Begin Again

Beams of Heaven in the Meadow at Cornwall Manor

At some point, I decided I did not need a professional and a personal blog since I really wasn’t blogging all that much anyway. I went full time to In Another Place. I kept the Simply Karen domain and, like that pile of blank books I seem to accumulate, figured I would have a use it for at some point. So, here we go. I’m going to post my daily Wordle games!

Stop laughing…I’m joking, of course. I am going to post my Photos of the Day here. I’m optimistically following along with Chantelle Ellem’s, aka Fat Mum Slim, daily themes. I am going to upload them to Flickr, then post here with whatever stories they have to tell.

I make no promises to myself or others. I’m now posting to two blogs as well as trying to be a more active member of LibraryThing. But, I also have a very mellow schedule in the next month or two so I think, if I add it to the reminder list, I may just be successful. Of course, as always, I am a practitioner of “dailyish.“*

Welcome! I’ll get caught up on the photos tomorrow. For now, the photo at the top is my favorite from 2022. I was walking in the Meadow, part of my parents’ retirement community in Cornwall, Pennsylvania.

*Truth in advertising: This link will take you to my other blog.


January 1, 2023

Not sure when or how I chanced upon Chantelle Elem, aka Fat Mum Slim, on Facebook; she was an early blogger and community builder. She also shared her struggles with body image and weight loss. Probably her most popular shared activity is her Photo a Day that has, according to her website, been going on since 2012. I like the idea of a theme to help create a photo. So far, I have ended up with two photos each day, an official and unofficial. Hello was the theme for January 1.

I am not a selfie fan so I started with my shadow and Major on our first walk of the year. We do the circuit of the farm, a little more than a half mile, with lots of smelling, digging, and bird watching. I am also usually listening to a book or a podcast. I let him mostly choose the path and at some point will post the maps of the walks as they can be quite funny, like those old Family Circus cartoons of the path the children took across the back yard when called to dinner.

Then, I went ahead and took the selfie. Here it is: me at 60-1/2 years old in all my unfiltered, no-makeup glory. I will echo Chantelle’s blog post linked above: I like me. Since these posts are mainly about pictures, I’ll direct you to my other blog, In Another Place, if you are interested in more details about the life of a happy crone. Long story short: I got a new hip and a new lease on life in 2019, using the new-found energy to start a yoga practice and, working with my coach and his nutritionist-wife, lost 80 pounds in 2022. It didn’t fix the wrinkles or gray hair but I feel better than I have felt for a very long time. Hello, world!

P.S. I just noticed there are 11 email subscribers. Thanks…and, I hope I didn’t shock you too much when a new post showed up yesterday.

Being Grateful Instead of Blessed

I deleted the Facebook app from my phone several days ago and realized that, without it, I don’t check Facebook as that was the only device on which I accessed the social media network.

I am disengaging for a variety of reasons. It had become a huge time suck, something that became glaringly obvious as I used the screen time app on my phone. I rarely shared much and it seemed my timeline had somewhat stalled as well. Honestly, even my most interesting friends lead pretty dull day to day lives. I love them all but just didn’t need to have daily updates about their dog training and dinner preparations.

And, then there is the sometimes ugly divisiveness. I have friends across the political spectrum. One very liberal friend called Jesus a moron. Really? And another, a religious conservative,  commented during Obama’s last campaign that he would prefer a Mormon over a Muslim sympathizer.  Again, really? If these two represent the widely separated world view of a majority of people, we are in real trouble.

But, beyond that, it was the simplest of posts that pushed me away: I found myself constantly bothered by the pictures of families gathered for holidays and beach vacations. Wonderful snapshots of families living the good life. But, to a one, they almost all commented that they were blessed. Blessed. That word stopped me every time: it carries the connotation of being consecrated, favored by the divine. It had really begun to bother me and was a contributor to my departure. I know it seems silly on the surface, but I wondered how or even if these people considered the implications of their words: if you are blessed, does that mean others, who may be suffering problems, are not? Even if they are as devout as you? Has the divine turned away from them, no longer favoring them? Seems like iffy theology to me.

