Category Archives: Book Reviews

Creative Juice #83

Creative Juice #83

For your idea-sparking pleasure:

Review of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor

Review of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor

I do not intend to defend or address Keillor’s alleged inappropriate behavior that recently cost him his jobs at Minnesota Public Radio and the Washington Post.

That said, one of my favorite poetry collections is Good Poems for Hard Times, which Keillor assembled, and which led me to acquire his earlier anthology, simply titled Good Poems. And good they are.

Sometimes you need to read a poem multiple times before you can appreciate it, and many of these good poems fall into that category. But others ring from the first read through, delighting me with their cadence, rhyme or humor.

Good Poems

One poem haunted and devastated me: John Updike’s “Dog’s Death,” and I didn’t know why it hit me so hard. We have a little old deaf and blind dachshund, but nothing in her life paralleled the words. That poem disturbed my mind for days almost like an earworm, until I finally unburied an old memory from thirty-five years ago.

When we bought our first house, we bought a beagle puppy from a pet store. He was the cutest little thing, but one day soon after when we took him on a walk, he sat down and walked no further. I thought he was being stubborn, but my husband suspected something was wrong and eventually took the pup to a vet. She diagnosed parvo virus, and tried to treat him, but he didn’t respond, and we had him euthanized. We had been paper training him, and he once dragged himself to the paper to have diarrhea.

In Updike’s poem, the dog sustained an unnoticed injury that ruptured her spleen, and died on the way to the vet. The last stanza is what twisted my heart:

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.

Keillor expertly arranges the poems in this book. For example, these two poems, sharing the same name and obviously related, were printed on opposite sides of the same page:

This Is Just to Say
William Carlos Williams

I have eatenjoanna-kosinska-199279
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This Is Just to Say
Erica-Lynn Gambino
(for William Carlos Williams)

I have just
asked you to
get out of my

even though
you never
I would

Forgive me
you were
me insane

Which led me to wonder—did the poets know each other?

One nice feature which Good Poems shares with Good Poems for Hard Times is a section at the back of the book containing short biographies of each of the included poets. I immediately found the one for William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963, but I couldn’t find the one for Erica-Lynn Gambino. I was heartbroken. Should I write to Penguin Books and tell them there’s an omission? I tried closing the book and opening it again, but still no biography appeared for Gambino. It bothered me.



Photo by Prairie Home Productions

Until I finished the entire book and read through all the biographies (I’m a little obsessive-compulsive that way) and found Erica-Lynn Gambino Huberty, b. 1969. So no, the poets did not know each other personally. Mystery solved.


The poems are interestingly organized into nineteen categories: O Lord, A Day, Music, Scenes, Lovers, Day’s Work, Sons and Daughters, A Good Life, Beasts, Failure, Complaint, Trips, Snow, Yellow, Lives, Elders, The End, and The Resurrection. Some poems would have been appropriate to more than one category, and I found it amusing that they ended up where they did.

Yes, this is definitely a good bunch of poems, but be patient with them. Some I didn’t care for on first reading, but they became more meaningful after repeated visits. And probably some won’t be your cup of tea no matter what. But it’s still worth mining for the gems that resonate.

Guest Post: My Favorite Christmas Books by Linda Carlblom

Guest Post: My Favorite Christmas Books by Linda Carlblom

A big thank you to Linda Carlblom for these Christmas reading recommendations. Linda is the author of Meet Shelby Culpepper and other books for tweens.

Doing Life Together

At Christmas, I sometimes like to read something that gets me in the Christmas spirit. I’ll share a few of the books that have helped me do that.

marys-journal-bookMary’s Journal, A Mother’s Story by Evelyn Bence gives life to Jesus’s mother, before she conceived him, during her pregnancy, and in the early years of Jesus’ life. It is imaginatively written, but done in such a way that it seems very believable. I gained fresh insight into that time period, its customs, and what might have been some of Mary’s thoughts and feelings as the mother of God’s Son.

shepherds-abidingShepherd’s Abiding by Jan Karon is the heartwarming story of Father Tim trying to restore an old nativity for his wife, Cynthia. It’s filled with the usual quirky characters from Mitford and written with Karon’s typical warmth and humor. If you’re a Mitford fan, you need to add this to your collection.

