The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

HAPPY PUB DAY to Caroline Van Hemert’s The Sun Is a Compass!!

a day in the (reading) life

Caroline Van Hemert, a biologist, and her husband Pat Farrell (artist, outdoorsman, builder) dream a simple dream, yet one so daunting in scope that few could dream it – a trek of 4,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington to a far, far speck in the Alaskan Arctic, Kotsube.  Ever been there?  Me, either.  Without snowmobiles, ATVs, sponsors.  No planes, no trains, no hitched rides.  After four months intense planning, they leave Bellingham in two rowboats built by Pat, traveling up the Inside Passage then across mountains, glaciers, rivers, delta, and tundra on foot, on skis, by canoes and pack rafts.

This challenge was undertaken, I felt, in the spirit of a quest, though perhaps not consciously so; and it is recounted here in all its harshness, dreamy beauty and overriding love of the wilderness.  In a stunning episode, we’re practically part of a migrating caribou herd, and the astounding migratory flights…

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Lu Yao’s Life

HAPPY PUB DAY! Lu Yao’s Life is out today from AmazonCrossing!

a day in the (reading) life

What an opportunity we readers have here.  Chinese author Lu Yao had only two published works and died at the age of forty-two, but Life, this superb novella published in 1982 and still a bestseller in China, is now in English translation.  It’s the early Eighties, rural China begins a slow forever change, begins to turn away from the community and culture of eons; and we meet Gao Jialin, the educated son of peasants.  A sympathetic character, he’s lost his prestigious teaching job, lost face, and is in despair.  Lu Yao shares only a brief span of this young man’s life with the wrenching decisions he must make between the known past and the unknown future, a story that portends China’s path from rural to urban.

So very Chinese, yes, but absolutely stunning in its universality.  Human beings, past, present, and forever, have acted and will act as this…

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A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming

Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kansas, is a perfectly ordinary looking man, living with his wife and two children in a small ranch house, working reliably, going to church and rearing his nice family.  Dennis Rader is a serial killer known as BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) who terrified Wichita for thirty years, taunted the media, and killed eight adults and two children.  Dennis Rader is Kerri Rawson’s father.  Kerri’s innocence and that of her family ended on February 25, 2005, when Dennis Rader was arrested.

The secret life of a loved one.  Unimaginable, isn’t it?  Devastating, emotional ruin…..but Kerri tells her story with fairness for the father she loved while offering no possible explanation for or understanding of the killer she didn’t know existed.  How could she?  How could anyone?  Her father writes from prison, and she writes in return, initially – and then she turns away.  Fits and starts, years of on-again, off-again therapy, a PTSD diagnosis, a loving, insightful husband, supportive family, a growing strength in her faith, and, to some extent, the saving grace of humor, as in the chapter title “PTSD Blows Chunks”.  Ms. Rawson’s story is a difficult one to read.  How difficult must it have been for her to endure and to tell?

Shop your local indie bookstore for this wrenching memoir. Also available at

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Nelson Books / Thomas Nelson via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II

When Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, she was lauded for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”  I can’t say anything as good as that.  I don’t think anyone could.  I feel foolish for trying, but I’ll tell you what I can.  Last Witnesses, originally published in 1985, is without preamble other than a quote and a question:  the one referencing millions of Soviet children who died during WWII on the Eastern Front, and the other (Doestoevsky) asking what can be justified if “at least one little tear of an innocent child will be spilled?”  And then it begins with Zhenya, “June 1941…I remember it.  I was very little, but I remember everything…”.  The remembrances of adults who, as children, survived the German invasion of Russia and the cruel, bitter times that followed.  They ran when told to run.  Hid when told to hide.  Held on tight and were pulled away.  101 survivors are included here, and you will read them all.  They compel.

Children of Minsk, Belarus, orphanages, concentration camps, the Siege of Leningrad, and Gypsies, the forgotten ones.  Galina remembers the dogs and cats of Leningrad, a city starving under siege for 900 days, and thinks there should be a monument to them.  Vera, afraid of men ever since the war, says, “I never married.  Never knew love.  I was afraid:  what if I give birth to a boy…”.  Her whole life, you see.  And Leonid.  After the war, his grandfather returns to the ruins of their cottage and gathers family bones in a basket.  The bones don’t even fill the basket.  Leonid says, “So I’ve told you… Is that all?  All that’s left of such horror?  A few dozen words…”.  A few dozen words from each of 101 survivors.  Svetlana Alexievich understands power and lets it speak.