Today, I think I found an at least something of an answer to my conundrum in Hila Ratzabi’s blog post The Trouble with Gratitude: these people should not consider themselves blessed. Instead, they have been lucky in this dice roll called life. Their hash tag should be #grateful not #blessed. After an encounter with a stranger struggling down the street, Ratzabi muses on the idea of “bad” gratitude, that is, gratitude that you are better off than the next person rather than just being grateful for this moment in this life.

I will carry her conclusion with me:

So, thank you, universe, for a random encounter that allowed me to step outside my own story into that of another. Thank you for the chance to contemplate the miracle of the body and how quickly it changes. Here I am. And there is that man. Moving through this glorious earth in our very different, beautiful bodies. Both changing, both knowing it will all come to an end. What luck that we are here, even just for a moment. Breathing, walking, passing each other by.

Avi Brings War Close With His New Novel

buttonwarcoverNOTE: I received an early reader’s copy of this book via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Twelve-year-old Patryk lives with his family and friends in a small Polish village when The Button War, a new novel by Avi, opens in August 1914. Russian soldiers occupy their village but mostly leave the villagers alone as they go about their lives. Suddenly, planes appear overhead and a bomb destroys the school, killing a child and the school master. Germans are coming and their peaceful life is disrupted in harsh ways described in stark prose through the eyes of Patryk. Even as their world falls apart, the group of boys, led by the bully Jurek, start their own war: a “button war” that challenges the boys to steal buttons from the various soldiers. The boy with the best button will be king. It seems innocent at first but like the real war around them, it escalates and Patryk finds himself unable to control events as Jurek becomes increasingly brutish.

Avi does not spare the reader from the callousness of violence and death at the beginning of World War I. The lives of the Polish villagers mean nothing to either side of the conflict. Patryk’s father warns him that they are stuck between the two sides and life has become very dangerous. Avi masterfully weaves the two wars together in sometimes brutal ways. The prose moves quickly. The tension mounts from the moment that first bomb falls with little time for the reader to breathe; it is as though the reading experience mirrors the experience of the characters whose world is shattered. They face life and death decisions that must be made within moments.

I read it through in one sitting, unable to pull myself from the story. While it is appropriate for young adult readers, I would suggest that, at least for the pre-teens, parents read along and talk about some of the more violent images. The relationship between Patryk and Jurek also provide valuable opportunities for discussions about how we are influenced in positive and negative ways by other people and what we can do to avoid being bullied into making decisions.

A Tribute to Libraries and Librarians Through the Story of a Fire

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean, is, superficially, the fascinating story of the 1986 fire that essentially destroyed Central Library in Los Angeles. Orlean discusses the fire itself and the damage it caused to collections, first from smoke and flame, and then from water hoses. Paid staff and volunteers made heroic efforts to save as many books, maps and other materials as they could both from the immediate fire and then later, as the wet books, which had been frozen, were brought back to life.

Orlean also pursues the mystery of who started the fire. A suspect was arrested but there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict Harry Peake, a sometime actor whose story of that April day changed often and in startling ways but Peake admitted to setting the fire in at least one or two versions.

But, the heart of the book is the story of the libraries in general and the Los Angeles County Public Library, in particular. She traces the history of the Central Library up to the fire, through to the present day and then imagines a bit of the future. Overdrive might change the nature of libraries, making it easier to access digital resources, but the story of the library throughout its history was and is one of service that goes beyond caretaking and dispensing materials. Orlean visits various departments including those who answer the phone and answer questions that, as one of them points out, could often be easily answered using Google. Not everyone goes online and some people just want to talk with a human being.

The Los Angeles library system, along with many urban libraries, is on the front line of the homeless crisis. Beyond being a shelter during the day, the library connects homeless people to information and resources in both informal and formal ways as Orleans describes a program in which the librarians invited service providers to an organized fair where homeless patrons could be directed to the services they needed. Librarians carry a strong sense of social justice, deeply embedded concern for the “whole” person.

Orlean begins each chapter with four book titles related to the coming text, including their Dewey Decimal number. And, throughout, her own love of books and libraries shine through. We sense a fellow traveler who wrote this book out of love and gratitude. The most touching parts of the book, I think, are the interviews with those who were at the library the day of the fire, whether librarians, patrons or firemen, and those who lived through the years of restoration of both the building and the books.

