Book Review: Astonished


Evil paid me a visit.

Prayer chased it away.

Beverly Donofrio

Warning: do not open this book unless you have an open heart.  If you’re in a cynical mood, best to leave this alone until you’re ready to be inspired by one woman’s spiritual journey.

If you’re ready, however, then Beverly Donofrio is offering her readers something precious.

Many thanks to Viking/Penguin Group for sending us a copy of Astonished; a book that I would describe as candid and inspiring.

In Astonished, Donofrio generously invites you in as she recounts how she was able to cope with life following her rape.  With faith, affection and yes, some humor, she shares the path she took to heal her soul.  Many of us don’t want to look.  We don’t want to hear about the violence of rape, or how women deal with its aftermath.  But Donofrio puts her arm around us, and tells us that we will be better off if we listen to the story of her pilgrimage.  She’s right.  And let me say right away, she’s wonderful.

In Driving In Cars With Boys (Hoarder confession – I did not read the book, but rather, saw the movie), Donofrio shares her experience as a teenage mother, and a young woman who must mature as she raises her son.  Despite her youth and dealing with the lost soul that was the boy’s father, Donofrio persevered and emerged from the experience stronger.  The story was raw and sweet, and the author’s honesty and humor radiated from the screen.

Astonished leaves a different impression.  In her mid-fifties, Donofrio was already exploring her faith, and was contemplating a cloistered religious life.  She was heading toward a change when a stranger turned things upside down.  In her own bedroom in her home in Mexico, the author was raped.  She certainly did not foresee being held at knife point.  She did not expect that the home she designed with such affection would be stripped of its safety because of the intrusion of one man. Somehow, however, she was able to fend her attacker off with prayer; it seemed to expel him from her home.  As it turned out, the man was a serial rapist, and had targeted many other women in the area for an extended period of time.  With the author’s help, he was caught.  But the rape propelled Donofrio to look for answers.  What, she thought, should she learn from it?  How can she overcome her fear?  Can she overcome it?

It’s difficult to summarize Donofrio’s journey, so I will not attempt to do so.  What I will say is that it was fascinating to observe her grappling with everything from fear to faith.  She visited five monasteries.  She went on retreats.  She spent time with her grandchildren.  She contemplated becoming a nun.  She took religious vows.

She wrestled with the existence of evil.

Since the rape, I am closer to God than I have ever been.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Since the rape, I am more frightened than I have ever been.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Beverly Donofrio

Rather than choosing to live in anger and despair because of what happened to her, the author sought solace.  She found strength in observing nature, and having heart-to-heart talks with others who had strong faith.  The fact that she was able to move forward while simultaneously embracing her vulnerability was remarkable. Donofrio is humble, intelligent and intensely grateful.  She proved that you can come out of a terrible situation more in tune with your own spirituality.

beverly-donofrio2I don’t believe for a moment that Donofrio’s journey is complete, but I do thank her for sharing her wisdom.  4 stars for a touching memoir that brims with sincerity and love.  By opening her heart, she teaches us that forgiveness is not only possible, it’s necessary for the soul to heal.

Book Review: All The Light There Was


 “…the sound of those boots reverberated in my head for months, and then for years, and sometimes even still. This is the story of how we lived the war, and how I found my husband.”

These words, as they closed out Chapter 1, had me immediately falling in love with All The Light There Was. The love affair with Nancy Kricorian’s novel continued to the very end. Indeed, I was moved many times while reading, and finished the final chapters sitting in my car, waiting for my daughter to finish her cheer practice. In there, I was openly crying during these final chapters for Ms. Kricorian has written a beautifully moving tale.

Thank you to Net Galley, Houghton, Mifflin & Harcourt (and the Canadian publishing arm Thomas Allen & Son) and finally, Windsor Public Library for allowing me the joy of reading this book.  All The Light There Was is a wonderfully touching tale of an Armenian family surviving the Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII.

All the Light There Was is the story of an Armenian family’s struggle to survive the Nazi occupation of Paris in the 1940s—a lyrical, finely wrought tale of loyalty, love, and the many faces of resistance.

