Talking with author Sarah Norkus


Last week This Common Reader had the good fortune of meeting thrice published author Sarah Norkus.  She took some time away from her writing schedule to have a virtual chat.

Check out Ms. Norkus’ books: The Eleventh Summer (a memoir of her childhood), Until the Wind Changes and The Secret Diary of Sarah Chamberlain.

TCR:   When did you discover you were a writer?

SN:      I’m still discovering that I am a writer. Although, to be honest, I think of myself more as a storyteller.

 TCR:   When did you begin writing and what or who influenced you?

SN:      I didn’t start writing until I was forty-eight! Two people influenced my writing: my father, who was the editor of a horse racing magazine, and Stephen Ambrose, my cousin, who wrote Band of Brothers and other great historic military novels.

TCR:   What kind of writing do you do and why did you choose that topic or genre?

SN:      My first book was a memoir written to help children of alcoholics because I was one. The second one was a literary fiction based on true events of my dysfunctional blended family. Now I am writing a Christian historical-fantasy, fiction trilogy. I chose this topic because I love history and time travel.

TCR:   Who is your favorite author or what is your favorite book?  What are you currently reading?

SN:      My favorite book is the Bible. Just love the author. I am currently reading Keys to the Castle by Donna Ball. 

 TCR:   Explain your writing process?

SN:      I know this won’t be very helpful, but I believe I have been given a true gift from God. I don’t outline or do a storyboard, etc. I sit down at my laptop and my imagination just flows from my brain to my fingers. I do, however, research a lot on the historical settings in my books. I want it as close to the facts as possible.

 TCR:   What is the best thing that has happened in your writing career thus far?

SN:      I just found out from a friend today that my first book, The Eleventh Summer is #2 on Amazon’s Dysfunctional Relationships book category. (I say that with tongue firmly planted in cheek.) The best thing to happen in my writing career is the people who read my books. I get so much gratification when my readers tell me how much they enjoyed my story.

 TCR:   Do you have any parting words of wisdom for other aspiring authors?

SN:      Try not to be discouraged with all the negativity you encounter. At my first writer’s conference, a hundred or more of us “hopeful” new writers were told that we would not get a contract with a traditional publisher without a platform. That would have been just about all of us. But I am proof that that statement is wrong. Writers have a dream and dreams do come true.

 Keep dreaming, Ms. Norkus.  This Common Reader hopes to see more stories written by you.




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How about that Fifty Shades of Grey book?


When a friend told me about this book, the first question I had for her was, “Does it have teenage vampires in it?” Her response was no, but it takes place in the state of Washington.  Suddenly, I saw shades of Twilight. (Sorry, could not resist that one.)

Later I learned that the author, E.L. James, was inspired by the Twilight series to conjure up her own fantasy of “paranormal” true love.

With the summer reading season at full throttle, there is evidence everywhere that the novel is the “it” book for a beach vacation. At CostCo, I noticed a giant display of the paperback next to the oversized beach towels and Speedo bathing suits.

I conducted a highly technical survey to find out who is reading this lusty tale. Most of my Facebook friends who have read it are twenty or thirty something. The lads who delivered my new bookcase said their girl friends are reading it but their mothers wouldn’t approve if they read it.  The telemarketer who called to sell me timeshare said she had never heard of the book.  I decided not to ask my mother-in-law, a life time book club member, if she was familiar with the much publicized erotica.

To date, Amazon readers have posted around seven thousand reviews. As you will see from the votes, it is almost a fifty-fifty split between the “love, love, love it” crowd and everybody else.

Sampling a few of the one star voter comments, most of the criticisms are about form and style.  After expounding the many reasons why the book is a stinker, one reviewer comments that his only regret is that he didn’t write it. I’m sure Ms. James is glad of this, too.

One five star reviewer caught my eye.  She confesses that she has never been a book reader, but this one changed her life.  Which makes me wonder, should we pass judgment on a book if the story is compelling and the characters create empathy among the readers?  Isn’t that what fiction writing is all about?

It’s apparent that the reading community is excited about Ms. James’ story of fantasy and romance. The media applauds Ms. James for her courage to pursue her dreams of writing.

This Common Reader is just happy that another writer who motivates people to pick up a book and read has emerged.


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Dog bites and bee stings: summer's here!


Who said that living is easy in the summertime?   Don’t get me wrong, I love being outside, the long days and the hot weather.  But for me, summer is a contact sport in which I usually lose.

Two weeks ago while riding my bicycle, I decided to drop by and say hello to my neighbor.  As I appeared from behind a high hedge, his dog Sharky spied me and charged with a battle cry that would scare Bravehart.  Ignoring the loud commands of my neighbor, Sharky came after me like any self-respecting deep sea predator would.  Trusting my friend’s control of the situation, I naively thought that Sharky would eventually hear his calls and retreat to her post to resume her duties as noise maker.