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Crossing Cultures in Lancaster County

For a Lancaster County native like me, Amish Guys Don’t Call was a nostalgic look at my home town with lots of local references to restaurants, clubs and other locations. The author attended Lancaster Country Day School and clearly loves her native soil as well.

Her story of an “English”* girl who falls for a former Amish boy is tender and kind with a solid dose of mean girls mixed in. Samantha has arrived in Lancaster County after being caught shoplifting in Philadelphia, a compulsion she continues to fight throughout the book. Her mother seems to care little for her daughter and spends most of her time in the city, and her father is out of the picture. Swept up into the cool girls’ group, Samantha struggles to find her place as she starts dating an unusual young man and make sense of her “friends.”

My biggest criticism of the book was that it never occurred to Samantha that her boyfriend was Amish. Dodds addresses this in the notes at the end, recognizing that most readers would have guessed (after all, as she points out, the title is a dead give away). She suggests that Samantha had not lived in Lancaster County long enough to make the connection and that the cultures are divided in ways that would make cross connections uncommon.

This book would be an excellent read for young adults, helping them understand a different culture and better navigate their own.

*Amish refer to non-Amish as English.

Educated: Tara Westover Finds Her Place in the World

Tara Westover‘s memoir of growing up in a survivalist, anti-government family in Idaho is a riveting read. In Educated, she gives us a glimpse of life in an isolated world where she never learned about the Holocaust and only heard one version of the Ruby Ridge siege, the one where the government kills innocent citizens because of their beliefs and nontraditional life styles.

Westover writes about being part of a fundamentalist family: possessing a questionable birth date with a certificate issued nine years after she was born; working long and dangerous hours in her father’s scrap yard where horrific injuries were treated with herbs and tinctures created by her mother, who herself suffered from brain damage and migraines after a car accident; and, in the most difficult passages of the book, being physically and mentally abused by an older brother who claimed he was keeping her from becoming a whore.

It is these incidents plus her parents’ unwillingness to admit that they are even happening that lead Westover to finally escape for college. Her brother Tyler who also left encourages her and she miraculously passes the ACT and receives the scholarship she needs. Later, a mentor supports her work at Cambridge, and she eventually earns a PhD in history.

Westover struggles with her identity throughout the book: early family lessons are hard to shake as they live in our deepest consciousness. For Westover, these lessons focused on the work of the devil even amongst religious people. Her father judged everyone in their congregation: Mormons who believed but did not practice those beliefs. He spent money on weapons and fuel that were hidden on their property, ready for the end of days that he was sure was coming. And yet, he did not keep her from leaving and following her own dreams. Even as she came to explore the wider world that challenged her father’s narrow-minded lessons at every turn, Westover also saw that world through his eyes at some points.

Eventually, it is the denial of her brother’s abuse and her parents’ attempts to paint her as delusional that led to Westover’s estrangement from her family. She keeps in touch with a few of her brothers–two of them also went on to earn PhDs. An <a href=””>article from a South Logan, Utah, newspaper</a> leads with the headline that the Westover family suggests the book should be read with a “grain of salt.” The family lawyer who was interviewed for the article, comments that, considering three of seven children earned advanced degrees, that the home schooling seems to have worked just fine.

A fascinating memoir made even more “fun” because the Westovers are all over the internet and Facebook. I was able to easily locate at least two of Tara’s brothers, including the one who abused her. They continue the mountain life that Tara both loved and hated and, if you hadn’t read the book, they would seem like every other family with conservative politics.

A Loving Tribute to the Bible

I received a complimentary review copy of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again from the publisher through a Twitter post. I am working on reading the Bible this year, and the book seemed a good fit.

Author Rachel Held Evans frames the book with her own story of growing up with the Bible as a magic book with wonderful stories. As she got older, the Bible became more of a weapon, not to be questioned. But, eventually, she saw beneath the magic to the gritty realism: Abraham willingly tying his son to the pyre, Joshua’s army slaughtering men, women and children when the walls of Jericho fall, and God sending flood waters to destroy humanity. Yet, even as she began to turn away from the Bible, its stories continued to surround her. It is a foundational book for Western culture, influencing Shakespeare and Civil Rights activists alike.

