Book Favorites Roundup for 2014









Another eventful year has zipped by, and with it, many books that I enjoyed reading. Some were current; others have been around for decades. That’s the beauty of a good story, isn’t it? Timeless entertainment that make us think, dream, act, and imagine. 

I had many favorites, but here are the top ten, in no particular order:


1.   The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

2.   The Art of Falling, by Kathryn Craft

3.   The All You Can Dream Buffet, by Barbara O’Neal

4.   Border Songs, by Jim Lynch

5.   Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon

6.   Hollow City (Miss Perigrine’s Peculiar Children #2), by Ransom Riggs

7.   Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

8.   Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen

9.   State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

10. A Superior Death, by Nevada Barr


I am exceedingly grateful for the wealth of books available to us, and for the authors who write them. When I worked as a children’s musician, I used to end my programs with this song: 


What you read plants a seed in your imagination

Where wonderful things can grow

Take some time to look at a very special book

And add a little more to what you know

What you find inside may surprise you

Every page holds a secret or two

That you can plant in your garden

And let your imagination bloom

                                                           -Cindy Angell Keeling



Happy holidays, everyone. Here’s to more good reading (and writing) in 2015!










Seasons of Life

I love October. It is a month that appeals to all my senses. Outdoors, I revel in the comfortable, dry temperatures (sans mosquitos); the satisfying crunch and rhythm of dry leaves under my feet; the sight of gold, orange, red, and yellow that adorns the trees. I enjoy the contrast of a bright yellow maple against a deep blue sky, and the pleasantly pungent smell of decay as I walk through a forest or tend my sleepy garden.

Indoors, there's the heady aromas and flavors of chili, soup, or stew; the comfy-ness of my favorite sweater; the mug of tea that warms my hands as I sit in contemplation of…anything. It is December now, and most of the leaves have released their trembling grip on the trees that sustained them. They have entered a new phase of being.

A few weeks ago, in October, my 91-year-old mother released her own trembling grip on life, and floated away peacefully on her final breath. She was a giver: a consummate volunteer who found her passion in living a life of service. She was a doer: a life-long activist for social and environmental justice. She embraced diversity; she loved her family and friends.

At her memorial service, my sister read Mom’s favorite Bible passage that begins, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” which beautifully sums up life in general. As I, too, enter into a new season, I am grateful for sweet memories of a remarkable woman who profoundly touched the lives of so many, particularly those experiencing the harsher seasons of life. 

Dorothy Buttler Angell

July 13, 1923 - October 16, 2014






Story Development with a Sprinkle of Lavender

I love cooking as much as I love writing. I find it supremely satisfying to make up recipes, or embellish established ones. I love sauteing onions and garlic with spices like garam masala and cinnamon, and adding the mixture to soup and stews. Or, topping rice pasta with oven-roasted tomatoes, homemade goat cheese, and toasted pecans. The most pleasing dishes have a balance of sweet, salt, bitter, and sour.


Story development is like cooking. You start with the basic idea and begin adding ingredients: three cups of backstory, a heaping tablespoon of longing, a long pour of conflict, a sprinkle of spicy passion. 


One of my favorite writers is Barbara O’Neal, who writes women’s fiction that centers around food, gardens, and dogs—all things I love! She’s brilliant at character development, compelling premises, and sensory detail. Her stories are balanced and satisfying, leaving the reader wanting extra helpings.


Her latest, THE ALL YOU CAN DREAM BUFFET, centers around four women—all food bloggers—who journey to a lavender farm in the Pacific Northwest. Each is dealing with life changes and personal struggles. There are vintage campers, lovable dogs, delicious food, supportive friendships, and wonderful transformations—all infused with the scent of lavender.


“Coming together will change the Foodie Four in ways they could never have imagined, uniting them in love and a common purpose. As they realize that life doesn’t always offer a perfect recipe for happiness, they also discover that the moments worth savoring are flavored with some tears, a few surprises, and generous helping of joy.”                       

—From book description on


I highly recommend this book. (As a funny aside, my dog Wookie looks exactly like the dog on the cover.)


A few weeks after I read THE ALL YOU CAN DREAM BUFFET, I was inspired to make a chocolate cake. I use a good gluten-free cake mix, and—because I can’t help myself—add other ingredients to liven it up. In the past, I’d added a few shakes of cinnamon and the zest of an orange, which was delicious. This time, I also added a little cardamom, culinary lavender, and coffee for the liquid. Thus, I ended up with my gluten-free Chocolate Espresso Cake with Orange Zest and Lavender.


