Review – The Burn Zone: a Memoir by Renee Linnell

If you’re anything like me, you find the psychology of cults very interesting. I cannot tell you the amount of hours I have devoted to reading about Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, Children of God, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Growing up, I had friends who were in a cult and I think that probably sparked the fascination I have with them today.

One thing I’ve never really considered, though, is how somebody gets lured into a cult. I mean, I’ve never really thought about it. And I’ve never really thought about the types of people who find themselves in cults.

I had to stop and evaluate these things before I read The Burn Zone: a Memoir by Renee Linnell. I had to figure out my own preconceptions about cult life before I read this memoir. I felt it would help me focus my reading. What I realized is if you were to ask me what kind of person falls into a cult, I’d tell you somebody who was weak, stupid, or both.

But ten seconds with Linnell’s memoir taught me otherwise.

After seven years of faithfully following her spiritual teacher, Renee Linnell finally realized she was in a cult and had been severely brainwashed. But how did that happen to someone like her? She had graduated magna cum laude with a double degree. She had traveled to nearly fifty countries alone before she turned thirty-five. She was a surf model and a professional Argentine tango dancer. She had started five different companies and had an MBA from NYU. How could someone like her end up brainwashed and in a cult?

The Burn Zone is an exploration of how we give up our power―how what started out as a need to heal from the loss of her parents and to understand the big questions in life could leave a young woman fighting for her sanity and her sense of self. In the years following her departure from the cult, Linnell struggled to reclaim herself, to stand in her truth, and to rebuild her life. And eventually, after battling depression and isolation, she found a way to come out the other side stronger than ever. Part inspirational story, part cautionary tale, this is a memoir for spiritual seekers and those who feel lost in a world that makes them feel less than perfect.

When I was contacted about reading and reviewing this book, I jumped at the opportunity. This rang all of my bells. I was so ready for this book. I waited in anticipation for its arrival to my mailbox.

When I opened it and began reading, I realized I was not ready at all. I was not ready for how real and raw Linnell was going to be. I was not ready for the amount of heartache that was going to be in this book. I was not prepared for Linnell’s skill as a writer, either. What I’m telling you is there was no way to prepare me for what was in this book.

Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

If Dr. Angelou is any judge (and she is) then I cannot imagine Linnell’s agony as she wrote this story. Recently the hosts of my favorite podcast announced they were writing a memoir. They mentioned how painful it was to dig up old wounds and to explore them again. My main takeaway from this book and Linnell as a writer is how incredibly strong and brilliant she is.

In most book reviews, I tell you about the plot of the book. I tell you about characters and plot devices. But The Burn Zone is a memoir, and therefore not my story to tell. Instead, I will talk about the journey this book took me on. And what a journey it was.

The Burn Zone spoke directly to my heart. Linnell is open about the pain and struggles of her past that are so familiar to me, they could very well have been my own problems. From the preface through the entire book, Linnell comments on the human condition and our overwhelming need to be accepted and to have a purpose.

She opens with a Chinese folktale that was so beautiful, I stopped reading to share it with my friends. I had never heard this tale before and I had to share it immediately. It was all about finding acceptance. This little tale set the tone for the entire book. Her preface ends with a call to action, just to make sure she drives her point home.

Embrace your skeletons in the closet. Pull them out and paint them pink. Celebrate them. Your skeletons are probably the most interesting part about you. Your difference is your destiny.

As a narrative, The Burn Zone is presented in a very interesting way. The story is woven in a broken timeline. It alternates between telling the story of how Linnell was lured into the cult, and stories from the time before. I love this style of narrative in fiction and nonfiction. I’m attracted to a non-linear timeline. Every time one of the vignettes ended, I wanted to know more about what I’d just read, but I was also intrigued by the new story that came next. It kept me turning page after page to read everything she had written.

The writing of this book is fantastic. It’s so visual and descriptive; I really felt as if I were there, experiencing everything through my own eyes. From descriptions of beautiful, blue, dolphin-filled waters to pink-purple deserts, I was transported across the world with Linnell. I found myself–on more than one occasion–envious of Linnell’s life. I was never able to travel like she had. I was never afforded the same amazing opportunities of surfing and dancing and life. If she were to write a travel memoir of just the places she’d visited, I’d swallow it whole.

Reading her experiences in the cult, however, was a much different experience. I felt my heart ache. I more than once told her to stop what she was doing. I wrote in the margins notes about the ways that brain washers function. It was all too real. It was a slow fade and, as a third-party observer easy to track. But I spent my time in this book, trying to put myself in her shoes. I tried to understand how this could happen to somebody so brilliant and strong. Not because I thought I was different, but because I know I’m exactly the same.

All anybody wants in this life is to belong. All anybody wants is to be accepted and valued. And in times when I hurt the most, and I can think of a few, it would have been just as easy for my to slip away and lose myself to somebody else’s identity, just to feel accepted and welcome. I wonder if my narrative would have been much different if I were in her shoes.

I began to realize my story had worth.

