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Notes From a Reading Journal: As Bright as Heaven, by Susan Meissner

Notes from a Reading Journal: “As Bright as Heaven,” by Susan Meissner.

This is a story of the Bright family, but mostly involves mother Pauline, and her three daughters as they transition from rural Pennsylvania to Philadelphia to begin anew in their father’s uncle’s mortuary business. The setting for Part 1 is 1918 amongst the Spanish flu outbreak. Part 2 takes part in 1925. 

This book made me cry so many times, and that is unusual for me! The story involves Death, yes, but there is not just darkness in Death to be discussed. The book also covers hope, redemption, and building a life in the aftermath. 

This was my selection for January’s Book of the Month Club. I always enjoy exposure to new releases through BOTM club because I come to rely on them for true literary picks. Meissner is a writer’s writer, and her language is beautiful to read.   

Relationship/how you view the world questions to discuss with book club:

  1. How do you see the Grandmother’s choice in refusing Pauline and the girls to return home during the flu outbreak in Philadelphia?
  2. Would you have made the same choice as Evelyn did with Conrad and Sybil?
  3. If you were Evelyn, would you have made the disclosure about Alex to Ursula, or would you have taken that secret to your grave?
  4. If you were Maggie, would you have proceeded forward with Palmer, or waited for Jamie?
  5. Do you hold the same belief as Papa as far as one love of your life? Why/why not? 

Quotes I Collected in my Reading Journal:

·      Page 97: “Even now I sense the enemy is not who we think it is. My companion hovers kindly in the hellish corners in the funeral home. Like a valet, like a dance partner.”

·      Page 111: “I would leave off my sliver of a worry that she had begun to sense my companion’s shadow in the corners of our home. I don’t think Death has been watching her as it watches me, but who can say what that specter is truly up to?”

·      Page 301: “Might you marry again, Papa? Your Mama is the only woman I could ever love, the only woman I was ever meant to love.”

Notes From a Reading Journal: Uncommon Type, Some Stories, by Tom Hanks

Notes from a Reading Journal:Uncommon Type, Some Stories,” by Tom Hanks. Yes, THAT Tom Hanks! This was a November Book of the Month Club selection.

The man is obsessed with typewriters, and great fun can be had by identifying how the typewriter is mentioned in each short story. For this reader, “These are the Meditations of My Heart” was worth the price of admission. My other two top picks are: “The Past is Important to Us,” and “Stay with Us.” In “Past” the reader is introduced to a man who has everything, but still tries to cheat time. He had everything, but he still wasn’t satisfied. In “Stay” the reader is led on a nostalgic road trip that is reminiscent of Route 66. 

Set out to find America…

I dare you to read these stories, and in particular, “Meditations” and resist the urge to go buy a typewriter! I found myself pricing options last night after I finished reading this book! After reading “A Junket in the City of Light,” you just have to wonder if this is based on a true Hollywood story.  

Quotes I Collected in my Reading Journal:

  • Page 6: “I am one of those lazy-butt loners who can poke my way through a day and never feel a second has been wasted. In fact, as soon as I sold my mom’s house and parked the money in investments, I walked away from my fake businesses and settled into the Best Life Imaginable. Give me a few loads of laundry to do and a hockey game on the NHL channel and I’m good for an entire afternoon.”
  • Page 79: “The hotel had been recently renovated in Hipster-Millenial.”
  • Page 99: “And the Martians, as they called themselves, had all gotten older, mellower. Except for a couple of asshole lawyers.”
  • Page 180: “Think about what? Sue studied her new professional call sheet. She liked herself more because of what Bobby had typed.” — Ah yes, the magic of words! 
  • Page 234: “I’m not one who types between sips from a tumbler of booze and drags from a pack of smokes. I just want to set down what few truths I’ve come to know.”

Happy reading! Really, is there anything that Tom Hanks doesn’t do well? — Jamie Whitmer

Notes From a Reading Journal: The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman

Notes from a Reading Journal: “The Rules of Magic,” by Alice Hoffman.

What a heartbreakingly enchanting novel! I am so glad that Book of the Month Club made this my November selection. Now I have marked “Practical Magic” on my to be read list!

I loved the 1960s Manhattan and Massachusetts setting, and the relationships between siblings Vincent; Jet; and Franny and their respective loves. The fact that there is witchery afoot was sort of a “fun” element for me. In my opinion, the real star of the show is the heartbreak and joy of the stories of the lives of the characters.

This is a story of how each life ends for a time, but begins again. Will the Owens siblings beat their family’s curse?  

