.

8.5/10 Stars

Autobiography, Memoir, Nonfiction

Val Kilmer: I’m Your Huckleberry, by Val Kilmer

Do you ever finish a book and sit in awe at the beauty you’ve just witnessed? That is how I feel having just completed Val Kilmer’s autobiography. It is, hands down, the best memoir I’ve ever read.

If you’ve ever seen him as Doc Holliday in Tombstone (the greatest modern western EVER) or his embodiment of Jim Morrison in The Doors, you know that Val Kilmer is a dynamic force onscreen, able to morph into a character while he, himself, disappears. Like his idol and mentor, Marlon Brando, he purposefully chose parts that were difficult. If you’re not constantly challenging yourself, what’s the point?

Then his greatest tool, his voice, was cruelly taken away by throat cancer and its subsequent treatments. The swagger is gone too, replaced by introspection and humility. Why do the great ones lose what’s most important to their work? It seems so unfair. I was reminded of Beethoven losing his hearing and Renoir’s hands crippled by arthritis. Except a true artist will carry on, as exemplified here.

This is a brilliant man who peppers his book with words like equanimity, quixotic, autodidact, and digestif. Thank goodness for the Kindle dictionary link. But not once do you feel you are being talked down to, instead, you’re being elevated and forced to challenge yourself as well. And the profanity that often slithers into celebrity autobiographies? There is none. A wordsmith like Val has no use for curse words in telling his story. They are for the lazy.

Connections to people, nature, and art in all its forms constantly propel him. I loved learning about his devotion to Mark Twain’s writings, his Christian Science faith, and his adoration for his children, Mercedes and Jack. I’ve seen them interviewed and the feeling is clearly mutual. He’s worked hard not to repeat the tenuous relationship he had with his own father.

I can understand why this book was a bestseller. It isn’t just because he starred in several blockbusters. People may buy it for that reason, but they will read it and recommend it for another. It is masterful. Just because his voice is gone, does not mean Kilmer will be silenced. Stay strong, Val. We can still hear you.

10/10 Stars

P.S. I’m going to do something I’ve never done, and that is to provide a link to my highlights. Visit it. You’ll see what I mean. https://www.goodreads.com/notes/48670913-i-m-your-huckleberry/2633306-kristie?ref=bsop

Autobiography, Entertainment, Memoir, Nonfiction

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, you will remember a specific group of comedians that rose to fame during that time. There was the unparalleled original Saturday Night Live cast and there were those who worked from a different direction, like Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, and Steve Martin to name a few.

The older I get, the more I appreciate Steve Martin’s brand of comedy, which has also matured. His depth and brilliance is equally apparent when he takes on serious film roles. If you’ve never seen him in The Spanish Prisoner, see it. Recently I watched Shopgirl for the first time, with a screenplay written by Steve Martin based on his novella of the same name. These are worthwhile departures from his earlier films and he surrounds himself with cerebral, high quality actors in both.

I knew Steve Martin was originally from Waco, Texas. I knew he once worked in the magic shop at Disneyland. I knew he played the banjo with great proficiency. I knew it was a delight and an honor to see him perform live twice with the Steep Canyon Rangers (in Los Angeles and Eugene, Oregon.) But I knew nothing about his childhood and the years of paying his dues.

Like many comedians, Steve Martin’s humor was born out of pathos and melancholy, partly innate and partly inflicted upon him by others. His mother was his shining light while his father was critical, moody, and envious.
Success brought other demons, as it often does.

In a brief two hundred pages and with a deft, fluid style, we travel in that time machine called memory back to simpler decades when a young boy and then young man sought escapism and validation through performing. Never delving much into his personal life except when it intersected with his career, Martin confirms his status as one at the top of his profession. He is a student of the science of comedy, always working to refine, improve, and evolve his technique. In a time where modern celebrities are often famous because of their lifestyles, it was refreshing to read about someone whose success came because of tenacity and a doggedly determined work ethic. In this ever-increasingly serious world, we need people like this.

9/10 Stars

Autobiography, Faith, Memoir, Nonfiction

River of Fire, by Sister Helen Prejean

While exploring new podcasts I came across one called Everything Happens, with Kate Bowler, out of Duke University. She often focuses on Catholic themes, but not always, and she has an intelligent, soft-spoken style of interviewing that draws you in while making the interviewee feel comfortable.

One of my favorite episodes was the Helen Prejean interview. You may not think you know who Helen Prejean is, but you probably do if you’ve heard of the biographical film Dead Man Walking, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Sister Prejean, a Catholic nun from the Deep South, has made it her life’s work to befriend and advocate for prisoners on death row.

However you may feel about the death penalty–hot button topic that it is–you will enjoy River of Fire, Sister Prejean’s autobiography. Her warm, Southern, conversational drawl permeates through the pages as you travel with her back to Louisiana in the early nineteen forties and fifties. You read about her childhood, her funny relationship with her sister, and her personal vocation to serve others as a nun. You’ll also learn about the dramatic shift brought on by Vatican II and the necessary adjustments required of those in the Catholic ministry.

I admire Sister Prejean’s tireless efforts to serve the poor, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized. The world needs more people with her compassion for others.

9/10 Stars

Listen to the podcast episode HERE. (25 minutes)

Autobiography, Nonfiction

The Wilding Way, by Michael Wilding

Just like there are talented musicians on YouTube who you will never see in a large venue or at the Grammys, there are actors with witty charm who can hold their own with the biggest names and never quite become big names themselves.

Enter Michael Wilding, best known (sadly) as Husband #2 of Elizabeth Taylor. Their marriage lasted a bumpy 5 years, where he sacrificed a very promising British film career to follow his young bride to America. He is the father of her two sons, Michael Jr. and Christopher. But Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with him, and his star faded like a blinking light bulb, while Taylor’s became stratospheric.

I went down a rabbit hole a few months ago that led me to this autobiography of an actor who is so self-effacing and charming, I began a quest to find his films. It isn’t easy. Most are unavailable or Region 2 DVDs (Europe,) but I did manage to find a few, especially his starring turns with Anna Neagle (wife of Herbert Wilcox, who is the father of Wilding’s coauthor.) They were the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan of their day and the films I did find with the two of them are positively delightful. (Spring in Park Lane and Maytime in Mayfair, both with the same main cast, on DVD only. I found them on eBay.)

Unlike Elizabeth Taylor, whose childhood was anything but conventional, Michael Wilding came from a stable family whose parents allowed him to explore his interests. This led him on a fascinating life journey through four marriages and a myriad of film and TV genres, putting him in the company of some exceptional people like Noel Coward (check out In Which We Serve, on Amazon streaming–it’s excellent) and Alfred Hitchcock (I liked Stage Fright, but found Under Capricorn tiresome.)

Michael Wilding with his future and final wife,
Margaret Leighton, in Under Capricorn

Despite being saddled with epilepsy, Wilding remained dignified and roguish until the very end, which came too soon. Other films I’ve enjoyed are The Law and the Lady with Greer Garson, The Glass Slipper with Leslie Caron (skip the ballets, trust me,) and the semi-campy Torch Song with troublesome Joan Crawford. These last three, plus his films with Anna Neagle, are his best.

What I liked best about The Wilding Way was that he never once plays a victim of circumstance, always taking responsibility for his failures. There is a breezy grace to the way he moves onscreen and in his life, never taking it too seriously. A cross between Cary Grant, Danny Kaye, and Laurence Olivier. An impressive (and fun) mix.

8.5/10 Stars

Autobiography, Entertainment, Nonfiction

No Time Like the Future, by Michael J. Fox

Confession: Michael J. Fox was my childhood celebrity crush. When Family Ties hit the airwaves in 1982 I was 11 years old and I…was…hooked. Alex P. Keaton was the MAN–smart, charming, and oh, so cute. When teen magazines were the rage (Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, etc) my friends and I would divide up the photos. Ricky Schroeder went to my friend, Cathy. Tom Selleck to my friend, Carol. John Taylor of Duran Duran went to my friend, June. Michael J. Fox went to me. My bedroom wall was nothing short of a shrine. Even his birthday–June 9, 1961–has been branded in my mind since I was a kid.

