The Ghost of Grey Gardens: Lois Wright’s Life Story by Lois Wright & Tania Hagan

The Ghost of Grey Gardens: Lois Wright’s Life Story

Lois Wright and Tania Hagan (Adult Biography)

She didn’t mind being a ghost, as she had come to think of herself. She seemed to be in the background at Grey Gardens, in the film and in real life. No one knew she was there, and no one cared to look for her.

For decades, an eccentric mother/daughter duo captivated the attention and imagination of the world. Voluntarily confined to their deteriorating twenty-eight room mansion in East Hampton, New York, Edith Bouvier Beale (paternal aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and daughter Edie Beale lived a reclusive existence that was detailed in numerous documentaries, films, books, and even an award-winning musical. Theirs was a complex life with only a few allowed to enter it. One of those few was Lois Erdmann Wright and her story spans over ninety years.

This review may seem a little cold-hearted and harsh and should by no means be a reflection on Lois Wright personally or the life that she led and continues to do so (she will celebrate her 94th birthday in July 2022 and I wish her all the best). Every life is precious, but not every life is worthy of a book. This is one of those instances.

Lois Wright led a remarkable life, but to describe it as “improbable”—as she does so on the book’s cover—may be a bit of a stretch. She was a palmist, painter, and TV personality born into a well-off family that was loving and supportive. Her mother became friends with Edith Beale and so it was natural for the women’s daughters (Edie and Lois) to become tight as well. Their friendship was more like family and lasted decades. The Beale women hobnobbed with the best that society had to offer, but their status received an unexpected bounce when Jacqueline not only married the handsome John Kennedy, but became First Lady when her husband was elected the 35th President of the United States. Although Lois exhaustively described herself as “shy” and “introverted”, the added glare of the spotlight and its effects were surely not lost on her. While reading this book, I was reminded numerous times of the quote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Out of all the media pertaining to Grey Gardens, only two were exclusively about Lois Wright: My Life at Grey Gardens: 13 Months and Beyond and The Ghost of Grey Gardens: Lois Wright’s Life Story. Both were written (or co-written) by Wright herself and both were independently published. Why? Simply—and respectfully—put, Lois Wright is NOT the story. She is merely a woman who knew two women who were related to a woman who married a man who later became president. No matter what Lois Wright accomplished or regardless of her maybe/possible/perhaps lineage that she professes in the book, the simple fact is that her life, no matter how interesting, is not what captivated the curiosity of the world.

Another problem I had with the book is the layout and the occasional sloppy editing. Hagan does thank her editor for her “speedy and accurate work” although I’m not sure about accurate and perhaps a little less speedy might have been helpful. There are tons of photos that Wright provides for this book (several being the same photo just taken at a different angle) that are placed haphazardly amongst the text and having little or nothing to do with the subject at hand. There are photos of people that we haven’t been introduced to yet along with a confusing image of Wright’s driver’s license and a copy of a certified mail receipt from a letter sent to Jacqueline Onassis. If these last two are the “never-before-seen documents” mentioned in the synopsis, maybe there’s a good reason that they remained unseen. Also, if you are going to include the names of your more famous clientele, it’s important to ensure that their names are spelled correctly. Liza Manelli (sic) and Mathew (sic) Broderick would probably appreciate it.

Lois Wright seems like an interesting woman, but she clearly is a woman full of contradictions: she complained of loneliness, but was determined not to marry or truly devote herself to a relationship; she claimed to be devoted to family, but moved away from her severely ailing brother after less than a month away from home; and she asserted time and time again of loathing attention while bemoaning her absence in one documentary while celebrating her inclusion in another. In the words of Salman Rushdie, “Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.” If Lois Wright does indeed consider herself to be the ghost of Grey Gardens, I hope that this book will finally put her business to rest and that whatever she is seeking—relevance, notoriety, validation, or peace—is eventually found.

