Mr. Perfect on Paper

There aren’t many books written by an author who has earned a daytime Emmy, “and spent five years in rabbinical school before her chronic illness forced her to withdraw.” 

That author is Jean Meltzer.

(You might remember I raved about Ms. Meltzer’s first novel, The Matzah Ball, in a blog post from several months ago. Click here if you missed it.)

And as was the case in her first novel, Ms. Meltzer’s second book also features a main character who is a Jewish woman living with an invisible chronic illness. 

The book is Mr. Perfect on Paper. The character is Dara Rabinowtiz.  

Mr. Perfect on Paper was such an enjoyable read. Smart, funny, heartfelt. Plus, it gave readers a chance to learn about Jewish holidays in an easy-to-understand manner. Most of all, it gave us characters we cared about.

Here are a few of the passages I marked during my reading:

“He beamed as he entered, a bounce in his step, offering a hearty good morning to each person he passed. He was a champ at this. Faking it. Looking happy. Smiling through whatever pain was threatening to drown him.”

“There were days when Dara was so exhausted from her struggles that she could barely find the courage to get out of bed. It was then that her mother would show up, standing over her — and sometimes tearing off her covers — demanding that she fight. Fight, Dara. Her mother would repeat it like a mantra on her bad days. You’re allowed to be afraid, you’re allowed to be anxious, but you have to fight.” 

“There isn’t one way to be Jewish,” she said, finally. “Some people are very observant. Some people aren’t. Some people fall in the middle of the spectrum, or have different philosophies behind the reasons for their observance. Some people don’t do anything. When two Jews marry, they have to negotiate these religious choices. For example, will they keep a kosher home? Will they observe Shabbat? Will you cover your hair, or go to mikvah? Those are some of the big ones…”

“But,” Dara said thoughtfully, “you learn to live with it. The sadness never goes away. Maybe it never gets smaller, either. But after a time, you learn to hold both. You learn that joy still exists … there’s still laughter, and falling in love, and —“ she smiled, glancing down at the crumbs of her pizza “—there’s still jalapeño-and-pineapple pizza. You learn that good things still happen. You meet someone. You fall in love. Maybe you even get married. And when you walk down that aisle, you hold both. You hold the joy of the moment alongside your sadness for the one who can’t be there.” 

“But what I learned from this journey, from finding my real-life Mr. Perfect on Paper, is that love isn’t something that can be quantified on a list. Love is messy. And terrifying. It shows up when you least expect it, and complicates your life in every way. But it’s also … safe. And comforting. It allows you to be yourself completely, without judgment or fear, and it feels right. I don’t know how something so incredibly scary can also feel right, but I need to give this inkling in my heart —in my soul—a chance.”

“I know you think…because you have anxiety, that you’re not brave. But that’s not true. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, actually, and here’s what I want to tell you. Courage ins’t about jumping out of airplanes or building businesses from scratch. Real courage is showing up, even when you’re afraid. Real courage is putting yourself out there, even when you fail — especially when you fail. Courage is saying, this is who I am, standing up, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. And you are brave, Dara. You’re the bravest person I have ever met.”

The Switch

Having read and enjoyed The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, I was eager to read another one of her novels — The Switch. And it didn’t disappoint. 

The premise was charming — an eighty-year-old grandmother living in a small village trades places with her twenty-something granddaughter living in London.

Of course adjustments must be made. Granddaughter Leena must revert back to using a flip phone (her grandmother’s), while grandmother Eileen must learn to use her granddaughter’s smartphone. And that’s just for starters.

Not only was this a fun read, it was also endearing and heartfelt. (Note – there were also some serious, sad aspects to the story.)

