Book Review: The Handcrafted Letter

handcrafted letter2the handcrafted letter


Author September Vaudrey speaks to the hearts of those who grieve November 2

colors of goodbye
“This book is beautifully written. I have to admit, having a 19-year-old artist daughter myself, I spent the majority of time reading this book with tears streaming down my face. I even sobbed through a couple sections. That said, I’ve been through tremendous loss myself, so it was a cathartic read. Though I’ve never lost a child, reading Vaudrey’s story helped me understand my daughter’s terrible loss. We all loved our Jacob, but for a mother to lose her child is heart-rending. Still, Vaudrey manages to give hope and light to a topic that needs to be talked about. Her daughter Katie was a beautiful soul, and her mother does her and the topic of the loss of a child justice.”- from my June 13, 2016 Goodreads review

The author, September Vaudrey, will be speaking Friday, November 2, on “Boulders Leave Craters,” as part of the Heal Your Grief retreat at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Those who wish to hear her speak do not need to sign up for the entire retreat weekend, but can pick and choose from a roster of speakers and workshops. Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite Heal Your Grief.

Book Review: A Light So Lovely

“What would it look like to have friendships with those who are not like us, wherein we learn to argue well and lovingly- and yet at the end of the day we can still be friends?”

So asks author Sarah Arthur in A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle in regards to the friendship L’Engle shared with Luci Shaw.

light so lovely

Longtime followers of our blog will recall that I reviewed Madeleine and Luci’s book Friends for the Journey  in 2014. I even listed it as a complementary book example in the proposal I wrote for Mary & Me,

“And you, on your part, can make radical theological statements with which I may disagree, but again, because of our bond of love we accept each other for who we are, flawed and failing, but always truth-seeking,” Luci wrote to Madeleine in their co-authored book.

“Do you feel it, the quiver of longing? I’m guessing I’m not the only one who knows firsthand just how rare, how valuable, such a grace-filled, truth-seeking kind of friend is. Not an idol, not a mentor or spiritual director: a friend.” Sarah Arthur marvels.

Mary Humston and I are blessed to share that unique kind of friendship. Before we co-wrote Mary & Me, I would have said we are more alike than we are different, but our co-writing venture seems to have heightened the differences between us, opening the door to conversations we may have avoided before through thousands of letters. We’ve discussed political issues more in the ensuing three years than we had in the previous thirty. A recent exchange regarding educational reform ended with a respectful agreement to disagree.

“This is a lost art in our culture, particularly as we create ever narrower, taller, insular silos on social media, cut off from opposing viewpoints. With a mere click of a button we can ‘unfriend’ and ‘unfollow’ those with whom we disagree…” Sarah Arthur continues. Her depth of research into Madeleine L’Engle’s life reveals a woman who, much like my dear friend Mary, always attempted to practice charity and empathy towards others. About an acquaintance who worshipped alongside her every day but hated all people of an Asian descent, Madeleine wrote “Surely within me there is an equal blindness, something that I do not recognize in myself, that I justify without even realizing it. All right, brother. Let us be forgiven together, then.”

“All right, brother, we say to the angry relative at Thanksgiving. All right, sister, we say to the person on social media whose politics sound like a foreign language. All right, we say to our idols when they disappoint us. Let us be forgiven together, then. We will only make a way forward when we recognize that we too are flawed and wounded sojourners, that where we are now on the journey is not the end game,” Sarah Arthur extrapolates.

Up until the reading of this beautifully-written biography, I’ve managed to pointedly ignore any hint of criticism of my idol, Madeleine L’Engle, preferring instead to keep the Christian mother and author atop the carefully crafted pedestal I’d established for her in my mind. Somehow, Arthur has managed to delve into that criticism in a way that does not cause disappointment, but instead reveals the complexity of a woman who, despite her failings, still managed to convey a strength and faith we should all strive for.

“Madeleine showed up to serve the work of writing; she disciplined herself to sit down and be present. And she showed up as a struggling believer; she disciplined herself to continue praying, continue reading the Bible, continue practicing hospitality, continue worshiping in community. She perhaps never wrested every chapter of her life into a tidy resolution in which ‘all shall be well,’ but she put her trust in the One whose love does not fail.”

In sharing Madeleine’s own words from the 1996 Festival of Faith and Writing, Sarah Arthur reveals my own greatest desire;

“We’re  supposed to be such witnesses of Christ’s love that other people will want to know what makes us glow.”

Novelist Leif Enger called Madeleine “an apologist for joy,” Sarah Arthur informs the reader. A Light So Lovely aptly conveys that aspect of her.