Wrong.  As I stopped and stood straddling my bicycle, the pound hound went for flesh.  Sharky’s canines ripped through my brand new Target shorts and latched onto my left quadricep.  Ouch.  While I froze in disbelief, Sharky went for blood.  Luckily for me, the neighbor pulled Sharky away before her teeth broke skin.   The encounter did leave a nasty bruise about two inches in diameter.  I’m recovering.

The following week, while watering my Japanese iris, I heard them about the same time as one of a swarm of yellow jackets stabbed me on top of my right hand.  Again, ouch.  Recalling my tango with last year’s swarm, I immediately dropped the watering can. With arms flailing, I pranced like a drunken body snatcher across the front yard. My neighbors, who were taking their evening stroll, stopped for the show.

The venom from the sting caused my hand and wrist to swell.  For two days, it looked as though I was wearing one red boxing glove, Michael Jackson style.  My husband exacted revenge by pouring gasoline down into their underground nest.  No doubt they will be back to fight another day.

So it is with great caution that I step into my favorite time of year.  No walking through tall grass without my boots to protect me from chigger or snake bites.  Give all wild vines growing out of control a wide berth.  (Does poison ivy have three or four leaflet clusters?)  While at the beach, stay away from all warm, salty water least the jellyfish find me and don’t even think about going into the ocean when the evil Under Toad has been sighted just off shore. Wear my slaps at all times to keep abandoned and rusted fish hooks, nasty dagger deck splinters, and unyielding glass bits from making a soft landing in my naked heels.

PF50 sunscreen, check. Hat and long sleeved shirt, check.  Citronella candles, check.

Summertime, bring it on!

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Memorial Day, 2012


Memorial Day originated from the commemoration of the fallen American Civil War Union soldiers and has evolved into a US Federal holiday which pays tribute to all American soldiers who have died in our wars.

This week let us remember in our hearts the families of the young men and women lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, for time has not run its course to soothe the pain of their loss.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is one American soldier’s daunting tale of how he survived the physical cruelties of war and of how he barely made it through the mental battles after he came home.

Laura Hillenbrand does an excellent job of drawing out the suspense of this man’s travails.  Just when you think that Louie Zamperini is on his way to the sunny side of the street, she reveals another traumatic and impossible experience he had to endure.

Mr. Zamperini is an example of human evolution. While those around him focused on destroying their enemy, he focused on what was impeding his ability to move forward; racing to win a sporting event while being attacked on the track, thinking like a shark to keep from being eaten by one, and forgiving those who starved him of food and robbed him of his dignity. Let’s hope that someday every human will think as he does.  Then, there will be no more wars and we will have only the soldiers of a distant past to remember.

Doris P Nutter (d.2012) and William C Powell (d.2005)

Like Mr. Zamperini, two of my father’s siblings served in World War II and returned home to us to live long, meaningful lives.

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Beach Reading for Summer 2012


Here’s This Common Reader’s book list for beach reading this summer.

For the guys. On summer break between my junior and senior years at college, I was introduced to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series by a friend who wore a Prince Albert beard and dated a beautiful woman of middle-eastern heritage.  While reading the series, I imagined the couple as time travelers visiting me from the 19th century English colonies of India and Afghanistan where Englishman Harry Paget Flashman skirmished with the locals.

Flashman, the Captain Jack Sparrow of the 11th Regimen of the Light Dragoons, is a bully, a rogue, a scalawag and defiler of women.  In other words the most stereo-typical rendition of the naughty English gentleman there is.   But at the end of each story, somehow and not by his own cunning, Flashman lands as hero and liberator.   Unlike Captain Jack Sparrow, Flashman rarely risks life or limb to save others.  He is an ‘all for oneself’ kind of guy.

Fraser’s character was inspired by a younger Flashman in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days.  Some say that Tom Brown’s School Days also inspired J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but I digress.

Like James Bond, Flashman was a man’s man and misogynistic to a fault.  Perhaps this is why Hollywood hired his creator to pen the screen play for the Bond movie Octopussy.   Guys, this one’s for you.

For the girls. If the beach trip is for two weeks, lucky you; consider the thousand page paper weight Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor (published in 1944 and labeled as scandalous).  The Ruler of Romance Barbara Taylor Bradford touts this book as the standard of measure for all things hot and steamy in merry ole 17th century England.

For shorter trips to the beach consider  The Late, Lamented Molly Marx: A Novel by Sally Koslow.  Ms. Koslow uses her skills as a ladies’ magazine editor to pen a nosegay about the transcendence of all kinds of love.  Her prose is as rich as any cheese cake or ice cream sundae you’ll have while on vacation.