It went from delicious to Oh, baby. (Sweet? check. Salt? check. Bitter? check. Sour? check. YUM.) 


My husband teases me that I can’t leave well-enough alone. To which I laugh, and reply, “I like making well-enough better.” And that is what writing a story is all about: starting with a good idea and improving upon it. 


Here’s to happy cooking! 







Fear and Melodrama (Or, Adventures in Piano Lessons)


“Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.”    

Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes



I love that quote. The challenge of facing our fears not only offers us the opportunity to grow, it often leads us to our next adventure. Or at the very least, sneaks in skills that come in handy later in life.


To wit: I took piano lessons first grade through seventh grade. While it gave me good musical footing, it was never “my instrument.” I could play a piece decently once I had it memorized, but struggled with the skill of reading music without constantly glancing down at my hands.  And practicing scales and dexterity exercises was akin to thirty minutes of drip torture. 


One of my piano teachers, Mrs. Bean, held lessons in her home. She was a nice woman, and I remember being fascinated by her manicured fingernails. (How can she play with such long nails? I wondered.)  Perhaps she was inspired by Renoir’s “Lady at the Piano” which hung on the wall overseeing many little fingers tripping over the keys.


The lessons were fine. It was getting there that terrified me. Back in the day, there were no leash laws in our town. Dogs came and went as they pleased. Most were friendly, but there were exceptions to the rule—the rule-breaker in this case being a terrier that lived four doors up from Mrs. Bean. Each week, I’d grind my bike to a halt at the end of her street, plant my red Keds on the pavement and take a full five minutes to get up enough courage to ride past the canine-of-death. Finally, I’d take a deep breath and pedal for all I was worth. And right on cue, the fanged fury would rush out at me, jaws snapping at my feet until I cleared the property line.  


This continued for weeks until, one day, I decided enough was enough. This time when the dog rushed up, I kicked it in the mouth* and pedaled like crazy. My heart was racing as I slid to a stop in Mrs. Bean’s driveway. I’d done it! (The dog never bothered me again.) 


Another scary down-side to piano lessons were the end-of-the-year recitals. Like the terrier, this dreaded event bided its time—lying in wait before rushing out and turning me into a bundle of nerves. Each year, I humiliated myself in front of bright-eyed parents and earnest-looking students. 


Early on, recitals were held in smallish rooms on smallish pianos in the music building at the local college. Later, they were moved to the large, high-ceilinged college chapel, where our footsteps echoed as we made our lonely way up to a grand piano situated several steps above the main floor. (Lest there be any doubt about evolution, at this point my latent humiliation grew wings and began reciting Shakespeare.)


My friend Alice had begun lessons at the age of three, and was a natural. She’d sit at our old, mostly-in-tune upright piano and riff easily on Mozart and Chopin, do fancy things with “Chopsticks,” and never seemed to be troubled by nerves when she performed. As the star student, she always went last. My position was closer to the top of the lineup, not far behind the pre-schoolers.


I hung in there until the seventh grade, when I spectacularly slaughtered “Hungarian Rhapsody” by Liszt. While I started strong, my performing nerves kicked in after thirty seconds, causing my fingers and brain to disconnect. The rest of the song was a host of wrong notes, multiple starts of phrases, and worst of all, silence as I removed my hands from the keyboard in a dire effort to regroup.


Well. After I slunk back to my seat in the second pew, I decided my piano-playing days were over. A few months later, I started playing the guitar and found my voice as a singer-songwriter and—miracle of miracles—my performing nerves. (Mostly.)


I didn’t give up piano entirely.  During my angsty teenage years, I still played in the privacy of our living room. We had a music book called “Hits of the 1970’s,” and I relished plunking out sad songs and singing lyrics such as, “One last bell to answer/ One last egg to fry/One last man to pick up after/I should be happy, but all I do is cry…”


I once heard someone say that bad things don't happen to us, they happen for us. I have a theory that those experiences contributed to making me a more empathetic writer...particularly where fear, humiliation, and melodrama are concerned. Guess those piano lessons provided more than a musical foundation. When I visit my 91-year-old mother this month, I’ll give her a hug and say, “Thanks, Mom. How did you know?”







*(Not hard, folks. Relax!)









