From Left to Write: A Family Unplugged

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…

So I was reading Arianna Huffington’s Thrive and, mean as it sounds, her advice to unplug and sleep more made me laugh. I mean, come on now — we live in an age where everyone’s smartphones are practically glued to their hands, and I can probably count on two hands the number of times Joshua has slept through the night since New Year’s Day. There’s no way I can do either of these things…right?

And then our cable and internet went out.

AND, not OR.

Joshua’s favorite show (Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood) is on Netflix, and it keeps him occupied while I’m putting away my mini-Mount Everest of laundry every few days. Watching Scorpion or Scandal helps me to unwind after a long day. I spend a lot of time checking email and social media, even if I don’t have something to contribute. These things are part of our daily routine.

Now take all of them away. What’s left? A cranky kid who just wants to sing the “everyone is big enough, big enough to do something!” song for the 8,372nd time this week and one suddenly very frustrated mama who can’t make anyone happy. Having the cable go out or losing a connection on the router can suck big time, but being a stay-at-home parent who loses both of those things at once can spell total disaster. However, it also forced me to get creative with finding ways to keep Joshua busy. He started telling more diverse stories with his beloved cars and planes than ever before, and he also wanted to spend a lot more time snuggling with me. We read stories and took selfies, cooked together and played with his train table. At some point during the week, Joshua even mastered riding a tricycle!

So here’s what I learned during the dreaded Week of No Signal:

1. We rely way too much on our technology. Of course, internet access is necessary for things like email and website maintenance, but we definitely reduced our TV time that week. (We couldn’t even watch basic channels — it was an issue with the wiring, and a cable had to be replaced and buried underground.) I still charged my phone on my nightstand every night, because I prefer keeping it close in case there’s an emergency overnight.

2. Even without the technology, Joshua didn’t want to nap. And if he wasn’t napping, I wasn’t, either.

3. But without the technology, he got more creative. He started doing some really interesting things with his toys, books, and art supplies. He proved that week that technology can definitely stifle children’s creativity.

4. Spring can’t come fast enough! I tend to keep my phone hidden away in my pocket when we’re on the playground, walking around the neighborhood, or at Grandma and Pop Pop’s backyard pool, because Joshua tends to run and getting hooked on Facebook or email provides the perfect opportunity to lose track of him. That said, there’s a lot more room to run around, climb, play, and burn energy outside than there is inside our little house. The sooner the weather stays sunny and warm, the better!

So now it’s your turn to tell me about your experiences! Have you ever tried unplugging for a week? How did it go?

This post was inspired by Thrive by Arianna Huffington, who challenges women to unplug and sleep more to create a balanced life. Join From Left to Write on March 19th as we discuss Thrive. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Memorable Quotes: The Poisonwood Bible

“As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop.
The substance of grief is not imaginary. It’s as real as rope or the absence of air, and like both those things it can kill. My body understood there was no safe place for me to be.”
(The Poisonwood Bible, Book Five, 281)

*Note: The page numbers on my digital edition do not appear to match those of the print editions. This quote can be found on the first page of Book Five.*

It goes without saying that this quote is a really dark one, but Orleanna Price is deep in grief when she says it. I’ve been lucky in that it’s been a fairly long time since I’ve lost anyone really close to me, but the most recent passing — my grandmother, in 2010 — hit me especially hard. She’ll have been gone for five years this Friday; some days I feel like it’s been 20 years since she died, and other days it’s as though she passed just yesterday. I clearly remember trying to be stoic — I didn’t want to be a blubbering mess at her wake, because I wanted to be strong for her, so I held myself together. The following morning, we returned to the funeral home to say our last goodbyes before her service and I promised myself again that I wouldn’t cry.

And then I realized that, when we left the funeral home and climbed back into the car, I would never get to see my beloved grandmother’s face again…and I fell to pieces. I kept thinking throughout the funeral that these memories, of her in a sealed wooden box, would be the last I have of her. The days and weeks following her burial were very dark for me. Is Grandma okay? I know where her body is, but what about her spirit, her soul? Is Heaven real? Is she up there eating her famous chicken soup (which we buried her with a container of) and dancing with my grandfather, or are these all just figments of my imagination? I was left with more questions than answers, more concern than peace. I grieved hard for her in my own quiet way, though at times it felt as though the grief was suffocating me, much like Orleanna Price.

But like Orleanna, I had to keep moving. As much as it sucks, life goes on after our loved ones die. Time stops for no one. You have no choice but to carry on and keep their memories alive in any way you can. Five years may have passed but I remember my grandmother as well, as miss her as much, as I did the day she died. That’s all that’s left for me to do.

Have you ever experienced grief as deep as Orleanna’s? How did you work through it and carry on? Let’s talk!

