Review: Ars Botanica

Ars BotanicaArs Botanica by Tim Taranto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ars Botanica
A Field Guide to Loss
By Tim Taranto

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

I’m still spellbound. This small book full of drawings and poems and a deep story, knocked me over. Author Taranto took two very painful experiences and wove them together into a way forward. This is the first time I can ever recall reading about the man’s side of things, the male viewpoint, the raw pain and sorrow and hope of choosing to end a pregnancy and then, sadly, a relationship. Think of this book as a toolbox.
Hope is what Taranto leaves you with, like a lone ray of sunshine through a dark hole. One thing to understand, to keep in mind as you embark on this journey of love and loss, this book isn’t about judgement. It’s one man’s innermost thoughts, a life-map, full of wisdom and kindness. This is how it began.
“Before I met her I was living. I was a composite of tastes and habits…And then your mother began leaving packages on my porch filled with food she’d prepared and slow dancing with me to Hank Williams…I was filled with a warm repose, how a houseplant must feel when moved to a sunny sill.”
Through letters to his never-to-be-born child he named Catalpa, this love story unfolds and shapes into something tangible and important and vibrant and alive. It moves through a summer.
“When she communicated her desire to terminate the pregnancy, I was with her, it was what I wanted too. When she communicated her desire to terminate the relationship, I pulled my hat over my eyes and sank into her sofa. Maybe like seeing the world on the morning after you died, I was part of a new reality I could not imagine belonging to; I was afraid to move.”
Author Taranto finds his way through his many layers of grief by sharing his life with Catalpa.
“I harvested catalpa flowers until I filled an entire paper grocery sack. To this day, I can’t think of many places I’d rather be than sitting across from her, eyes closed, head bowed, chest slowly rising as she breathes a bouquet of catalpas.”
Though this is a memoir, one person’s recollection of how things happened both to and with him, I have to wonder. Did he give up too easily on the relationship or was the reality of their mutual decision to end their pregnancy simply too much for them to bear? Though truly sad, it is important to realize that we all experience life in a myriad of ways and this story unveils a side rarely seen.
Earlier I had mentioned wisdom. Throughout the book there are sentences that shine with it.
“And to that I say that’s about the long and short of it. You’re not in love until you are, you don’t want to die until you feel like you already have, and you don’t know the Divine until you see its hand in all things.”
He ends with this, “That something lasts forever does not make it a thing of beauty, does not measure its worth. But just that it happened at all, even for a little while…”
Every day, we make choices and do our best to find ways to cope with the consequences. Perhaps if we joined forces and allowed a space of nonjudgement, our path forward would not be uphill.

• Perfect gift
• #1 for Book Clubs
• What is your hill?

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Review: Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine
By Gail Honeyman

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

Fine. Think of that word for a moment. Fine. We blurt it out when asked how we are or how the kids are or how the soup is. But in this particular novel, Eleanor Oliphant is anything but. What she is will surprise you, maybe even scare you a bit, certainly she’ll teach you a few things and I just know, in the end, you will come to love her. I did.
Told entirely in first person, we see the world through Eleanor’s eyes. I should note that this is not an exciting, adventure-filled tale full of lofty thoughts and delightful characters that race through life and blast off into the sunset. Hardly. It’s a revelation of what it’s like to live on the very edge of life. To exist as almost a shadow-person. Eleanor is someone we all have known and seen and passed by. And, she deserves a closer look.
This is author Honeyman’s debut novel, I had to check to make sure, the writing is that of a well-seasoned blockbuster. The way she skillfully weaves Eleanor’s tattered and dark and mysterious life into something vital is at the core of why this tale matters. We learn early on that Eleanor has a very scared face, that she lives alone, works as an accounts receivable clerk in an office and routine and order rule. Each Wednesday, like clockwork, she speaks on the phone to her mummy. Keep in mind, Eleanor is nearly thirty.
“It’s only been a week, I know, but it feels like an age since we last spoke, Mummy. I’ve been so busy with work and—She cut across me, nice as pie on this occasion, switching her accent to match mine. That voice; I remembered it from childhood, heard it still in my nightmares.”
Socially, this woman is a totally inept. Not only does she lack a clue as to how humans interact socially, she has pretty much simply given in to the fact that she will most likely always live alone. And then a musician catches her eye while all the time Raymond, the IT guy at her work-place, hovers on into her strange life. She justifies her very existence with simple facts as only she can see them.
“I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact.”
And this.
“Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that there’s something very liberating about it, once you realize that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That’s the thing: it’s best just to take care of yourself. You can’t protect other people, however hard you try. You try, and you fail, and your world collapses around you, burns down to ashes.”
Though the ending seemed pretty pat, by the time you get there, you are ready for some happy. Author Honeyman manages to NOT show any self-pity toward her quirky character and the sudden twist at the end, well, it will make you wonder. And that’s the sign of a really good read.
• You know an Eleanor
• Are you an Eleanor?

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Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone…”
Gone is the key word. Gone.
I really did not want to read this book, not my normal genre. Published back in 1986 and now a HUGELY successful TV series on HULU, it is once again zipping up the NYT bestsellers list. So, I figured, I better read it. It took 2 days. Written in first person and full of dark and foreboding and downright scary dystopian scenarios, it is not something you want to peruse before sliding off to sleep.
The story takes place now or in the very near future. Due to many factors; pollution, radiation, pesticides and so on, the birth rate has bottomed out. Women are mostly sterile as are many men. In swoops this new literal-minded theocratic dictatorship. The Constitution and Congress are no longer—the Republic of Gilead is created on a platform of the Seventeenth-century Puritan roots that have forever been underneath the modern-day America we thought we knew and loved.
A new society is shaped and formed and for most, if not all, the word freedom is simply gone. And guess who is running things now? The elites of this new regime. It is they who arrange to have fertile women “assigned” to their households so that they, in turn, can have children. These, of course, are the Handmaids. Now if that isn’t creepy enough, stick with me.
So, a Handmaid (a woman who can bear children and most likely has already and they were taken from her and given to, the rich!) is assigned to a prominent couple. The wife is sterile, the husband could be, but since men run things, he plants the proverbial seed with the wife there in the room holding the Handmaid! I know. And if the wife suspects her husband is indeed sterile, well, there’s always the gardener or the driver or…there is always someone. So, the household becomes more powerful, the ‘Commander’ as the head/man of the house is called, rises up in rank the more children he can ‘gather.’
The tale is narrated by a Handmaid who goes by the name ‘Offred.’ It is entirely told in first person, through her eyes and via her voice only. This is a spare and dark and tense story of survival. By using backstory (tons and tons) the reader is given a glimpse into how things were before it all fell so terribly apart. When women held jobs, had bank accounts and wore all sorts of different clothing and read books or paged through a magazine. All this and so much more is gone. Gone.
If it weren’t for author Atwood’s incredible command of the language, I think I might have tossed this book across the room. Stomped on it even. There was not one ounce of humor either. Gone. Here she describes the promise of a fashion magazine:
“Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise was immortality.”
In the end, this new world turns inside out and reshapes into something else. It too is; Gone.
• Book Clubs Beware!
• Remember, it’s fiction
• Or is it…

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Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Light Between Oceans
By M.L. Stedman