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Review of Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Review of Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Jessica Abel is a prolific comic book author, a writer, a cartoonist, and the chair of the illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I became aware of her through her excellent blog. When I discovered she wrote a book about creative focus, I knew I wanted to learn from her.

Abel conducts workshops in creative focus, so her approach is very hands-on. The book is very hands-on, too. Each chapter has homework that applies the skills she talks about in the text, practical activities that will help you implement a different way of preparing, thinking, and working. I confess I haven’t done the exercises—yet—but I see how readers don’t fully benefit from just reading the book (you’ll just forget and work the way you always have); if you want to increase your focus (and productivity), you have to change the way you operate. The exercises enable you to implement successful creative strategies.

Growing Gills

Growing Gills is subtitled How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. It’s not a quick read. Transforming your creative life takes time.

The 19 chapters cover topics such as identifying passions and obstacles, idea debt, open loops, self-compassion, prioritizing, and breaking down a project into manageable tasks.

The book is divided into four parts.

In Part 1, So, What’s Stopping You, Abel identifies and defines what prevents creatives from finishing projects.

Part 2, Build your Custom-Powered Exoskeleton, covers goal-setting and creating a system to schedule your tasks and track your progress.

Part 3, Aligning your Today with your Tomorrow, helps you build a creative routine with enough flexibility that you don’t ignore your other life responsibilities.

Part 4, Falling Down & Getting Up, tells how to get going again when you get stuck.

Growing Gills is well-written by an established artist and writer, who understands the challenges of a being a creative, and has helped others overcome hurdles to productivity. It is well worth your time to read it, but do the associated activities to actually grow your own gills.

Review of Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Review of Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

In New Jersey among people of my generation, Bruce Springsteen is sort of a patron saint. I grew up in Rumson, where Bruce bought a house after he achieved rock star status (although our family lived in a modest home, not one of the mansions in Springsteen’s neighborhood; Bruce recently sold the house). The cover of Born to Run makes me homesick.

His description of his activities on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 (after watching the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on television), resonates with familiarity for me.

In the late afternoon, I drove to the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge. There, usually, on a clear day the Twin Towers struck two tiny vertical lines on the horizon at the bridge’s apex.  Today, torrents of smoke lifted from the end of Manhattan Island, a mere fifteen miles away by boat. I stopped in at my local beach and walked to the water’s edge, looking north; a thin gray line of smoke, dust and ash spread out due east over the water line. It appeared like the smudged edge of a hard blue sheet folding and resting upon the autumn Atlantic.

I sat for a while, alone, the September beach empty beneath the eerie quiet of silent skies. We live along a very busy air corridor. Planes are constantly flying just off the Eastern Seaboard on their way to Kennedy and Newark airports, and the low buzz of airplane engine is as much a part of the sound tapestry at the Shore as are the gently crashing waves. Not today. All air traffic grounded (pp. 439-440).

My brother, Bill, still lives in the house we grew up in, and from time to time sees Bruce in places like Jack’s Music Shoppe in Red Bank. Bill has a wonderful story about a very nice thing Bruce did for a friend of his—but it’s not my story to tell.

I’ve actually never seen Bruce perform in person. When I was in high school, my then-boyfriend promised to take me to see him at the Inkwell, but never delivered. (Needless to say, he’s not the one I married.)

Bill Ebbesen 399px-Bruce_Springsteen_-_Roskilde_Festival_2012

Photo by Bill Ebbesen

Springsteen’s autobiography tops 500 pages, and it took seven years, off and on, to write. I wouldn’t call it a literary masterpiece, but he’s a songwriter, not a professional author. Other than Chapter 7, “The Big Bang (Have You Heard the News…)”, about the impact that seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show had on him, which has way too many CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points!!, the book was engaging enough that when I sat down intending to read for 30 minutes, an hour passed before I looked up.

I folded over quite a few page corners as I read, so rather than tell you the story of Springsteen’s life, I’ll share some excerpts that especially touched me.

I had the opportunity to sing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” for Bob [Dylan] when he received the Kennedy Center Honors. We were alone together for a brief moment walking down a back stairwell when he thanked me for being there and said, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…” I thought, “Are you kidding me?” and answered, “It’s already been done.” As a young musician, that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in (p. 167).

On this night, my problem is that during a performance I am in and out of myself for a while in a most unpleasant way. Inside, multiple personalities are fighting to take turns at the microphone while I’m struggling to reach the “f*ck it” point, that wonderful and necessary place where you set fire to your insecurities, put your head down and just go. Right now, I can feel myself caring too much, thinking too much about…what I’m thinking about. My good friend Peter Wolf, the great front man from the J. Geils Band, once said, “The strangest thing you can do onstage is think about what you’re doing.” He was right, and I’m doing the strangest thing you can do onstage RIGHT NOW! It’s like one moment, your life feels threatened: your little house of cards, the performance “self” you’ve built so carefully, so meticulously, your mask, your costume, your disguise, your dream self, is in danger of coming apart, of tumbling down. The next, you’re towering, soaring, deeply immersed in your “true” self, riding the music your band is making high above the assembled. These two selves are often only a hair’s width apart. That’s what makes it interesting. That’s why people pay the money and that’s why they call it LIVE (pp.228-229).

luiginter 640px-Bruce_Springsteen_Milan_2006_05_12

Photo by luiginter.

I wanted the singular creative and decision-making power of a solo artist but I also wanted the live, rambunctious gang feeling only a real rock ‘n’ roll band can deliver. I felt there was no reason you couldn’t have the best of both worlds, so I signed as a solo artist and hired my longtime neighborhood running pack as my band. Not my backing band, not a band, my band (p. 235).

…that’s how I used my music and my talents from the very beginning. As a salve, a balm, a tool to tease out the clues to the unknowable in my life. It was the fundamental why and wherefore of my picking of the guitar. Yes, the girls. Yes, the success. But answers, or rather those clues, that’s what kept waking me in the middle of the night to roll over and disappear into the sound hole of my six-string cipher (kept at the foot of my bed) while the rest of the world slept (p. 281).

Born to RunIn the book, Springsteen also tells about battling depression, confesses bad behavior, and expresses his love for his wife, Patti.

Before I read this book, I only owned three Springsteen CDs. While reading about what was going through his mind and heart while he wrote his songs, I felt compelled to buy four more. Do singer autobiographies sell CDs? In my experience, yes.

As a fan, I enjoyed Born to Run, as I am sure other fans of Springsteen also will. But if I didn’t know who he was, or if I didn’t have the New Jersey connection, I don’t think I would have made it past the first chapter, just due to the epic scale of the book.


Review of The Great Zentangle Book by Beate Winkler (CZT) and Friends

Review of The Great Zentangle Book by Beate Winkler (CZT) and Friends

This is my favorite Zentangle® book right now. Subtitled Learn to Tangle with 101 Engaging Patterns, the book breaks down each pattern into clear steps. This step by step design is key, because many of the completed patterns look way more complicated than they actually are.

Also, each pattern has several examples of the design being combined with other patterns, and showing possible ways to shade for depth and dimension.

The book also explains the history, benefits, and philosophy behind Zentangle, besides listing recommended materials.


What makes this book different from other Zentangle books I’ve reviewed is the way each pattern gets its own page. There’s plenty of room for as many as nine step-outs and for Beate’s (and other Certified Zentangle Teachers’) comments about each pattern. There’s even a glossary of terms in the back.

