Saturday, August 1, 2015

On not going along to get along

Last night Will and I were play-fighting. He kept teasing me, saying ridiculous things, trying to get my goat. Like a second-grade boy pulling my braids. I wasn't letting him get away with it. For every verbal assault he'd attempt, I'd fling it right back at him. Finally he stopped, looking all doe-eyed and wounded, but smiling, and said, "Gah, why you gotta always stick up for yourself?!"

Even though we were just playing around, it suddenly hit me what a wonderful thing it was Will had said to me. The reason I appreciate Will so much is because he LIKES my spunk and attitude. Once, after we'd been dating a few months, but before we were married, Will said the thing he likes most about me is that I call him out on his bullshit.

"So many women just go along with whatever their boyfriend wants, but you're not like that. You like to argue and get your point across."

Recently I attended my friend Leslie's funeral. She had died unexpectedly and way too young. In the eulogy, her sister-in-law said that everyone loved how easy-going Leslie was. Hating conflict, she'd "go along to get along."

I, too, admired Leslie's easy-going temperament, but it also kinda bugged me. I worked with Leslie for eighteen years, and during that time I often witnessed people over-powering her. Patrons talking to her abusively. Show-offy co-workers getting praised for their ideas while Leslie's quiet, subtle creativity would often get overlooked. But Leslie never complained. Never acted like living in the shadow of others bothered her in the least. Going along to get along.

I now realize the reason Leslie's easy-goingness bugged me is because she reminds me of my mom. Dad bullied Mom badly during their twenty-two year relationship. I'd watch them and think, "Come on, Mom! Stand up for yourself! Call Dad out on his bullshit!" But she never did. When Dad would start to yell, Mom would turn and walk down the hall, shutting herself up inside her bedroom until he simmered down.

That's just Mom's style. She despises conflict. Even when Dad would yell at me, she would never fight him. The louder he got, the quieter she got. When I was a kid, it bugged me that she wouldn't defend me against Dad's verbal assaults. But I understand now, as an adult with a wider perspective of the world, that not-yelling was Mom's way of letting her voice be heard. If she had yelled at my dad to stop yelling at me, then we'd all become deaf to each other's words.

Still, though, it often felt like Mom's avoidance of conflict was an avoidance of concern for my welfare. By the time I was an angsty teenager, I began raising my voice. Fighting--no, yelling--no, screaming back at Dad when I felt under attack.

The only thing that improved my relationship with my dad was moving out of the house and away from his authoritarian nature. Freeing myself. Thinking for myself. Sticking up for myself. But our relationship is still shit. We only see each other a few times a year on holidays, and even then our conversations are superficial and awkward. With my mom, on the other hand, I feel as though I could tell her anything. We don't live in the same city, so we see each other less frequently than I would like, but we chat online every day. We have a special bond that can't be severed. No matter how much she bugs me (and I'm sure I bug her, although she's too agreeable to say so).

Once though, I remember driving in the car with Mom and Will, and we were trying to decide where to go for dinner. I'd make a suggestion and Mom would say, "Sure." Will'd make a suggestion and Mom would say, "Sure." Mom was our guest, so we kept trying to get her to say where she wanted to go. "Mom! It's your turn to pick. Where do you want to go?"

"I'm just along for the ride," Mom said.

Oh, how irritating those words are to a hot-head like me. Reminds me of that other non-confrontational dude who preached peace and love and all that harmonious shit. Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. That turn-the-other-cheek dude.

They crucified him, you know.

But some believe he had the last laugh. Up there in heaven, looking down at us mere mortals and our silly, stubborn species. Always fighting with each other. Always shouting. Never listening.

No matter how much I prayed, I felt persecuted living under my dad's roof. Sometimes, Jesus, you gotta turn the other cheek as you turn and walk away and find a studio apartment of your own to grow up a bit, like I did when I was 18. Or like Mom finally did, when she walked out on Dad after twenty-two years of trying to ignore his bullshit. She moved on with her life, in her quiet, easy-going way. People often think divorce is a terrible thing for kids to experience, but for me it was good to see Mom finally stick up for herself.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Katie, setting down a biography of Neil Armstrong she'd been reading: "Mom, you lived through the Cold War, right?"

