Friday, August 12, 2022

Blink Book Review #11: A Two-Fer - “Enough Already” by Valerie Bertinelli and “Back to the Prairie” by Melissa Gilbert

My recent beach reading consisted of memoirs by two actresses from my childhood – Valerie Bertinelli (Barbara on “One Day at a Time”) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura on “Little House on the Prairie”).

Both of these former child stars are close to my age – 60 or pushing it – and experiencing many of the same life events that my own contemporaries are. Both played beloved characters in my personal television soundtrack of the mid-70s. Both had written previous memoirs about the challenges, insecurities and success of their early career years. Both new books focus on their “late middle age” years and the comfort they’ve found in their own skin and their more intentional lifestyles. I enjoyed both immensely.

Valerie’s “Enough Already: Learning to Love the Way I Am Today” reaches beyond her lifelong struggle with weight and self-image to chronicle how she has happily settled into a hard-won acceptance of who she has become because of – and sometimes in spite of – the intense pressure of Hollywood expectations. She writes, in large part, from the perspective of a mother wanting the best for her very talented son she shared with rocker Eddie Van Halen. Despite the fact she and Eddie divorced in 2007, they remained close, especially during the last years of his long battle with cancer leading up to his 2020 death.

Melissa’s “Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered” tells the story of her coming of age in her 50s to find a balanced life without cosmetic surgeries, hair coloring and anxiety about measuring up in a competitive Hollywood environment. The book is an honest accounting of how she shifted her life approach away from the fast pace she’d always known to a more bountiful, yet much simpler, life. This time in Melissa’s life is also a love story about building a quiet life with her husband, actor Tim Busfield, who shares her joy in raising chickens, renovating a ramshackle cabin in the woods, doting on grandchildren, and living ordinary days away from the limelight.

An interesting intersection of these two books is how these child stars have found financial success in this season of life through cooking and comfort in the enjoyment of home and children. Valerie has become a successful host on the Food Network. Melissa is basking in the “homebodiness” of a new online venture as a modern-day pioneer woman in the Catskill Mountains tending her large garden, enjoying the local wildlife and basking in the abundance of being part of a community.

Anyone who grew up watching these 1970's television favorites will find these two books a delightful update on the lives of the two young actresses who captured the imagination of a generation.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Blink Book Review #10: "The Speckled Beauty" by Rick Bragg (with a bonus section of other great dog books)

A young friend recently asked me to choose my favorite dog book. I had to think really hard on that one. I’ve read a whole lot of them. I believe in the power of a dog. And there’s a special place in the universe for writers who can script a good dog story – whether it’s through poetry, fiction, personal essay, photo captions or a good dog obit.

At the time I got this question, I had just started “The Splendid Beauty … A Dog and His People” by Rick Bragg. “All Over but the Shoutin’” was Rick’s first book that pulled me into his writing many years ago. I’ve long admired his spot-on southern-isms that completely avoid the “fingers on the chalkboard” of writers who try to fake knowing the real south and how it sounds, feels, smells and tastes.

In this book, Rick tells the stories of Speck, a bad-boy mixed breed (or mutt as he would have been called before that term lost favor). Sixteen essays lay out various episodes of Speck’s egregious behavior woven in with stories of Rick’s sideways love for this wild creature. This passage foretells the whole concept of the book:

“In his first two months here, he [Speck] was incarcerated twenty-nine times. Telling him to behave, even after almost two years now, is like telling him it is Tuesday.”

In one paragraph, Rick would have me crying. The next had me laughing out loud. And there’s lots of talk of food - both the human and canine kind (sometimes they are the same). Speck gets factored into the count for Thanksgiving dinner and has a Christmas list that includes cocktail weenies, sliced ham and a dog bed (which Rick kind of counts as edible since Speck ate the last two he had).

If you’ve ever had a dog that wasn’t perfect, you’ll recognize many of Rick’s perfectly told stories.


A little extra this week (this puts me over my 300-ish word count commitment so consider this a bonus)

As I read this book, I found myself reflecting back on dog books that have fed my soul, tickled my funny bone, brought me to tears.  Part of why I love to read is to learn how to be the kind of writer of stories I’d want to read. These four dog books all taught me something about dogs and about writing.