I know that step-by-step directions are available on the web (I have a whole board of Zentangle designs on Pinterest), but looking them up can be tedious. It’s nice to have a good book of patterns that you can just flip through.

Review: Crank It Out! by C. S. Lakin  

Review: Crank It Out! by C. S. Lakin  

I’m a long-time fan of C.S. Lakin’s website, Live, Write, Thrive, where she shares helpful articles about the craft of writing. Her book Writing the Heart of Your Story is one of the best writing books I’ve ever read. When I saw she’d written a book about productivity for writers, I knew I must buy it.

In Crank It Out! The Surefire Way to Become a Super-Productive Writer, Lakin identifies the Productivity ABCs: attitude, biology, and choices. How you handle these three factors determines how much you can accomplish. She says, “Time does not equal productivity. The trick is to get the most ‘productive’ bang from each minute you write or engage in any writing-related activity.”

Lakin cautions that if you don’t have the skills necessary for writing, you can’t be a productive writer, but you can apply the productivity tools to mastering the craft.

Crank it out

In regard to attitude, she recommends you examine your mindset. If you have excuses for your current lack of results, if you’re casting blame on the other people in your life, your attitude is causing your low productivity. She tells the stories of people who managed to write and publish books under less than desirable writing conditions. She quotes Yoda (from Star Wars): “There is no try. Do.

In her discussion of biology, Lakin asks you to take cues from your body and also to enhance your health. If you always crave a nap at 3:00, that’s not your best writing time. She explains how to track your energy levels to find when your most productive time is. And she provides evidence about how good sleep, diet, and exercise habits impact your output.

In talking about choices, Lakin encourages you to retrain your brain for optimum focus. She suggests some habits that will boost your enjoyment of life and also make you more productive, such as journaling and reading for pleasure. She also suggests streamlining your routines to help raise your productivity. I especially like her Chapter 10 on combatting distractions and Chapter 11 on self-sabotage.

I have over-simplified the scope of Crank It Out. It is full of helpful information to help you accomplish more in your writing and in life in general. It is well worth reading, and I know I will be rereading it every few years.

Review of Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Review of Aimless Love by Billy Collins

I recently read a list of recommended books that included the entry any book of poetry by Billy Collins.

Hmm, I thought. I don’t know the poems of Billy Collins.

So I immediately surfed over to Amazon and browsed through the selections by Collins, and chose a used (like new) copy of Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems.
Billy Collins is a former Poet Laureate of the United States who also served a term as Poet Laureate of the State of New York. He has written ten books of poetry. I can’t remember who wrote the article that recommended him, but I am forever in his debt.

A well-written poem can transport you to another place or time, can help you experience someone else’s emotions, can make you see a familiar object with new eyes. Collins’ poetry does all those things brilliantly.

I have to share a poem:

by Billy Collins

This morning as low clouds
skidded over the spires of the city

I found next to a bench
in a park an ivory chess piece—

339px-Chess_piece_-_White_knight Michael Maggs

Photo by Michael Maggs; edited

the white knight as it turned out—
and in the pigeon-ruffling wind

I wondered where all the others were,
lined up somewhere

on their red and black squares,
many of them feeling uneasy

about the salt shaker
that was taking his place,

and all of them secretly longing
for the moment

when the white horse
would reappear out of nowhere

and advance toward the board
with his distinctive motion,

stepping forward, then sideways
before advancing again,

the same moves I was making him do
over and over in the sunny field of my palm.

Can’t you just hear the pigeon-ruffling wind? And I love the personification of the other chess pieces, uneasy about the substitute colleague; and the mention of the way the knight has to move. The poem delights me each time I read it.51TbLKa6oYL

Cleverness resides in this book, as well as mocking the way people express themselves, and serious gripes about growing old. Some of the poems don’t move me at all, but most insist I read them a second time, and a third, and then pause to ponder.

Guest Post: How Writers Should Handle Bad Reviews by Lev Raphael


Thank you to Lev Raphael for the following great advice, which was previously published on A Writer’s Path.