For the weekender, take up Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms.  Reading its subtitle requires no explanation of what the book is about: The Smart Bitches’ Guide To Romance Novels.  Girls, stay under the umbrella and happy reading.

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This Common Reader goes to the library.


Want to know a secret?  A borrowed library book or e-book is cheaper than a book purchased at an upscale book-coffee shop or online.   It’s even less expensive than the bargains you find on the half-price shelf and at second hand book stores.

During these tough economic times, I have cut back on my discretionary spending, which unfortunately includes weekly trips to that up-scale bookstore and impulsive downloads to my e-tablet.  Instead of looking for new retail book purchasing experiences, I am in search of new places which will loan me reading material for the price of that nominal fine I usually have to pay because I have trouble getting the book back on time.  (Let’s leave the tardy return topic for another day, shall we?)

Virginia residents have access to many fine municipal libraries. Added to these, the Commonwealth offers its citizens access to book repositories such as the Library of Virginia and the cannons of state colleges and universities.  Typically, the bibliothecas of higher learning institutions support the schools’ curricula.  An example is the library at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College-Goochland Campus.  Tucked away in the pastoral setting of Goochland County, this library has an extensive collection of books and periodicals supporting the school’s primary curriculum – Horticulture.  This library is home to approximately thirty-five hundred titles with topics ranging from landscaping to cooking to sustainable farming economics.   It is open to the public and the school encourages patrons to visit and check out a book or two. Show a picture ID and you can borrow from the extensive collection of printed and audio material.

If you are looking for a book on how to turn your urban backyard into an English garden but don’t want to spend an English pound for it, take a drive through the bucolic farmland which boasts the title of Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home.   You may discover that it is a much more pleasurable experience than standing in the long queue at the big-box book store to pay for a book which will probably end up at the second hand book store next winter.

Want to read about weeds?

Photographs  taken by This Common Photographer  at The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.



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April Brings Azaleas and PGA 2012 Masters


When I was young, my sisters and I used to make fun of our adult relations who watched golf on TV.  “Could life get any more boring!” we snickered. Our logic was that the game of golf in and of itself seemed pretty boring, but watching others play could put you into the snooze zone.

Fast forward a few decades.  While thinking about what to get my husband for his fortieth birthday, I heard John Feinstein on the radio talk about his book, A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour (1996). My husband and I loved hiking, so    SHA-ZAM, I heard “Fore!” and the inspirational golf ball hit me.  I bought him a set of clubs for his birthday.  They sat in the garage for a couple of years until one day the golf bug bit him.  Now, after four sets of clubs, three push carts, several pairs of shoes, many lessons, and thousands of balls, he is a talented player.   He says he’s not, but I’ve seen him on the course.  He has mastered driving a golf ball straight down the fairway and making birdies.  My journey in learning to play has not been as successful.  I own a set of clubs.  Let’s just leave it at that.

The US Masters, one of four major tournaments of the PGA, is played every year in Augusta, Georgia.  And, after watching Tiger Woods win in 1997, we have become hooked on watching the tournament every April.  Like thousands of others, we have also joined the ranks of golf enthusiasts attending PGA tournaments. We enjoy being outdoors, walking the courses, and watching the players make inconceivable shots.  For a spectator, golf is always a good walk.

The game of golf, I have learned, is far from boring.  It is about playing fair, using focus and finesse, and connecting with nature.   Because of Mr. Feinstein’s book, I now have tremendous respect for the professionals who play the game.

The PGA 2012 Masters first round is Thursday.  From the ninety-seven players, who will make the Saturday cut, go on to win on Sunday and put on the green jacket?  Watch it, if not for the exciting play, then for the virtual good walks through the Georgia pines and blooming azaleas.






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Death Comes to Pemberley Brings Life to Pride and Prejudice


Drawing of Ms. Austen by her sister Cassandra

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is one of the most popular novels in English literature.

And in defense of Ms. Austen’s good name, I would like to use my Andy Rooney voice and ask the question:  Have you noticed the “pulp fictionalization” of great works of literature lately, particularly Pride and Prejudice?

See for yourself.  Go to any online book seller and search with key words like Jane Austen, vampires, and mysteries, then poof!  Up pops an ant trail of books written by multitudinous scribblers.  Some seem readable. Others have titles such as Vampire Darcy’s Desire.  I don’t know about you but I don’t want to go there.  Anne Rice has written all that needs to be said about 19th century vampires and their desires.  Leave Mr. Darcy and his sensibilities out of it, please.  Imagine what’s next, Nightmare on the Mississippi: Huck Becomes a Werewolf or Anna Karina Was Dracula’s Bride!