Book Review: Three Things About Elsie

Three Things About Elsie
By Joanna Cannon
Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston
I added Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon to my reserve list at the Iowa City Public Library, because recent reviews intrigued me. When this novel became available, I felt drawn to read it right away, even though I have stacks of books here at home begging to be read. Once drawn in, let me say, it is a hard one to set down. I would categorize reading this book as more of an “experience.” And, for that reason, I will share only the gist of the plot.

three things about Elsie

As those of you who follow us know, Mary PK and I generally post reviews about books that deal with friendships, letter writing, or related aspects. Three Things About Elsie centers on friendship with the setting being the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. Florence Claybourne deals with dementia, but is aided by her best friend and confidante Elsie. Elsie helps Florence when she’s confused, uncertain, and needing a friend’s guidance.

Florence says: “There are three things you should know about Elsie, and the first thing is that she’s my best friend. People chop and change best friends, first one and then another depending what kind of mood they happen to find themselves in and who they’re talking to, but mine has always been Elsie and it always will be. That’s what a best friend is all about, isn’t it? Someone who stands by you, no matter what.” (pg. 9)

Their friendship alone is reason enough to read this novel, but there is so much more substance to the storyline and characters Cannon has created. Cannon also constructed believable interactions between residents, staff, and administrators at Cherry Tree.
Plus, it is also a mystery. It leads the reader on a journey detailing the challenges as Florence, Elsie and new friend Jack try to piece together the reasons for the strange events that occur to them and other Cherry Tree residents and staff, as well as trying to understand Elsie and Florence’s past.

The story becomes even more curious when a new resident looks exactly like a man who died sixty years ago.

I’m not trying to be cute, dramatic, or smaltzy when I say that I will treasure my first reading of Three Things About Elsie. A reader only gets that opportunity with a book once. Just once. However, I will be reading this book again, because it is that good. This is a rarity for me. “One and done” is my usual mode.
I guarantee readers will be hearing much more about this book in the future. I hope you’ll soon experience Three Things About Elsie.

Book Review: Notes From a Public Typewriter

Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston

“Where’s the power button?”
“I’m scared I’ll spend half my life deciding what to do with it and the other half regretting that choice.”
“I just want to push your buttons.”
“What is the password?”
“Avoid identity theft. Use a typewriter. They are much harder to hack.”
“I will find someone someday.”
“Cancer sucks.”
Intrigued by the statements above? If so, you’re sure to love Notes from a Public Typewriter by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti. This cute, little fire-engine red book has dozens of comments that were typed on an old manual typewriter resting atop a simple table, with a straight-back chair and floor lamp beside it.

notes from public typewriter
The typewriter resides on the lower level inside Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, operated by Michael and Hilary Gustafson. This independent bookstore opened in the spring of 2013 in response to a long held dream the co-owners shared.
The public typewriter experiment was just that….an experiment. Would customers take time to type out notes? If so, what words would they leave? Poetry? Random thoughts? Jokes? Gustafson even wondered if some people would even know how to use this now-antiquated machine.

The experiment took off. Typed pages of notes accumulated to the point that Gustafson was encouraged to write a book to display some of his and coauthor Uberti’s favorite comments.

Notes from a Public Typewriter is that book. It is filled with funny, serious, clever, heartbreaking, and personal notes. Colored photographs (with a small number of black and whites) add to the book, as do the short vignettes Gustafson pens.

I loved this book. I thought I would read it in short snips of time. And, that’s how it started out since I was in the middle of reading another book when I first thumbed through it. Soon, I found myself so engaged, I sat down in my favorite chair and read the rest of the book in one sitting. Regardless of how you choose to read Notes from a Public Typewriter, I hope you’ll find it as enjoyable as I did.

Here’s one final typed note that I loved:” Life, like this typewriter, has no backspace. Type strongly and don’t look back.”

Book Review: Note to Self

Note to Self: Inspiring Words from Inspiring People
Collected and Introduced by Gayle King
Review by Mary Jedlicka Humston

Whenever I find a book that relates to letter writing or friendship, I’m instantly intrigued to learn what others feel about these two topics that are near and dear to my heart. There is always something I can learn which is why I recently read Note to Self: Inspiring Words from Inspiring People.

note to selfThis book is a collection of letters written by 26 people with the main question being: If you could write your younger self a letter, what words would you want to impart?
Truly, all 26 letters were inspirational, but if I had to select the two that touched me the most, I’d pick the letters by Dr. Ruth and Tyler Perry.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer became well-known for her expertise in imparting out relationship and sex advice. She writes her ten-year-old self after the devastation of losing her family at the hands of the Nazis.