Dog Medicine” by Julia Barton. At first, this book seemed to be the story of the author’s struggle with depression. My interest waned a bit at first…based on what I saw on the cover, I wanted to read about Bunker, the dog. But it didn’t take many more pages to understand that, while depression is certainly a major player in the book, it is by no means is it the main character. The real story here is about resilience, acceptance, trust, connection and belief in something bigger. And all of that comes alive through Bunker and how he leads the author through her depression. Read my earlier review here.

“A Year of Dogs” by Vince Musi. This one feeds my need for visual tickling and great writing. Vince’s stories in this book reflect his canine subjects’ personalities and quirky habits with a humor that can only come from his lively imagination plus his willingness to let dogs just be dogs. The narratives that accompany each pup’s unique photo range from sentimental to side splitting. Even if you think you can’t abide a dog, Vince’s book leaves you with that feeling of having just been loved on by a gentle Great Dane with a really long tongue. Read my earlier review here.

“Dog Songs” by Mary Oliver. While I’m not a big poetry reader, Mary Oliver’s collection of poetry is probably the only book on my nightstand that never gathers dust because I pick it up so frequently to just read a poem. You can read these poems as either her musings on daily life with her beloved canines or deeper reflections on the role of our connections with dogs in enriching our existence on this earth.

"The Last Will and Testament of Very Distinguished Dog" by Eugene O’Neill. I discovered this little gem when it fell off the shelf and landed on my foot during a visit to Kramer Books in DC. It was just weeks after my beloved Golden, Dixie, had died, and it brought me great comfort. It’s a moving and humorous last will and testament of the playwright’s beloved dog reminding the author that every dog we own expands our hearts to make room to love another.

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others. Or email me at with your own favorites.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Danielle Howle and Jay Byrd House Concert - August 11

House concert: (hous KON-sert) - A gathering of friends, neighbors and music lovers in an intimate home setting to celebrate and support local musicians.

OK … so I kind of made up that definition, but it does describe the concept.

The idea of house concerts goes back generations to Appalachian traditions. A performer en route between gigs may have had an open night to play at a host’s home along the way in exchange for a good meal and place to lay his head. The host would charge a small ticket price with all proceeds going to the performer.

In the modern twist on a house concert, guests pay a small admission fee and bring a snack to share if they'd like, their own adult beverages and chairs (we will move inside to the dining room if it rains.)


So that's what’s going on August 11 – a house concert at our house featuring the fabulous Danielle Howle, a very talented songwriter friend of hers, Jay Bird, and Kerry Brooks on bass. Jay writes and performs original roots-influenced music with nods to classic rock and pop artist such as Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne, CSN and Paul Simon. 

Here's the link to purchase advance tickets online (ALL proceeds go directly to Danielle, Jay and Kerry). Once you purchase a ticket, Danielle will send you the house address for the concert. We ask you purchase tickets in advance ($15) to avoid the hassle of cash at the event ($20) – we can’t take cards that night. Kids are welcome, and those under 12 are free. No pets, please.

I’ve loved Danielle’s music for many years going back to when she got started in the early ‘90s as “Danielle Howle and the Tantrums” in local venues. Over the years, she has shared the stage with the likes of the Indigo Girls and Mark Bryan and opened for legends like Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Sam Bush, The Avett Brothers, Fugazi, and Elliot Smith.

You just never know what's going to happen at a Danielle house concert. One year, she brought a special guest whom many of us later saw in the summer of 2019 play three blockbuster shows with a little local band called Hootie and the Blowfish. Another year was the launch of her new CD, and the year before that, it was her send-off to a tour with the Indigo Girls.

This year will be her seventh concert at Chez 1425. Danielle and Jay will start about 7:15 p.m., but if you show up early, you can catch the opener - our band Flossie Dog. We start at 6:30.

In deference to COVID precautions, we will be outside on the patio. There will be a few chairs - or bring your own or a blanket for picnic-style seating if you want. And in the spirit of a true house concert, please bring whatever you want to sip and a snack to share...this is potluck at its best!