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Published: July 5, 2005 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Format: Digital e-book
Source: Downloaded
Purchase (**Affiliate Links**): AmazonBarnes and NobleIndieBound

The Goodreads synopsis: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.”

I’ve probably spent more time writing this review than I’ve ever done before, and one thought keeps crossing my mind: This is so hard.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of those books that I really struggled with. I read it, I enjoyed its plot, and I related to some of its characters…but after I finished reading it, it took me almost a week to settle on how I felt about it. There’s so much going on within these pages as the Price family jumps back and forth between Georgia to the Belgian Congo in the 1960s. The four daughters have to adjust to primitive life on the other side of the world from the sheltered existence they’re used to while their mother, Orleanna, has to work 25/8 to manage her family’s day-to-day life and their father, Nathan, endlessly preaches the Word of God to the unbelieving Congolese. Goodreads’ description of the Prices as undergoing a “tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction” is an understatement, that’s for sure. I don’t want to give away any details, but their transformation as a group is very rough and difficult to read about. I came away not feeling even the slightest bit of envy for them and all they’d been through, in terms of religion, politics, and personal experiences. Let’s just say I’m happy I’m not a Price.

I’m not religious at all but many of my relatives are devout Catholics, and one in particular verges on fanatical. I think they would appreciate Nathan’s convictions much more than I did — at one point, I was tempted to start skipping over his scenes because I was starting to feel like my teenage self again. Like the Price girls, I was raised in a religious household and was supposed to abide by the teachings of the Bible; as I grew older I first started skipping Mass out of sheer laziness (because, sloth or not, what tween or teen wants to get out of bed at 7 a.m. on a Sunday to go to church?). Then I started to think for myself and realized that my values and ideals were not in line with those of my inherited faith, and I basically stopped attending services altogether. I still believe in a higher power, but my opinion of the Catholic Church, the Bible, and the values within them would probably earn me a ticket straight to Hell in many eyes. While I understood the basis for Nathan’s religious fanaticism (again, no spoilers!), it didn’t make me empathize with him at all. It’s not reason enough to attempt to force people to share your beliefs, and those very beliefs are not an excuse to treat your all-female family like complete wastes of space. Honestly, I was thrilled when he stopped talking!

You know the phrase, “There’s two sides to every story”? In The Poisonwood Bible, we get more than two sides — we get five, from Orleanna Price and each of her four daughters. It makes for a multidimensional story, especially when it comes to painting a picture of Nathan Price and of adjusting to African life. Each of the girls, with the exception of self-centered and obnoxious Rachel, reminded me of myself. Aside from Nathan, Rachel’s was the only perspective I really didn’t care for; her selfishness and attitude toward the Congolese were particular turn-offs. At the start of the book, Leah is seeking her father’s love and attention and God’s redemption, until a major tribe event completely changes her perspective and she carves out a new path for herself. I connected with Leah when she reaches her crossroads: I tied her Katniss Everdeen moment with my “miracle” pregnancy as the point where I began to see my life and its purpose very differently. Adah, Leah’s twin sister, often speaks in palindromes that sound like slam poetry, and she enjoys books, so my link to her should be obvious. Finally, little Ruth May is like the mayor of the Price family, the first to reach out to the Congolese children and the one who connects best with them. She reminded me very much of myself as a child, and I was so sad to experience tragedy with her.

My favorite sections of the novel were those describing life in the Congo, especially pertaining to the help the Prices find in village natives Nelson and Anatole. As a white female, I can’t personally speak to the black experience and especially not to living in the Congo. Maybe it’s that innocence (or cluelessness?) that deepened my interest, I don’t know. What I do know is that it was fascinating to read about the Belgian-American-Congolese politics through the eyes of the Prices and to experience one of the girls — I won’t say which one — immersing herself into the culture through marriage. The book as a whole was a scary, eye-opening experience and, while it might not be my favorite book ever, I certainly won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.

Be sure to visit Barbara Kingsolver on Facebook and at her website!

It’s Monday, January 19! What Are You Reading?

Hey all! I hope you had a good weekend. It was a pretty pleasant one around here: I found out that my brother-in-law got into his top-choice college; Hubs took Joshua out and gave me a few hours to myself (and I used that time to watch Oz, the Great and Powerful, which has been collecting dust on my DVD shelf for what seems like forever), and Joshua scored a few new Cars and Planes: Fire and Rescue vehicles, so he’s happy.

So last week I was working on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I’ve mentioned on social media that it was a very slow read, but I’ve finished it! My review will be up tomorrow and then I’ll have a few other book-related features throughout the week, so keep your eyes peeled for that. My newest title isn’t actually really new at all — in fact, it’s one of my January Rereads that I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Hello, Julia Fierro. We meet again!