Sensory Enlightenment

Last week I spent a lovely few hours at the Morton Arboretum, located in the western suburbs of Chicago. En route, I swung by the car wash. As I put my car in neutral and moved toward the spraying water and whirling scrubbers, I decided to close my eyes in order to experience it with my other senses. I even went a step further, pretending it was my first time in a car wash. 


Wow! It was like being in a terrible storm, with water and “things” pummeling the sides and top; the car shaking a little from the force. At the end when the air blowers were drying the car, the roof flexed and made a loud pop.


Continuing my "sensory enlightenment” at the MA, I made a point of focusing all my senses as I walked through the prairie and nearby woods. Here are some things I noticed/experienced:


1. The environment was lively with the sound of bird song and insects. I particularly enjoyed the clicks, whistles, and trills of red-wing blackbirds. 


2.  Oak leaves illuminated with sunshine. There’s just something about a glowing leaf…


3.  I met a volunteer (named Cindy) who was wandering around the prairie doing a dragonfly count. Wearing a sun hat and carrying a clip-board, she was the poster child for “I am happy and serene.” 


4.  The sudden coolness of the air as I left the prairie and entered an oak forest. The air felt sensuous on my sun-warmed skin.


5.  Dappled sun caressing a dense covering of native plants rising 2’ - 3’ from the forest floor. 


6.  Chipmunks zipping here and there. 


7.  Interesting combinations of leaf textures and shapes. 


8.  Native wildflowers, such as clover and daisies, adding dots of color to the landscape. 


9.  While passing a marsh, I heard loud croaking (and I do mean loud) from an unseen bullfrog that must have been HUGE. (I imagine the lady frogs were swooning and making plans.)


10. Tall grasses with seed pods swaying in the breeze. Is there anything more graceful?


11.  The air smelled delicious—sweet and grassy.


12.  The architectural shapes of old oaks--gnarled brown beings with limbs stretched wide, standing watch through the centuries.



It was a fun exercise that left me feeling creatively focused—and especially grateful for the gifts all around us.


Where do you go for inspiration?







Merriment with Synonyms


We writers love to find just the right words, don’t we? I recently bought a 1978 edition of J. I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder—a three-inch thick paperback tome.

It’s chock full of good words! 


May I recommend a few?


1.  Instead of prank, why not use monkeyshine?

“Timmy, are you responsible for this monkeyshine? Clean up this cat hair and wash your hands for supper!”


2.  Instead of settlement or understanding, how about the elegant rapprochement?

The attorneys came to a speedy rapprochement after the judge said, “Five more minutes, fellas, and I’m outta here.”


3.  As a substitute for malcontent, why not use demagogue?

“Keep a sharp eye on Dan McGlubber,” the sheriff said. “He’s a demagogue with something to prove.”


4.  Instead of lackadaisical, consider dilatory.

Mrs. Helms sighed. "Ever since Robert bought that super-deluxe recliner, he's gone from relaxed to plain ole dilatory."


5.  And how can you miss with replacing succinct with epigrammatic?

The CEO smacked the board room table. “Give me the facts, people, and keep it epigrammatic, sweet, and to the point.”



For a little extra mirth, here’s a test. Can you figure out the titles of these novels? Leave your conjectures in the comments, and I’ll post the actual titles in two weeks. (Hint: All were published within the past five years.) Have fun!


1.   The Aptitude of Plummeting

2.   Summoning Me to my Old Abode

3.   The All You Can Concept Sideboard

4.   La Belle Demimondaine

5.   The Creation of Appendages

6.   Vanished Tarn

7.   The Depicted Lassies

8.   Lodging on the Joint of Acerbic and Nectarian

9.   The Wee Hours Spectacle

10. The Customary Practices of Politeness












Surprises Under the Snow

The snow is mostly gone. The slush-mountains have receded to mere dirt-covered humps at the edges of parking lots and roads.


I've been delighted by unexpected discoveries: pure white snowdrops under the spruce tree in the back yard, and bright yellow blossoms of winter aconite on the north side of our home. Both began emerging under the snow.  


I love surprises. And I love how the frozen ground responds to the strength of the spring sun. I’m convinced that snow acts both as a blanket and a conductor of light and energy. Cold weather lingers in our area, but once the temps stay above freezing, bulbs and buds are going to surge forth in an explosion of green and bloom.


Ideas are like that, aren’t they? Tiny bulbs quietly resting, waiting to be warmed by the light of our imagination. Life pulses inside...and at the right moment awakens and pushes up through our consciousness. 