Here are just a few of the passages I marked:

“Beneath my excitement there’s a thrum of nerves. I’ve felt plenty of dread, this last year or so, but I haven’t felt the thrill of not knowing what’s to come for a long, long time.” (Grandmother)

“It takes all my effort not to cry as I take the keys from a very worried-looking Penelope and sit myself down in the driver’s seat. These people. There’s such a fierceness to them, such a lovingness. When I got here, I thought their lives were small and silly, but I was wrong. They’re some of the biggest people I know.” (Granddaughter)

“I take a shaky breath and go on. ‘When people talk about loss, they always say that you’ll never be the same, that it will change you, leave a hole in your life.’ My voice is choked with tears now. ‘And those things are undoubtedly true. But when you lose someone you love, you don’t lose everything they gave you. They leave something with you.’”  (Grandmother)

Pain Awareness Month

(Just a few of my son’s cubes)

September is Pain Awareness Month.

Which kind of feels like a joke. Because, I have a close-and-personal relationship with pain. I am very aware of pain — every month of the year. 

Pain is a part of me — night and day. Weekdays and weekends. It doesn’t even take major holidays off. 

My pain is commanding and assertive. It does what it wants to do, and it doesn’t care if I’m in the privacy of my home or walking to my neighborhood Coffee Bean. 

Or at my son’s Cubing Competition. 

About a year ago, my son became interested in Rubik’s Cubes after watching one of his very good friends solve them. (Who knew there were so many cubes? Some of them aren’t even cube shaped!) This past Saturday, my son participated in his first Cubing Competition which involved five different events. 

The competition was held in a high school gymnasium about an hour away from home. Our family didn’t know exactly what to expect, because since this was our son’s first experience competing, it was the first time my husband and I were spectators at such an event.

There’s a lot of sitting around — on bleachers.

Then there’s a lot of standing and moving around so we could get a good view of our son cubing which would then make for good photos and good videos. 

And that’s when my pain decided to make a grand entrance. During one round, and thankfully my son wasn’t competing at the time, I felt like my leg was about to buckle under me. A strong muscle cramp gripped my left thigh. 

This was new for me. Usually cramps hit me in my left calf. And usually they happen at home. Just a few weeks ago, I had a cramp in my calf during my virtual appointment with my therapist. Sometimes cramps wake me from sleep. At home, I can cry and bang the mattress, bite on the blanket in an attempt not to wake my son. 

But we were at a high school gymnasium, with about 100 participants and their families. My husband and I went outside and found a bench. I couldn’t sit without excruciating pain, I couldn’t stand and stretch without feeling like I was going to fall. I couldn’t walk it off or massage it away. And I couldn’t cry or make a scene, because there were a few other parents outside on their phones and dealing with younger siblings. And, most importantly, my son was inside waiting for us. 

I was very aware of the time, knowing my son’s next round was happening very soon, and I certainly wasn’t going to miss it because of a cramp. 

My husband and I went back inside. Underneath my double masks, I pursed my lips. I tried to take deep breaths and tried to calm myself down. 

I tried to focus on the moment and watch nearby competitors as my son waited his turn. But I had a hard time standing and had to lean heavily on my husband. 

I was aware of my pain. Very aware of my pain. 

And that’s probably one of the hardest things about my Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. The randomness of it. The fact that I never quite know how I’ll be feeling from one day to another. Or in Saturday’s case, from one hour to another. 

As my therapist and I have talked about, the only thing predictable about my autoimmune disease is its unpredictability. 

In my life, Every Month is Pain Awareness Month.

These Precious Days

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett is one of those books that, while you’re reading, you stop and marvel at what you have just read. Not just the idea, but the way the idea was expressed. 

These Precious Days: Essays is one of those books you think about after you’ve finished reading it.

Though I admit, I struggled a bit in the beginning. Many of the essays seemed disjointed, and I couldn’t quite figure out how they fit together into one essay collection. I kept looking for the common thread, and it wasn’t until I was finished reading, that I realized I may have been looking too hard. 

“These precious days” — the phrase itself. Our days are precious. Whether it’s a chore day, a run-errands day, a have-coffee-with-a-friend day, all our days are precious. And sometimes, those days, my days, do feel disjointed.