Me: "Yep. I sure did."

Katie: "Who was President when you were born?"

Me: "Nixon."

Katie: "Oh, that's right. For a minute I was thinking it was John F. Kennedy."

Me: "Nope, but did you know that I was born on the day Kennedy was assassinated? Just seven years later--"

Katie: "What's assassinated?"

Me: "When a political leader is murdered."

Katie: "Why was he assassinated?"

Me: "I guess because the murderer didn't agree with him and wanted him dead."

Katie: "That is so weird. You know there are 365 days in a year, right?"

Me: "Yeah? So?"

Katie: "That's just so weird. The EXACT same day. Out of 365 days in a year it had to be on YOUR birthday."

Me: "Well, yeah, seven years later. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and I was born seven years later on November 22, 1970."

Katie: "Yeah, but that's so weird!"

Me: "Why is that so weird? I just think it's a coincidence. It could have been on any day. That just happened to be the day."

Katie: "Yeah, but Mom, it's just so ironic that you were born on the day that the President was assassinated, and you're such a peacemaker."

I never thought of it that way. It's so strange to see our kids make connections about us that we don't recognize. Here I just think of myself as some random person who just happened to be born on November 22, and who just happens to have an interest in peace, and here my 9 year old thinks of me as some kind of big time peace hero. It's flattering. And a little worrisome, since I know the time will come when she'll realize I'm just some random person who happens to think peace is a good idea, not a key player in the whole scheme of world peace. Or maybe I am. Maybe that's exactly what we are, as parents. We are our children's heroes. We are the teachers of peace. We are the peacemakers.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rules for The Game of Life

I'm a librarian, but I'm not much of a reader when it comes to instructions. I'd much rather just jump in and figure it out as we go along. I like to save my reading time for fiction, which helps me understand my cuckoo crazy fellow humans much better than most nonfiction, and certainly more than sitting face to face IRL with someone, attempting to have a meaningful conversation. I prefer to share most ideas textually, via email, blog posts, Facebook posts, and, intricately folded up notes from my nine-year-old daughter.

My husband, Will, loves to read instructions. Especially the rules to a game. The way I play games is in exact opposition to the way my husband likes to play games. When we first played Monopoly during the first few months of our blossoming romance, I saw major red flags the color of hotels rise when he questioned my move as I placed my Monopoly money into the center of the board when I had to pay taxes.

"What are you doing?" Will asked.

His slightly raised voice didn't scare me. During one of our first conversations, even before we'd started dating, while we were in the mail room, back when he worked at the library with me, we got into an argument over whether or not a movie about a marital affair, in this case The End of the Affair, should be classified as a "great" movie. I said yes. Will said no. My inner voice said, "Who is this guy, being all cute and foolishly naive about intimate relationships?"

Turns out my inner voice was totally wrong. Will's not naive about relationships at all. He takes relationships seriously. He's known his best friends since they were six, when he moved to the city in first grade. Will genuinely believes in the traditions of marriage and children and home ownership and lawn maintenance. My husband is ten years younger than I am, but he acts like a grandpa to my angsty teen.

Will had better role models for a happy marriage than I did. My parents divorced when I was twenty-one--long after they should have. The first time my mom mentioned that she was thinking of divorcing my dad was when I was four. It took seventeen years for her to finally listen to me, my other siblings, and anyone else whose advice she sought regarding her shitty marriage to my dad.

Will's parents on the other hand have been married since 1978. Thirty-seven years. Most of their lives. And they still giggle and swoon when they sing to each other. Will's dad posts Facebook status updates that say how he loves his wife mind, body, and soul. The most romantic thing I ever saw my parents do is the time my mom leaned over and pecked my dad's cheek when he said goodbye. He was getting ready to leave for a six-week business trip, and the best they could do is a cold cheek kiss.