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Spirit’s Key by Edith Cohn (J Mystery)

Spirit’s Key

Edith Cohn (J Mystery)

They get quiet. I’ve come outside, so they reward me with their silence. But it’s only because they want me to follow them. They lead me across the island to the edge of the woods, where they wait. Their eyes are filled with that intense urgency that says Follow me. It’s hard not to be taken in by it. There’s something in the woods they want to show me, but I don’t think it’s as harmless as a horse. I think it’s something actually dangerous.

Twelve. That’s the age where a Holderness receives their gift to be able to see into a person’s future. But Spirit hasn’t received her gift yet and her father’s gift has started to become more and more unreliable—causing business and the community’s confidence to wane. Her dad says that she must reconcile with her present before she can see the future, but her beloved baldie, Sky, is dead and she somehow can’t seem to get over her loss. Worse, other baldies—the wild dogs that roam Bald Island—are dying and a mysterious illness is starting to affect the townspeople…including her father. Could the baldies be the cause? When Spirit’s beloved Sky reappears, he keeps drawing her into the woods and toward the baldie cave. Could the answer to everything plaguing the island lie within that darkened entryway?

Cohn delivers an age-appropriate and suspenseful mystery whose underlying theme is the importance of protecting and respecting life. She communicates the necessity of preservation without being overly preachy and does so through the wonderful relationship between a girl and her dog. Any child who has ever loved and lost a pet will immediately be connected to Spirit and will understand the unique bond she shares with Sky, as well as the profound emptiness she feels upon his death. She also provides so many other valuable lessons: the value of friendship (Everyone needs a friend to watch their back.); the reluctance to accept things that are different (Why do people fear things they don’t understand?); and the importance of living in the now (The present isn’t something we can squander.).

Books for young readers that have a principled and strong female protagonist are my favorites. Spirit is loyal, kind, passionate, and is not afraid to stand up for her convictions. She’s the kind of girl that you would be proud to call daughter and lucky to have as a friend. Most of all, she says the two most courageous and powerful words that anyone can speak: I care. When others around her falter and surrender to fear, Spirit stands up for those unable to defend themselves. She gives a voice to those unfairly targeted and hunted and reminds everyone that outsiders have a place in the world, too. Spirit is not extraordinary because she can hold a key and see into the future or that she can communicate with animals. She’s exemplary because she cares, and the world could use a lot more people like Spirit in it.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Once Upon a Time, There Was You by Elizabeth Berg

Once Upon a Time, There Was You

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

DISCLAIMER: This is going to deviate a lot from my normal review format because I just can’t bring myself to devote any more time to this book, so here goes…

Synopsis: Two people (John and Irene) who never wanted to get married to each other get married to each other, have a kid (Sadie), get divorced, and are brought together again because their now eighteen-year-old daughter did something ridiculously and mind-numbingly stupid.

Why I read this: I read Berg’s Open House and rated it 3/5. It was okay enough that I decided to take another chance and read The Story of Arthur Truluv, which I rated 4/5. I was feeling pretty good and dived into Once Upon a Time, There Was You. I now find myself in a hate-love-hate relationship with Elizabeth Berg. I blame Arthur for this false sense of security.

Questions: First, What was the actual point of this book?!; Second, What in the world was Berg thinking when she wrote the event involving Sadie that sets the stage for her parents’ reunion? It felt forced and came absolutely out of left field. I don’t mind a shocking event if it’s going to add some depth to the story, but this one felt wildly out of place and came and went faster than promises made on election day; Third and Fourth, Who wrote the synopsis for this book and Did they even read the book? When tragedy strikes, Irene and John come together… Tragedy? That’s REALLY overstating what happened. What takes them longer is to remember how they really feel about each other. That might be the case if it wasn’t for the fact that Irene’s mouth has been estranged from her brain for quite a while so that any relationship involving her is doomed as soon as her lips part. There are more examples, but my brain is beginning to hurt a little bit now.