Let me share with you some of the gems I marked as I read this book:

“The things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: we can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss too many of life’s details.”

“I was an introverted kid, and not a strong reader. My grandmother had a stock of mass-market ‘Peanuts’ books she’d bought off a drugstore spinner. Titles like You’ve Had It, Charlie Brown and All This and Snoopy, Too were exactly my speed. I memorized those books. I found Snoopy in Paradise the way another kid might have found God.
Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when our hearts and minds are fully open.”

“Did I become a novelist because I was a loser kid who wanted to be more like the cartoon dog I admired, the confident dog I associated with the happiest days of my otherwise haphazard youth? Or did I have some nascent sense that I would be a writer, and so gravitated towards Snoopy, the dog-novelist? It’s hard to know how influence works. One thing I’m sure of is that through Snoopy, Charles Schulz raised the value of imagination, not just for me but for everyone who read him.”

“How I came not to care about other people’s opinions is something of a mystery even to me. I was born with a compass. It was the luck of my draw. This compass has been incalculably beneficial for writing —for everything, really— and for that reason I take very good care of it. How do you take care of your internal compass? You don’t listen to anyone who tells you to do something as consequential as having a child. Think about that one for a second.”

“I’d been afraid the stories of my youth would be as bad as my youthful poetry. I’d been afraid I’d somehow been given a life I hadn’t deserved, but that’s ridiculous. We don’t deserve anything — not the suffering and not the golden light. It just comes.”

“When I went to graduate school, hoping to be a writer, I had no idea that owning a bookstore was one of my career options. But I believe I’ve done more good on behalf of culture by opening Parnassus than I have writing novels. I’ve made a place in my community where everyone is welcome. We have story time and poetry readings and demonstrations from cookbooks. I’ve interviewed more authors than you could even imagine. Many of them sleep at my house. I promote the books I love tirelessly, because a book can so easily get lost in the mad shuffle of the world and it needs someone with a loud voice to hold it up and praise it. I am that person.”

“Where books are concerned, covers are what we have to go on. We might be familiar with the author’s name or like the title, but absent that information, it’s the jacket design — the size and shape of the font, the color, the image or absence of image — that makes us stop at the new releases table of our local independent bookstore and pick up one novel instead of another. Book covers should entice readers the way roses entice bees — like their survival depends on it.”

“In the twenty-six years that Karl and I had been together, I’d never had the experience of coming home to dinner being made. It was a minor footnote considering everything I got from Karl, but still, the warmth of it, the love, to walk in the door after a long two days and see that someone had imagined that I might be hungry knocked me sideways. This was what marriage must look like from the other side.”

Some of My Books – From A to Z

My A-E books

I am in the process of reorganizing my bookcase. I’m running out of space (which I’ve already written about in a blog post titled “So Many Books, Not Enough Space” and I’m hoping that my reorganizing will make some more space, and maybe reveal some books I no longer wish to keep in my personal library. (I usually donate these books to my local public library or my neighborhood little free library.)

I have too many books to list them all here, but here’s an A to Z List of Books on my white Ikea bookcase. Are any of these titles on your bookcase? Let me know in the comments.

A The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel. Such a good book, providing this look into the lives of these incredible women. 

B Beyond the Diaper Bag edited by Megan Bekkedahl and Melaina Lausen. The first time one of my essays was published in an anthology. 

C Chronic Resilience: 10 Sanity-Saving Strategies for Women Coping with the Stress of Illness by Danea Horn. Should be required reading for all those living with chronic illness and those living with someone who has a chronic illness.

D Dream When You’re Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg. A touching story full of rich images and sensory details. The relationship these sisters have, the sacrifice one can make for another, the forms true love can take —  beautiful. 