I'm glad I found Will. He's taught me how to love in a healthy, balanced, meaningful way. Will's one of the most mature, grounded, most reliable men I've ever known. He just doesn't know how to play board games. Or so I thought.

When Will asked me what I was doing as I set my Monopoly money in the center of the board when I had to pay taxes, I said, "What?"

"Why are you putting your tax money there? It goes into the bank."

I laughed. I'd heard about these kinds of game players, sticklers. Rule followers. Instructions readers. I'd never encountered one in the flesh.

"What are you talking about? Everyone knows you put your tax money, and your Community Chest money, and all that stuff in the center so when someone lands on Free Parking they win the lottery and get to collect all that money," I explained. Will was looking at me like I'd suddenly ripped off my mask and revealed my Scooby Doo bad-guy face.

"Becky," he sighed. "That's not how the game goes."

"That's how everybody plays it."

"It's not in the rules."

"Well it should be."

"No, do you know why? Because then the game would never be over. Everyone would keep winning money and then they wouldn't go bankrupt when they land on Boardwalk with a hotel on it. They could just pay for the stay and move on. Where's the fun in that?"

Similarly, my pre-Will high-drama intimate relationships started out fun, but they drained me, leaving me lying prone across the table, exhausted and confused and just wanting the games to end.

I still don't read instructions to games, but my rules-loving husband has convinced me to at least follow them when someone else takes the time to read them to me and helps me understand.

Like today, when our nine-year-old daughter called out to me from the kitchen table, "Mom, did you know that when you land on 'night school' you can draw a new career and salary card?"

"Huh?" I replied. "No, I never played it that way. That's cool. You wanna play it that way the next time we play Life?"

"Uh, yeah. I mean. Those are the rules, Mom."

Just like her dad. Plays by the rules. Lucky for me.

Katie, age 9, reading the rules for The Game of Life

Saturday, July 18, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (book review)

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To Kill a Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. I've read it many times. First, in high school, because it was assigned. Many more times during my adulthood because I love it. I love how it makes me feel while I'm reading it. As if Miss Lee waved her hand at me to come sit with her and swing for a bit, sipping sweet tea on her front porch, mesmerized by her storytelling.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume (book review)

Starring Sally J. Freedman as HerselfStarring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in fourth grade when I went through my Judy Blume phase. All my friends who hadn't yet started their periods raved about Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret but to someone like me with precocious puberty, Margaret was passé. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself was my favorite Judy Blume novel.

I remember really identifying with the main character, a ten year old girl who leaves behind her beloved father in New Jersey to move with her mother and grandmother to Florida. I could relate: half of my beloved family stayed in St. Joseph MO while the other half moved to Kansas City when I was six. It comforted me that my feelings of loss and loneliness were not weird, but something that other kids my age go through when their family breaks up.

It felt like I had so much in common with this fictional Jewish girl from the East Coast in 1947, even though I was a Christian girl from the Midwest in 1981. That's a testament to Blume's strong characters and storytelling. I'd recommend this classic to anyone.

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My MBTI Type Family Tree

I'm a teeny, tiny bit obsessed with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. (I'm an E/INFP.) A bit like my 14-year-old self was obsessed with astrology. (I'm a Scorpio with a Virgo moon and a Libra rising sign.) It might be a bit ridiculous to lump complex human beings into personality types, but it fascinates me.

I recently gave our soon-to-be nine-year-old, Katie, the MBTI test. The test is designed for adults, so I had to explain some of the big words and complex questions, but she had fun taking the test. She's an INFP. And a Cancer with a Taurus moon and a Taurus rising sign. OK. Maybe I haven't ever gotten over my silly obsession with astrology.

My husband Will must adore me. He is totally not the type of person who digs personality tests like I do, but he took the MBTI test to satisfy my curiosity. He's an ISTJ. And an Aquarius with a Virgo moon and a Pisces rising sign.

I found this awesome website that visually interprets each individual Myers-Briggs type. I decided to use it to create an MBTI Type Family Tree.