This truly is–as the jacket copy states–a story of empowerment and a cautionary tale. This is an important story. This is a strong story. This is a story of how easy it is to lose yourself entirely in an attempt to find yourself. But more importantly, this is Renee Linnell’s story. This is the story of one woman who lived through hell and came out on the other side, broken down and rebuilt by flames.

The Burn Zone: a Memoir is an incredible, heavy, wonderful book. It is as much commentary on the human condition as it is a personal, heartbreaking story. I highly recommend it to anybody interested in psychology, survivor stories, and stories of strong, empowered women. It goes on sale everywhere October 9. Pre-order your copy now!

Plucky’s rating?
5/5 stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

About the Author:
Renee Linnell is a serial entrepreneur who has founded and cofounded five companies and has an Executive Masters in Business Administration from New York University. Currently she is working on starting a publishing company to give people from diverse walks of life an opportunity to tell their stories. She divides her time between Colorado and Southern California.

Banned Books Week – Looking for Alaska

It’s my favorite literary week of the year! Happy Banned Books Week, reader!

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For those of you who are unfamiliar with Banned Books week I’ve provided some information, before I begin talking about my favorite banned books.

What is Banned Books Week?

Banned Books Week is the annual celebration of the freedom to read. Every year, books are challenged in public schools and libraries around the world for their content or their ideals. Banned Books Week is a chance to raise awareness of these challenged books and the silencing of stories that results.

Why celebrate Banned Books Week?

Every year people try to take away readers’ power to decide what is right for them and their children to read by bringing challenges to remove books from school and public libraries. This ultimately takes away the freedom of choice and the important stories told through books. Banned Books Weeks is an opportunity to celebrate and educate people in the importance of diverse stories.

What kinds of books are being challenged?

All kinds of books are being challenged: historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, religious fiction, narrative nonfiction, self-help books. You name it, there has been a book in that genre that has been questioned. (Okay, to be fair, I’m not sure about cookbooks, but I wouldn’t doubt it.)

It’s important that we don’t allow our right to choose what we read be taken by somebody else. And it’s important we continue to fight for the freedom for authors to publish the stories they need to tell. Books are important. The stories they tell are important. Lives are changed by books daily, The limiting of stories limits voices, and diversity, and freedoms in ways that are unacceptable.

The first time challenged books became a real issue to me was in 2008. John Green posted a video on the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel about his book, Looking for Alaskabeing challenged by parents at a high school in New York. I had not read Looking for Alaska, yet, but I was appalled that people were trying to limit students’ access to a book at all.

After watching this video, I fell down the research rabbit hole of challenged and banned books. And what I found was disconcerting to say the least. People were banning and challenging books for the stupidest reasons! Winnine the Pooh was banned because the anthropomorphic stuffed bear didn’t wear pants? Of Mice and Men was banned because it took God’s name in vain? This is ridiculous. I know entire human beings who use God’s name in vain and we haven’t petitioned to ban them, yet.

I grew a deep affinity for banned books. There was something magical about a book that upset somebody so badly, they had to seek to have it removed. Do you know what I noticed about these books? They’re good books. They’re well written and they hold great stories (mostly; there are always exceptions). And it makes sense, I guess. Books that are poorly written are ignored, right? They have their own slew of other issues, like–I don’t know–being bad books.

I have an issue with authority; it runs deep. It’s been a lifelong problem. It is probably this lifelong issue that causes me to really love the books that somebody else tells me not to read. And I know I’m not alone in that. It makes me wonder how many banned books have been read by my fellow rebels-without-causes just to “stick it to the man.”

This week, I’m going to write each day about a different banned/challenged book that I’ve loved.

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Looking for Alaska is a Young Adult fiction novel by John Green (one of my top favorite authors.) Though it came onto my radar in 2008, when it was challenged, I didn’t wind up reading it for the first time until 2010. College was an interesting time in my reading life. I had decided that college meant a more mature me, a me who didn’t read kids’ or YA fiction. I read serious books and thought serious thoughts.

Not reading Looking for Alaska didn’t stop me from being offended over its challenge, however. It made me angry to think that there were parents who believed they were entitled to limit not just the freedoms of their own children but the freedoms of every child in the school. And while I know that many students had access to public libraries and bookstores at the time, I also know that many students–myself included–did not have access to a public library or ready access to a bookstore. I lived in the middle of nowhere and if my school didn’t have the book, there was a large chance I wouldn’t get to read it.

It brought me pure rage.

What really enraged me was the reason it was being challenged. It was challenged because of a scene of a sexual nature.

Now, I’ll be honest, as a teacher of middle school and high school, I don’t always want my students reading about teenage sexual relations. But it has nothing to do with the content and everything to do with the emotional maturity of the student in question. I wouldn’t just blanket dismiss a book because of sexual content.

And if parents were so up in arms about kids reading a book with sexual content, why weren’t they going after television? Why weren’t they angry that shows like Sex in the City were allowed to exist at all? Why weren’t they mad that the cast of Friends freely and openly talked about their sexual relationships? Why weren’t parents angry that prime time was filled with innuendo?