E Everyone is Beautiful by Katherine Center. This book captivated me at the first sentence: “The day I decided to change my life, I was wearing sweatpants and an old oxford of Peter’s with a coffee stain down the front.“ It was the first book I read by Katherine Center, and now, anything she writes, I definitely buy. More than that, I pre-order it, in hardcover, from her favorite independent hometown bookstore because she signs them!

F The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary. Such a delightful read while at the same time touching upon some serious topics. 

G Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert. This novel remains on my haven’t-read-yet shelf. But I am looking forward to diving into this friend-recommended book that features a protagonist who lives with a chronic illness. 

H Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. I admit to watching the movie before buying and reading the book. 

I Instant Mom by Nia Vardolos. The specifics may vary, but I found so much of what Ms. Vardolos wrote — about parenting, about living with an autoimmune disease —so very relatable. 

J Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophie Cousens. So much more than the delightful, escape sort-of-read I thought it would be. 

K Kicking in the Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts, and Quotes to Help You Break Through Your Blocks and Reach Your Writing Goalsby Barbara Abercrombie. A book I have read more than once, filled with writing prompts that I utilize during my daily five-minute writing exercises. 

L Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean. What an incredible “inside scoop” sort of book. The young girl in me, the girl who dreamed of becoming an astronaut, so enjoyed this book! 

M Mr. Perfect on Paper by Jean Meltzer.  I really enjoyed Ms. Meltzer’s first novel (The Matzah Ball) and am excited to read this one. For now, my pre-ordered signed copy remains on my to-be-read shelf. 

N No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need to Hear by Kate Bowler.  My copy of this book is full of sticky notes! Which reminds me — I still haven’t read Ms. Bowler’s other book Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. (I love these titles!)

O Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott. I remember reading this book during those first few months of my son’s life. When Ryan woke during the night, I fed him, kissed, him, and placed him back in his crib. Then I’d sit in the next room reading Operating Instructions until I knew Ryan had fallen back asleep and it was safe for me to go back to bed.   

P People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry. Not just an enjoyable book, but it’s the book I read on our family vacation to Maui. 

Q Quint and Drik’s Hero Quest by Max Brallier. I admit — this book is on my son’s bookcase, because I couldn’t find any “Q” books on my bookcase. I have read this book with my son, so this feels like an okay cheat-of-sorts. 

R Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut by José Moreno Hernández. I love reading about the paths astronauts have taken, the decisions and challenges that led them to outer space. 

S Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Chronic Illness: How to Stay Sane and Live One Step Ahead of Your Symptoms by Ilana Jacqueline. I do wish I had found this book closer to when I received my diagnosis.

T The Things We Don’t Say edited by Julie Morgenlender. Though one of my personal essays is included in this anthology, and you may think I’m biased, I really do believe I’ve never come across another book quite like this one. The chronic illnesses may vary, but many of the emotions and experiences are so universal.  

U Untamed by Glennon Doyle. A friend gave me this book, but it still remains on my to-be-read shelf. 

V The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Comingand Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer by Jennie Nash. Many years ago, I took a class Jennie Nash taught through the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. Now Jennie is the CEO of Author Accelerator. 

W The Wildwater Walking Club by Claire Cook. A story about the power of walking and the power of female friendship. (And if you like this one, there are two more books in this series.) 

X Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. I’m really stretching it here. This book isn’t even on my son’s bookcase anymore. But it is packed away with other childhood favorites. Such a fun book to read, it was on constant rotation here at home and when I taught kindergarten. 

Y Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. When I read this book, I marked many pages with sticky notes. Sometimes I think about reading it again, but then I look at my to-be-read shelf, and decide to read one of those first.  

Z Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature by Zibby Owens. I admit, I’m cheating on this one a bit, because the author’s name, and not the title of the book, starts with a Z. 

For Barbara

This is a difficult blog post to write. 

My heart is heavy. Which in turn makes my fingers feel heavy to write what I need to write.