She says to that orphan girl: “…making a new family will be more dear to you than you could possibly imagine, because they’ll be living proof that Hilter failed at wiping out your family” (pg. 43). How powerful is that?

I’d previously read how Tyler Perry’s young life was filled with abuse, challenges, and belittling from many others. His mother’s enduring love and support plus a strong faith guided Perry to not only survive but also to thrive, enough so that many Americans will know him as a writer, producer, director and actor.

While there are many memorable lines that are quote-worthy, one grabbed me.
When Taya Kyle’s husband Chris Kyle, a US Navy Seal returned home from duty who was killed on American soil in 2013, I was reminded about the importance of friends when she writes: “Go to them. Hold their hands. In your moments of despair, a friend’s hand on yours will get you through the worst of it.” (pg. 95).

This book can easily be read in one sitting. However, letters are only a few pages long, so readers can savor them slowly if they desire. Whatever way you choose to read Note to Self, you’re sure to have been inspired.

Book Review of children’s book on friendship

Little Blue Truck
Written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston

If you hear the words “blue truck” and “friendship,” I doubt your next words would be “excellent children’s book.” But, in this case, that would be an accurate progression, especially if you’re looking for a children’s book that highlights the importance of friendship.

little blue truck
Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle shows how friendship is important and can make a difference. This is a sweet story with beautiful, detailed illustrations and clever rhyme.
The little blue truck says “hello” to many of his animal friends as he wends his way down the dirt road. Without giving away the story line, I’ll just say that a huge yellow dump truck enters the scene. In the end, that big truck says, ‘Now I see a lot depends on a helping hand from a few good friends.”
All six of my grandchildren (aged 1 to 8) have enjoyed Schertle’s book. After reading through it a time or two, I’d suggest you and your young ones take the time to peruse the illustrations. The detail is exquisite and can provide conversation and additional learning.
If you love this book like I do, go to your local bookstore or public library. The Little Blue Truck has even more adventures which is a wonderful delight for readers of all ages.

Book Review: Beauty in the Broken Places

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

If you’re looking for an honest portrayal of how one woman meets tragedy with strength, faith, and courage, I highly recommend Allison Pataki’s Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith and Resilience. Pataki is five months pregnant when her thirty-year-old husband Dave (a healthy surgical resident) suffers a rare form of stroke while on a vacation flight.

beauty in broken
At this point, his life is in serious jeopardy. If he survives, will he have a full recovery? So much is uncertain that Pataki begins to write letters to Dave. They become written memories she hopes to share with him, reminders of all that has happened while he fights for his life and eventually as he works to reclaim it through a challenging and rigorous recovery.

Pataki is the author of several books, including the bestselling novels Sisi, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Accidental Empress, so writing is a large part of her life. Composing these letters became essential in how she managed as a caretaker for her husband and eventually their newborn daughter.
As she states:
“I would write to understand. I would write to bring together the ragged and disparate threads, to try to weave something comprehensible from the frayed strands of pain and love, loss and hope, fear and faith, beauty and brokenness. I would write to try to find some order, some narrative, some meaning from the daily torment of having lost so much. And so that is what I did. DearDave.doc became the place where I turned, the pages piling up as the days passed, one by one.”
Pataki includes some of these letters for Dave while she honestly portrays the challenges of dealing with her husband’s stroke. Her book will keep you so involved it will be difficult to set down. That’s how it was for me.

Hope Springs Eternal…Still Writing

Both the Marys will be presenting at the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s workshop in June; I’ll speak on Leaving a Legacy of Creativity and will also conduct a workshop on Writing Non-fiction Book Proposals. Mary Jedlicka Humston’s breakout session is titled “When Life’s Challenges Challenge Your Writing.”

I believe part of the reason I have been persistently and consistently writing for the last thirty years is due to the example of mentors who never stop writing, no matter what is going on in their life. That, and I’m pretty sure I would go stark raving mad if I did not take the time for writing.