Why weren’t people coming after the radio? Since the music of The Beatlesmusic has been getting increasingly more sexual in nature. Were these parents running with their flames and pitchforks to their local “Mix of the 80’s, 90’s, and today” stations to demand they only play wholesome music about patty-cake and yellow ribbons? Why was it acceptable for these forms of media to have content of sexual nature but not the books their children read? Especially when the content in the book was minimal, compared to the content in other forms of media.

The only conclusion I could come to at the time is that parents didn’t actually want to limit all media. If Friends-in-syndication were taken off the air for its sexual content, they wouldn’t get to watch it. If all media had been regulated this way, they wouldn’t get to listen to Boyz II Men or Marvin Gaye. It’s much easier to regulate media you never intend to consume.

“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
–  François Rabelais

Looking for Alaska is a wonderful book about a boy seeking is own Great Perhaps. It’s a coming of age tale and deals very seriously with heavy topics important to today’s teenagers. It was a book that captivated me and held my attention. Anything I can say about Looking for Alaska, John Green has already said in the video I linked earlier in this post.

What I know about banned books, I owe to Looking for Alaska. It is the book that inspired me to learn more, to fight harder, and the treasure the diverse and wonderful stories that captivate people so strongly, they feel the need to end their existence completely.

What are you favorite banned books? Leave a comment and let me know!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Book Tour – I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

Today is an exciting day as I get to be part of Anne Bogel’s release tour for her new book, Reading People: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, which will be released September 4, 2018.

Last year, I was chosen to be part of Anne’s launch team for her first book, Reading People, and that experience is what prompted me to launch The Plucky Reader. Having the opportunity to support her second book–after having been so inspired her in the past–is an incredible opportunity. But being chosen as part of her Book Tour is an even greater honor.

I’d Rather Be Reading could very well be the title of my autobiography. I say this phrase at least six times a day. I think it probably several hundred times more. And if you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve had this thought a time or two.

I’d Rather Be Reading is an essay collection, and to be honest, it’s the first essay collection I’ve read. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve developed a love of nonfiction, memoir, and essays. Reading once had been my escape from this world, but it has slowly evolved into a way for me to view different facets of the world, instead.

Reading isn’t just a way to pass time–it’s a lifestyle. Books shape, define, and enchant us. They are part of who we are and we can’t imagine life without them. In this collection of charming and relatable reflections, beloved book blogger and author Anne Bogel leads you to remember the book that first hooked you, the place where you first fell in love with reading, and all the books and moments afterward that helped make you the reader you are today.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you can see how this book would resonate with me. I have written about the book that made me fall in love with reading, and I remember all the places I’ve read my favorite book. The marks books leave are indelible, and I can remember every one I’ve read, all of them like the memories of old friends.

Old books, like old friends, are good for the soul.

In Bogel’s essay, “Again, for the first time,” she discusses the power of rereading a great book. As a notorious rereader, it’s refreshing to hear of the power of rereading through someone else’s eyes. She points out the magic of knowing the ending, the power of knowing a character’s true intentions. The first time you read a story, you’re discovering something brand new. But the second time, third time, fourth time, you’re seeing the small things, the nuances that lead to the story, the motivation of the characters, the arc of the storyline well before it’s revealed itself. It’s a beautiful experience.

Bogel’s essays speak the hearts of readers. From “Confess Your Literary Sins” to “Bookworm Problems” to “How to Organize Your Bookshelves” they are real and beautifully written and relevant to the heart of every reader. Her writing is conversational and familiar. It’s like having a conversation with a friend. It’s easy to connect with.

I often relate reading to food (my other great passion in this world), and in this case, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life is dessert. But not something light, not a fruit salad to be gobbled up all at once. No. It’s something rich and buttery, something heavy with ganache. It’s something to be savored, not devoured all at once. It’s a small book, the essays read quickly, but I can’t imagine blowing through this book in one sitting, it needs time and attention.

Pick this book up! It’s beautifully written and beautifully designed. The perfect little book to keep beside your bed and read an essay before sleep.

Order it before September 4th for some amazing pre-order bonuses, including:

  • FREE digital download of the audio version of the book, read by the author
  • Access to Anne Bogel’s class “7 Ways to Get More Out of your Reading Life,” a live class recorded on August 2. The recording is available for all preorders.
  • Beautiful digital artwork of the book

You can access these preorder bonuses on the I’d Rather Be Reading website.

Plucky’s Rating?

5/5 Stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Full disclosure: As a member of the I’d Rather Be Reading launch team, I received a copy of this beautiful book (now I’m talking design-wise, the cover is beautiful), along with some other beautiful promotional items. I’d like to thank Anne Bogel and the I’d Rather Be Reading team for including me in her launch and her book tour.

Anne Bogel is the creator of the popular blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast What Should I Read Next? Her book lists and reading guides have established Bogel as a tastemaker among readers, authors, and publishers. The author of Reading People, she lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

You Can Always Trust Someone with Blue Hair

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For the past month, I’ve had blue hair. And I’ve loved every minute of it

Growing up, we weren’t allowed to dye our hair. And after I was an adult, I’ve always had a job that didn’t allow me to have crazy-colored hair. Even in the summers, when teachers allegedly have loads of freedom. (I’ll let you know when I have one of those free summers with nothing to do that’s just two months of a paid vacation.)