A Writer's Path

by Lev Raphael

Don’t tweet that the reviewer is an absolute moron who deserves exile to Chechnya or at least a lifetime of bad sex and lukewarm meals. It’ll only make you seem nutty, and most people won’t know about the review until you tell them anyway.

Don’t make snarky, veiled remarks about this reviewer when you’re interviewed, because sulking and bitterness will just end up making you come off as a crank who should get a life or see a shrink.

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Book Review: Old Broads Waxing Poetic


A few years ago, Julie Kemp Pick, inspired by a poem by Susan Flett Swiderski, came up with the idea to create an anthology of poetry written by women of a certain age. Together, they compiled Old Broads Waxing Poetic from their own verses and the work of six other poets.

I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I bought a copy, compelled by the wonderful cover image. It sat in my study for a couple of years, forgotten, until I recently came across it again.Old Broads Waxing Poetic

The poems range in quality from okay to delightful. I’ve already shared one poem from this book. Here are a couple of my other favorites:

Lilacs and Love
by Connie Biltz

“Nothing says spring like a lilac breeze,”
Mom closed her eyes, smiled, and sighed.
The scent would come drifting in,
with curtains billowing and windows wide.

My mother gathered them by the armful,
bunches of lilac blooms with a fragrance that was heaven sent.
She took them to my grandma every Mother’s Day,
sharing her love, showing her gratitude, knowing how much it meant.

She loved lilacs too, my mother did,
and she was glad we had plenty to spare.
It doubled her joy for them, I think,
knowing she was able to share.

Grandma would bury her nose in the lilacs,
and breathe in the heady scent too.
She arranged them carefully in a milk glass vase,
and there was one thing I always knew.

Grandma loved me, and my mom did too,
so fierce and wide and deep.
Remembering those lilacs they shared
is a memory I’ll always keep.

Forever the sight of a lilac bush,
or the hint of its fragrance in the air,
will remind me of those two ladies before me,
who had lilacs and love to spare.

lilacs-close-up-600x400That poem hits me right in the memories. A huge lilac bush grew just outside the kitchen window of the house I grew up in. On May evenings, as my mother washed dishes and I dried them, the breeze coming through the open screen carried the fragrance of lilacs, which we both loved. Though my parents didn’t particularly care for cut flowers (they felt flowers belonged in the garden), on Mother’s Day there was usually a large vase of lilac branches on the kitchen table.

by Fran Fischer

I just thought I’d like to say goodbye
As you go to that medical waste disposal in the sky.
Say hi to my tonsils and have no fears.
We’ll all get back together in a few years.

You’ve know me the seventy-nine years of my life.
You saw me as a teen, and then a wife.
Your first job was attracting men
And next you were a breastaurant for my children.
When the doors of the milkbar finally closed
You went back to a purely decorative mode.
Which was fine, until last week
When you (and other parts) became antique.
I no longer attract young men of twenty,
But that’s all right, because I’ve had plenty.
And as for that other use, well, we all know
The odds of me nursing again are low.
But it’s in my nature to be a little sappy,
And with or without you I’ll keep on being happy.
Most would count this a loss when it comes to my score.
Will I miss you? A little. Do I need you? No more!
I will be losing some symmetry,
On this I think we can both agree.
I may tilt to one side as I walk through town
But I’ll try to adjust and not fall down.

Yet I’m not through having fun
And lifting my face to the warmth of the sun.
And being friends and laughing (I’ll show you)
So ta ta, left ta-ta, it was nice to know you!

I’d never thought it was possible to make cancer surgery humorous.Old Broads Waxing Poetic

Is this book worth buying? Yes. Not every poem will resonate with you, but these sweet ladies are not trying to get rich or famous. They are donating all the proceeds from this book to CARE International. Go ahead and buy it already. It’s only $9.99 at for the paperback on Amazon, only $2.99 for the Kindle edition.