You know when people ask Which teacher most impacted you? I never had a really good answer to that question. I always thought the question referred to teachers you had before college, either the teachers that told you the play area for the week was kickball, or the teachers who helped you navigate the confusion of changing classrooms for each class period, or the teachers who wrote you the recommendation letters you needed for college.

I had gotten it wrong. 

A teacher is one who teaches. At any level.

Now I know my answer to that question.

Which teacher most impacted you?

Barbara Abercrombie.

And with a heavy heart and my heavy fingers I must add may she rest in peace

Barbara Abercrombie recently passed away. I learned of her death through an email newsletter I received from Jennie Nash, current CEO of Author Accelerator, former instructor in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

About twenty years ago, I took my first class in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. A weekend course about Writing the Personal Essay taught by Barbara Abercrombie. I remember writing a somewhat humorous post about the women’s restrooms not having toilet seat covers. I remember hearing Barbara Abercrombie tell me she could hear my voice coming through. At the time, I didn’t realize what a huge compliment that was.

 It was shortly after that course that I became a published writer with a piece I wrote being published in the Los Angeles Times. (You can read it by clicking here.)

Barbara was a cool lady. She was honest and calm. She encouraged everyone, believing everyone could write — and publish — a personal essay. She was the only teacher I knew who wore a lot of jewelry like I do. Silver jewelry like I do. 

Occasionally over the years I enrolled in Barbara’s classes when they aligned with my teaching schedule. Back in 2005, I was fortunate enough to miss two days of teaching to enroll in UCLA Extension’s intensive four-day Writers Studio Barbara taught.

When I retired from teaching, I was then free to take Barbara’s weekday, daytime classes. And it was in one of those classes that I met one of my closest friends. 

Barbara also offered four day writing retreats up in Lake Arrowhead. I used to wistfully read her emails and think someday. Someday became two different occasions. Each time, I left my family for four days and three nights to go read and write and talk about reading and writing up in Lake Arrowhead with a group of writers.

It was Barbara who told me the essays I was writing could be — should be — a book. 

March of 2020. We all remember it as the month and year when our world ceased to be as we had known it. Originally I was enrolled in one of Barbara’s classes which would have started at the end of March. The class, of course, switched to a virtual format. With my husband working from home, and my son doing his schooling from home, I had to drop out of Barbara’s writing class. 

I hadn’t spoken to Barbara for quite some time though I followed her on Instagram and always liked and commented on the photos she shared of her grandchildren. 

But I know Barbara knows how much I appreciated her, how fond of her I was. Because I always told her — through a letter. At the end of each class, Barbara told her students to write a letter explaining what grade they deserved. You wanted an A, you wrote and asked for one. I always wanted the A. In these end-of-course letters, I didn’t just reflect on my writing during the class, but also on Barbara’s teaching methods. Barbara created a safe space for writers. Writers, who often didn’t know each other well, came together and created a supportive environment to write and share aloud some of the most personal, intimate parts of our lives. 

It always worked, because of Barbara.

Weather Girl

You know that feeling when you read a book by a new-to-you author, and you enjoy the book so much you feel a sense of relief knowing the author has written other books that are just waiting for you to read them?

That’s how I feel after reading Rachel Lynn Solomon’s Weather Girl

I had heard good things about this novel and had purchased it on one of my #22in22 bookstore visits. (If you’re not familiar with the #22in22 initiative, you can click here to learn more about it.)

While the novel could be described as a feel-good rom-com, it’s really so much more. It’s a peek into the life of a television meteorologist, and it’s a depiction of a woman with depression. And it’s even more than that. 

Here are just a few of the passages I have marked:

“There’s something especially lovely about an overcast day. Clouds dipped in ink, the sky ready to crack open. The air turning crisp and sweet. It’s magic, the way the world seems to pause for a few moments right before a downpour, and I can never get enough of that heady anticipation — this sense that something extraordinary is about to happen.”