But this summer, I’ve taken actual time to myself and I let loose. I dyed my hair blue. Okay, that’s the extent of my wildness because I don’t do so well at wild.

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When I first got my hair done, my stylist, Alexis, told me, “everybody’s going to be looking at you now.”

I both believed her and did not believe her. For one, I’m a BIG personality. It’s rare for me not to be the center of attention, because I demand attention. Admittedly, it’s a defense mechanism. If I control everybody’s attention, then I control the way they perceive and think about me. It stops them from being free to form their own opinions. I’m in control of people’s perceptions.

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But I didn’t believe that people would begin to notice me without my permission. I thought I was always in control.

Turns out that’s not the case. Apparently, people do notice you when you walk into a room with blue hair. People notice things like you only wear the color blue (guilty) and that you’re tall (apparently), and they feel obligated to comment on the things they’ve noticed. It’s one thing when it’s a kid. Kids are allowed to acknowledge their observations. But the amount of adults who share their opinions is surprising.

Remarkably, feedback on my blue hair has been really positive. People say it suits me. People say they’re jealous of it. It’s been a great conversation starter. Everybody who has ever dyed their hair has shared with me their experiences. And I love that. I love collecting people’s stories. I love how people feel instantly comfortable with me.

And my blue hair has only increased that. So what is it about blue hair that makes a difference? Maybe it’s because you’re not inconspicuous. It’s hard to hide in a crowd when you’re over 6 foot tall and have blue hair. You’re easily recognizable.

Maybe it’s because it’s a sign of individuality. People see your blue hair and think you are totally confident and secure and confident in yourself. You don’t listen to the crowd. You don’t follow the norms. You’re confident in who you are.

Maybe it’s because I just have a kind smile or something. At this point, I can’t really tell you why people have been more attracted to my blue hair thatI expected. What I can tell you is people have been.

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What I can tell you is recently, my wife and I went to a sunflower festival, where I was able to snap these beautiful photos. While we were there, I was asked to take pictures for people. One family asked if they could borrow the scissors I’d bought, because guests were welcome to harvest sunflowers to take home.

My wife and our friend who came with us overheard a woman say, “you can always trust someone with blue hair.” While I’m not sure of the truth or origin of this adage, it’s made me laugh. Whether it’s my blue hair or my smile or the confidence I’ve developed in myself since I dyed my hair blue, people trust me. And I guess there are far worse things in life than that.

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Cool June Morning Musings

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It’s a cool and breezy morning as I sit to write this post. The temperature has been in the low- to mid-90’s this week, so sitting outside has not been on the top of my to-do list. But for whatever blessed reason, today it’s in the mid-80’s and breezy And I’ll take that any day.

I’m enjoying the weather and I’ve brought with me my colored pencils (teachers love fun school supplies) and my highlighters to work on the first novel I’m teaching next school year. I’ve brought my Kindle to read some ARCs to review here. I’ve brought my headphones and my smile. It’s the perfect morning.

Now that this school year is over and I’ve had time to reflect and look back at my blog, I see that I am happiest when I am outside in the beautiful weather with a book in my hand. The problem is I’ve been working basically two full-time jobs since 2011. There hasn’t been nearly enough time for my to sit outside in the sunshine and read books.

That’s my goal for next school year. To dial it back. Read more books. Work fewer hours. I’m dropping out of some of the symphonies in which I play. As nice as the money is at Christmastime, I’m turning down some Christmas gigs. It will take some budgetary adjustments, but sometimes caring for your family is about more than just making money.

Money is the thing I struggle with the most. I will always feel I don’t have enough money. I will always fight with the fact that I became a teacher, when there are other jobs that make loads more money. (I wouldn’t happy at a single one of them, but that won’t stop me from being hard on myself about it.)

Realistically, I know I have nothing to worry about.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

Matthew 6:25-27

This verse has been quoted to me more often than I’d care to admit. But it’s only through recent prayer, reflection, and study that it’s become a message to me. I’m a slow learner sometimes, especially when it comes to self-reflection. I spend so much of my life concerned with others that I forget that I have to focus on myself from time to time

It feels selfish, doesn’t it? To take a step away from everybody and look at yourself. There’s so much pain in the world. There’s so much need and hurt and ache. And I want to fix it all. Every once in a while, though, I need that not-so-subtle reminder that if I don’t take care of myself a little bit, then I won’t be able to care for anybody else. And showing people love is one of my favorite things.

So I’m shifting my focus. Not entirely to myself, but to rediscovering the things that are most important. Taking time for my family. Taking time for myself. Spending time in The Bible and listening to the songs of nature. Returning to my roots. And focusing on being the best teacher I can possibly be. Not because success in my career is the most important thing, but because I’ve been given the amazing opportunity to teach amazing kids.