The reason I’ve chosen to reread to Cutting Teeth is because, though I read it shortly before its publication last May, I had quite a bit of other stuff on my plate. I spent the back half of last year coming back to the idea that I wanted to reread and spend some quality time with it. It’s a really great story, certainly one that I can relate to as a mom of a little one, and I feel the need to give it the time it so truly deserves. After I reread it and jot down my thoughts in my reading journal, I’m planning to go back and reread my original review and see what changed — that should be interesting!

Have a great week and as always, happy reading!

It’s Monday. What are you reading?

#30Authors Anthology: J.J. Hensley on Writing, Law Enforcement, and Legacy

Back in September, I published a guest post by the equal-parts intelligent and funny J.J. Hensley as part of The Book Wheel’s 30 Authors in 30 Days project. I’m happy to report that soon afterward, Allison (who owns The Book Wheel) and Velvet Morning Press teamed up to create a 30 Authors anthology, which will be available in the spring! I’m so excited for them and for all of the authors who have been invited to contribute — including none other than J.J. Hensley himself! To celebrate the kickoff of the Legacy anthology, I talked to J.J. about his books, working in law enforcement and what legacy could mean to a crime novelist. Check it out!

You have significant experience with law enforcement, having served both as a police officer and as a Special Agent with the Secret Service. In what ways did your work experiences inform Resolve and Measure Twice? Did you apply any of your personal characteristics to Dr. Cyprus Keller or to Jackson Channing?
My time in law enforcement played a huge role in the way I wrote both of those books. Going in, I wanted to stay away from any “Hollywood” portrayal of policing and give some element of authenticity to the novels. Therefore, I tried to make sure I focused on the cerebral part of the profession rather than have the cops get in shootouts or car chases every other chapter. In all of my crime fiction works, I attempt to give some insights into the job without making the reader feel that they are taking an academic course.

I’m sure both of the protagonists I’ve created thus far, Keller and Channing, have some of my characteristics. Like Keller, I’m extremely sarcastic and self-deprecating. The character of Jackson Channing probably reflects my private side where I’m stashing some of my own insecurities and doubt. But my focus with each of those characters was to be certain to keep either of them from being purely good or purely bad. Like all of us, they live in one big grey area.

As a fan of Measure Twice, I really enjoyed watching Jackson Channing’s personal growth after the loss of his former partner and his handling of Lester Mayton. Is there any chance he and Tina Lambert might wield their badges again in a sequel?
Absolutely. My third novel (still untitled) is due out in late 2015 and both Channing and Lambert will be featured prominently. To make things even more interesting, I’m bringing Cyprus Keller into the picture and readers of Resolve will be able to find out what happened to him after the final page of my first book.

Both of your novels are set in the city of Pittsburgh, and they read almost as love letters to the city. What inspired you to set the books there? How did you decide which landmarks and streets to feature?
My wife and I moved to the area several years ago and quickly discovered how much we loved the area. When I decided to write a book, I didn’t think twice about setting it in Pittsburgh because it’s such a wonderful backdrop for fiction. Between the rivers and bridges, there are diverse neighborhoods that provide an author with a background that transforms in wonderful ways as it scrolls by. If you want impressive biotech companies — we’ve got those. If you want renovated historical neighborhoods — we’ve got those. If you are looking for fantastic sports stadiums — no problem. If you want warm weather in January — well, you’re screwed. But, it’s still a wonderful place to live.

As far as deciding what specific areas in the city to feature, I let the story dictate those decisions. With Resolve, the protagonist is running a marathon so the course is predetermined to a large extent. With Measure Twice, there are some landmarks that play into the story and the geography of the downtown area is critical to the plot. Fortunately, with this city there are so many great location options available to writers.

What was your favorite scene in each of your novels, and why?
In Resolve, my favorite scene is probably the final conversation Keller has with his wife before the climax of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, but that conversation really defines their relationship for the reader and is likely to surprise some people.

In Measure Twice, my favorite part is definitely the climax of the novel. For the entire book, Detective Channing and Lester Mayton have been on a collision course although they have been on similar paths in the personal struggles. I also like the imagery I was able to use, although that particular location is one of the few I’ve ever used that is fictitious.

The Book Wheel and Velvet Morning Press have teamed up to create the 30 Authors anthology under the theme of Legacy. As a crime novelist, what does legacy mean to you? Can you give us a glimpse into your contribution to the anthology?
When I first started contemplating a story for the anthology, I was viewing “Legacy” as a positive theme. But, being a crime fiction writer, my twisted mind turned it around and I decided to take the assignment on a darker spin around the block. As we all know, some legacies are unhealthy ones and sometimes they need to be shattered in a deliberate, and possibly violent, manner.