“‘You’re not naive. You want to believe the best about people… you want to see the good.’
I like the way he says it. That optimism, both false and genuine, has been weaponized against me before, but not now. And maybe this makes me doomed to be a sunshine person for the rest of my days, but so be it. I’ll be seventy-eight and sunny, a cool breeze and a place in the shade.”

When the male character speaks of his daughter, it is with the same awe that I think of my son: 

“‘She surprises me all the time, and she makes me laugh, and she’s this whole person with fears and ambitions and likes and dislikes, all completely different from mine. She’s so f – – – ing funny, and she’s smart, and it’s just … kind of amazing.’”

“Both of us fall quiet, basking in this world and this moment and the sheer magic of finding that person who gets you the way no one else does.”

“Before we leave, Alex waits in line to grab a few dozen donuts for his fourth-grade class. ‘Guilt donuts,’ he explains. ‘It’s state testing week.’”  (This sounds so much like the things I used to do with my students. Snacks each day of state testing, a celebration when testing was done.)

And a joke from the book that I couldn’t resist sharing with you:

“‘Did you hear about the meteorologist who broke her arms and legs?’ one of the camera guys calls to me as I position myself in front of the green screen. ‘She had to wear four casts.’”

Los Angeles With Kids

For my readers who live anywhere but Los Angeles — Los Angeles is a big, complex city. 

For my readers who live in Los Angeles — Los Angeles is a big, complex city.

It’s easy to get into a routine — visiting the same Italian restaurant, always going to the same movie theater, enjoying ice cream at the same shop. 

That’s where a new book comes into play — Los Angeles With Kids: 250+ ideas for ways to have fun, explore SoCal, and never have a boring weekend again.

MomsLA.com has created a book that serves as the guide for families. It’s full of fun things to see and do, much like what you’ll read on the MomsLA website, but now in book form. 

This book has it all, in an easy-to-read format. Maps, photos, illustrations, brief descriptions. It’s the perfect gift for visiting family members. Let them take a look at the book and mark some of the locations that they definitely want to visit with you. 

And, it’s also a great resource for families. A reminder that part of what makes Los Angeles so special is the fact that it’s a big, complex city. A city home to a space shuttle and external tank (at the California Science Center) and an Air Force One you can walk through (at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum). 

I’m proud to write for MomsLA.com, and I’m proud to share that I contributed to this special book.

And I’m excited for families to check out this book and start making new memories all around LA.

Bibliophile: Diverse Spines

There are some books that are true gifts to literature. 

They are books that are perfect gifts for those who regard books as magical, powerful, delightful, important, and necessary. 

In other words, these are the books for true book lovers. 

Bibliophile: Diverse Spines by Jamise Harper and Jane Mount is such a gift. (In fact, I gifted a copy to a couple of my book-loving friends.)

This smallish book is really a beautiful work of art. Filled with delightful illustrations  by Jane Mount, the book is a celebration of diverse stories.

“The authors, illustrators, designers, store owners, and bookstagrammers highlighted in this book are all Black, Indigenous, and people of color, most existing in spaces where they have been marginalized by a dominant white society.” 

Whether you are looking to diversify your own reading list or you’re looking for recommendations for a particular genre this is the book for you.

If you’ll be traveling and are interested in visiting a bookstore while you’re away, this is the book for you.

If you’re a teacher and/or parent and are wanting to make sure your children see themselves represented in the books on their shelves, this is the book for you.

If you’re curious about an author’s writing space, this is the book for you.

If you’re looking to expand your want-to-read list, this is the book for you.

A Lesson I Didn’t Want to Teach

My readers who follow me on Instagram (@wendykennar) already know this. But for my readers who aren’t on Instagram, I have some publication news to share.

Though, I wish I didn’t have to write this particular essay.

I wish gun violence wasn’t a fact of life.

But wishes don’t change the facts.

You can click here to be redirected to Moms Don’t Have Time To and read my essay, “A Lesson I Didn’t Want to Teach.”