Two big questions that I noted while reading that I was happy were resolved were:  What was Vincent’s premonition? How was it right / how was it wrong? What did Isabella whisper to Franny?

I had to note the roles that journaling played in the story as well! Maria Owens, the  ancestor, had a journal that was kept in the rare book room in the library. Later, Franny would leave journals out for the teenage girls to pick up and take home (“Clearly convinced that words could save them – p. 314.”) I loved that!

Quotes I Collected in my Reading Journal:

·      Page 161: “What’s done cannot be undone.”

·      Page 254: “Nature could be shifted, but not controlled.”

·      Page 257: “Things ended, and then they began again.”

·      Page 57: “Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power. To this end, the book was the most powerful element of all.”

·      Page 346: “The truth was, they had managed to get what they wanted. It just wasn’t lasting long enough, not that it ever could.”

·      Page 331: “In truth it is easier to let your old life disappear in order to start anew.”

Love more. Not less. — Jamie Whitmer

Notes From a Reading Journal: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng 

Notes from Smartmarks by BestSelf Co, while traveling without my reading journal. These bookmarks with notes were the perfect travel solution for me! At home, I keep a reading journal for my notes, but I was able to tear my notes out when I got home and filed them within my reading journal. The Smartmarks were very convenient! 

This selection was an extra purchase I made through Book of the Month Club after hearing so much buzz about the book. I found “Little Fires Everywhere” to be an absorbing book, guaranteed to make you think and spark debate among book club members everywhere. 

At first, I thought the book was going to be focused more on Izzy and her alleged “craziness,” as her siblings refer to her issues, but it was more of a character study of Izzy’s entire family (the Richardsons) and their new tenants, artist mother Mia and her daughter, Pearl. By the way, Izzy is not “crazy,” she just doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter mold her family wishes to mold her into.

While there were plenty of witty and even positive exchanges in the story, make no mistake about it, this is no fairy tale happy ending of a story. Ideas to spark discussion come from such themes as: teenage pregnancy; adoption; what lies beneath the “perfect” neighborhood; what makes someone a mother; and what is heartbreak. What are the things that we carry with us? 

What are the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of a better life? Were they worth it?

The story takes place in Shaker Heights, a planned community that has lots of rules, and is the embodiment of a neighborhood that is really only concerned with the surface being perfect, and damn what lies beneath! 

In my opinion, the most evil character is do-gooder suburban mother Mrs. Richardson. She ruins lives by her interference. She never does a good deed without calculating it for a return favor later, and if she does something she deems “good” for another person, she expects the recipient to kowtow to her. And oh, how judgmental she is. Mrs. Richardson actually may take the nomination for most-hated literary character this year. 

Mia, the artistic mother, is highly gifted, but will not “sell out” when it comes to her art. Thus, she provides a poverty-stricken, nomadic lifestyle for her daughter, Pearl. Yet, she somehow always manages to supplement her artist’s income with menial jobs, and while they are not rich in material goods, they don’t seem to go without the necessities. This is a huge debate for readers to discuss. What is the parental obligation to provide for a child? If you have the ability to generate a lot of income, what is your obligation to make money if you are able? To what extent does security and stability come in to play over adventure and art when raising a child on your own? We know that Mia had the talent and the connections in Manhattan to make a great deal of money as an artist, but she did not want to sell out. (Arguably, she may have been worried about becoming too high-profile because then she may have caught the attention of the Ryans, which if you have read the book, you know she had to stay hidden).   

Another big issue for debate is what readers think of Bebe giving up May Ling and then the custody battle between her and the adoptive parents, Linda and Mark McCullough. Do you think the judge’s ruling was fair? What do you think about Bebe’s actions in the end of the book? Are there circumstances so severe that people no longer deserve a second chance?

The way Ng interweaves the story of Mia and Bebe is masterful. I was engaged, and wanted to keep reading to find out Mia’s secrets. 

Other relationships and questions to discuss: the relationship between Mia and her parents; what you think of the relationship between Mia and the Ryans; does Lexie regret her big decision; and who does Pearl’s heart break for – the loss of the relationship with Trip or with Moody? What do you think happens to Izzy in the end? 

Quotes I Collected for my Reading Journal:

·      Page 245: “You’ll always be sad about this, Mia said softly. But it doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. It’s just something that you have to carry.” 

·      Page 250: “The question is whether things are still the same. Whether she should get another chance… Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.” 

·      Page 295: “Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way… Like a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago, when we were in Nebraska. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black, and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow… People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”

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