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!

Blink Book Review #7: “Swimming with the Blowfish: Hootie, Healing, and One Hell of a Ride” by Jim Sonefeld

Memoirs can often fall into two categories – hugely self-aggrandizing or humbly honest. Jim Sonefeld’s recently released book, “Swimming with the Blowfish: Hootie, Healing and One Hell of a Ride,” falls squarely in the humbly honest category. As a gifted songwriter and the Hootie and the Blowfish drummer, Jim had seemingly found it all very young with the band’s ascension from a local frat attraction to hyper-international fame.

However, “Swimming with the Blowfish” is more than just a first-person account of the band’s partying life on the road (although those stories are fun to read). It’s also a deeply personal account of Jim’s journey from childhood with four siblings and soccer aspirations to early band days and his personal reckoning with addiction.

Jim writes with humor, self-awareness, and raw honesty about his faith, his recovery community, and most importantly, his family. He lays bare the jagged edges behind the addictions that followed him alongside the band’s fame while also sharing inspiration and gratitude around his recovery journey. 

However, that’s not to say there aren’t also fun and funny stories about life on the road and celebrity interactions. There are lots of those, too. 

I got a good laugh from the story about crossing paths with Bob Dylan in a venue bathroom. Another of my favorites is Jim’s recollection of meeting the somewhat ailing Eddie and Alex Van Halen backstage before a show. Not only does this story illustrate how the drummer for one of the most famous bands in the world could still feel a little starstruck around music legends, but it also gives a bit of foreshadowing into Jim’s future challenges.

Jim’s songwriting skills translate into a conversational writing and storytelling style that I found engaging and approachable. His reading voice feels authentic and with just the right amount of enthusiasm to keep my attention without any of the annoying self-importance some memoir writers impose when reading their own story aloud.

This is the second audiobook memoir in my summer book review series. And like the first one, where I felt like I’d driven eight hours to Mississippi chatting with Katie Couric, this one left me feeling like the author had ridden around town with me for a few days comfortably seated in my car telling his story. “Swimming with the Blowfish: Hootie, Healing and One Hell of a Ride” definitely falls high on the “must read” scale among my summer reading challenge selections.

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.

Blink Book Review #6: Confessions of a Southern Beauty Queen by Julie Hines Mabus

“Confessions of a Southern Beauty Queen” by Julie Hines Mabus opens in 1968 with would-be beauty queen Patsy Channing awaiting suspension from the Mississippi College for Women, known as “The W,” following an alleged violation of the college’s strict dating rules. 

The book’s narrative weaves between Patsy’s college experiences in Columbus, MS, and her life growing up in a small Memphis apartment with a single, chain-smoking, Valium-addicted mother who may, or may not, be sleeping with her banker boss.

Patsy aspires to be Miss America and sees the college’s beauty pageant as her ticket. Her pitch-perfect voice and breathtaking beauty make this a distinct possibility. But Patsy’s naivety about unspoken childhood trauma and her refusal to follow the narrow social strictures of the time get in the way.

The book takes place against a backdrop of issues gripping the country at the time – racism, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and social inequities – overlaid with ubiquitous “mean girl” politics that follow Patsy from kindergarten through college. Patsy’s outsider status among the “old southern” families, her eventual push to challenge the system, and her stunning beauty shape the narrative of the book and drive her sense of fairness on several fronts.

As I read, I did want some of the story lines to be more deeply connected or fleshed out. One story line that particularly drew me in – and left me wanting to know more – was Patsy’s friendship with a Memphis guitar player aligned with the famous Stax Recording studios. Their relationship weaves throughout the book providing an intriguing link from Patsy to the unfolding story of Memphis blues music and the underlying southern racial tensions. 

Overall, I immensely enjoyed this book. It left me with insight about a period of our southern history that I’m not quite old enough to remember. Patsy’s experiences are a half-generation ahead of me, so I don’t have first-hand recollections of the 1960’s politics of race or the evolving role of women. 

After finishing the book, I remain haunted by many of the experiences described – some more gently alluded to and others more overtly depicted. The book ends somewhat abruptly. Given the fact it’s biographical in nature, I’m left wanting to know more about what happened to the real Patsy Channing – how these experiences in her young life shaped the rest of her years and how her situation ultimately influenced policies at “The W.”

The author, Julie Hines Mabus, notes in her author’s bio that the book comes from “serendipity when a close friend told her a harrowing story of her childhood.” The acknowledgements note that the book is the result of more than 500 hours of interviews with this friend, and the bibliography also cites 20 books and other sources.

Blink Book Review #5: “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott

I recently reread Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” for the umpteenth time in anticipation of a class I’ll be teaching. And while “Bird by Bird” might be the ultimate guide to writing, it’s also chock full of life lessons. I take away something new each time I read it.

Anne is a prolific writer on uneasy life topics like coping, death, disappointment, illness and addiction. But that’s not to say her work is a downer in any way. Her writing is hilarious, brazenly honest, quirky, genuine and just plain fun to read.

The book’s title itself if a life lesson I invoke frequently. “Bird by Bird” reflects a story of her brother who, as a child, was overwhelmed by the enormity of an assignment to write a report about birds. Her father, a successful writer himself, just advised Anne’s brother to take it “bird by bird.” What simple, yet powerful, advice to guide us through most of life’s trying times.

Anne shares many practical lessons about writing including how she organizes thoughts using good old fashioned index cards and forces herself past writer’s block by accepting the “shitty first draft” (her own words) – or SFD in polite company – will meet no one’s eyes but her own.

Her chapter on perfectionism is particularly helpful. She writes, “Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and messes show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip.”

This book is a must-have for any aspiring writer reminding all of us that writing can’t be constrained by a single practice, a series of rules or edicts from others. Writing is about voice and heart and truth and expression. “We write to expose the unexposed,” she writes in the chapter about finding your voice. “If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”

If you’re into reading about writing, I’ve got lots of other suggestions. Read on here to get my favorite books about writing and writers. 

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 Facebook group to get my reviews and book suggestions from others.

Blink Book Review #4: Going There by Katie Couric

Katie Couric’s memoir, “Going There,” gives readers a delightful and amazingly honest narrative about not only her personal life but also many of the national and international news stories from the 1990s on. And while that perspective was really fun for a news nerd like me to follow, the best part of this book was hearing Katie Couric read it in the audio format. I listened to this book while driving alone to Mississippi. It felt like Katie was in the car with me just chatting about her experiences, perspective, disappointments, fears and joys.

Of course, we all think famous television personalities live a charmed life with maybe a few blips thrown in. But Katie’s book digs deep into her challenges as a young woman in a profession dominated by an entrenched patriarchy. She honestly recounts her dating mishaps along with the deep love for her first husband who died of cancer and later her courtship and marriage to her second husband. She lays bare the same fears anyone would have when threatened with losing their job – hers just happened to be one of the most visible – and high paid – news jobs in the country. 

She also delivers some dirt on colleagues and dates – dirt that some readers may find unnecessary or unkind. However, it was real life – her real life – and she writes about it with a surprising candor recounting detailed stories beyond her on-screen world. 

If you’re not a fan of audio books, make an exception for this one. Hearing Katie tell her own story makes the book all the more compelling.

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