Monthly Archives: October 2015

Inside of a Dog …

CBR_Logo2There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard:
A Life in Pets
by David W. Berner

It’s interesting, the events that end up punctuating our lives, shaping our memories and becoming the stories we tell again and again. For author David Berner, those events are connected by animals, a series of pets in his life from boyhood through his adult years.

hamster dashboardBerner, an award-winning writer from the Chicago area, shares those stories in There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, a collection of eighteen essays that illustrate his “life in pets,” from the collie named Sally he got for his first birthday to a wolf spider named Ralph to a yellow lab named Mike, Berner traces the years of his life through stories of love, loyalty, and loss. He also shares stories about the pets he has shared with his parents and with his own wife and their two sons, from a gecko to a hamster to a turtle. Cats, dogs, rodents, amphibians—Berner’s life has been punctuated with all manner of animal—all of which had lasting effects.

Those who keep pets and those who wish they did will be able to identify with many of the happenings and feelings in these pages. We hear about how Sally the collie may have saved Berner’s life when, as a toddler, he wandered out of his house and down the street in his neighborhood before his dog chased him down, turned him around, and nudged him home, much to the relief—and delight—of his mother. We see as he nurses Nicky the squirrel after finding the bushy-tailed rodent with an injured leg. We learn how toting a turtle home in his golf bag changed his outlook on zoos. Each of these stories serves as a brief vignette that illuminates Berner’s evolution from boy to teen to adult, from child to father, each instance serving as a lesson that taught Berner about life and about himself.

Photo by Patrick Ryan

Photo by Patrick Ryan

Breezy and light, some of the essays in the collection are more touching than others, some more amusing than others. The preface might well be some of the best writing in the book, perfectly capturing what it’s like to own—and love—a pet, regardless of breed or species. All of the stories are thoughtful, going well beyond the ins and outs and highs and lows of pet ownership to consider what our experiences with pets teach us. Two of the best essays bookend the collection. “The Intelligence of Dogs” makes us appreciate what might well be wisdom or nurturing of the animals we care for while “The Real Thing” makes us grateful for the love and loyalty of the pets we share our lives and homes with. The middle of the collection is graced with “The Last Bite,” a poignant reflection on life and death and what it means to lose someone you love, whether two-legged or four-legged. Some of the essays are not as strong. “Piranha Envy,” for example, smacks of one of those you-had-to-be-there stories that isn’t quite as funny or touching in the retelling on paper.

That said, the book features many more hits than misses. As such, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard is easy reading, a short book that, although a quick read, is full of stories and emotions that linger, making us think not just about Berner and his life with pets, but of ourselves and of our own lives with the pets in them and of the deep value and lasting lessons these beautiful, wonderful, loving creatures share with us.

Three-Star Review

May 2015, Dream of Things
$10, paperback, 126 pages
Pets/Memoir
ISBN: 978-0-9908407-1-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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A Call to Action

CBR_Logo2The Creative Activist
Make the World Better, One Person, One Action at a Time
by Rae Luskin

At a time when much of the national conversation revolves around leaning in, finding some sort of work–life balance, getting it all, and living a life with purpose, people of every generation are finding that activism—getting involved in something meaningful—pays myriad dividends. Not only does activism help fulfill a sense of purpose and, ideally, help others in some way, but some studies suggest that “people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared with those who said they were more or less aimless.”*

creative activistAuthor Rae Luskin, who calls Chicago home, has benefitted firsthand from activism, noting in her new book The Creative Activist that living a life of service can “ease the pain of isolation and depression,” among other things.

Activism, of course, can take many forms. Luskin urges her readers to consider what she calls “creative activism,” which she believes helps people “use their imagination, creative thinking, and unique expression to make a positive difference in people’s lives, communities, and the world.”

This is no short order, but it seems to be one that is catching on. Among Millennials in particular, activism seems to be on the rise. It’s certainly one that, as a community activist for more than forty years, Luskin strongly believes in. It’s also something she believes anyone can participate in, regardless of whether they believe themselves to be creative or artsy or talented.

Luskin provides inspiration and ideas for readers in The Creative Activist, which includes real-world examples of people who are working to make a difference. Luskin reports having interviewed more than 150 people while preparing the book (several of whom hail from Chicago and the Midwest). A number of the individuals profiled in short vignettes run their own nonprofits, some are activists for victims of abuse or domestic violence, some are leading change in hot spots around the world. Their stories are revealed through short Q&As, much of which focus on their inspiration, their take on leadership, and their vision for a better future.

Divided into six sections covering such topics as cultivating courage to change, connecting and networking with people who can help you fulfill your goals, and tapping into various forms of creativity, Luskin prompts readers to consider creativity and activism—and the marriage of the two—from a variety of viewpoints, not limiting themselves to thinking of either or both as a certain method or formula for achieving success.

Rae Luskin

Author/Activist Rae Luskin

Highly designed, this four-color paperback is full of prompts and questions designed to get the reader thinking and, it is hoped, acting—on whatever cause is important to them. Although this is not a hands-on workbook, Luskin encourages readers to journal about key issues, writing down thoughts and ideas for how they might tackle concerns that are important to them. Poems and quotes are sprinkled throughout in order to provide further inspiration. A few typos and some copy-editing mishaps (e.g., “a key tenant” instead of “a key tenet”) are distracting, but not so much as to spoil Luskin’s message.

The Creative Activist is thought-provoking, encouraging readers to think about the causes that are important to them and to develop a plan for addressing those causes, whether on a small scale or large. Of course, as with any such book, Luskin can only lead a horse to water, as it were—it’s up to the reader to engage. With dozens of “Call to Action” sections, the reader is supplied with no shortage of stimuli to move from wishing to do something to actually accomplishing something that matters.

This is no manifesto for change or a fist-in-the-air call for activism. Rather, The Creative Activist is intended to provide a spark and some encouragement for individuals who feel they want to do something to make their world a little bit better. Luskin believes that those who embrace creative activism will be closer to living a “fabulous life”—an admirable goal that many of us can identify with.

Three-Star Review

July 2015, Wise Ink Creative Publishing
Self-Help
$24.95, paperback, 194 pages
ISBN: 978-1-940014-66-1

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

* See http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/07/28/334447274/people-who-feel-they-have-a-purpose-in-life-live-longer

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Hope, Fear, Love, and Lust

CBR_Logo2The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath
A Novel
by Kimberly Knutsen

The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath by Kimberly Knutsen follows three entwined lives told over a thirty-year period. The novel takes off with intermittent flashbacks, bits of past and present mingling to reveal a remarkable tale of hope and fear, love and lust, marriage and loneliness.

Eccentric Katie is in her mid-thirties living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. After having met her husband, Wilson, during graduate school and having three babies, she stays at home reading magazines, taking baths, and lusting for her neighbor Steven, a yknutsen_promo_jktoung alcoholic. Steven is engaged to Lucy, the small and beautiful fireball who is everything Katie fears she is not. Katie’s mood is a constant pendulum of happiness and restlessness. The story slowly uncovers Katie’s troubled childhood, speckled with sexual abuse and isolation.

Wilson A. Lavender is a professor of women’s studies who also can’t seem to feel settled in his life. His hope centers around finishing his dissertation, which he has titled The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath. Convinced he is a genius and understands the plight of women, he hasn’t written anything but a cheesy opening line. He is a recovering alcoholic who eventually finds solace once again in substance abuse, thanks to pills provided by a sexy colleague named Alice Cherry, bringing him an escape from his children and his unfaithful wife. He pushes himself farther from his family and down a familiar spiral of bad decisions and lack of productivity.

One of Wilson’s main problems at home is Katie’s younger sister, January, who decides to move in with them when she finds out she’s pregnant. She looks up to Katie, mother of three and married, and fears if she continues to live alone in Luna, New Mexico, she won’t be a good mother. Like Katie, January has trouble with motivation, and she is still obsessed with her first love, the Rock Star, who left her many years ago and took all the fun from her life. January pesters Wilson constantly, and adds to the family’s relational issues. January forms a strange bond with Lucy, and they lead each other into more treacherous situations.

Set in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the novel is painted with a gray, solemn background: the frozen, miserable winters, spring that takes too long to emerge, autumn that comes too early. January and Katie grew up in Portland, Oregon, a place that haunts Katie more than it does her sister, but January was forced out of L.A. by the Rock Star. The sisters ultimately fled the West Coast for the Midwest, a place they thought would give them peace of mind and happiness, but instead leads them into more trouble. They learn that even the humility of Michigan can’t keep their ghosts away.

Each character has moments of Plathness—insanity, despair in feeling trapped. Knutsen quotes Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” in one of the section’s epigraphs: “So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain?” echoing the uncertainty the characters experience deciphering good and bad, what’s real and what’s imagined.

Knutsen writes about intense subjects but imbeds her graceful prose with laugh-out-loud humor and crafts flawless dialogue. At times the sentences are so packed with information and wit that it’s hard to keep up, but the effort pays off. Knutsen weaves in and out of the present story with changing narrators and points of view, which works well in this disjointed context. The characters’ thoughts are relatable, even if selfish, and point to universal truths about trying to move on when the past is always there. A joyous exploration of pain and the price that comes with the refusal to settle, this is a stunning first novel.

Four-Star Review

October 2015, Switchgrass Books/NIU Press
Fiction
$18.95, paperback, 384 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87580-725-6

—Reviewed by Meredith Boe

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