Sometimes–okay, almost always–change is good. It just doesn’t always look that way at first. Change is scary. We’re control freaks by nature. (Or maybe that’s just me?) Change means giving up some of that control to unknown factors. Things such as changing jobs give you the opportunity to reflect and react and reshape and rebuild. And today, in this cool breeze, at this shady table–sitting next to the big cardinal who just landed nearby–I’m grateful for change and for the opportunity to grow and recreate myself.

Who knew the first day of June could mean the first day of something new and exciting for me? I can’t wait to see what comes next. I’ve got great books to read, I’m 13 books ahead on my reading challenge for the year, and I’ve got two months of freedom before the next school year. That’s a recipe for opportunity if I’ve ever seen one!

Here’s what I read in May:

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mulally Hunt
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Persall
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy by B. T. Gottfried (review here)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (a re-read for book club)
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno (review here)

How was your May? Was it as productive? What did you read that you loved? Send me yout book recommendations! I want them all.

Also attached is my June reading playlist. This is what I’m listening to as a I read and blog.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

 

Big Thoughts in a Small Town

This past weekend, I played a concert in El Dorado, Arkansas. It’s one of my favorite symphonies to perform in. The town is charming, the symphony is talented, and the coffee shop is adorable. There’s even an independent bookstore. Seriously, what more could a guy like me want in life?

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Saturday morning, I woke up early and decided to visit downtown while it was still cool and beautiful.

I had the best time! It was lovely. People were already out walking and jogging and spending time as a family. Birds were chirping. Flowers were standing proudly. It was idyllic. Seriously. The perfect start to the morning.

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It’s freeing to have a Saturday morning to do nothing, don’t you think? It’s rare for me. I tend to schedule my life minute-by-minute, and never leave free time for walking around downtown, eating a pastry from a coffee shop, and stopping to smell the flowers. And the flowers want to be smelled. Look at them! They’re beautiful!

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This dog was so happy to have his picture taken. He posed for the camera and smiled big. He was adorable. He made me miss my puppies and realize that I never take them anywhere. I think they’d like to go visit downtown or to Starbucks to drink a puppicino with me. I think I’ll schedule some time to drive one of my puppies around like the royalty they are.

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Something I love about El Dorado is they way the community appreciates the arts. In the past year, El Dorado has seen the opening of several new musical performance venues and is awaiting the opening of an art gallery.

The Murphy Arts District is gorgeous! There’s an amphitheater (where I played a concert with Smokey Robinson) situated right in the heart of downtown. There’s the Griffin Music Hall for indoor concerts (where I played this amazing Beatles tribute show). They’ve recently remodeled the municipal auditorium into a stunning concert hall where the symphony plays most of its performances.

The historic Rialto theater is also being renovated and will reopen in the future.

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Being in El Dorado reminds me of all the reasons I love a small town. Everybody is friendly. Everybody knows each other. I love that I’m always greeted with smiles when I’m out and about in El Dorado. I love that the people at the coffee shop are always willing to stop and chat. I love that time is kind of frozen in El Dorado; it’s still-fashioned.

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I know it’s a running theme in my life because I overbook myself, but taking the time to wander around El Dorado reminded me to slow down and take time for self-care. Strolling along the streets in the early morning brought me so much joy and peace. Time with myself to just reflect and refresh myself. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.

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I passed the most adorable little Farmers’ Market with six stalls. It was crowded. I was impressed at how many people came to this tiny little market. On the lawn beside the farmers’ market was a field where families were playing. Seriously, it was like something out of a TV show. It was like Stars Hollow. I was in love with it all.

After I’d walked around for a while, and worked up a good sweat, I finished the morning with a nice, cold Coke in a glass bottle. There’s nothing like it. It was the perfect morning. It was a nice way to chill out before a long day of rehearsing and performing.

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So, in the end, take time for yourself. Self care is important and necessary. Take the time to stroll around, smell the flowers, drink a Coke, and slow down.

It’s worth it. You’re worth it.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Life Lessons from Ponies

This weekend, I drove to my parents’ house to see my family and to play with my ponies. Let me tell you; there is no stress reliever like playing with a pony. Maybe it’s just the country boy in me, but being out in the sunlight and in the green pastures is so relaxing.

My horse, Daisy.
Daisy is the most beautiful horse in the world. It’s undeniable.

My horse, Daisy, has been my buddy for thirteen years. She is beautiful, and she knows it. She’s a world-champion show horse who has filled my life with more joy than I can even begin to describe. I’ve spoken about Daisy in the past. But she deserves several fangirl posts about how amazing and beautiful she is. And she’d happily accept all praise; she knows exactly how amazing she is. Daisy helps me to remember to be proud of myself and my accomplishments. She knows exactly who she is and she is not afraid to let other horses knows how great she is.

I wish I had an ounce of her confidence. But I try everyday to be as secure in myself–if not as aggressive about it–as my beautiful baby girl.

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Daisy even grazes like a model

Life is about more than horses. And life is about more than books. But spending time with my horses and spending time with my books reminds me of this. I’m reminded every time I play with my horses just how beautiful and awe-inspiring nature is. I’m reminded that the world exists outside of my bubble of stress and rushing and racing and spinning. I’m reminded that my life doesn’t have to be consumed with woe and worry and hassle and hustle. I’m reminded how important it is to stop and smell the roses and absorb the world around me.