My rating: Every book I read automatically begins with a star. I mean, the author actually published a book and I haven’t so there’s that. I gave it another star because the relationship between Sade and her father was nice and the ending between John and Irene—unlike other parts of the book—actually made sense and was appropriate.

Moral of the story: Always go with your gut instincts, no matter how terrifying or humiliating the consequences may seem to be. Just suck it up, buy yourself an iced white chocolate mocha, hide under the covers, and wait for common sense to kick in…or the sugar and caffeine, whichever comes first.  

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (YA Horror)

The Watcher in the Shadows

Carlos Ruiz Zafón (YA Horror)

Fourteen-year-old Irene Sauvelle and her family are left desperate and destitute when Irene’s father dies and leaves them buried in debt. They happen upon some good luck when a family friend offers Irene’s mother, Simone, a job working for Lazarus Jann, a reclusive toymaker and inventor who lives in a mansion called Cravenmoore. Their new life in the seaside village seems idyllic until a young girl is brutally murdered. As events surrounding Cravenmoore become more disturbing, Irene begins to reconsider the veracity behind the local ghost stories and becomes curious about the secrets being closely guarded by the brilliant yet mysterious Lazarus Jann.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who was taken from us MUCH too soon, gives us a spine-tingling, hair-raising, and heart-pumping story that is begging to be brought to the screen (hint, hint Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video). The Watcher in the Shadows—which is book three in the Niebla series, but can be read as a standalone—is a suspenseful, young adult horror that wastes no time in bringing the story’s action to full steam. Each chapter brings an escalation in the danger, as well as several eye-opening revelations that keep the reader guessing until the end.   

Given the current horror offerings inundating cable and movie screens lately, I was hesitant to pick up anything in this genre, but I knew Zafón would hand me a winner…and he did. Rather than going for the instant and predictable shock value by filling pages with copious amounts of guts and gore, he instead delves into your deepest fears by setting his scenes in darkness and using various light sources to allow walls, ceilings, and floors to become the playground for shadows that slither, slink, and stalk. Zafón exploits our primal fears by writing about situations involving drowning, delirium, confinement, abandonment, and isolation and he does so with calculated effectiveness.

This book is written for grades seven and up, but its underlying theme of technology vs humanity is one that any age could benefit from. Zafón wrote The Watcher in the Shadows in 1995, which coincided with the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web as a global medium for information access. Fast forward almost thirty years later and we’re now a society where gadgets and gizmos control almost every aspect of our life. And while The Watcher in the Shadows is not an overtly cautionary tale of automation overtaking humanity, it does serve as a subtle warning of the dangers that can occur when we depend on technology to fill the void left by loneliness and grief…an emptiness that once was filled by humans.   

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (J Historical Fiction)

The Mighty Miss Malone

Christopher Paul Curtis (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley

And leave us nought but grief and pain/For promised joy.

Her teacher told her that it was from a poem by Robert Burns called “To a Mouse”. Deza didn’t quite understand what those words meant—especially the “gang aft a-gley” part—but Mrs. Needham said that it just meant that even the most carefully planned out things could go wrong. Deza knew about this since a lot of the Malone family plans haven’t been quite working out lately. But if there’s one thing that the Malones do well it’s sticking together. After all, their motto was “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful”. Before the Malones could get to Wonderful however, Deza and her family would have to travel through a whole lot of awful first.

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, homeless camps, speakeasies, and the much-hyped 1936 boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, Curtis gives us yet another story centered around a tough-as-nails, plucky, and absolutely endearing main character. At twelve, Deza Malone is the smartest in her class and destined for something special. With a dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in the other, she’s more than ready to take on the world one adjective and adverb at a time. Deza is charming, loyal, fiercely protective of her family—especially of her older brother, Jimmie—and principled to a fault. Deza is not a girl who’s afraid to take matters into her own hands in order to set things right…even if it means a little forgery or rule breaking now and then. Struggling to make something of herself while fighting racial prejudice, financial hardship, and social injustice may prove to be formidable challenges for some, but not for the mighty Miss Malone.