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

Author Stedman wove together a tale of choice and consequence and tossed in an isolated island and carefully pieced it together for the reader to witness and then judge the outcome. The ending surprised me and no—I’m not telling.
Most of the novel takes place on a one square mile island called Janus Rock, over a hundred miles from the Australian mainland. Tom Sherbourne has returned from WWI and though he appears in perfect health, what he carries inside haunts his every dream.
“Tom isn’t one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, of whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels…But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then. He carries that other shadow, which is cast inward.”
The small village of Point Partageuse on the south-western corner of the Australian continent is where the beginning of this story is set—as well as the end. Here is where Janus Rock lighthouse is based and it is where Tom meets his future wife, Isabel Graysmark. Together they move to Janus Rock and begin a life that at first seems straight from a Nickolas Sparks novel. At first.
“Tom dashed to his desk for paper and pen. He sat down to write, before realizing he had no idea what to say. He didn’t want to say anything: just send her a smile.”
It drips romance. Those two love-birds. Well, one thing led to another and after not one, or two, oh no, author Stedman drags the reader through three miscarriages and then something seems to save the day. Everything has a price. A rowboat washes ashore and the novel races into a storm that lashes out and nearly destroys them both; inside this small vessel is a dead man and, of course, a newborn baby that is very much alive.
“He handed her the bundle, and tried again to revive the stranger: no pulse. He turned to Isabel, who was examining the diminutive creature. “He’s gone, Izz. The baby? It’s all right, by the looks. No cuts or bruises. It’s so tiny! There, there. You’re safe now, little one. You’re safe, you beautiful thing.”
Safe. And of course, the baby they found has a birth mother on the edge of insanity with worry. Wondering where her new-born infant and husband with a weak heart have gone to? This is where the story fell into a predictable, dread-loaded formulaic pattern. With nearly unbelievable layers of story, I trudged on with Isabel and Tom and this newly found little life they named Lucy. One of the saving graces of Stedman’s angst-filled novel is the writing. It’s simply beautiful. And, I seem to have a weakness for island-settings, so there was that as well since Janus Rock is really more of a character than the setting.
This is a story of choices and a reminder that even if a man (and a woman) live on an island, life will come and find you.

• Great for Book Clubs
• What would you have done?

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Review: The Hearts of Men


Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson


This is a guy’s book; a grownup Boy Scout’s novel. It’s for some women too. Women who have loved bad men who broke their heart or men who came home from war, lugging the war with and—it’s about love and loss and hope. And underneath, it’s about revenge.

One of the main characters is the setting, a fictionalized Boy Scout camp situated on a chunk of beautiful land north of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, nestled along Bass Lake. The impressive collection of human characters in this story spans six decades and three generations, but swims around and around author Butler’s main Boy Scout; Nelson. Early on, when Nelson is a young man at camp, he is given some advice that follows (and haunts) him for the rest of his life.

“…the truth is, not all of these boys will become good men…good human beings. We do our best, try our damnedest to guide them, and instruct them. But in the end…Some boy in this room will become a murderer; another, a bank robber. Some of these boys will cheat on their taxes, others on their wives.”

As the interconnected storylines unfold, many of Nelson’s ‘friend’s’ lives unravel into divorce, murder, booze and loneliness. Through it all, Butler manages to wrap everyone’s life around some core Scout beliefs that if you walk with a moral code of good in your back pocket, somehow things could turn out. Or not.

“And now Jonathan turns his back on the younger boy, moves his head out of the tent, into the rain, “Sometimes,” he begins quietly, “I think you get mixed up in something, and it’s like stepping into a river. The current takes you and the next thing you know, you’re swimming…” He stands up fully and is gone, the flaps undulating behind him like green canvas curtains.”

On several occasions, stepping into a new scene or chapter, I had to backtrack in order to find the story thread forward. Once on track, the story moved onward in ways I found both exhilarating and very, very dark. Like life. Though female characters are few, one stands out, Rachel. Her inner thoughts are rich, rough, raw and sadly true.

“She’ll never marry again. Why would she? And it isn’t that she even desires another husband, or even, for that matter, a man, a lover. Men bore her, frankly. If only it weren’t so lonely, fighting the single-parent fight. Wouldn’t it be nice, she thinks, to simply have someone to confide in? Who had dinner ready when she came home from work?…To help pay the bills, carry the garbage out, remove a dead mouse from the basement…Just the kind of garden-variety male come-on a woman endures all the time until, of course, her body ages into simple invisibility.”

As the pages literally fly by and the ending lands neatly around you, Butler leaves you with a small ray of hope. And isn’t that what a really good read should do?


  • Soon to be a movie
  • Wisconsin Author
  • MORE has it—run!