Drawing from New Yorker Magazine

Does PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley fall into the pulp fiction category? Hardly.  An accomplished crime novelist, Ms. James has, at ninety-one, penned a sequel to Ms. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Ms. James’ creation picks up on the day before the eve of the Autumnal Ball at Pemberley.   Before taking Elizabeth and Darcy into the world of mystery and murder, Ms. James, in an author’s note, apologizes to their creator for “involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation.”  She goes on to write “had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.”

Ms. James’ story is hers alone but written in a style praising the original prose.  For example, she describes Elizabeth’s relief that she is not poor with “Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.”  Pure Austen.

She dashes off an adventurous tale about the shameless George Wickham and his wife Lydia and how “polite society” should respond to their selfish, unethical actions.  When you think this master of mystery writing has revealed all, Ms. James uncovers more surprises, just as Ms. Austen would have done if she had written a mystery about Pemberley and its residents.   Well done, Ms. James.


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What is the What in South Sudan?


Sorry if you’ve heard this from me before, but I am a HUGE David Eggers fan.  According to Wikipedia – that is where I stalk all my heroes – Mr. Eggers is author to several books, owner of the publishing company McSweeney’s, co-founder of the literacy project 826 Valencia,  AND he went to high school with Vince Vaughan.

So what, you shrug, there are thousands of authors. With e-publishing, everybody is a publisher. And non-profit foundations? Throw a rock these days and you hit one.  Agreed, but David Eggers is the real deal folks.

In 2000, he won popular recognition with his first book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  All the important book people liked it. But they could not agree to which category it belonged.  Was it memoir? Creative non-fiction? What was it?  The story is of a young man (Eggers) who loses both parents to cancer and is faced with raising his eight-year old brother Toph.  What drew me to the work is the wacky writing style.  As you read you can almost feel Dave’s nervous energy causing his knee to go up and down as he writes.  He doesn’t follow standard writing conventions; I like that in a book.   After the success of his first book, he started 826 Valencia Project to encourage young people to write and read.  Today, the project’s methods are copied by others throughout the United States.

Watching the news last week about the conflict in Sudan-South Sudan, I was reminded of Mr. Eggers’ book What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.  Published in 2006, the book is categorized as memoir and fiction.  It is about the Lost Boys of Sudan’s experiences while living in America. It features one Valentino Achak Deng. When Mr. Eggers discovered that Mr. Deng and The Lost Boys were not doing so well in American, he helped Mr. Deng tell his story.  Can you imagine, at the age of five or six, seeing people in your village brutally massacred and then running into the waste lands where your friends are eaten by lions, then having to live in a refugee camp until you are eighteen? This story is another “heartbreaking work” by Mr. Eggers.   The profits from this book go to The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which helped Mr. Deng finish college in America and go back to his home in South Sudan.  His foundation is now building schools for boys and girls and helping to rebuild the village he was forced to flee.

 The conflict between Sudan and South Sudan is about oil and religion. If you would like to gain an understanding about the human side of the clash, buy and read What is the What.  You will gain insight into what is happening there and help Mr. Deng with his good work of building a new nation.

Mr. Eggers, your pen is a mighty sword.


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The Art of Racing in The Rain and Ridin' with The King


The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein teaches us that the past is finished, focus on what lies ahead.  Here’s what makes the story interesting: It is narrated by a dog.

Enzo is named for the race car driver Enzo Ferrari. He does not view himself as a pet.  He lives in Seattle with his family, Denny, Eve, and Zoë.  Denny, an auto mechanic and aspiring race car driver, is struggling to break into the Formula One racing circuit.

The author uses Enzo and Denny, Eastern philosophy, and high performance racing to explore the transcendent proposition, “That which you manifest is before you.”

From a National Geographic program, Enzo learns that upon death a Mongolian dog’s soul wanders the earth until it is ready to become a man.  Enzo believes he will become a man in his next life.  When tragedy disrupts his family, Enzo helps Denny get through painful life events.  I’ll let you read the book to find out if Enzo makes it over to his next life.

This story reminds me of a house mate my brother Louie once had. King was a hefty black Labrador retriever.  He was named for Richard Petty, the king of NASCAR racing.  King listened to rock-in-roll music, watched The Andy Griffith Show, and swam in the family pool.  Whereas Enzo watched Formula One racing tapes with Denny, King kicked-back with Louie for NASCAR on Sundays.

King had to carry his own weight when it came to chores. He cut the grass, stood guard while Louie was away and played host to house guests by serving beer. (The term “fetch” was never used.)

Perhaps King had a Mongolian soul.  He knew he had a purpose in sharing his life with Louie.  They understood each other and cared for each other.  And when the time came for King’s soul to move on, somehow, I felt that we would see him again.  Someday.


Riding with the King







Henrico County Library is hosting a night with Garth Stein on April 4, 2012. See their website for details.


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