Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

When Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies suddenly, he and his wife Ginny, without hesitation, pack up their lives and move into her house to help care for her three small children. Making Toast is a record of that time – of the grief and sadness, but also of learning to laugh again.

Amy died from an asymptomatic heart condition at the age of 38. Her sudden and unexpected loss ripped a hole in the community of family and friends whose lives Amy had touched. Rosenblatt realizes that he learns more about his daughter – her selflessness, her humor, her generosity – after her death than he did while she was alive. He struggles not only with his own overpowering grief and anger, but also that of his grandchildren who each cope differently, his stoic son-in-law, his wife who must now step into Amy’s footsteps, his adult sons, his many friends. He finds solace in the mundane – reading stories, helping with schoolwork, making toast to order. Gradually, they all learn that while cannot escape the terrible loss, they can learn to live with it and to continue.

Written as a loose collection of essays, anecdotes and remembrances,  this small book is an eloquent and understated  study on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the coming to terms with terrible loss and a fitting tribute to a life that made a difference.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

The audiobook, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch,  read by the author,  is bittersweet because he and the audience know his time is short. A computer professor who is aware that he has less than a year to live wants to leave his children and students a legacy of the principles, ideas and beliefs he has gathered over the years.

In this lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” Pausch is brutally honest about himself and his disease, yet he never loses his sense of humor.

Parenthood, marriage,education, science and Walt Disney are all examined. He is not falsely modest, and attributes his success to being able to learn from others and his mistakes.

It makes you wonder – what lessons you would impart to the next generation?

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

wicked plantsWicked Plants: the Weed that Killed Abraham Lincoln’s Mother by Amy Stewart is a delightfully gruesome catalog of a great variety of harmful plants and just exactly what they can inflict on you. This alphabetical list of plants that can poison, strangle, paralyze, induce hallucinations or heart attack or merely cause pain and suffering is illustrated with appropriately gothic drawings. Many of the plants are surprisingly common – castor bean plants and angel’s trumpet for instance. Others are bizarre and nearly fantastical.  Stewart’s writing style is witty and entertaining and her love and knowledge of all things botanical shines throughout the book.

Amy Stewart’s website has lots more info, including interviews with Amy and news about her upcoming events. Amy is the author of several thoughtful gardening-related books including the excellent Flower Confidential about the floral industry.

Don’t miss the chance to see some of those dastardly plants up-close when Vander Veer Botanical Park Conservatory features ten of them in their special exhibit, running concurrently with their annual Chrysanthemum Festival, mid October through mid November. Excerpts from the book will be featured in story boards displayed throughout the exhibit.

Conservatory hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10am – 4pm. Admission is $1 for adults; children under 16 are free but must be accompanied by an adult. For more information about the display, contact Paula Witt at 563-323-3298.

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay

Shelter MeThree months have passed since Janie’s husband was killed in an accident. She is still awash in grief, barely able to function, struggling to get herself and her two small children through each day when a contractor shows up at her house, ready to build the porch her husband had secrectly planned as a surprise for her.

Over the following months Janie finds strength and solace and even laughter from unlikely sources – her annoying, talkative Aunt, the shy, awkward priest, a neighbor she has nothing in common with, even the contractor who becomes a daily, calming presence in their lives. Slowly the pain lessens and Janie learns that moving on does not mean forgetting the past.

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay is a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny story of how one family puts itself back together after unimaginable tragedy. The writing is compelling – it’s very hard to put this book down – and the characters so real that they will stay with you long after you finish.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

the-art-of-racing-in-the-rainEnzo is a thoughtful and intelligent observer. He has watched a lot of television – especially the Weather Channel and documentaries – and he has paid attention. He understands much more than he is given credit for, but he cannot put his thoughts into words. His greatest regret in life is that he cannot speak and that he does not have opposable thumbs because Enzo is a dog. In The Art of Racing in the Rain he reflects back on his life on the eve of his death.

When Denny picks Enzo from a litter of puppies, an incredible partnership begins. Denny is a semi-professional race car driver and he often describes his work to Enzo especially his skill at racing in wet weather – the balance and anticipation it requires, the blending of thought and action. Soon Eve enters their lives, and then baby Zoe and they are happy until tragedy strikes and the little family must struggle to survive and carry on. Through it all, Enzo is there, observing, offering comfort and companionship and love.

This is a beautiful, poignant story which is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes wrenching. You may be skeptical that a dog as narrator would work, but in fact, Enzo is perfect – wise but always from a dog’s point-of-view, an outsider that can see clearer than the participants. The racing analogies are powerful and effective, but do not dominate the story. You will root for these characters and love them as much as Enzo does, who’s words will stay with you long after you finish the book.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

I’m going to give you a warning about this book right from the start: a baby dies in this book. It is, in the words of author Elizabeth McCracken “the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending”.

McCracken was an award winning author (one of her books, Niagara Falls All Over Again, was the All-Iowa Reads choice in 2004), happy with her career and her status as a self-described spinster was in her mid-30s when she suddenly fell in love. Within a couple years she was living in France with her husband awaiting the birth of their first child. Everything was perfect, until her ninth month of pregnancy when her baby boy died.

What follows is a touching, heartbreaking story of love and grief, of struggling to go on without forgetting what happened. Told with warmth, humor and generosity, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is a powerful and beautifully written memoir, a literary gift to us all.