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The miniature horses are so cute in their field of flowers

The miniature horses remind me that the world is a big place, and that even my small part is important. My mother’s miniature horses are therapy animals. They spend almost every Friday at nursing homes providing therapy services to the patients there. They are funny and precious and serious about their work. They are curious and sweet and love to snuggle. They’re gifts. They’re full of spirit and energy and have love to share.

When I spend time with the miniatures, I can’t help but laugh. They’re goofy. Their little legs incite laughter. They work so hard to be as big and as impressive as Daisy (who is an unusually large horse). They are impressive in their own way. And they’re perfect.

Corey, the solid-brown paint horse
Corey walking the pasture

Corey reminds me that sometimes things don’t go as planned, and that’s okay. Corey’s parents are both paint horses, which means they have white on their bodies, as well as another color (for reference: Daisy is a paint horse.) Corey was expected to be a paint horse, as well. He has all the genes to be. He had perfect breeding. But, somehow he came out solid brown, save for that small spot on his forehead.

Even though Corey didn’t come out at planned, we still love him. He’s still beautiful. He’s still perfect. He’s sweet. He loves kisses. And has the softest nose of any horse I’ve ever met. When he was a baby, his nose felt like velvet. It was so soft; I had trouble stopping once I’d started petting his nose. Corey’s a lovely reminder that the best things come in unexpected packages.

Lola, the mini horse
Lola spotted me taking pictures of her and began charging me right after this picture

Lola reminds me that we are as big and important as we make ourselves to be. Lola is the smallest horse I have ever seen. She’s hardly two feet tall at the withers. She’s beautiful and she’s ferocious. She has no concept of how tiny she is and she keeps us all entertained with just how bossy she is. She runs the pasture. She is the queen and she knows it.

Yesterday, I laid on the ground to take pictures of her from a good angle, and she charged me. It was important for her that I knew I was in her domain and under her dominion. She doesn’t let anything happen in her pasture without her permission. Because she is as big as she gives herself permission to be.

Mary the donkey stands under a tree
Mary the Donkey enjoys the cool shade

Mary the Donkey reminds me that friends come in the most unlikely people, sometimes. When Mary joined the herd, she was the odd man out. Donkeys behave differently than horses. Donkeys smell differently than horses. Donkeys make different sounds than horses. In every way, she was an outcast from the pack.

But slowly, she and Teddy (who appears later in this post) bonded and are now inseparable. They’re the most unlikely of friends, but somehow have found company in each other. It’s fun to watch them play together.

(It’s even more fun when I hear stories of Mary bellowing beside my parents’ window to wake them up in the morning.)

Mary and Teddy standing at the fence
The inseparable Mary and Teddy

Even Teddy, who I’m very angry at right now, has taught me much in life. Teddy reminds me that even though I’m grown, I still have much to learn. Teddy is technically an adult, as horses go. But he’s still hard-headed and stubborn. He’s still immature in his decision-making. He’s grown, but he’s got a long way to go. He’s hard-headed and clumsy and a daily reminder that we’re never done growing and improving.

Daisy getting a kiss on the snout

There is something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man
-Winston Churchill

Churchill was onto something when he commented on the power of horses. They’re amazing creatures who have taught me more more about life than any person I’ve ever met. They’re amazing, wonderful creatures. Sometimes I’m convinced that quality time with my horses is the closest I’ll ever get to heaven on earth.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

What I’m Reading Next

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The school year is wrapping up and I’m finally reclaiming my time to read as voraciously as I want to. While most of my colleagues are planning their vacations or how they’ll spend time with family, or what shows they’re going to binge on Netflix, I’ve been working on my list of summer reads.

To be fair, I’ve planned all of those other things, as well. I’ve found a cabin to rent on a lake in the middle of nowhere where I intend to read by the water and get a tan and turn off my cell phone. I’ve already planned to watch my way through The Mary Tyler Moore Show this summer. So it just came down to books.

I have a stack of books I have on my TBR and I can’t wait to tear into them. But the books I’m most excited to tear into are ARCs I’ve received that I haven’t had time to read. I can’t wait to spend my days with debut authors and brand new characters.

My next few books on my TBR (in order of release date) are:

The Handsome Girl and her Beautiful Boy by B. T. Gottfred
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno
Sell All the Stars by Kit Frick
Fresh Ink: An Anthology edited by Lamar Giles
Things I’d Rather Do than Die 
by Christine Deriso

This is on top of the several thousand unread books in my Kindle. (Maybe it’s not that much, but it feels that way when I remember that there are so many and new books coming out every week.)

What’s on your list? What are you excited to read? Give me more recommendations!

Love,
The Plucky Reader

Pablo Neruda – A Master of Love

In continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I revisited some of my favorite poems by Neruda. He was a master of the love poem. I’d have fallen in love with Neruda if he’d written these poems to me. Guaranteed.

Neruda’s poems are beautiful in translation, but they’re so much better in the original Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, anymore. I haven’t had someone to practice with in a long time. But I still read it pretty well and Neruda’s poems are so lovely.

I also have this wonderful edition of Neruda’s poems that prints the original text along with a really good translation. It really helped me to check my understanding. My favorite poem from this collection, however, is “Tu Risa.” I am posting the original text, alongside its translation.

“Tu Risa”

Quítame el pan, si quieres,
quítame el aire, pero
no me quites tu risa.

No me quites la rosa,
la lanza que desgranas,
el agua que de pronto
estalla en tu alegría,
la repentina ola
de plata que te nace.

Mi lucha es dura y vuelvo
con los ojos cansados
a veces de haber visto
la tierra que no cambia,
pero al entrar tu risa
sube al cielo buscándome
y abre para mi todas
las puertas de la vida.

Amor mío, en la hora
más oscura desgrana
tu risa, y si de pronto
ves que mi sangre mancha
las piedras de la calle,
ríe, porque tu risa
será para mis manos
como una espada fresca.

Junto al mar en otoño,
tu risa debe alzar
su cascada de espuma,
y en primavera, amor,
quiero tu risa como
la flor que yo esperaba,
la flor azul, la rosa
de mi patria sonora.

Ríete de la noche,
del día, de la luna,
ríete de las calles
torcidas de la isla,
ríete de este torpe
muchacho que te quiere,
pero cuando yo abro
los ojos y los cierro,
cuando mis pasos van,
cuando vuelven mis pasos,
niégame el pan, el aire,
la luz, la primavera,
pero tu risa nunca
porque me moriría.

“Your laughter”

Take my bread, if you want,
take my breath away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the spear that you shed,
the water that suddenly
explodes in your joy,
the sudden wave
of silver that is born in you.

My struggle is hard and I return
with my eyes tired
of having seen
the earth that does not change,
but when your laughter enters
it rises up to heaven looking
for me and opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the
darkest hour,
your laughter, and if suddenly
you see that my blood stains
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

By the sea in autumn,
your laughter should raise
its cascade of foam,
and in spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower that I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my sonorous homeland.

Laugh at night,
in the day, at the moon,
laugh at the
crooked streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me the bread, the air,
the light, the spring,
but never your laugh
because I would die.

Very few stanzas in poetry touch me that way this opening does. Take away my bread and my breath, but do not take away your laughter. It’s so moving. It’s so lovely. It explains what love is like. It describes an attainable love that seems so unattainable and unachievable. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.

And it seems real, at the same time.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m making no sense at all. That’s okay, too. I still love this poem so, so much.

I hope it brings you as much joy to you as it does me.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Top Ten Tuesday – Books Set in New York City

Top Ten Tuesday

Another Tuesday, another Top Ten. Today, I am dreaming (as I often do) about New York City and my imaginary life there. Years ago, before I settled into teaching in small-town Louisiana and longed for something more exciting that a mid-afternoon nap, I dreamt of moving to New York City and making my mark. I was a musician, it seemed natural to want to pack my bags up and try to make it big in the land of Broadway. Sometimes I think I could have made it, but then I remember how much I love stability and security. I like health insurance benefits and a regular paycheck.

So instead, I’ve been reduced to dreaming about what my life would be like in NYC. In my current imagining, I’m a novelist living in a brownstone in Brooklyn. I write in the mornings on my terrace, and then I wander down to The Strand bookstore and get inspired by the thousands of great books there. I write in the Jefferson Market branch of the NYPL. I attend book events. It’s a lovely dream, really.

I went to NYC in January to perform, so I won’t be returning any time, soon. Instead, I’ll have to stick to reading about New York and experiencing it through book characters’ eyes.


10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a true American classic. It’s a coming of age tale that’s heart wrenching and soul shattering. You know, that light stuff I like to read on a Sunday afternoon. It’s semi-autobiographical and that makes it even heavier, to me. Any time a book is based on a true story, I’m much more emotional about it.

I also love this book because it’s New York in a very different landscape. The face of The City has evolved a lot since it was published in the 1940s. It’s nice to have this piece of history conserving the past.

9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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I read Invisible Man at the behest of a student. She did her senior project over Invisible Man and had too many feels to not share them with somebody else.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book whenever I started reading it, but I powered through for Mary. It was heavy. It was dark. It said important things about race and the social climate of the 30s and 40s. It isn’t completely set in New York, but a good portion of the book takes place there. In the end, I enjoyed it and was glad I read it. It’s not a reading experience that caused me to feel inspired, as many reading experiences do. It just made me feel calm and reflective.

I love books about New York because they reveal so many faces about The City. I also apparently have a thing for New York pre-1950, because three other books on this list also fall in this category.

8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

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Honestly, this book didn’t make it on the list. Not because it’s bad, but because I really, really wanted to represent J.D. Salinger on this list because I love him so much. I prefer his short stories to Catcher in the Rye, though, so I went with Capote’s novella instead.

If you’ve not read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, go get it now. It’s a novella; it’s a short, very lovely reading experience. Holly Golightly is such a charming beast of a human being. She’s so raw and not at all the typical woman in literature, and it’s so refreshing. She’s crude and unrefined and has a complex and complicated story. And there’s something so masterful about the way Capote has written a story in which the narrator and protagonist is not actually the main character of the story.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s also has the distinct honor of having my favorite literary quote, ever.

“They’ve had the old clapyo‘-hands so many times it amounts to applause.”

7. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Surely, at this point, you’ve read this book. Or seen the movie. Or been exposed to it at some point. If not, you should go read it. It’s lovely. It’s complex. It’s a sweet little book about a sweet little boy.

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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You can’t talk about books set in New York without talking about The Great Gatsby. It’s iconic. It’s quintessential. And it’s perfect. Everything matters. Every color. Look. I know this book is overtaught in public schools. But I don’t care. I love it. It’s perfect and precious and I have the fondest memories of reading it in high school.

If you want a really nice reading experience, the audiobook is performed by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s excellent.

5. The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

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Holly Chase is a delightful read. I’ve reviewed it here, already. It was my first review for Plucky.

Holly Chase starts off in LA, but quickly transitions to NYC, where the bulk of the story takes place. And, for those of you keeping track, this book is set in modern-day New York City, so that’ll definitely have an effect on your mental picture of New York. (Will it? Maybe? It does for me, but maybe I’m alone.)

Holly Chase is a sweet read at Christmastime and makes a good Christmas Carol substitute.

4. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

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Okay, seriously? Did Roald Dahl every do anything poorly? I loved James and the Giant Peach. I loved the Tim Burton film adaptation.

Let’s face it. I kind of love all things Roald Dahl. (Except for whoever made beer from his swabbed writing chair. I’ll pass on that.)

While James and the Giant Peach goes through several settings, the eventual goal and endpoint is New York City. I love this adventure. I lost this story. I love the hope and the magic and the sparkle that Roald Dahl writes with. It’s wonderful. It’s enviable.

3. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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This book has been raved about by podcasters and book reviewers and Oprah. And they’re all right. It’s exactly as good as they all say it is. Everything about this book is beautiful. Everything about this book is real.

Behold the Dreamers is set in 2007 just before the stock market crash. It seems crazy to me that we are far enough out from that event that there is fiction about it. I was a freshman in college; it doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been that long ago. Jende is a Cameroonian immigrant to America living in Harlem. He works hard to provide a better life for his wife, Neni, and son. As the book opens, he is hired to be a personal driver for a very wealthy and powerful executive at an invest firm. Jende is a hard worker and very proud of his work. He takes pride in supporting his family and helping Neni through school.

Just as they’re finding comfort in their lives in Harlem, the stock market crashes and their world is throw into turmoil. It’s such a wonderful story about the immigrant experience in America. Imbolo Mbue is an immigrant from Cameroon, and it’s wonderful to have a firsthand view of the American dream from an immigrant. It’s an important and timely book. And it’s lovely.

2. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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The Sun is Also a Star is also a story about immigration and the American Dream. Using two narrators in alternating chapters, The Sun is Also a Star tells the story of Natasha and Daniel. Natasha is a science-minded, no nonsense kind of girl whose family is on the brink of deportation. When the book opens, she is working to make sure that she doesn’t get deported along with her family.

Daniel, on the other hand, is the son (or maybe grandson) or immigrants. Their family owns a business and he is expected to live up to his parents’ high expectations. He’s a dreamer with an insatiable love of poetry. He’s essentially me, if I were a hot book character and not a 30-year-old nerd.

Their paths cross and for one day, Natasha and Daniel fall have the most beautiful day together. But it’s only for one day.

love compressed timeline. I love books that take place in the span of a few hours or a few days. (Don’t look to my writing for that. I need an entire school year and 180,000 words to tell a story.) I was charmed immediately by the characters and their stories. And I was charmed by the way Yoon spun together not just Natasha and Daniel’s lives, but so many other characters. It’s a subtle reminder that our actions pull strings we’ll never see. We effect people in ways we’ll never know.

1. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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So, Rules of Civility is my Swiss Army book recommendation. I recommend it to any reader for any situation for any time in their lives.

In classic Plucky fashion, it is set in New York City in the 30s and 40s. The book opens in 1937 and focus on my a young girl with my favorite book name, ever, Katey Kontent. Katey is a Russian immigrant (seriously, I didn’t plan this, it just happened) who finds herself falling in with the social elite of Manhattan after meeting Tinker Grey. This chance meeting propels Katey and her best friend through a year of amazing opportunities and events.

The thing about this book is Katey Kontent is the most true-to-herself character I’ve ever read. She is virtuous and honest and good. She knows exactly who she is and she doesn’t allow herself to be swayed by the money or the glamor that she finds herself surrounded by. Katey discovers that almost nobody is who they seem to be in this new world. She finds that there are skeletons in everybody’s closet, but she doesn’t allow that to shake her. She is unflappable and honorable.

I’ve never loved a character as much as I love Katey Kontent. She’s a literary breath of fresh air.


Have I missed your favorite book set in the land where dreams come true? Tell me about it. I want to know everything about it. Maybe I haven’t read it, yet.

Happy reading!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader