Social Media and the Afterlife

Bookcover_Goodbye for nowIn her second novel, Goodbye for Now, Laurie Frankel takes a classic theme of the human experience—we live, we love, then we die—to a new level by adding avatars of her characters’ dead loved ones.

Sam, a software coding genius, writes a computer program that enables his grieving girlfriend, Meredith, to chat via social media with her recently departed grandmother. He creates an algorithm which, drawing data from emails and video calls between the two, allows Meredith to continue communicating with her grandmother after the dear soul’s physical remains are reposed. Sam and Meredith call the software application RePose and offer it to others.

A philosopher with a pen for storytelling, Ms. Frankel has her characters debate the notion that with the onset of artificial intelligence and other technologies, we humans may require an upgrade in Descartes’ proclamation of existence—a version 2.0 of “I think, therefore, I am.” They seem to wonder, “Is ‘the Cloud’ the new heaven since our thoughts, words, and likenesses (pictures and videos) will continue to exist there long after our physical bodies are gone?” What is the soul but conscience and individuality of one’s being?

Skype Chat w Gran-maShe concludes that this “brave new world” of interacting with a facsimile of another pales to experiencing in-the-moment real life with actual loved ones; using social media is, in fact, an isolating experience much like the act of dying.

And, oh, the irony, I’m blogging about this story and sharing it with you via email, Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook has developed policies for loved ones and their dearly departed’s account(s). It’s only a matter of time before a real life “Sam” comes along and creates something like the fictional RePose.

If given the chance, would you want to converse with a loved one after they are physically gone, using the reams of data we are all accumulating from texting, emailing and video calling? Would interacting with a loved one’s avatar help with the grieving process or hinder the healing of the heartbreak of loss?

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Peace on Earth, David Sedaris Style

David Sedaris

If Seinfeld is a show about nothing, then David Sedaris’s essays are musings on the same topic. The humorist has been scribbling about bellybutton lint and other life oddities since courdory jackets were hip.

SantaLand DiariesHis big break came in 1992 when National Public Radio asked him to read from his SantaLand Diaries about his adventures as a “low-key sort of elf” named Crumpet. I became an instant fan when he sang Away in a Manager, Billie Holliday style.

Like an unscripted recording of modern life, Mr. Sedaris’s works are dioramic exhibitions of his everyday experiences. His narratives hold nothing back. They convey blinding truths, realities which come with a spectrum of emotions from happy and funny to sadness and anxiety to full on distress.

Passages in his stories coax me to laugh out loud. And there are times when his more poignant essays cause a cloud of gray funk to float over my head for days. Some just have it all, like the accounting of the loss of a sibling.

Sedaris BooksHis style of humor is grounded in the paradoxes of daily existence, forcing us to see the absurdity of our seriousness and notions of self-importance. To further the cause of peace on earth this holiday season, read Mr. Sedaris’s fables about nothing.


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Summer of 2014 Reading List

This spring my husband and I ventured out on what I called The Grand Inland Southern Tour. En route to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, our road trip took us through Birmingham, Alabama by way of Chattanooga, Tennessee. After we sated ourselves on gumbo, etouffee and jazzy blues in the Big Easy, we breezed through Natchez, Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi, then up the Natchez Trace Parkway to Nashville, Tennessee and back home to Virginia.

The journey inspired this summer’s reading list, a mix of new releases and books from the literary archives.

Harper Lee BookFist up, Alabama. As Harper Lee, who calls Monroeville, Alabama home, doesn’t plan to write a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, read Charles Shields’ biography of the legendary author, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

Birmingham resident  Fannie Flagg has the summer’s quick and fun read covered with her latest The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.  Visit Ms. Flagg’s website to watch her interview with Southern Living Magazine and learn how she got her stage name.

rick-bragg-saving-face-sAnd speaking of Southern Living Magazine, the articles on pruning crepe myrtles are no longer the reason I reach for it while in the grocery store check-out line. News journalist Rick Bragg’s noodlings about his mama, fishing, and stray dogs on the magazine’s back page are as down home as the fried chicken recipes. The man’s got a silver tongued pen. Try his memoir about growing up in Alabama, All Over But the Shoutin’.