Flossie Dog July 2022 (Jeff Goodwyn, Beth Steffans, David Johnson, David Campbell, Rod Swan, Reba Campbell)

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Blink Book Review #9: "These Precious Days" by Ann Patchett

This summer’s reading list has included books beyond the best-seller fiction I usually favor. Ann Patchett’s “These Precious Days” is one of those. This collection of 24 essays hits on topics ranging from Snoopy’s influence in her life and her three fathers to how she selects a book cover and why knitting saved her life.

Ann’s fiction has graced the top of the NYT lists for years. “Commonwealth,” “The Dutch House” and “Bel Canto” are just a few. But it’s her non-fiction that really gets my pages turning.

Normally, I like to invest time in a book, get to know characters, dig into a plot. So typically, essays and short stories aren’t really my gig. Reading this book started slowly for me. Finally, over the July 4 holiday I picked it up again. And couldn’t put it down.

Initially, the cover drew me in when I saw it on the shelf at Litchfield Books (yes, I occasionally judge a book by its cover). The bright colored painting turns out to be Ann’s beloved dog, Sparky, with eyes that will look right into your soul. You’ll have to read the book to get the whole story on the cover art. That essay alone, ‘These Precious Days,’ is worth the price of the book.

What I love about Ann’s essay writing (I’d read her first book of essays years ago) is how she blows life into seemingly mundane things while, at the same, makes events like being asked to interview Tom Hanks at his own book signing sound almost ordinary. Ann quotes a friend as telling her, “Do you even realize your life isn’t normal? You understand that other people don’t live this way?” My kind of gal! She seems so totally unimpressed with herself and her huge talent.

My favorite line in the book reflects so my own love of books and sharing books with others: “As every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love isn’t complete until you can hand that book to someone else and say ‘Here, you’re going to love this.’” Consider this my hand-off.

And as a PS – Ann has a hugely successful bookstore in Nashville, Parnassas Books, that is my must-stop every time I visit the city. I’ve snuggled with Bear (photo left), one of her shop dogs (here’s his sweet story); browsed for hours; and bought more books there than I should have. If you order “These Precious Days,” do it here.

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others. Or email me at with your own favorites.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Blink Book Review #8: "Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR" by Lisa Napoli

This book is the story of four women from vastly different backgrounds who converged on a fledgling radio network in DC in the mid-1970s. Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts built the backbone of the early National Public Radio while they also whacked away at the broadcast industry’s glass ceiling.

The author, Lisa Napoli, lays out these journalists’ diverse upbringings at the beginning of the book with a biographical account of each that foreshadows their ultimate intersection at NPR. The narrative of how these women reported the news overlays with the stories of how they questioned the broadcast establishment and managed high-power careers while juggling marriages and child rearing - none of which were typical for women in the early ‘70s.

The author also tells the human side of their friendship spanning almost 50 years. There are stories that illustrate their support for each other, their love for each other’s families and their genuine friendship are interspersed with the tales of powerful politicians, gender inequality, and the changing face of journalism.

Admittedly, I’m a long-time NPR fan girl ever since I discovered WAMU, the NPR affiliate in DC, when I was a young Hill staffer in the early 1980s. Little did I know as I tuned in to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on my daily DC commute that I was listening to history being made – and I don’t mean just the history these four journalists reported on. This book is their history, and the author does a beautiful job to parallel these journalists’ individual stories and struggles with the historic events in their news reporting.

I also found the backstory of NPR’s bumpy rise to relevance particularly interesting. I thought I knew a good bit of this history from my years of association with SCETV and SC Public Radio, but this book made me realize how little I know of how NPR came to be. This book is an easy read that illustrates not only how far we’ve come in terms of women in broadcasting but it also reminds us that there are real people behind those microphones.

Although Cokie died in 2019, Nina, Linda and Susan remain on NPR almost 50 years after they first met in a tiny radio studio in DC. Here’s a great NPR interview with the three surviving “mothers” from last May.

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others.


BBR EXTRA: I had the honor of meeting Cokie Roberts at a meet and greet book signing at the Richland Library in February 2017. She was warm, funny, irreverent and oh so smart!

Monday, July 11, 2022

Blink Book Review #7: "Swimming with the Blowfish: Hootie, Healing, and One Hell of a Ride" by Jim Sonefeld

Memoirs can often fall into two categories – hugely self-aggrandizing or humbly honest. Jim Sonefeld’s recently released book, “Swimming with the Blowfish: Hootie, Healing and One Hell of a Ride,” falls squarely in the humbly honest category. As a gifted songwriter and the Hootie and the Blowfish drummer, Jim had seemingly found it all very young with the band’s ascension from a local frat attraction to hyper-international fame.

However, “Swimming with the Blowfish” is more than just a first-person account of the band’s partying life on the road (although those stories are fun to read). It’s also a deeply personal account of Jim’s journey from childhood with four siblings and soccer aspirations to early band days and his personal reckoning with addiction.

Jim writes with humor, self-awareness, and raw honesty about his faith, his recovery community, and most importantly, his family. He lays bare the jagged edges behind the addictions that followed him alongside the band’s fame while also sharing inspiration and gratitude around his recovery journey.

However, that’s not to say there aren’t also fun and funny stories about life on the road and celebrity interactions. There are lots of those, too.

I got a good laugh from the story about crossing paths with Bob Dylan in a venue bathroom. Another of my favorites is Jim's recollection of meeting the somewhat ailing Eddie and Alex Van Halen backstage before a show. Not only does this story illustrate how the drummer for one of the most famous bands in the world could still feel a little starstruck around music legends, but it also gives a bit of foreshadowing into Jim’s future challenges.

Jim’s songwriting skills translate into a conversational writing and storytelling style that I found engaging and approachable. His reading voice feels authentic and with just the right amount of enthusiasm to keep my attention without any of the annoying self-importance some memoir writers impose when reading their own story aloud.

This is the second audiobook memoir in my summer book review series. And like the first one, where I felt like I’d driven eight hours to Mississippi chatting with Katie Couric, this one left me feeling like the author had ridden around town with me for a few days comfortably seated in my car telling his story. “Swimming with the Blowfish: Hootie, Healing and One Hell of a Ride” definitely falls high on the “must read” scale among my summer reading challenge selections.

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Blink Book Review #6: Confessions of a Southern Beauty Queen by Julie Hines Mabus

“Confessions of a Southern Beauty Queen” by Julie Hines Mabus opens in 1968 with would-be beauty queen Patsy Channing awaiting suspension from the Mississippi College for Women, known as “The W,” following an alleged violation of the college’s strict dating rules.

The book’s narrative weaves between Patsy’s college experiences in Columbus, MS, and her life growing up in a small Memphis apartment with a single, chain-smoking, Valium-addicted mother who may, or may not, be sleeping with her banker boss.

Patsy aspires to be Miss America and sees the college’s beauty pageant as her ticket. Her pitch-perfect voice and breathtaking beauty make this a distinct possibility. But Patsy’s naivety about unspoken childhood trauma and her refusal to follow the narrow social strictures of the time get in the way.

The book takes place against a backdrop of issues gripping the country at the time – racism, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and social inequities – overlaid with ubiquitous “mean girl” politics that follow Patsy from kindergarten through college. Patsy’s outsider status among the “old southern” families, her eventual push to challenge the system, and her stunning beauty shape the narrative of the book and drive her sense of fairness on several fronts.

As I read, I did want some of the story lines to be more deeply connected or fleshed out. One story line that particularly drew me in – and left me wanting to know more – was Patsy’s friendship with a Memphis guitar player aligned with the famous Stax Recording studios. Their relationship weaves throughout the book providing an intriguing link from Patsy to the unfolding story of Memphis blues music and the underlying southern racial tensions.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed this book. It left me with insight about a period of our southern history that I’m not quite old enough to remember. Patsy’s experiences are a half-generation ahead of me, so I don’t have first-hand recollections of the 1960's politics of race or the evolving role of women.

After finishing the book, I remain haunted by many of the experiences described – some more gently alluded to and others more overtly depicted. The book ends somewhat abruptly. Given the fact it’s biographical in nature, I’m left wanting to know more about what happened to the real Patsy Channing - how these experiences in her young life shaped the rest of her years and how her situation ultimately influenced policies at “The W.”

The author, Julie Hines Mabus, notes in her author’s bio that the book comes from “serendipity when a close friend told her a harrowing story of her childhood.” The acknowledgements note that the book is the result of more than 500 hours of interviews with this friend, and the bibliography also cites 20 books and other sources.