*Note, I'm guessing my dad's type. I've never had the guts to ask him to take the test. He thinks psychological stuff is weird hippie crap and I'd like to save my energy for a more important battle with my dad than one over whether or not he'd agree to take a personality test. Which explains why my guess is that Dad's an ESTJ. And an Aries with a Virgo moon and a Pisces rising sign.

My MBTI Type Family Tree:

Glen Burton, my father: ESTJ*

Glen Burton, my father: ESTJ*

Bev Martinmaas, my mom: ISFP

Bev Martinmaas, my mom: ISFP

Becky Carleton, me: ENFP

Becky Carleton, me: ENFP

Will Carleton, my husband: ISTJ

Will Carleton, my husband: ISTJ

Katie Carleton, our daughter: INFP

Katie Carleton, our daughter: INFP

All these and more MBTI heads are found here. What's your MBTI Type Family Tree look like?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson (book review)

I Hadn't Meant to Tell You ThisI Hadn't Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully written book about ugly subjects: sexual abuse, racism, classism, abandonment. Marie is a black girl from a well educated, affluent family. But that doesn't mean everything in her life is happy. Lena is a white girl from a poor family that just moved to town. The trashy side of town--literally--near the town dump. But that doesn't mean everything in Lena's life is shit. Both girls bond over their shared motherlessness, their ability to see the good in bad situations, and their feisty, fierce loyalty and concern for each other. In another writer's hands, the two girls, their schoolmates, their parents could have easily become caricatures, stereotypes in a "social issues" book, but Woodson treats them with the dignity and respect they deserve, fleshing them out into fully realized individuals who will stick with me for a long time.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015


When I was a kid, my grandmother owned a beauty parlor. That's what it was called. Not salon. Beauty parlor.  Old ladies would stop by once a week and have their hair washed and set. They'd chit chat with the beauticians (not stylists) and the other ladies getting their hair done. They'd complain about their husbands and children. Brag about their husbands and children. They'd read women's magazines and gossip over celebrities and compliment each other on their blue eye shadow and slimming pantsuits.

It was within these walls that I was taught how to be a lady.

It's unladylike to sit with your legs spread apart. Don't take up too much space.

Fat ladies should wear black. Or navy. Bright colors don't hide your "figure flaws".

If your breasts are bigger than mosquito bites, you must wear a bra.

If your legs are covered with spider veins, you must not wear shorts in public.

If your legs are covered with hair, you'll never attract a man. Ladies shave. Everything but their head-hair. And that must be long. Unless you're over the age of forty. Only young ladies can get away with long locks.

Ladies who don't paint their face before they go out in public, or before their husband gets home from work, they have let themselves go.

Today, when I saw this photo of myself, I thought, huh, those ladies were totally wrong. I'm forty-four and my long hair looks great. And here I am, no makeup, turning my naked cheek to greet the universe.

Friday, July 3, 2015

My madeleine: Donald "Boone" Gould the piano man

Full disclosure: I'm a total music snob. I tend to not like popular music much. Especially popular music that came out during my tumultuous childhood. Late-Seventies/Early-Eighties pop songs are my madeleines. I experience involuntary memories of traumatic childhood experiences every time I hear a goddamn Styx song. That's what I get for growing up in a dysfunctional family that constantly had Top-40 radio playing in the background.

So when I say this is the best version of "Come Sail Away" I've ever heard, I mean it. Nowadays, I generally switch stations whenever this song comes on the radio. Like Lebowski hates the fucking Eagles, man, I hate fucking Styx. But this man, his performance is admirable. This man's version makes me want to keep listening. I love this man's version of that fucking Styx song, man:

Maybe I can finally get over my aversion to Late-Seventies/Early-Eighties popular music by refocusing my thoughts associated with it to this amazing story. Donald "Boone" Gould is the pianist playing in the video above. Gould is a homeless vet who treats the community to a daily five-song set list on the sidewalk pianos provided by Sarasota Keys Piano Project on Main Street in Sarasota, Florida. Sly Dylan posted a video of Gould's performance on YouTube, and it instantly went viral. Here's the interview Dylan posted the morning after, when Gould was informed that a video of his performance had 100,000 hits in one day. Fans quickly set up a GoFundMe campaign for him.

Next came an interview with ABC7 in which the reporter states that a local piano bar, Surf Shack, has offered Gould "a tryout as a potential act".

Aww! Everybody loves a potential happy ending!

But Gould's story is not a completely happy one, as no good stories ever are. As the great Bob Ross said, "you need the dark in order to show the light."

After his discharge from the marines, Gould married and had a son. But when his wife died in 1998, he "just lost it man," and he "began to follow a destructive path that included substance abuse, which in turn led to the loss of his then 3-year-old son to Social Services."

This is why I like this man's version of the fucking Styx song, man. I can relate to his story, and to his telling of it. 

Most artists I know practice their gifts of artistry for its profound psychological healing properties. I know I do. This blog is my therapy. My mom learned to make potholders when she was in the psych ward. My brother, Pat, taught himself the guitar and played songs with a fervor only passionately damaged individuals understand.

Will and I are getting ready to adopt a child through the state's foster care system. We're preparing for the incredible emotional roller coaster we are about to embark on. We understand that children who have been through our broken foster care system have intense needs--emotional, psychological, spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical--that many other children, like our Katie Bug, children who have not been through our broken foster care system simply don't have. We are psyching ourselves up for this tremendous parenting challenge.

In the courses we are taking as part of the adoption process, we have been discussing how difficult--and important--it is to have empathy for the biological parents. Parents whose custody rights of their own children have been severed. Parents who are expected to hand their own children over to other parents. Can you imagine how difficult that would be? Can you imagine how hurt you must be to lose your own child to The System? Holy shit.

And yet, you hear these stories--real life stories, actual cases from the foster care system. Stories of abuse and abandonment, neglect and illness. Emotional, psychological, spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical abuse done to innocent children. Holy shit.

As an adoptive parent of a ward of the state, you must learn how to have empathy not just for the abused child, but for the abuser, too. It's hard. But it can be done. It helps to remember that most abusers were once abused themselves. How can you parent well when you are suffering?

For example, my brother, Pat. He was abused by our grandmother, and he turned around and abused me when I was very young. Who knows who abused my grandmother? Child abuse runs in families. I spent a lot of time in therapy, reading self-help books, and journaling about my experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family. It helped me to figure out a way to stop the cycle of abuse after I had my own child. I have this constant voice in the back of my head, reminding me to try something different. Do not do to her what was done to you. I have been successful at overcoming early childhood trauma by acknowledging it and wanting something better for my own child.

But what if I hadn't spent all that time in therapy and reading books and pouring my inky heart out onto paper? What if after my tumultuous childhood I jumped into a career in the marines, and when that was over, I jumped into marriage and parenthood? And then something tragic happens. My spouse dies. I'm suddenly without the love of my life. I'm a single parent of an exhausting three year old. How would I cope, stuck in life's murky mess?

I can see how people "lose it". My mom had a nervous breakdown not once, but twice. In the Late Sixties, back when housewives got shock treatments if they disobeyed their husbands. In my early twenties, I swallowed a bottle of Paxil and ended up in the ER, being force-fed some black stuff that summoned the blackness from within me with a vomitous force. Pat's told me stories of times he's struggled with wanting to take his own life.

Mom was lucky. She didn't lose her kids when she lost it. Her mother took them in during both of Mom's hospital stays. And I'm sure the stress of having your daughter in the hospital and taking care of her four young children might make someone "lose it," too.

Pat didn't have kids. By the time he found the love of his life she was past her baby-making days. They both died of alcoholic liver failure within four months of each other.

I didn't have children when I downed that bottle of anti-depressants. What would have happened if I did? Instead, I got my shit together. Oh, don't let me fool you. I have bad days. Lots of bad days. But I also have many good moments within those bad days, and I try to focus on them, which turns them into good days. I also have tremendous social support. I met my amazing husband, Will, who is the more psychologically-balanced yang to my psychologically-scarred yin. Together we've raised our eight-year-old daughter. Together I honestly think we can provide a good home for another child who needs a family.

When the day comes and we finally add a child to our family, I'm going to tell him or her this as often as they want to hear it: Your parents love you. Your parents need help learning how to take care of themselves. It's not your fault that they couldn't take care of you. Now we can take care of you. And we can love you. Your parents can't take care of you, but they love you, too.

His GoFundMe campaign page states that Gould is now searching for his 18-year-old son. I hope his adoptive parents have told him his parents love him.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

My own mess: my favorite self-help books

My new boss at the library is awesome. During our weekly staff training, she played this video about vulnerability from Brené Brown's viral TED Talk:

The video left me wanting more, as all good stories do. It inspired me to check out Brown's book, Daring Greatly. I'm just at the introduction, and I've already found a part that resonates with me. I had to stop and write it down. Oh, this is good:

"Social work is all about leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, and holding open an empathic space so people can find their own way. In a word, messy." --Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

When I first started going to Johnson County Community College in 1989, my plan was to transfer to KU and major in Social Welfare so I could get a job working with sexually abused children. I ended up dropping out and working at the library, later going back to get my AA degree so I could become a paraprofessional librarian.

I ditched my plan to become a social worker for a few reasons. I needed to get a job to pay my rent and buy groceries and put gas in my car, and I couldn't figure out how to do those things and go to school at the same time. I also needed time to get my own shit together before I could attempt to help other people get their shit together. My teens and early twenties were the most emotionally unstable parts of my life. It was too draining to spend my days pretending to know how to help others when I spent my nights sobbing in bed at home.

I also knew, deep down, that I'd be a terrible social worker. I'm too passionate and hot-tempered. Our social welfare agencies are chronically underfunded and too wrapped up in bureaucratic bullshit to be able to fully help people change their lives for the better. There's no way I could work in such a broken system. Seeing hurt people hurts me. I'm sure I'd freak out some day and try to "rescue" as many kids as I could, holding them hostage at my house until I realized I'd have to feed them. Then I wouldn't have a clue what to do. I'm about as far from a domestic goddess as you can get and my financial planning skills are about as good as you'd expect from a social worker type. We'd run out of boxed macaroni and cheese and canned peas and I'd have to call the agency I'd kidnapped the kids from for assistance.

I'd boss the parents around and try to tell them what to do with their lives instead of sitting back patiently and letting them figure it out for themselves. I can barely stand to listen to my friends complain about their lives without wanting to slap them, shake them, and scream at them for not listening to my advice the last time we talked. I'd be a terrible social worker.

I went to work at the library because I believe in the healing power of books and ideas. So many books have changed my life that I feel compelled to share my discoveries. I want to help other people find books that can change their lives for the better too.

As a librarian, I get to recommend books that enrich people's lives. But I'm not a social worker. I'm not actively involved in the daily lives of the people I help. I have no idea if they actually read the books I recommend. I have no proof that the books I recommend change anyone's attitudes and behaviors. I have no guarantee that the ideas I'm slinging will fix anyone's problems. And that's good. For an emotionally damaged control freak like me, it's good that my job is not to fix other people. If I were busy all day trying to fix other people, I'd have no time to work on myself, the one person who needs my attention the most. If I've learned anything from the many books I've read over the years it's that the only person's behavior I can control is my own.

By being a librarian instead of a social worker I get to step out of other people's messes, other people's crazy, and the dysfunction of other people's daily lives. My job is to provide resources for people who wish to learn how to empower themselves. The best way I know how to test those resources is to try them out myself.

Here are a few of my favorite "self-help" books. I expect to add a Brené  Brown book to it in a bit. I couldn't even get past the introduction without being inspired to write this blog post.


The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner

Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn

Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth Behind Your Weight by Linda Bacon

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults by by Michael M. Piechowski and Susan Daniels


The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler