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The virtual shingle is out

I’ve done something I’ve dreamed of for a long time. Following two years of increasing freelance work after 35+ years in the communications field, I’ve launched the Medway Group, a consulting business that lets me focus on what I love most – using the right words to connect the dots between people and ideas.

Specifically for now, the Medway Group will be emphasizing strategic communications planning and project management, advocacy outreach, writing/editing and media training. Read on to find out plans for additional capabilities down the road.

After retiring from the Municipal Association in 2019, I took some much-needed time to reflect on what I wanted to do next. I took on a few writing and one-off consulting gigs. Turns out, I liked working from my sunny home office. Flossie, my four-legged assistant, liked having her person around for quick walks. That all worked perfectly for a while to let me decompress and refocus after many years of fast-paced traditional work environments.

Then COVID hit. As we all worked through through the first “WFH” months, I started getting calls about helping with short-term projects – an academic editing project, media outreach, press releases, a PR plan, advocacy planning. Pre-COVID, these organizations might have wanted a “butt-in-seat” person. But the new WFH mentality gave remote work new credibility and allowed people like me to fit seamlessly into previously “office-only” teams.

As these opportunities continued to pop up, my dream of formalizing this work continued to take shape. This really wasn’t a new idea. Over the years, I had batted around this dream with several friends who have complementary professional strengths. We imagined one day hanging out a shingle to collectively market our various experiences, expertise and networks.

Today that virtual shingle is out. The Medway Group is officially launched. It’s been a long time coming to decide when the idea was “perfectly-enough” baked to introduce to the world. But a very wise person recently reminded me that if I wait for perfect – the perfect timing, the perfect website, the perfect client mix, the perfect combination of services – I’ll never get past the planning.

Another wise friend told me this years ago about his business: “My services aren’t for everyone.” And that’s definitely the case here. I’m clear on my expertise (check out this page on the website for details) and know my strengths. I will be adding colleagues and formalizing relationships with several professionals who can bring in skills to complement mine and expand my networks.

But in the meantime, I’m working on some interesting projects like producing a video/podcast, helping one organization plan for a new communications department and another build a long-range communications strategy. I’m doing several types f writing and editing work while working with yet another client to navigate a legislative issue.

For now, stay tuned for what’s next by following The Medway Group on Twitter and LinkedIn. There’s more to come down the road!

Lobbying + Communications Teams = Heavenly Match or Rocky Marriage?

In theory, an organization’s lobbying activities should be closely aligned with its communications strategies. After all, the success of lobbying and grassroots advocacy efforts hinges on good communication of a well-articulated and targeted message to influence policy decisions at the local, state or federal level.

In practice, however, organizations sometimes find that turf battles and conflicting priorities between these two important functions mean lobbying and communications teams are doing their own thing. Both are in the business of communicating. However, if internal communication and organizational alignment between these two functions isn’t part of your culture, collaboration may not happen naturally.

For example, maybe the communications staff doesn’t get involved in developing policy talking points or letters to government officials. Or maybe the lobbying or policy staff sees the communications team as just writers, designers or press release machines who set unrealistic deadlines without understanding the urgency of issues management.

When an issue heats up, organizations that haven’t successfully integrated their communication planning and their lobbying strategy are often left with unfocused and conflicting messages delivered to grassroots stakeholders who should be your best messengers to policy makers.

Policy-related communications means more than developing fact sheets, writing letters to policy makers, and dashing off the reactive letter to the editor.

If the communications and lobbying teams are working together year-round and before an issue heats up, the communications team will understand the priority policy issues the lobbying team expects to deal with during the year. The lobbying team will be aware of the broader communications landscape and how to tie the organization’s priority policy issues into the ongoing communication strategy of the organization to its stakeholders and policy makers.

Five tips for aligning comms and lobbying messaging

Below are five tips for aligning your organization’s communications efforts with lobbying strategies.

1. Develop overall organizational messages with policy goals in mind. The talking points the communications team uses to pitch a news story should align with the messages the organization is communicating to policy makers. For example, the organization is pushing for changes to a tax policy. Put a face on the issue in a news pitch by incorporating the consequences of the tax law on families it affects.

2. Integrate your proactive issue-related messages into the organization’s publications’ feature stories year-round. If the communications and lobbying teams are working together throughout the year rather than just when a news release is needed to push action on a specific issue, the messages will not appear to be self-serving or politically motivated. The communications team can include the government relations team in editorial planning year-round to ensure this alignment happens.

3. Identify and educate your “third-party endorsers.” It’s not just stakeholders who can be the best grassroots third-party endorsers of an organization’s issues. Often it’s the people or organizations beyond your members/customers/stakeholders who benefit from your service or program that can provide a less self-serving approach to your message. But first, these supporters must be engaged and invested in the value of a service or program long before their voice is needed—either for direct contact with a policy maker or to shore up your message in a news story. Communicate strategically with these potential “third-party endorsers” through targeted emails, newsletters, or direct contact to help them understand the importance of your issues to their interests.

4. Engage your grassroots members and third-party endorsers as voices for opinion columns, letters to the editor, and reporter sources for local stories related to your issues. Regardless of the proliferation of online news sources, policy makers at all levels still count on the local newspaper as a primary source of local information. You can start building up good will around your issues through good news stories pitched in advance of an issue becoming controversial. Not only do you create the buzz when the story comes out but you also can use the clips in social media posts.

5. Don’t focus on just getting your organization’s name “out.” Rather, look for opportunities to leave your organization’s “fingerprints” on a news story that will reinforce your policy message. This can be called your fingerprint index. A “10-finger hit” results from a positive news story where a third party endorses your organization’s issue, program, or service, shoring up your position on an issue. A “five-finger hit” is when member, customer, stakeholder or board leader is featured in a news story telling a story or integrating an issue related to your program or service. Stories that are solely focused on the organization’s leaders or staff get only “two fingers’” credit.

Regardless of whether your organization has dozens of issues before Congress or one issue before your city council, your first goal should be to coordinate between your communications and lobbying teams the message that’s going out. If your communications department and lobbying staff aren’t in lock step at the beginning of the process, you’re already behind the competition.

Image by pch.vector on Freepik

A dozen ideas to get reading more in 2023

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, you more places you will go.” – Dr. Seuss.

A few of the books reviewed in the Blink Book Reviews

Reading has always been a delight for me. I loved the library’s summer reading clubs when I was a kid. Browsing bookstores is a favorite pastime when I travel. Countless books on writers and writing are scattered around my house. In recent years, however, I found myself reading books less frequently. And the ones I started, I tended to abandon more often.

Last summer, I set out to change that. I knew that I’d gotten too attached to my devices. I was scrolling far too much and reading books far too little. Over Memorial Day, I challenged myself to read a book a week until Labor Day. My accountability was writing a quick book review (I called them “blink book reviews” to keep them short enough to be read in a blink).

Going into 2023, I made an intention (not a resolution) to read more. I started actively asking friends for book suggestions and deliberately making the time to read. I sought out hints from friends and strangers about how they make time for reading and stay off their devices.

The dozen ideas below are the intersection of practices I’m trying to keep along with suggestions from others I’m trying to integrate into my habits.

1 – Join Goodreads or a similar reading site. When I recently joined, I quickly connected to several friends already who already use Goodreads to share their reading experiences. I find the “want to read” feature the most helpful. Back when I was a more frequent library user, I kept a running list of books I wanted to read on my phone. Goodreads can help with re-invigorating my “want to read” list. (Feel free to “friend” me on Goodreads.)

2 – Borrow from and contribute to a nearby Little Free Library if there’s one in your neighborhood. There’s a box near us, and I check it weekly. Clearly someone nearby has reading tastes like mine, as I’ve enjoyed several books I’ve found there. And the books I leave seem to be nabbed quickly.

3 – Give away the books you love. If I lend a book to a friend, I rarely get it back – and that’s the way I like it. I recently “shared” my all-time favorite book, “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, with a young writer friend. I hope she will gain some insight from my scribbles and notes that I add every time I read the book. Within two days, one of the ladies who helps my mom brought me a copy of the same book. She said she knew I loved writing and thought I might enjoy it. Today, it’s my “car” book as I read it for the umpteenth time. Good book karma!

4 – Read multiple books at once. I’ve always kept with a plan of reading one “good for you” book (most likely non-fiction that teaches me something), one “must-read” book (best seller-types) and one “junk food” book (just pure easy reading). That’s enough to keep one by my bed, one in my knapsack that goes everywhere with me, and one in my car. You’d be surprised at how often you can find a few minutes to pull out the “car” book.

5 – Change up your reading genre. I’m more of a best-seller fiction type of gal. But in anticipation of a trip to Berlin last year, I read an historical memoir recommended by a friend. It absolutely brought the city to life and made me realize that I really can like books about history.

6 – Download a digital or audio book version of a hard copy book you’re reading. Admittedly, this kind of felt like cheating at first, but I’ve found it’s a great way keep reading even when there’s not time or circumstances to sit down with the hard copy book. Some audio books even help you keep track of switching between digital and audio versions.

7 – Make reading (not scrolling) the last thing you do before turning out the light at night. Research overwhelmingly shows screen time before bed is a big contributor to insomnia. Even reading just a couple of pages calms my racing brain.

8 – Keep up with new books coming out and read reviews. Check the lists at bookstores and in newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Read friends’ social posts about books. I have several friends who share insights about books by writing reviews or giving suggestions. That’s how I’ve found lots of good suggestions about books I never would have heard about otherwise.

9 – Seek out book club recs. Even if you’re not in a book club, finding their lists is easy. The library keeps lists of book club selections. Check out books clubs that may be associated with your church, civic organizations you’re involved with or professional organizations you belong to.

10 – Accept it’s OK to use audio books. For many years, I disparaged audio books as “less than” reading. But as I’ve increased the time I spend in my car in recent years, I subscribe to Audible, but the library also has audio books and lots of other apps are available online. I’ve become a true fan. I also put in my ear buds to “read” while folding laundry, cleaning around the house or walking the dog.

11 – Don’t finish a book you hate. I’ve always been in the camp of finishing every book I start. Nope. Not anymore. If I hate it, I leave it in my neighborhood Little Free Library. No need to waste valuable time on books that don’t make sense, make me too sad, scare me too bad or are just badly written.

12 – Make reading a reward and not a chore. Reading should be a pleasure, a gift, an adventure and an enriching experience. Find ways to make reading your reward. Mine is sitting down with my book in a relaxing place after I’ve checked my to-do list for the day – whether it’s the comfy chair in my office, a chair on the beach or snuggled up on my bed. I place my phone and iPad in another room. I turn off my computer “ding” feature. I get comfortable and give myself the gift of time to read.

What else should I add to this list?

It’s National Word Nerd Day

Today is National Word Nerd Day. This observance gives us a chance to make good grammar relevant again. I’m not sure who should be in charge of this movement, so I’m stepping up to lead the parade.

For some people, writing is just a way to communicate. For me, it’s more of a passion for how words fit together.

I see writing as an intersection of creativity, experience, knowledge and connection. It’s an art and a science where clarity and crisp communication converge with inspiration and flow. For me, writing, editing and proofing are a fun puzzle, not a dreaded chore. I love reading anything connected to words and language. And doesn’t everyone still have their high school grammar book?

Grammar rules fine tune writing

Working with a good editor is a writer’s nirvana for me. There’s usually a way to tighten things up a bit, improve the flow or find a more vivid word. I’m constantly trying to make my personal writing more creative, open and insightful, and I work toward clarity of message and purpose in my professional writing. I stopped striving for perfection in both types a while back (thus the need for a good editor), but that doesn’t mean I stop trying to improve. In most cases, the rules of grammar are what help me fine tune my writing.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, grammar rules seem to be less urgent. Obviously, our digital culture has contributed to this decline. Add to that an increasing informality in many professional environments, and we see more and more liberties with language, grammar rules and sentence structure.

Over the years, colleagues, friends, family members and students have challenged my obsession with words and rules. They have questioned whether grammar rules are still relevant. When a student asked why it mattered if she knew the rules for using “I” or “me” as a subject or object, I was stunned. She said, “It sounds just fine to my ear to say ‘She’s going with Mary and I.’”

I hear very smart people using this incorrect construction daily. They think it sounds fine, but it’s not. Why should grammar rules be any less important in a professional context than accurate formulas are for calculating interest or precise procedures are for diagnosing an illness?

Unfortunately, the writing profession doesn’t have formal accepted practices governed by some appointed board like the accounting or legal professions do. We can’t be censured for improper use of participles or ending a sentence with “at.” We editors and writers have to police ourselves.

We could get bogged down here in arguing the merits of various style guides or the use of the Oxford comma, but that’s not the point. The point is grammar rules provide consistency which leads to clarity of message. That’s what good writing is all about.

Rules are rules

Like any good word nerd, I have several grammar rules that are not negotiable (which translate into my pet peeve editing issues).

1 – “She is going with Mary and I” will never be correct. Ever. For any reason.

2 – Dangling participles are insidious gremlins. (A participle modifies like an adjective does, so it must have a noun to modify.) They often go unnoticed in writing because our ears are so used to hearing them spoken. You are likely to get the gist of what the speaker means if she says, “Opening the door, it was time for everyone to enter.” But, “it” didn’t open the door, and this construction can lose a reader who has to stop and think about who opened the door. (“Opening the door, the host indicated it was time for everyone to leave.”)

3 – Spelling is spelling. Period. Creativity isn’t an option in spelling.

4 – Apostrophes indicate possessive not plurals. Merry Christmas from the Smith’s. The Smith’s what?

5 – I believe the serial comma isn’t necessary in most cases, but I’m not going to touch that word nerd debate in mixed company. This provokes as much controversy among writers and editors as the preference of vinegar versus mustard sauces does among BBQ aficionados. Just decide how you’re going to use a comma in a series, stick to it and make sure your writers do the same.

But … there’s a time and place to break a rule

There’s a time and place for being a little rebellious as a writer. Sometimes creativity has to win out over the rules. My personal guide for breaking a writing rule is to do it deliberately and consistently, 

In the interest of avoiding the label of the inflexible chief enforcer for the grammar patrol, I offer up a few rules that I fudge on a bit. We all have our own. I’ve already used a few in this piece. Here’s my take on several rules I allow my inner grammar patrol to ignore.

1 – Sometimes it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. The old example of something “up with which I will not put” is awkward construction, no doubt. In today’s world, that kind of writing sounds stilted and overly formal. But saying “where’s it at” should never be acceptable. Know your audience and use a preposition at the end of a sentence if it’s something you can live with.

2 – Sentence fragments and single word sentences can occasionally help make a point. Admittedly this loosening of a rule is partly due to today’s texting society, but sometimes a fragment can add emphasis in more informal writing. Agreed?

3 – Starting a sentence with a conjunction can improve a transition or be a bridge between ideas. But know when to use this construction appropriately and use it sparingly.

4 – The rule of split infinitives may just be outdated. This rule has been around since the dawn of time … or at least the dawn of Latin. As long as the meaning is clear, I believe it’s alright to occasionally split the infinitive.

Before I officially launch this grammar movement, I’m off for some light reading in the Elements of Style. This re-released edition of this classic has lovely whimsical illustrations by the artist Maira Kalman. Her cover art of a self-satisfied basset hound caught my eye when I first saw the book at Litchfield Books several years ago. And while I do love the art, it’s the juicy rules and vibrant writing commentary that keep me turning (and scribbling on) the pages.

What grammar rules will you always obey and which are less rigid for you as a writer or editor?

 

An election gratitude reflection

For anyone who has worked in campaigns, the week leading up to the election is like no other experience. It’s a blinding minute-by-minute chaos of decisions on the fly, anticipating every possibility that could stand in the way of making it to election day. (photo below is from the “week-of” bus tour during Nick Theodore’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign).

I spent my early career years involved in the front lines of campaigns. These weren’t just jobs. I believed in the candidates I worked for. I was fortunate to learn so much from so many who made a lasting mark on my life. The week leading up an election day always gins up lots of emotions, good memories and gratitude for these experiences in spite of all the raging personal attacks and downright meanness we continue to see in today’s political grind.

Friendships and relationships forged from campaign work are unique. These are people you see at their best and their worst, at their most confident and most doubting, with coffee-induced highs and sleep-deprived lows. Because of the intensity of the work, these are the people who can teach you so much, and they probably never even know it.

From a mayor’s race to a presidential election and lots in between, I’m grateful for all that I learned over the years from these candidates, their families and campaign staffers who trusted me to work for and with them.

A few of the items on my gratitude list include …

  • Being part of both winning and losing election night speeches and the subsequent morning-after staff meetings where the candidates were equally gracious regardless of whether they won or lost.
  • Learning it’s possible to master the balancing act between running for an office and actually governing.
  • Gaining a healthy respect for honest and accurate reporters.
  • Participating in the inner workings of campaigns that were based on well-researched policy rather than political opportunism and skewed polling.
  • Discovering it’s possible to disagree vehemently over a political or policy decision and still maintain respect for the other person.
  • Getting a chance to prove myself in several campaign jobs when, on paper, I probably didn’t have the experience.
  • Taking part in the hard decisions made in the back rooms of a campaign office – decisions that were separated by the thin wire of doing what’s right versus doing what might bring down the other guy. In every case I witnessed, doing right won out over political opportunism.
  • Embracing a love for the dance of politics and strange bedfellows and an appreciation for well-executed political strategy.

I’m grateful to have shared the high of a squeaker win. However, I’m also grateful for what I learned from the low of the surprise loss and the disappointment in knowing we gave our very best for this candidate we believed in and lost our jobs anyway.

One thing I’ve learned is that losses like those can illuminate new possibilities and present new opportunities. I hope that lesson will be the case with our city, state and country going forward after this election cycle. But by loss, I don’t mean which candidate wins or loses. I mean the damage and losses caused by the ugliness of this election season – the loss of civility, trust, respect and the diminished focus on the general good of the people. Neither side can claim innocence in this.

Recovery from this will happen one person at a time only if we practice acceptance, seek out strength in our common struggles and just be kind.

A quick trip down memory lane from the Nick Theodore gubernatorial campaign, Robin Tallon’s congressional races and Sen. Hollings’ Senate (and presidential) race.

Wrap up: Blink Book Reviews

What started out as a personal discipline this summer to get off the screen and back to books turned out to be a fun exploration of different reading genres and books I might not have considered reading otherwise. I’m so grateful to the more than 200 people who ended up joining my Blink Book Review Facebook group, offered book suggestions and participated in conversations. 

Mini-reviews and suggestions came in from as far away as Israel and as nearby as up the street. My “to-read” list is bulging, and these suggestions have gotten me out of my rut of reading the same authors and genres. 

In addition to the books that got full reviews in this series, I don’t want to overlook several others I read or listened to:

  • “South Toward Home” by Julia Reed – This was a jewel. Another collection of essays kind of like Ann Patchett’s book I reviewed. Even if you don’t like Julia’s writing (which would be really hard to do), just listening to her read in her lilting Mississippi Delta accent is enough. Talent gone too soon!
  • “Apples Never Fall” by Laine Moriarty – Typically I like her books but this one was loooong and slow. The narrator’s Australian accent was what kept me engaged.
  • “I Guess I Haven’t Learned that Yet” by Shauna Niequist – Another author I’ve frequently read. This one shared some valuable insights about acceptance and change, but had lots of references to the author’s past that didn’t quite connect with me since I didn’t know her family history.
  • “No Cure for Being Human” and “Everything Happens” by Kate Bowler – These were half book/half Audibles for me. Inspiring, love her reading voice.
  • “Blood” by Allison Moorer – Another read by the author (my favorite kind). She tells the story of how music steadied her crazy growing up years with sister (and country music singer) Shelby Lynn in the rural south.
  • “In Love” by Amy Bloom – Powerful memoir read by the author telling her story of how she supported her husband in his quest to end his life after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Another type of reading I rediscovered this summer is hard copy travel guides. As I worked on planning a trip to Spain for the fall, I checked out library books about the cities we’re visiting. While online guides with links and photos are great, I forgot how nice it is to hold the travel books in my hands. Now I have to go buy them so I can mark them up and keep the maps.

I’ll keep the FB group live into the fall and will keep posting occasionally as long as people keep reading. Join us here.

All the Blink Book Reviews are available on the SC Press Association’s news exchange website where they were published weekly for local newspapers to pick up. 

Blink Book Review #12: “In the Shadow of the White House” by Jo Haldeman

The 50th anniversary of Watergate this summer struck a real chord with me bringing back snippets of news stories from the summer I was eleven and heading into the sixth grade.

An NPR podcast got me curious to dig a little deeper into that dark time in our nation’s history where trust in government was at a low point (sound familiar?). After reading old news stories, listening to several podcasts, and browsing through a number of books on the subject, I settled on reading “In the Shadow of the White House,” a memoir by Jo Haldeman, the wife of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. She wrote the book in 2017 when she was 88 to make sure her grandchildren understood their grandfather’s role in history.

Jo Haldeman was a devoted housewife, stay-at-home mom of four children and LA native in 1968 when her husband, Bob, was picked to be Richard Nixon’s chief of staff. Jo embraced the family’s move to DC and her role as the wife of a senior White House official, tending the home fires by day and accompanying her husband to ritzy black tie events at night. 

This book is her story of how Bob, a former advertising executive, ended up at the center of one of the nation’s biggest scandals and how his demise impacted not only the nation, but also – and more importantly – his family. Jo writes with navel-gazing accuracy about her family’s daily life based on journals and notes she kept. This level of detail gives the book an interesting foreshadowing that probably wouldn’t have been possible if she had relied solely on her memories and those of others. 

What drew me in the most about this book is how Jo chronicles the transformation of her gentle-spoken family-focused husband into a chronic workaholic who claimed, even after his conviction, that he knew nothing of the Watergate break-in. It also gives some human insight into some of the eccentricities of President Nixon and the failings of his administration.

This is not a hard-hitting political tome exposing the underbelly of the Nixon administration. Rather it’s one person’s perspective on a piece of our nation’s history that I remember just enough of to want to know more. For the more hard-hitting version, next on my list is revisiting “All the President’s Men” that I last read for a journalism school assignment in college.

Knowing what’s happening around us in national politics right now, this book reminded me of the old saying that “those who don’t remember history will be doomed to repeat it” is frighteningly true.

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others. Or email me at rebahcampbell@gmail.com with your own favorites.

Blink Book Review #11: A Double Dose “Enough Already” by Valerie Bertinelli and “Back to the Prairie” by Melissa Gilbert

My recent beach reading consisted of memoirs by two actresses from my childhood – Valerie Bertinelli (Barbara on “One Day at a Time”) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura on “Little House on the Prairie”).

Both of these former child stars are close to my age – 60 or pushing it – and experiencing many of the same life events that my own contemporaries are. Both played beloved characters in my personal television soundtrack of the mid-70s. Both had written previous memoirs about the challenges, insecurities and success of their early career years. Both new books focus on their “late middle age” years and the comfort they’ve found in their own skin and their more intentional lifestyles. I enjoyed both immensely.

Valerie’s “Enough Already: Learning to Love the Way I Am Today” reaches beyond her lifelong struggle with weight and self-image to chronicle how she has happily settled into a hard-won acceptance of who she has become because of – and sometimes in spite of – the intense pressure of Hollywood expectations. She writes, in large part, from the perspective of a mother wanting the best for her very talented son she shared with rocker Eddie Van Halen. Despite the fact she and Eddie divorced in 2007, they remained close, especially during the last years of his long battle with cancer leading up to his 2020 death.

Melissa’s “Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered” tells the story of her coming of age in her 50s to find a more balanced life without cosmetic surgeries, hair coloring and anxiety about measuring up in a competitive Hollywood environment. The book is an honest accounting of how she shifted her life approach away from the fast pace she’d always known to a more bountiful, yet much simpler, life. This time in Melissa’s life is also a love story about building a quiet life with her husband, actor Tim Busfield, who shares her joy in raising chickens, renovating a ramshackle cabin in the woods, doting on grandchildren, and living ordinary days away from the limelight.

An interesting intersection of these two books is how these former child stars have found financial success in this season of life through cooking and comfort in the enjoyment of home. Valerie has become a successful host on the Food Network. Melissa is basking in the “homebodiness” of a new online venture called Modern Prairie as a modern-day pioneer woman in the Catskill Mountains tending her large garden, enjoying the local wildlife and basking in the abundance of being part of a community.

Anyone who grew up watching these 1970’s television favorites will find these two books a delightful update on the lives of the two young actresses who captured the imagination of a generation.

Blink Book Review #10: “The Speckled Beauty” by Rick Bragg (with a bonus section of other great dog books)

A young friend recently asked me to choose my favorite dog book. I had to think really hard on that one. I’ve read a whole lot of them. I believe in the power of a dog. And there’s a special place in the universe for writers who can script a good dog story – whether it’s through poetry, fiction, personal essay, photo captions or a good dog obit.

At the time I got this question, I had just started “The Splendid Beauty … A Dog and His People” by Rick Bragg. “All Over but the Shoutin’” was Rick’s first book that pulled me into his writing many years ago. I’ve long admired his spot-on southern-isms that completely avoid the “fingers on the chalkboard” of writers who try to fake knowing the real south and how it sounds, feels, smells and tastes. 

In this book, Rick tells the stories of Speck, a bad-boy mixed breed (or mutt as he would have been called before that term lost favor). Sixteen essays lay out various episodes of Speck’s egregious behavior woven in with stories of Rick’s sideways love for this wild creature. This passage foretells the whole concept of the book:

“In his first two months here, he [Speck] was incarcerated twenty-nine times. Telling him to behave, even after almost two years now, is like telling him it is Tuesday.” 

In one paragraph, Rick would have me crying. The next had me laughing out loud. And there’s lots of talk of food – both the human and canine kind (sometimes they are the same). Speck gets factored into the count for Thanksgiving dinner and has a Christmas list that includes cocktail weenies, sliced ham and a dog bed (which Rick kind of counts as edible since Speck ate the last two he had).

If you’ve ever had a dog that wasn’t perfect, you’ll recognize many of Rick’s perfectly told stories. 

BONUS SECTION

A little extra this week (this puts me over my 300-ish word count commitment so consider this a bonus)

As I read this book, I found myself reflecting back on dog books that have fed my soul, tickled my funny bone, brought me to tears.  Part of why I love to read is to learn how to be the kind of writer of stories I’d want to read. These four dog books all taught me something about dogs and about writing.


Dog Medicine” by Julia Barton. At first, this book seemed to be the story of the author’s struggle with depression. My interest waned a bit at first…based on what I saw on the cover, I wanted to read about Bunker, the dog. But it didn’t take many more pages to understand that, while depression is certainly a major player in the book, it is by no means is it the main character. The real story here is about resilience, acceptance, trust, connection and belief in something bigger. And all of that comes alive through Bunker and how he leads the author through her depression. Read my earlier review here.

“A Year of Dogs” by Vince Musi. This one feeds my need for visual tickling and great writing. Vince’s stories in this book reflect his canine subjects’ personalities and quirky habits with a humor that can only come from his lively imagination plus his willingness to let dogs just be dogs. The narratives that accompany each pup’s unique photo range from sentimental to side splitting. Even if you think you can’t abide a dog, Vince’s book leaves you with that feeling of having just been loved on by a gentle Great Dane with a really long tongue. Read my earlier review here.

“Dog Songs” by Mary Oliver. While I’m not a big poetry reader, Mary Oliver’s collection of poetry is probably the only book on my nightstand that never gathers dust because I pick it up so frequently to just read a poem. You can read these poems as either her musings on daily life with her beloved canines or deeper reflections on the role of our connections with dogs in enriching our existence on this earth.

The Last Will and Testament of Very Distinguished Dog” by Eugene O’Neill. I discovered this little gem when it fell off the shelf and landed on my foot during a visit to Kramer Books in DC. It was just weeks after my beloved Golden, Dixie, had died, and it brought me great comfort. It’s a moving and humorous last will and testament of the playwright’s beloved dog reminding the author that every dog we own expands our hearts to make room to love another. 

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others. Or email me at rebahcampbell@gmail.com with your own favorites.

Blink Book Review #9: “These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett

This summer’s reading list has included books beyond the best-seller fiction I usually favor. Ann Patchett’s “These Precious Days” is one of those. This collection of 24 essays hits on topics ranging from Snoopy’s influence in her life and her three fathers to how she selects a book cover and why knitting saved her life.

Ann’s fiction has graced the top of the NYT lists for years. “Commonwealth,” “The Dutch House” and “Bel Canto” are just a few. But it’s her non-fiction that really gets my pages turning.

Normally, I like to invest time in a book, get to know characters, dig into a plot. So typically, essays and short stories aren’t really my gig. Reading this book started slowly for me. Finally, over the July 4 holiday I picked it up again. And couldn’t put it down. 

Initially, the cover drew me in when I saw it on the shelf at Litchfield Books (yes, I occasionally judge a book by its cover). The bright colored painting turns out to be Ann’s beloved dog, Sparky, with eyes that will look right into your soul. You’ll have to read the book to get the whole story on the cover art. That essay alone, ‘These Precious Days,’ is worth the price of the book. 

What I love about Ann’s essay writing (I’d read her first book of essays years ago) is how she blows life into seemingly mundane things while, at the same, makes events like being asked to interview Tom Hanks at his own book signing sound almost ordinary. Ann quotes a friend as telling her, “Do you even realize your life isn’t normal? You understand that other people don’t live this way?” My kind of gal! She seems so totally unimpressed with herself and her huge talent.

My favorite line in the book reflects so my own love of books and sharing books with others: “As every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love isn’t complete until you can hand that book to someone else and say ‘Here, you’re going to love this.’” Consider this my hand-off.

And as a PS – Ann has a hugely successful bookstore in Nashville, Parnassas Books, that is my must-stop every time I visit the city. I’ve snuggled with Bear (photo left), one of her shop dogs (here’s his sweet story); browsed for hours; and bought more books there than I should have. If you order “These Precious Days,” do it here.

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others. Or email me at rebahcampbell@gmail.com with your own favorites.

Blink Book Review #8: “Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR” by Lisa Napoli

This book is the story of four women from vastly different backgrounds who converged on a fledgling radio network in DC in the mid-1970s. Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts built the backbone of the early National Public Radio while they also whacked away at the broadcast industry’s glass ceiling.

The author, Lisa Napoli, lays out these journalists’ diverse upbringings at the beginning of the book with a biographical account of each that foreshadows their ultimate intersection at NPR. The narrative of how these women reported the news overlays with the stories of how they questioned the broadcast establishment and managed high-power careers while juggling marriages and child rearing – none of which were typical for women in the early ‘70s.

The author also tells the human side of their friendship spanning almost 50 years. There are stories that illustrate their support for each other, their love for each other’s families and their genuine friendship are interspersed with the tales of powerful politicians, gender inequality, and the changing face of journalism.

Admittedly, I’m a long-time NPR fan girl ever since I discovered WAMU, the NPR affiliate in DC, when I was a young Hill staffer in the early 1980s. Little did I know as I tuned in to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on my daily DC commute that I was listening to history being made – and I don’t mean just the history these four journalists reported on. This book is their history, and the author does a beautiful job to parallel these journalists’ individual stories and struggles with the historic events in their news reporting.

I also found the backstory of NPR’s bumpy rise to relevance particularly interesting. I thought I knew a good bit of this history from my years of association with SCETV and SC Public Radio, but this book made me realize how little I know of how NPR came to be. This book is an easy read that illustrates not only how far we’ve come in terms of women in broadcasting but it also reminds us that there are real people behind those microphones.

Although Cokie died in 2019, Nina, Linda and Susan remain on NPR almost 50 years after they first met in a tiny radio studio in DC. Here’s a great NPR interview with the three surviving “mothers” from last May. 

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others.

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BBR EXTRA: I had the honor of meeting Cokie Roberts at a meet and greet book signing at the Richland Library in February 2017. She was warm, funny, irreverent and oh so smart!