In my experience, giving ideas time to develop is crucial. As a friend once said, “Everything has a rhythm.” I agree. When the time is right, those ideas emerge with a whole new identity. 


Under the giving snow blossoms a daring spring.”  ~Terri Guillemets


Creativity is all about cycles and rhythms...and the sweetness of finding surprises under the snow. 











Reclaiming the Creative Flow

It’s been a very wintry winter in Chicago. After several snowstorms with fancy names, white mountains of plowed snow grace the landscape and the roads are salt-encrusted. We recently added the term “Alberta Clipper” to our vocabulary after several days of intense winds from the north.


I drove/blew to Missouri to visit my mother during one of these clippers. The first three hours were dotted with breathless moments where snow blew across the road from one flat field to another. Thank goodness it was early on a Saturday with little traffic.


Hours later I crossed the Mississippi and took a short break at my favorite stopping place: a bluff-top park high above the river at Louisiana, MO. Buffeted by the wind, I looked back toward Illinois—miles and miles of a winter landscape beyond an ice-covered river. You know it’s been cold when the Mississippi freezes! It was thin enough to see through in places, and a few spots were melted—looking like a giant finger had taken a swipe through it. 


It was a metaphor waiting to happen. 


It occurred to me that creative flow is like a river—a non-stop source that is always available until something happens to divert, dam, or in this case, freeze it over.

Life, like cold weather, has a way of interfering with our goals, which can lead to creative inertia…and feeling out of integrity with ourselves. Think of it as creative flow meets the polar vortex.


When this happens, how do we get it thawed out and flowing again?


In her workbook, PowerBites: 30 Ways to Reclaim and Sustain Your Personal Power, M. Cathy Angell says:


“At our very core, we are creative beings. New ideas and dreams spring from our minds every day, waiting for us to grab hold and manifest something magnificent. When we ignore our creative urges, our energy gets stuck. We feel depressed, dissatisfied, and discontent. We feel guilty because we know we are neglecting ourselves at a deep level. 


We claim our power when we pay attention to our inner urgings. If you feel the urge to write, paint, sing, dance, take a trip, enroll in a class, play an instrument, dress elaborately, sculpt something out of stone or do stand-up comedy…it’s important to take action. These are the things that remind you of who you are.”


We are creative beings living in a creative world. Taking action—however that looks for you—just might be the giant-swipe needed to clear the ice and get flowing again. 






(Yep! M. Cathy Angell is my sister. She is the author of the wonderful (and empowering) workbook, PowerBites: 30 Ways to Reclaim and Sustain Your Personal Power, and the award-winning My Spirit Flies: Portraits and Prose of Women in Their Power. Both are available at Amazon.)









Writing and Life Purpose

I once heard “life purpose” defined this way:  We all have a general life purpose, which is learning to love more. We also have a purpose that is specific to each of us. The speaker went on to take the mystery right out of it: What do you love to do, or are drawn to do? What are your natural talents or gifts? 


What I loved about this was that “life purpose” went from being an intangible concept to something that made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t our natural talents and gifts be part of our life purpose? And it could be anything: writer, doctor, parent, teacher, artist, athlete, gardener, musician, and on and on. 


There is a retired minister at the nursing home where my mother lives. I’ll call him Reverend Bill.  In his mid-nineties, he has lived there for many years.  Confined to a wheel chair, he uses his feet to slowly propel himself along. His fingers are bent and paralyzed, and his tongue protrudes at a right angle from between his few remaining teeth.  And yet…his mind is still sharp, and he likes to visit with staff, fellow residents, and visitors despite having impaired speech. He is a bright spark!


He and my mother are old acquaintances. I was touched when he made the effort to come down a long hallway last week to wish us 'Merry Christmas.' The next day we met him in the lobby. Each time, his face and eyes would light up as if we were the ones he most wanted to see in that moment. As he chatted with my mom, it occurred to me that he is still living his life purpose. Even with all his physical limitations, Reverend Bill continues to be a vehicle for love and light. 


As I think about my goals for 2014, I feel grateful for the gift of writing. What can I accomplish this year? How may I be a bright spark for someone else?  I’m reminded what a blessing our talents are, and how much (or little) we can choose to use and develop them.  To that end, my underlying goal this year is to write with (life) purpose and gratitude. 


Happy New Year!