Random House reissues this testament available on July 2.  Pre-order from your local indie bookstore or from

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – March 14, 2019

Yellow Train.jpg

“The nickname of the train was the Yellow Dog.” 

Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding.

A train going…..somewhere.  A puffing steam engine, maybe.  Sounds like it, doesn’t it?  Yeah, I think so.  A sleek diesel couldn’t be the Yellow Dog.  Is it really yellow?  Well, it makes me happy to see it that way.  Why are we interested in this train?  Who’s on it?  So we read a few more words…..nine year old Laura McRaven traveling alone.  Alone?  Where’s she going?  And we read a little bit more.  To visit her mother’s people at Shellmound.  Hmmm.  And when she gets there?  “Poor Laura little motherless girl…”  You see that Yellow Dog chugging way across the delta there?  That train, the Yellow Dog, in that tiny vignette of an opening line will chug you right into this beautiful book.  An opening line that knows its job.

And why wouldn’t it?  Miss Eudora walked on water.  If you don’t know her brilliant, deceptively simple work, there’s genius out there waiting for you.  Best book on becoming a writer?  One Writer’s Beginnings.  Eudora Welty.  Short stories?  Oh my goodness, lose yourself.  As for me, Delta Wedding is one of the very few books I’ve read more than once and will read again….because of the train nicknamed the Yellow Dog.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Women of Copper Country

The very first word that occurred to me when I began reading Ms. Russell’s book was “solid”, and then, I swear, there was a sense of relief.  This book is solid, and this is not faint praise.  I knew I could count on it, lean into it, walk around in its rooms and settings and not trip or fall through a weak spot.  Hosanna!

Set in the copper mining country of upper Michigan, the story is a harsh one, based on events arising out of the labor movement of the early Twentieth Century, and in particular the Michigan copper mines strike of 1913 and the Italian Hall disaster.  Characters are, for the most part, actual persons or composites.  There is Anna Klobuchar Clements, the tall woman, wife of a miner, America’s Joan of Arc, who inspired and led a wildcat strike of nearly a year’s duration, protesting low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions for the miners.  With Anna as its primary figure, the book focuses on the women in the movement, the women behind the miners, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  These women lived with horror and loss on a near weekly basis – crippling, maiming, work-ending injury and death in the mines.  Not if, but when.

Strong material for sure, and with her deft and artistic hand, Ms. Russell knows just what to make of it. Good material and diligent research, skillful plotting and narrative, fully realized characterizations, sure sense of time and place.  It’s all there.  For, you see, Ms. Russell is not only an artist, she knows her craft, and it is craftsmanship that makes this the good book that it is; good and, yes, solid.  A book you are grateful for, that you can count on.  Lean into it.  It will hold.

You’ll have to wait until August 6 for The Women of Copper Country to hit bookstores.  But why wait when you can pre-order this gem? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to pre-order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Wild Boy: A Memoir

Italian writer Paolo Cognetti grew up in the city, but until the age of twenty, spent summers in the Italian Alps, free to roam, a wild boy.  At thirty, Paolo suffers a rough patch and cannot write.  So he reads.  Thoreau’s Walden, Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, and Elisee Reclus, The History of a Mountain, and he decides to return to the Alps hoping to live an essential life and to find that wild boy again.  Renting a refurbished cabin at 6,000 feet above sea level, he spends three seasons there, “…where the last conifer trees gave way to summer pastures.”  Not dangerously isolated as was Chris McCandless of Krakauer’s book, Paolo has a couple neighbors across the way; there are summer cowherds who come and go; and he even gains a dog that didn’t make the cut as a herding dog.  While this book is neither as gripping and gritty as Into The Wild nor as introspective and philosophical as Walden, Cognetti is an excellent writer, and this is a beautiful book.  Did he find what he was looking for?  Did he even know what he was seeking after all?  Do any of us?  Get away for a while with Mr. Cognetti, and find something for yourself in his breathtaking Alps.

Currently scheduled to hit bookstores on July 2, 2019. The Wild Boy can be pre-ordered here from your local indie bookseller or click here to order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.