On the day the Nazis march down the rue de Belleville, fourteen-year-old Maral Pegorian is living with her family in Paris; like many other Armenians who survived the genocide in their homeland, they have come to Paris to build a new life. The adults immediately set about gathering food and provisions, bracing for the deprivation they know all too well. But the children—Maral, her brother Missak, and their close friend Zaven—are spurred to action of another sort, finding secret and not-so-secret ways to resist their oppressors. Only when Zaven flees with his brother Barkev to avoid conscription does Maral realize that the Occupation is not simply a temporary outrage to be endured. After many fraught months, just one brother returns, changing the contours of Maral’s world completely.

So, try as I may, I have been unable to give up Goodreads. So yes, I did venture on the site to read other reader’s comments/reviews about the book, while I was reading. However, I cannot say I agree with many of these comments, especially those calling the book predictable and shallow? Really? Were we reading the same book? I felt nothing of the sort while reading. Instead, I was completely engaged and unable to put the book down.

Was it predictable due to the love story/path Maral was on to marry her husband? Not particularly.  How many women must have been betrothed to men that went off to war, never to return? I felt the story of Maral’s love and devotion for Zaven incredibly touching and very emotional. The story of how Maral mourns the loss of Zaven when he first leaves and then when he does not return, but also when she embraces her role  of duty and honour when she then marries his brother Barkev was incredibly emotional and really tugged at my heart. I felt it perfectly detailed how Maral was torn by her decision to stay true to Zaven and also Barkev when a dashing, wonderful man named Andon comes in to her life. Andon keeps true and waits patiently for Maral as she struggles between duty and true love.

Is it due to the part of the story where this Armenian family saved their neighbour’s young girl from the fate that awaited her Jewish parents? Well of course we’ve read a number of WWII stories where the heroic and unselfish acts that some braved in order to save the Jews from their horrific end. All The Light There Was wonderfully blended this aspect of Maral’s story. It was incredibly genuine, touching and very emotional, in my opinion. As well,  the characters in this novel were perfectly rendered. So much so that they continue to haunt my thoughts.

Truthfully, I haven’t really been able to become involved in another book following the end of All The Light There Was because it had such a powerful impact on me. I absolutely loved it, it was a beautiful and heartfelt story of a family struggling to endure daily life during Nazi occupation. 4  stars. A Literary Hoarders Approved Read for certain. I also learned a great deal about the Armenian people and how they were affected by the war and of their way of life, traditions and the many wonderful Armenian proverbs.

Audiobook Review: The Painted Girls

THE PAINTED GIRLS Cathy Marie BuchananCould I have loved this book any more!!?? I don’t think so! I’ve been done listening a little over a week now and Antoinette and Marie are still haunting my every thought! Cathy Buchanan has truly MASTERED the historical fiction genre with this one– taking just enough historical fact and blending it oh, so perfectly with a lovely fictional story that has it all. Art! Ballet! Family tragedy! Sisterhood! Betrayal! Murder!

I certainly recommend the audio if you have the chance (it was just magical) but the trade paperback featured at Indigo is also a stunner for those that still enjoy the feel and smell of a book!  Funny story– I had to nip into to Indigo to read the last 3-4 chapters in paper. The audio file was “returned” to the library with only 19 minutes to go!! And, it was at SUCH A CRITICAL PART!!!! It was so beautifully bound and laid out  that I ended up buying it for my Mum for Mother’s Day (hope she hasn’t suddenly figured out the Internet and read this!). Ms. Buchanan must be so SO proud that the audio narration, featuring Cassandra CampbellJulia Whelan and Danny Campbell, is one of Blackstone Audio’s Earphones Award Winners (March 2013). Well deserved indeed!

Little Dancer

Little Dancer
Dance, winged scamp, dance upon the wooden lawn,
Love that alone– let dancing be your life.
Your skinny arm in its chosen place
Balancing, holding your weight in flight
Taglioni, come, princess of Arcady!
Nymphs, Graces, come you souls of yore,
Ennoble and endow, approving my choice,
This new little being with impudent face.
May she for my pleasure know her worth
And keep, in golden hall, the gutter’s breed.
 – Edgar Degas

The Painted Girls tells the life story of Marie VanGoethem– who was the real life model for Edgar Degas’ most famous piece of work, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen— and her sister, Antoinette. They start out as close sisters and “Petits Rats” of the Paris Opera Ballet and end up in places neither of them would have ever expected.

I cannot even come close to describing in words how beautifully this book was so I made a Video Book Review featuring the paintings of Degas and images from the 19th century internet archives. The Chieftains provide the musical accompaniment. 5 ENTHUSIASTIC stars from me! Gush! Gush! GUSH!!! Click below to watch then run out and get this book!

Audiobook Review: Chanel Bonfire


And thus the heart will break, yet brokenly live on.

Thank you to both Edelweiss and Tantor Audio for allowing us to listen to Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless. Based on the description of what Chanel Bonfire was about, I knew reading it would be a personal journey for me. Or perhaps, I thought, maybe her experiences would be so wild and crazy, mine may pale in comparison? It’s been a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me of late, so I was both drawn to and repelled by the premise of Chanel Bonfire.

Here is the description from Wendy’s website: A stunning memoir about an actress’s unconventional, heartbreaking childhood with an unstable alcoholic and suicidal mother — a real-life Holly Golightly turned Mommie Dearest — and the unusual strength that allowed her to rise above it all.

By the time Wendy Lawless turned seventeen, she’d known for quite some time that she didn’t have a normal mother. But that didn’t stop her from wanting one.

Georgann Rea didn’t bake cookies or go to PTA meetings; she wore a mink coat and always had a lit Dunhill plugged into her cigarette holder. She had slept with too many men, and some women, and she didn’t like dogs or children. Georgann had the ice queen beauty of a Hitchcock heroine and the cold heart to match.

In this evocative, darkly humorous memoir, Wendy deftly charts the highs and lows of growing up with her younger sister in the shadow of an unstable, fabulously neglectful mother. Georgann, a real-life Holly Golightly who constantly reinvents herself as she trades up from trailer-park to penthouse, suffers multiple nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, while Wendy tries to hide the cracks in their fractured family from the rest of the world.

Chanel Bonfire depicts a childhood blazed through the refined aeries of The Dakota and the swinging townhouses of London, while the girls’ beautiful but damned mother desperately searches for glamour and fulfillment. Ultimately, they must choose between living their own lives and being their mother’s warden.

While Wendy’s mother is beyond unhinged and the level of her selfishness and narcissism is stunning, while listening I wondered if others reading, and those coming out of a more stable or “mother-loving” home-life, may have felt Wendy complained about her life? After all, she lived in New York (on Park Avenue), London, England, Boston, travelled to exotic vacation places like Morocco and got to wear designer clothes and hang with the jet-set crowd. But, while her mother may not have been very physically abusive, her level of selfishness, manipulation and narcissism is nothing at all, ever, to sneeze at. Coming of age and accepting a mature and more responsible role in this unstable and wildly confusing home does nothing to achieve a high level of self-esteem or allow for trust and the development of stable relationships.

Chanel Bonfire may have been an expose about Georgann, but I also found it to be a very touching coming of age tale for Wendy. What I thought would be a wildly different experience from mine turned out to be one where I strongly identified and shared many similar experiences with Wendy. Mind you I didn’t have the “happy hooker” for a mom, as Wendy referred to hers, but far too many other experiences were quite similar. Often I was giving imaginary fist-bumps and saying “I hear you sista!”

In the end, and heartbreakingly so, it was still only the money or the material possessions that made Georgann happy- this woman could have cared less about her children – she only wanted money, material possessions and the facade of well-to-do and a lofty lifestyle. An attention seeking, incredibly selfish woman that kept her two girls from their father for over a decade.

“I was a 19 year old idiot who had been playing the enabling eldest daughter to mother’s Joan Crawford for so long now I didn’t know any other way of life. “

During the final exchange between Wendy and her mother, when Wendy finally gives up and moves on, again it is just the money Georgann wanted, she could sincerely and honestly (and so painfully) care less about her children. They would never come first. Wendy rises above and finally moves on and takes the reins of her own life. To say I stood and applauded her final exchange with this woman would not really provide you an accurate visual.

The postscript is a mind-blowing, yet not unrealistic end to Wendy’s mother’s life. Alone, suffering from colon cancer, she died in her bed, (again, alone,) was not found for 4 days and lay in the morgue, unclaimed for 3 weeks. Boom! That’s what that felt like! Boom! Wow.

So while I thought that I might seek comfort in someone else’s pain or more harrowing experience, I found myself, still find myself, thinking about Wendy and her experiences with a woman that you struggle to call Mom. An excellent read. Thank you Wendy for sharing your story.