The Mighty Miss Malone is the second book by Curtis that I’ve read (the first being Bud, Not Buddy). In both stories, he gives us a main character who rises above their circumstances with grace, dignity, and integrity. His stories are built around the strength of family, the importance of hope, and the resilience of the human spirit. Through Deza Malone, Curtis reminds us that even though plans “gang aft a-gley”, tomorrow is always a brand-new day that brings with it another opportunity to get a little bit closer to a place called Wonderful.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn (Adult Historical Fiction)

The Snow Globe

Judith Kinghorn (Adult Historical Fiction)

Inside her room, Daisy paced in circles. She’d been kissed. She’d been kissed at last, but not by the one she had wanted to kiss her. The one she wanted to kiss her said he loved her but seemed reluctant to kiss her. The one she didn’t want to kiss said he might love her and that he wanted to marry her. And the one she had kissed considered it a mistake.

It was Christmas 1926 and the residents of Eden Hall are preparing for another festive holiday. But this year, war still hangs heavy over everyone’s lives, the disappearance of famed mystery author Agatha Christie has the world gripped in intrigue, and eighteen-year-old Daisy Forbes’ heart is being torn apart by her feelings for her childhood friend, a few potential suitors, and a newly discovered secret about her adored father. As Christmas gives way to spring, the women of Eden Hall struggle to find their own voice, their own way, and their own sense of happiness and they’ll do all of these…even if it means leaving their beloved home behind.

I am a huge fan of the series Downton Abbey and so it’s no surprise that Kinghorn’s novel hit just the right chord with me. Full of conflicts without being overly dramatic and providing plenty of romance without being too schmaltzy, The Snow Globe shows us that the wealthy and well-to-do are not immune to such problems as betrayal, jealousy, pettiness, and all the other sins and shortcomings that make us human and fallible.

Although I always enjoy a good story showcasing the resilience of the human spirit and the power of overcoming impossible odds, there is also something to be said for a story that simply takes us back to a time and place where you could enjoy elevenses in front of a roaring fire in the family study or dance until dawn in the family garden while friends sip champagne under the moonlight. These little “reading retreats” of mine serve as an important reminder that there IS no place like home, that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and that you shouldn’t stop making wishes on your snow globe because you never, ever know when one just might come true.   

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

Starfish by James Crowley (J Fiction)

Starfish

James Crowley (J Fiction)

Orphaned at a young age, nine-year-old Lionel and his older sister Beatrice have lived at the Chalk Bluff boarding school on the Blackfeet Indian reservation for six years. Beatrice defiantly holds on to the traditions of her people, which causes growing tensions between her, the priests, and the officers who live in the nearby military outpost. When Beatrice is finally pushed to the brink, she steals the captain’s prized horse and escapes with Lionel into the wilderness in search of their grandfather. Grandfather will know how to help them, but first they must survive the harshness of the Montana winter.

James Crowley’s Starfish is packed with action and adventure and provides readers with a powerful female protagonist who is fearless, principled, and wise beyond her twelve years. The writing is detailed and the chapters are short, which add to the tale’s rapid and charged pace. Readers share in Beatrice and Lionel’s struggle to survive the elements and hunger; cheer their ability to outrun and outwit bounty hunters (they are understandably considered horse thieves); and support their loyalty to their customs and beliefs. Crowley creates a suspenseful story through wonderful storytelling that is a love letter to nature and Native American culture. Although the novel is littered with mild profanity (it’s nothing that younger audiences wouldn’t hear in a standard Marvel movie) and contains a few instances of violence, these shouldn’t discourage the targeted age range of 8-12 from reading it.