And finally, one non-book-related question. As a former officer, what do you make of all the recent troubles surrounding American law enforcement? What, if anything, do you think could be done to improve relations between the police and the public?
This has been a topic that has weighed heavily on my mind over the past few months. I’m not a police apologist by any means, but I am a strong advocate for public education and for approaching these troubling incidents subjectively and without preconceptions. I’m troubled by three main things surrounding these incidents.

Some media entities and activists immediately made the assumption that race was a factor in any of these incidents. Maybe it was… I don’t know. But, neither do most other people. Would the outcomes have been different if the suspect was white? Hispanic? Asian? What if the officers would have been African-American? I have no idea. But, we can’t make a blind assumption that skin color played a role in how these specific officers responded.

The response by some of those in law enforcement has been unacceptable. The initial reaction of the officials in Ferguson undoubtedly fanned the flames on that situation. A different type of trouble has sprung up in New York City. In that circumstance, the mayor helped support the assumption that race was a factor in that case. Then, the police union in New York City made a poor decision by protesting against the mayor during memorial services. It was a response that was polarizing at best. Even here in Pittsburgh, controversy arose when new Chief of Police was photographed holding a sign that read, “I resolve the challenge racism @ work”. For some reason the police union got upset about that. The Chief didn’t say that any officers were racist or acted improperly; he simply held a sign challenging the evils of racism. The negative response by some was an overreaction that is counterproductive to improving relations with the public.

Much of the general public does not understand police use of force rules. Part of this comes from misconceptions generated by television shows and movies. People see the TV cop shoot somebody in the arm or perform a Kung-Fu move to take a knife out of the hand of a suspect. It’s ridiculous. Police are trained to follow a use of force continuum and escalate through that continuum based on suspect reaction. If confronted with what could be deadly force, an officer may choose to respond in kind. Additionally, people need to remember that every physical altercation a police officer is involved in involves a weapon because the officer has a weapon that could be taken by a suspect. Non-compliance by any suspect creates a dangerous situation for all involved and everybody should to remember that resisting arrest is not a game. It’s vital that departments continue to work to educate the public. I recently saw a wonderful example of this being done when an activist agreed to attend a police use of force session. The activist should be commended for agreeing to participate and the results were eye-opening.

To me, the key to improving relations between the police and the public is in reserving judgment until facts are presented and in education programs provided by law enforcement. Additionally, all parties can demand more from each other in a civil manner. The police need to be better educators and less defensive. Activist groups can be patient and analytical. And the media can be more objective and less inflammatory. We should all have the same goal, which is a safer society in which laws are applied fairly.

About J.J. Hensley:

J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service who has drawn upon his experiences in law enforcement to write stories full of suspense and insight. Hensley, who is originally from Huntington, West Virginia, graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. The author is currently a training supervisor with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and two dogs near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Hensley’s novel RESOLVE was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization. (His second novel, Measure Twice, was published today!) He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.

Note: A portion of sales for Measure Twice go toward breast cancer research through the non-profit group Par for The Cure.

Be sure to stop by his Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads accounts and say hello!

And a few quick blurbs about J.J. Hensley’s books…

MEASURE TWICE

It’s about time somebody gave Hannibal Lecter a run for his money. Lester Mayton, the serial killer who sets new standards of murderous inventiveness in J.J. Hensley’s new novel “Measure Twice,” is up to the task. Hensley walks a reader right up the edge of unbearable dread, then leavens it with flashes of witty insights into the way local bureaucracies and political infighting can hamper something even as critical as the need to stop a killer before he strikes again.

— Gwen Florio, award-winning author of Montana and Dakota

J.J. Hensley keeps you turning the pages from the very start. A finely crafted story of redemption, MEASURE TWICE will keep your adrenaline pumping.

​– Tim Green, bestselling author of The Forth Perimeter and Exact Revenge

RESOLVE

“J.J. Hensley’s debut novel is a lean, fast-paced, suspenseful murder mystery — told with style, intelligence, and wit. It pulled me in immediately and kept me guessing from start to finish.”

— John Verdon – bestselling author of Let The Devil Sleep

RESOLVE marks the emergence of J.J. Hensley as a crime writer to watch, an author whose real world scars give him an insight into fiction’s mean streets.”

–James Grady – author of Six Days of the Condor and Mad Dogs

“The Pittsburgh Marathon serves as the backdrop for this impressive first novel from former police officer and Secret Service agent Hensley… This artfully constructed mystery makes effective use of the third-rate-college setting and of Pittsburgh, as revealed by the course of the marathon, marked by each of the 26 chapters plus a brief final one headed “.2.”

​– Publishers Weekly (see full review here)

:One of the 10 best books of the year.”
– Pam Stack, Authors on the Air