Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Monday, February 27, 2012


Don’t you just love happy surprises?  Liz O’Neall got one last weekend when family and friends surprised her with a 50th birthday party.  What isn’t a surprise is that Liz and I have been friends for 15 years....she’s the kind of person that once you meet her you want to keep her in your life.

1997. Having just closed my bookstore and not knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I turned to more education at University of Phoenix. I also thought I might network with other students enrolled that could lead to a job for me. 
First night of class for a Master’s Degree.  (You’re never too old to have first night class jitters.)  When they formed study groups, suggesting we choose people who live or work near us, Liz and I discovered we both lived in began our journey.

Now here’s the SERENDIPITY part of this blog entry. Liz, who was working for National Purchasing Association at the time, said she was looking for someone part time in her department.  So I didn’t get a job but she hired my daughter, Roberta, who went on to a wonderful career there for over 15 years. But the best was yet to’s also the place where Roberta met her husband Pete, who arrived in Phoenix one day to talk to her manager. 

So not only did I get a great study partner and  a good friend, but a wonderful son-in-law. Thanks Liz for your friendship, for taking a chance on Berta (Liz said later is was the best hiring decision she ever made—mother’s perogative to brag) and providing the opportunity to bring Pete into our lives.

Through the years, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Liz become a terrific mom to Kristen and Megan.  I hope someday I can pay it forward to her daughters as she did mine.  Serendipity....a fortuitous happenstance.   Happy Birthday Liz.

Monday, February 20, 2012


Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Hardcover  315 pages.

If you’d like to honor Presidents Day, pick up the book Killing Lincoln, described as the “story of how one gunshot changed the world forever.”  Most of us know that, but what I didn’t know before reading this thriller (yes, it could be called that) were the many behind- the- scene dramas unfolding in Washington. 

Maybe you were a better history student than I was, but I was not aware of how volatile the climate in America was at the end of the Civil War, weeks before the assassination. I never knew the family background of the charismatic actor, John Booth. And what specific issues was President Lincoln  struggling with at the time of his death? We gain even greater insight into this remarkable man’s character as evidenced by his courageous behaviors days before the assassination.  And on a personal level, what is expected of him from wife Mary Todd Lincoln.  She has tickets to see the play Our American Cousin and although Lincoln would have preferred to see Aladdin, he would never do anything to upset Mary’s unstable psyche.

This human drama unfolds like a Grisham can’t- put -down thriller even though we know the unfortunate and heart-wrenching ending.  There are also specific details such as what last-minute change in Ford Theatre’s decor caused Booth to injure himself that night to the extent that he required a doctor’s care (Dr. Mudd, origin of  “your name is Mudd” ).  Was there a greater conspiracy and how many other victims were targeted that night?  All fascinating. 

The book includes photos and a fact-filled appendix that includes the re-creation of Harper’s Weekly April 29, 1865 edition devoted entirely to the death and assassination of President Lincoln.

I recommend this book to all who love our country and wish it were a part of high-school curriculum that would make American history come alive for students.  It’s a great read of a national tragedy that left me wishing I had known President Lincoln and realizing what a great loss to us even today.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

The setting is St Petersburg, Russia. The main character, Marina, is a guide at the Hermitage Museum when war breaks out with Nazi Germany. She helps to pack and evacuate the million plus paintings and art objects in the collection and then, during the first winter of the siege, lives in the cellars beneath the emptied museum, alongside other members of the staff and their families.

This amazing story alternates chapters with Marina’s present life in Seattle where she is suffering with Alzheimer’s. As she attends her granddaughter’s wedding, she often slips into the past, recalling in vivid detail her life as this young lady in Russia.
As the New York Times Review stated so well, “Admirably humane in its determination to restore the dignity Alzheimer’s strips away.” 

So one would think...Seige of Leningrad, Nazi terrorism, a frigid Russian winter when people are dying of starvation AND then throw in Alzheimer’s...whoa...way too heavy. As one member of our book group said who recently lost her father, “I just can’t deal with reading this now—too depressing!”  Yes, one would think so. But as gruesome as some scenes were, it was also an inspiring novel that was so uplifting I want to read it again, not only for the message but also for the beauty of the language.

Author Debra Dean was inspired to write this story after watching the 1995 PBS series on the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, which tells of the l.1 art million objects packed and evacuated.  They left the empty frames on the walls as a token of their pledge that the art would return.  The series tells that one of the staff, a former guide now living in the cellar, began to give tours of the empty museum to visitors. It was said he described the paintings so well that the visitors could almost see them.

What is also quite amazing is that Dean wrote her debut novel with detailed accuracy without ever having been in Russia. She spent years reading histories of the war and siege. She studies wartime photographs and maps of the city and hours on the Hermitage’s Web site, learning the layout of the museum and viewing video footage of the rooms.  An appendix also gives us related reading both for the Russian history and Alzheimer’s.

You don’t have to be an art major to appreciate this book, but by the time you are finished you will want to see these glorious works of art and thanks to the website, you can.

In addition to all of the above, this is just a good story of love, family, and the endurance of the human spirit.  When Dean finally visited the museum in person (with her royalty advance from the publisher) she learned two Russian words which she spoke to her tour guides and which I say now to the author for giving us such a rich read:  Spasiba pri krasna.  Thank you. It’s beautiful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I love PBS!  This season there are two shows (both British) that I just can’t wait to see each week. The first is one the entire country seems to now be following DOWNTON ABBEY on Masterpiece Classics. (But I can’t resist gloating that I loved it back in Season One  before all the Enmy nominations and accolades.) And what’s not to love about a country estate in the early 1900 Yorkshire countryside with beautiful women in elegant gowns, handsome men in the drawing room displaying charming British manners.  But it is so much more than superficial appearances.

Each week the human drama unfolds:  sibling rivalry, infidelity, jealousy, passions, love, losses, illegitimate children, bribery. Yet despite all the passion displayed it is a show so tastefully done I could watch it with my grandchildren. In the 2-hr episode last Sunday night there were four engagements, one wedding and one funeral. If that isn’t enough drama for one night, I don’t know what is. Not to mention the household staff with their own sagas and misfortunes reminiscent of Upstairs, Downstairs which ran for eight seasons in the 70s.  The interaction between the aristocratic Crowley family and their staff reveals the love and concern they have for each member and touches me deeply.  I would love to have a cup of tea in the servants’ kitchen as they banter one another as well as the Crowley’s drawing room where rules of civility prevail with each word, action and even their glances.

If you are just joining the bandwagon by all means find season one on DVD (Season Two is also on DVD already) so you can experience the entire rich back story.  I won’t delve into plot spoilers here but trust me you won’t be disappointed with seasoned actors such as Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Violet (she has the best lines) Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern.

I’ve tried to analyze what is so appealing about this show and decided it is because each episode deals with universal truths and emotions--showing how even “good” people have character flaws and even scoundrels and villains have goodness in their hearts.  It covers EVERY range of emotions but done with such genteel taste, (even sordid issues which could be done tastelessly as so often are in modern TV), you come away each week feeling you have been part of something beautiful...and a fascinating time in English era and place where even with the backdrop of the  horrible Great War and the Spanish Influenza, among death and destruction, people were kind to one another, civilized and mannered... and oh so courteous.

It is only fitting that they are beginning to film Season Three on Valentine’s Day because this is truly a love story of the greatest magnitude.  Sadly, Season Two ends February 19.  I will miss the Crowleys and will try to find a way to keep them alive till next season.  Care to join me for tea in my drawing room? 


My second favorite show on PBS is WILLIAM AND MARY.  Billed as a romantic comedy it does make me laugh each week, but it also never fails to make me cry.   William, a widower with two teen girls, falls in love with Mary, a divorcee with two teen boys.  I know you’re thinking Brady Bunch, but on such a higher scale.

William is an undertaker and Mary is a midwife so between the two of them we see the cycle of life each week-- people coming into this world and leaving it. And of course these births and deaths are never easy...always extenuating circumstances.  Let’s face it...births, deaths and falling in three I would say in getting and keeping our attention. 

The actors are British (Martin Clunes and Julie Graham) and not anyone famous you would recognize and perhaps that is also their  appeal.  They are quite ordinary looking (I love the gap in Mary’s toothy smile and William’s ears that protrude) but oh so special in  other ways.  Throw into the family mix : Mary’s mother, dying of cancer, an ex-husband who causes havoc with the boys at the most inopportune times and the usual angst of teen-agers finding their way.  The only privacy William and Mary seem to find is where they have their heart-to-heart an old fashioned claw-legged bathtub.

Check it out. If you like real-life drama not glossed over and seeing a new-born seconds after birth and all the joy that evokes, and ZANY British supporting characters, I think you’ll like it!  (William also plays in a rock-band...come on now, how many undertakers do you know who do that? See what I mean?) 