I loved the insights into Blackfeet tradition and I’m a total pushover for stories that highlight strong sibling relationships; however, the only thing that held back a five-star rating was the ending. It felt abrupt and awkward and didn’t match the same feel and flow of the rest of the book. I am not one that demands a happy ending in order to fully enjoy a story, but I do need an ending that is thoughtful and provides adequate closure. Because Crowley spent so much time and care giving readers such a well-developed story, it felt as if he ran out of steam at the end.

I find that with nearly every book, the last few pages will either make or break a story for me and in this case, those last pages of Starfish just felt incomplete and hollow. Unlike the ravens and eagle that soared high in the Montana sky, this story doesn’t reach the heights that I hoped it would, but it still manages to lift the spirits and take us on an unforgettable journey.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir

Tobias Wolff (Adult Memoir)

It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.

Ten-year-old Toby “Jack” Wolff dreams of escape and freedom. He dreams of transformation. Traveling with his mother from Florida to Utah in their Nash Rambler, their prospects finally seem bright and expansive. The future was theirs for the taking…that is if their luck changed which, in Toby’s case, seems highly unlikely.

Tobias Wolff’s memoir is not one of those redemptive stories where everyone links arms and watches the sunset over the mountain or one where friends and family cheer as our young hero makes his way across the stage, grabs his diploma, and raises it high into the air signaling triumph. This is another kind of story where the reader bangs their head against the wall as our young protagonist continues to make one horribly bad decision after another. Where the hero doesn’t learn from his mistakes and continually seems to disappoint everyone around him except himself. This horribly flawed and painfully real boy is the reason why I fell in love with this book.

Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said that the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one’s watching. A lot of what Wolff includes in his memoir could certainly have been softened or even omitted in order to allow the reader to have just a small bit of sympathy for him and his circumstances. Instead, he goes full bore and gives us all the ugly, raw, and sordid details of his early years. He deprives us of feeling any sense of pity although we understand that he is but a product of a mother who continues to be drawn to poisonous men and friends that are a whisper away from juvenile detention.

Throughout this book, Wolff explains that he craved distinction, that he only wanted what he couldn’t have, and that he was merely living off of an idea that he had of himself. Although we understand and accept this, we still ache when he tries to please a parent who neither deserves or earns it and hold our breath and silently curse as we realize yet again that another opportunity has been squandered away. Through all of his pain and suffering, Wolff reminds us that life is messy. It’s gnarled. It’s complicated. Life sometimes is just like that…especially this boy’s life.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

The Silver Pencil by Alice Dalgliesh (YA Fiction)

The Silver Pencil

Alice Dalgliesh (YA Fiction Newbery Honor)

The silver pencil was a miracle. It was handsome to look at, delightful to use because it never needed sharpening. One had only to change the lead. Janet was sure that she could write almost anything with it. Confidently she sat down at her small table, with clean sheets of paper in front of her and the shining pencil in her hand. To her surprise, exactly nothing happened.

Nine-year-old Janet Laidlaw was a British citizen living on the tropical island of Trinidad. She loved her life in the House on the Hill, but things quickly changed following the sudden death of her beloved father. At thirteen—when most Colonials went off to school—Janet traveled to her mother’s birthplace of England where her world suddenly got a lot bigger. With the promise of new friends and adventures, perhaps her silver pencil wouldn’t be silent for much longer.

Newbery books have always been my “go to” reads. Whether I’m looking for an excellent story for myself or I need a solid recommendation for a young reader, that silver- or gold-foiled sticker always let me know that I had picked out a winner. Unfortunately for me, The Silver Pencil fell short of this assumption. Awarded the Newbery Honor Book distinction in 1945, Alice Dalgliesh’s coming-of-age (and semi-autobiographical) book is about a young girl who travels from Trinidad to England and then to New York while pursuing a career in teaching before ultimately stumbling upon success as a children’s author. This book is meant to mirror Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which was Janet’s first introduction to America. Unfortunately, Dalgliesh’s tale didn’t quite rise to the level of its literary inspiration and probably won’t have the same appeal with a young adult audience.

Published in 1944, the beginning of The Silver Pencil is full of racially insensitive and inappropriate cultural references. These obviously didn’t cause a ripple back then, but would clearly result in a tsunami today. Also, Janet’s favorite book is The Story of Little Black Sambo, which she shares repeatedly with youngsters that are in need of fast and effective entertainment. Although the story’s text and illustrations have undergone numerous revisions over the decades, its very title still conjures up negative feelings and emotions. With that being said, the remainder of the book is pretty safe although I felt no attachment to the story and had zero connection to its characters. Despite it being a beautifully written book, the words just hung there and felt lifeless—lacking any sense of warmth or feeling. Even when Janet was dealing with the death of her father, I didn’t feel her pain and loss although she was obviously experiencing it. Her experiences felt more like a list to be checked rather than a life that was lived.

Despite the low rating, I loved how Dalgliesh used stories and storytelling to bridge the gap between cultures and class, to calm the rowdy and connect the displaced, and to bring people together to make the world seem a little bit smaller. They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, but Janet Laidlaw and Alice Dalgliesh showed us that a silver pencil could be just as mighty…if not more.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

Ain’t No River by Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain’t No River  

Sharon Ewell Foster

Everyone and everything in Garvin Daniels’ life seem to be going wrong: her 70-something Meemaw is hanging out with a young and handsome fitness instructor named GoGo, her friend Ramona is embarking on a bicycling fundraiser with a pastor that she just met, and her high-powered law firm has given her a case that will surely mean the end of her career. Has the world gone crazy? After an involuntary leave of absence, Garvin decides to leave Washington, D.C. and head back to her hometown of Jacks Creek where she is determined to set things right…no matter what it takes.

If you were to search Google and look for ideal character traits of lawyers, you’d get things like compassion, willingness to listen, good judgement, and great emotional balance. GARVIN DANIELS HAS NONE OF THESE! Instead, Sharon Ewell Foster gives us a whiny, insensitive, self-absorbed, inconsiderate, spoiled, selfish, petulant…well, the list goes on and on. I understand why an author would make their main character absolutely insufferable because their end goal is for that character to finally realize the error of their ways and be redeemed. They clearly realize the hell they are putting their readers through by having to deal with this horror of an individual, but we remain loyal because we know—we just know—that all of this emotional turmoil will be worth it because the character’s ultimate salvation will be our reward, too. Not so with Garvin Daniels. Nope. Even when she begins to understand that maybe she isn’t her best possible self, it doesn’t take long before she’s back to slinging insults, scorn, and contempt. And by the way, complaining about life in your tailored suit while standing in a gleaming marble restroom of a prestigious law firm to a woman who is currently busy cleaning the toilets is NOT a good look.  

I would have enjoyed this book so much more had Foster instead focused on the complex, quirky, and beautifully damaged residents of Jacks Creek: Monique, the teenager forced to give up her child and then has live with the shame and stigma afterwards; Big Esther who runs her own salon and dispenses truth and wisdom in never ending supplies; Smitty, the seller of snowballs who basks in the glow from the attention of the women at the hair salon but is looking for something more; GoGo, retired pro-football player who can’t seem to outrun his past; and Meemaw, the town matriarch who always seems to know just what a heart and stomach needs and is ready to graciously fill both. I wanted to know more about these people and spend a few more nights on the front porch with them to understand their pain and share in their journey towards healing. But those opportunities didn’t come often enough and instead I was sent back to Garvin where I counted the pages until I might be rewarded with Meemaw’s words of wisdom or one of Smitty’s deluxe snowballs with marshmallow on top.

At the end of one of her poor-me pity parties, Garvin wondered to herself why everybody around her expected her to fix everything for them. If only she had searched Google and used one of those ideal lawyer character traits. If she had, she would have quickly discovered that nobody does.

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com