Each chapter of the book opens with a story that reflects the theme in the coming chapter. The chapters focus on various types of stories found in the Bible including origin, deliverance, and resistance stories as well as others. She embraces the complexities and contradictions in the Bible, pointing out that it can be used to support almost any point of view:

This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does this say? but what am I looking for? I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)

Evans does not check her criticism of the United States and its treatment of the poor and oppressed. She extends that criticism to the white American church, which she believes has “chosen the promise of power over prophetic voice.” She describes modern day prophets who are pushing the church to live a more Christ like existence, resisting the organizational structure that has been built around the simple message of love and peace. She believes modern day resistance is needed in order to reclaim the magic of the Bible.

Yet, she also celebrates the God the Bible reveals in the details of the Parables: “I love these details because they reveal to me a God who is immersed in creation, deeply embedded within the lives of God’s beloved. Ours is a God who know how to mend clothes and bake bread, a God familiar with the planting and harvesting season, the traditions of bridesmaids, and the tickle of wool on the back of the neck.”

I am looking forward to heading back to the Bible with Evans’ prose in my mind: looking for my own magic in this book that has been part of my life.

Lives Transformed: Paris By the Book

Losing, searching, finding and, ultimately, transforming: these themes twine together in Paris By the Book as Leah and her daughters, Ellie and Daphne, move from Milwaukee to Paris to look for their missing husband and father, Robert. At the beginning, they share a belief that they are following clues he has left for them. But as they settle into life without him in Paris as bookshop owners, Leah discovers that the girls are still actively looking for him even as she begins to learn to live without him as the first anniversary of his disappearance looms.

The novel takes advantage of coincidence that seems to border on magical, a concern addressed in the early page of the book. Robert, an author, uses coincidence in his writing while Leah suggests “it was barely plausible in his novels for kids and wholly out of place in his adult work.” The author, Liam Callanan, is being coy, as at that moment, on their last day in Paris, coincidence drives the story, perhaps part of the magic of Paris?

Because Paris is more than simply a setting for the story; it plays an essential role as it was home to Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of Madeline, and Albert Lamorisse, creator of The Red Balloon. Both Ellie and Daphne absorbed the love of these works from Leah and Robert and their Paris experiences are shaped by that love and technical knowledge. And, it is the setting of Robert’s next book, although Leah does not know that until after she has begun her new life.

Beyond the fantasy and “vertigo” of Paris, as Leah calls it, this is the story of a family, one that, as Leah is reminded at one point, had memories and dreams. Robert takes to the role of father in creative and supportive ways…when he is home. But his more frequent absences for “writeaways” have begun to fray the edges of the marriage and even the fabric of the family itself.

And at its core, this is Leah’s story. She is an honest narrator, willing to share her contradictions and failures, one who, as her therapist points out, uses humor to deal with life. Her fierce love for and pride in her daughters as they deal with their loss and their new found lives is a recurring theme, and no matter what happens with Robert, we know the three of them will be okay. They have allowed tragedy to transform them rather than defeat them.

Gods of Howl Mountain: Raw Realism in 1950s Appalachia

I received an advance reader’s copy of Gods of Howl Mountain through NetGalley. Set in the 1950s in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, the novel focuses on Granny May and her grandson Rory as they struggle to come to terms with a traumatic past that has left Rory’s mother and her daughter locked up in an insane asylum.

The opening scenes of the novel offer a view of what might seem a stereotypical mountain grandmother, rocking and smoking on the porch of her cabin. But while she does seem to be everyone’s granny, offering mountain remedies for ailments and tending to her grandson and his friend, she also wields a shotgun with ease and has her own past to contend with. Plus, she isn’t above a bit of malicious fun when it comes to those who judge her.

Rory, her grandson, home from the Korean War minus a leg, works in the moonshine trade, dodging the revenuers and locals in his big Ford. He is a somewhat reluctant participant but it is the work available to him. One night, he stumbles upon a group of frenzied Pentecostals worshipping in an old garage, speaking in tongues and handling snakes. The scenes of the church have a surreal quality as we move into the crowd with Rory, mesmerized by the chanting and dancing.

The novel itself seems to pulse with the life of the mountains and Taylor Brown uses rich prose to describe people and places. It threatens every so often to spill over into excess but Brown manages to keep control, much like his main characters controls the big Ford. His world is one of raw life: violence, sex, love, grief all rolled into complex characters.