And needless to say, I will volunteer to man the phones for PBS pledges next time around to support these wonderful programs and keep them coming.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Boy and a Dog

A Boy and a Dog

A Boy. A Dog. A Love Story.  What is it about children and animals that touches our hearts... and in this case caused an entire community to rally their support.

The boy is Parker, the dog is Candy, and the Mom is Wendy, my friend. When Parker was diagnosed at an early age with Asperger’s (a form of autism) I watched the family’s often painful struggle with the challenges this presented.  When Candy entered their lives as a therapy service dog for Parker, things improved beyond measure.  She calmed him down during outbursts, she attended school with him, and as Parker said  yesterday, “She became a sister to me.” They were inseparable. Parker and Candy did agility training and won many ribbons. Parker’s confidence grew through the years as quickly as Candy’s jumps through all the hoops that won many awards

Flash forward to this week:  Candy slipped out of a back door at the groomer’s where she had been going for 7 years.  When the family arrived to pick her up after her appointment, she was no where to be found.

Within hours a community rallied. Friends sent email blasts, posters were made and put up, kids rode their bikes in the greenbelts, friends walked their own dogs hoping to attract her, others drove their cars slowly through parking lots of near-by apartment complexes. The local NBC affiliate (Channel 12) came and interviewed the family and did a LEAD story that night on the news.  They continued it in the morning with tag lines under the TODAY show.

Candy was found the next day at the Mesa Animal Shelter where an anonymous lady and her daughter dropped her off after finding her wandering near the shopping center where she escaped, probably five minutes from the groomer’s. The story has a happy ending with reunion of boy and dog.

But this blog entry is more than a boy/dog story. To me it is a tribute to the power of friendship and community. As I stood at Wendy’s front porch that night when the news media arrived and looked around at the friends who gathered to support this family, I, in spite of the grim situation, felt so blessed to be a part of this community with the ancient Indian name, Ahwatukee--which has the goodness of small-town America in a city of 8 million.  Sometimes when I watch TV shows from the 50’s I yearn to live in a place like Mayberry where people looked out for each other and then I realized, I DO live in such a in the 21st Century.  

In this day when horrid crimes and rampage shootings seem to fill our news, it was a balm for all of us to rally round a story that showed the goodness of people.  And a love story....between a boy and a dog.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

11-22-63 A Novel by Stephen King

11-22-63 A Novel by Stephen King

WHAT IF?  That is the premise of the new Stephen King novel.  What if Oswald had not shot President Kennedy on that fateful Dallas day in November ’63?  How would the history of our country be different....would our country be better or worse?  Whether you agree with King’s interpretation or not (plot spoiler not discussed here) I found the entire premise and telling of the story fascinating and entertaining—to say the least, I devoured an 800+ page book in a short time. Actually I listened to 30 hours of it on in record time.

How could the assassination been prevented?  By sending someone back to the late 50’s and early 60’s through time travel to kill Oswald before he kills Kennedy.  That someone is a very likeable hero, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in present day Maine.

When he agrees to take the time travel plunge (yes, he has a choice) he returns to the Maine of 1958.  If you lived in the 50’s you’ll love all the references to things familiar, down to the wonderful details.  If you were born too late to remember them, I think you’ll still appreciate the time as both of my kids (born in the 60’s) did when they read the book.  Obviously King continues to appeal to all ages as the number of customer reviews on as of today (2-1-2011) number 1,136 and that’s probably only a fraction of the people who have read the book.

It’s hard to decide what to rave about first—the creativity of the story itself, the interesting characters Jake meets on his journey through time or that ever fascinating writing style of a master story teller.  I encourage you to read this and enjoy all of the above.

As for any time travel novel, there must be a “willing suspension of disbelief “on the reader’s part. This term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 as
the temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas.
Looking back, (pardon the pun) time travel has been a part of our favorite literature for many years. Take Alice in Wonderland through the rabbit hole, or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (Newberry award 1962) when Meg Murray’s father disappears through a “tesseract”.  Diana Gabaldon fans have adored the love story of Jamie and Claire in the Outlander series (8 volumes worth I believe).
Stephen King also credits one of his favorite (and mine) time travel novels, Time and Again by Jack Finney which takes place in New York City, as inspiring him.  A fascinating read I highly recommend.
Isn’t it wonderful how through good literature we can re-live an era or experience one we never lived in but wish we had.  I wish you Happy Reading...time and time again.