One of those mentors is C. Hope Clark. I’ve considered C. Hope Clark a mentor ever since I read The Shy Writer. (since updated as The Shy Writer Reborn) As a fellow introvert, I wasn’t sure how I would face book-signings or public speaking, but thanks to her book and a great deal of hands-on experience, I’m now comfortable with both. Not only have I discovered a few markets for my writing from her FundsforWriters newsletter, Hope’s column and the short articles in it taught me a lot about the writing world. You can find some of them reprinted in the Best of FundsforWriters Vol. I. The fact that she actually took the time to reply to my e-mail with good advice when I asked about promotion and marketing shortly before my Coupon Crazy was released in 2013 facilitated that mentorship. Now, I follow her closely on Facebook, and respect her opinion on issues related to writing and publishing.  This photo popped up on Hope’s Facebook page recently, followed by her comment Still writing. 

Hopes leg

When friends and well-wishers urged her to take it easy, to watch videos, and rest up, Hope added “Husband is down with a bad disc, and I’m guardian for both Alzheimer’s parents. Though in a nursing home, I have to get them to doctors and such, manage their finances, etc. Am trying to close a deal on their house next week. Several book appearances. The garden is planted and now needs weeding and the chickens have to be tended daily. So….I’m sort of worn out. But there really isn’t an alternative to just keep on doing.”

Talk about challenges! But Hope continues to write. In fact, she is working on a sequel to her newly released Newberry Sin, Book 4 in the Carolina Slade mystery series, which I recently interviewed her about.

Tell us about your fiction books and your newest release.
The fourth in the Carolina Slade Mysteries, “Newberry Sin” is set in an idyllic small Southern town where blackmail and sex are hush-hush until they become murder. Slade holds an investigative position with Agriculture similar to what I had. She works alongside Senior Special Agent Wayne Largo, a badge and gun-totin’ real agent with a specialty in agriculture. She loves her rural South Carolina almost as much as her family, and both are displayed front and center in both books. She might not understand how a real agent would investigate, but she usually gets her guy, with Wayne often grumbling about her methods along the way. Her family’s been sucked into her cases a time or two, raising the tension, and if they aren’t involved, they have catastrophes of their own. She’s spunky with dialogue that tends to kick up dust along the way. I have to say I love this woman. And she has a pretty strong fan club.

The Edisto Island Mysteries are entertaining in their own way. Set on a real island in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Callie Jean Morgan, born and raised in the Carolinas, leaves a dysfunctional family and moves north, marrying a Bostonian, both working in law enforcement. He dies as a result of one of her caseiddled with guilt and faced with a teenage son to raise, she returns to South Carolina. Her mayor dad gives her the deed to the family vacation home on Edisto Beach, and from there she builds her life back.
The characters in this book are to die for. They are colorful, humorous, and unique, much like you’d find amongst natives of a beach community. Tourism comes into play, and the series is as much about Callie’s growth as an individual as the crimes solved.

There are four Edisto mysteries with a fifth under contract. And by the way, this fifth will also find Slade from the first series, visiting Edisto and crossing Callie’s path. A fun experience for fans of both books.

To learn more about C. Hope Clark, or her books, click HERE.

Follow her on Facebook HERE.

Book Review: How To Stop Time

Book Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston

The books Mary and I typically review contain themes dealing with friendship or letter writing. The novel How to Stop Time by Matt Haig doesn’t have either. Instead, readers become privy to the sad effects of characters living without the steady presence of loved ones and friends.

how to stop time
Haig’s time-travel sci-fi novel masterfully creates a diagnosis of anageria for his main character Tom Hazard. Anageria is a rare, unique condition where growing older happens so slowly that one’s appearance remains young despite their age.
That’s the opposite of progeria which is a real genetic disease affecting 1 out of 4 million births according to a study from the Netherlands listed on Wikipedia. With progeria, infants age prematurely, forcing children and teens into elderly men and women despite being decades younger.
To add credence to the anageria reality in this novel, Haig explains that this condition that Tom and a small number of others possess never became public knowledge. Let me explain one reason why. Tom was born in 1581 in France and bounces around in time and country. In his first “round” he is raised by a wonderful mother. He later marries and has a child, but fears for their lives when witchcraft suspicions are bandied about because Tom’s youthful appearance never changes.

When tragedy strikes, Tom shields himself from the pain of relationships by trying to avoid them altogether. This creates conflicts in present-day England where Tom chooses to teach history, of all subjects, at the high school level!

“Yes, there had been a void inside me, but voids were underrated. Voids were empty of love but also pain. Emptiness was not without its advantages. You could move around in emptiness.” (Page. 233-234).

This book intrigued me to the end with its many plot twists. I believe it will do the same for others who want to see what happens when a character lives within a void of friendships and loved ones.

I highly recommend it even if you’re not a sci-fi lover. Give a try.

Spoiler alert: There is a happy ending!