Movies, starting with the blockbuster Back to the Future trilogy, followed the TV show. And, while shooting Doc Hollywood in 1990, Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He was 29 years old and had only been married to his wife, Tracy Pollan (girlfriend Ellen on Family Ties,) for a couple of years. Everything changed.

This book, No Time Like the Future, is Michael’s fourth autobiography, so the reader will not be getting a lot of the history of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. It starts with his recovery from the latest of many surgeries. Most are to either slow the effects of Parkinson’s or mend the results of multiple falls. But this one was delicate surgery to remove a tumor on his spinal cord. What was he told after this most recent surgery? “You have one job. DON’T FALL.” What does he do? You guessed it.

The rest of the book is a series of, for lack of a better word, anecdotes. Some involve family vacations, some involve work projects, some involve hospital stays and home health care. All of them show the way Parkinson’s and its effects are a part of everything Michael does. Standing, walking, playing golf, going up and down stairs, traveling, timing his medication, the list goes on and on. His life truly revolves around his incredible family (his wife and 4 kids are AWESOME,) work, Parkinson’s, and his foundation to raise money for Parkinson’s research. They’re a set. (FYI, his foundation has raised more than $800 MILLION. Impressive.)

Like many other celebrity autobiographies, there is some language. I would rate it a PG13 level. But I hung in there until the end because, hey, it’s Michael J. Fox. I haven’t seen all of his movies and I was never a Spin City fan, but I loved it when he guest starred on The Good Wife, one of my all-time favorite shows. He played slimy lawyer Louis Canning, who suffers from tardive dyskinesia. The effects are similar to Parkinson’s and Louis completely exploits his condition, using it to every advantage in court. He’s awful, but you love him. Why? Because it’s Michael J. Fox.

Although I cannot see myself reading it again, I found No Time Like the Future enjoyable. I listened to it on audio (which I recommend doing with headphones because the Parkinson’s has affected his voice.) I felt myself emotionally invested in his medical highs and lows, grateful that he has an amazingly supportive wife (they’re going on 35 years together) and kids, happy to see how much he loves his feisty 90-something mother, and inspired by his optimism. Although not a religious person, it is very obvious that Michael knows he is blessed, and so are his enduring fans.

9/10 stars

Visit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research HERE.

I watched several videos of MJF promoting his newest book on the talk show circuit in late 2020. This is one of my favorites:

Autobiography, Entertainment, Nonfiction

The Time of My Life, by Patrick Sawyze and Lisa Niemi

If you were a teenager in the 1980’s, then Dirty Dancing is a staple of your pubescent years. If you didn’t see it then, like me, then you probably did later. A few years following Dirty Dancing was the romantic fantasy, Ghost. That was the film where I discovered Patrick Swayze. Who doesn’t love that movie? He’s buff, he’s graceful, he’s sensitive, he’s masculine–all of those qualities that make for a hero. So when Patrick died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57, it was one of those celebrity deaths that really hurt. He was a good guy who still had a lot more to give.

His autobiography, The Time of My Life, written in his last months with Lisa Niemi, his wife of over 30 years, has been on my radar for a while. Movie star autobiographies can be tricky. I’ve read several. They’re usually either really satisfying or truly terrible. Often they are peppered with profanity (Carrie Fisher, Judy Greer, Mara Wilson) or just feel like one long brag (Anjelica Huston.) Fortunately, this is one of the better books with language coming in at a mild “PG” rating. With just the right balance talking about his early years, family, the struggle to achieve success, and his final illness, I was quite impressed. The reader is left knowing a decent, driven man with a great sense of humility who adores his wife and loves animals and nature. Kind of an old-fashioned dancing cowboy.

Lisa, his wife, is really the unsung hero of the book. What a supportive spouse, never showing any jealousy that his star was rising faster than hers. When Patrick’s alcoholism started to become a real problem, she expressed her concern and extreme disapproval, but she hung in there. Twelve years after his death and now remarried, Lisa still maintains his legacy with love and dignity. A very admirable lady.

Whatever your favorite Patrick Swayze movie may be, you’ll find this book an interesting, in depth look at a talent gone too soon.

8.5/10 stars

Here’s a great 1995 interview with Patrick on 60 Minutes Australia. BTW…Australia’s news shows are so good!