While driving through New Orleans’ Uptown District, I thought about Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth.  A story teller at the top of her game, Ms. Smith uses New Orleans and Asheville, North Carolina as settings in her tale of tortured and tender souls. Read it to discover the genius of Zelda Fitzgerald, who was born in Montgomery, Alabama.

Natchez BurningOn to Mississippi, the Magnolia State. While my husband stopped at a Natchez coffee shop for his afternoon jolt, Miss Seren Dipity escorted me across the street to the local independent bookstore. On the counter right next to the cash register sat native son Greg Iles’ latest, Natchez Burning. Miss Dipity insisted I buy the 788 page tome. Tuck it into your tote bag for the beach. It’s a page-turning-can’t-put-it-down yarn.

Also on my list this summer is Eudora Welty’s short novel The Optimist’s Daughter 225px-Eudora_Welty_at_National_Portrait_Gallery_IMG_4558(Pulitzer 1973).  After driving by Miss Welty’s Jackson home, my husband was coaxed into traveling two hours out of our way to pop in to see William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak on The University of Mississippi campus at Oxford. When we identified ourselves as Virginians, the docent shared with us Mr. Faulkner’s thoughts on Virginia civility, saying, “Mr. Faulkner said Virginians were snobs and he liked them just fine.” My grandmother would call that a left-handed compliment.

If your summertime plans don’t include a trip to the Deep South to view the muddy Mississippi River and eat fried alligator, perhaps you can make a virtual visit by reading these tales about a place where “the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”

See you under the sun umbrella and happy reading!





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Something for the New Year’s Reading Diet

Author Howard Owen
Author Howard Owen

With the passing of Elmore Leonard in 2013, we were all reminded of his big rule on writing—try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Lucky for us, writer Howard Owen has mastered this skill.

And for his efforts, Mr. Owen’s novel Oregon Hill won the 2012 North American Hammett Prize.  Hel-lo! If you are an avid crime stories reader, you already know that this is a Big Deal. Other American writers who have won this prestigious award are Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, and Martin Cruz Smith, to name a few. Yes, Virginia, Richmond hasn’t been this close to crime writing royalty since Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta left town.

A sequel story, Philadelphia Quarry, was released in July 2013 and a third novel, Parker Field, is scheduled for release in June 2014.

The series is about “call it like it is” reporter Willie Mays Black, a lifelong Richmond resident, who has been demoted back to the night shift of the local newspaper. In his pursuit for truth in a town still wrestling with its un-reconciled past, Willie’s reporting holds the mirror up for folks to see how badly they’re behaving.  In spite of his many flaws and bad habits—too much drinkin’, smokin’, and skirt chasin’—Willie is a man we have to love because he tells the truth no matter the consequences to himself or his beloved city.

Reading Mr. Owen’s stories is like eating Godiva chocolate.  You want to read them slowly and in little pieces so that the phrases and sentences he’s cooked up savor in your memory for a long, long time.  Nutritious candy for your brain and your heart, these smart, funny reads have zero calories and will fit into any New Year’s diet plan.

Learn about Mr. Owen’s other books at

Happy reading in 2014 everyone!

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The Power of Word Imagery

I am watching the Netflix series House of Cards featuring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.  One of the characters is a cub reporter who abandons a bright future at a prestigious newspaper to work outside in the gutter for an online rag called Slug Line. Where have I heard that expression before?

Rewinding the calendar to 1990, I shut my mind’s eye tight on the years streaming by and I’m in Washington DC in the K Street offices of my employer.  A co-worker casually mentions that she was able to make it to the office on time because she picked someone up at the slug line.

“You want to run that one by me again?” I ask.  My small town frame of mind pictures the stream of slime that the slow snail leaves as it slithers across the sidewalk on a sunny morning.

“Yeah, I picked up a couple of commuters at the bus stop so I could take the HOV in.”  She then explains to me the symbiosis in the practice of randomly offering taxi service to total strangers who are waiting at suburban bus stops and park-and-rides to go into DC. Instantly a line of snails reading newspapers and listening to portable music players becomes a two second movie seared into my brain.

Slugging to Work by D.Powell

But what do blogging and tweeting about the back-biters of political ilk have to do with the poor slobs trying to get to work at the Pentagon or Crystal City?

According to my key word search, I have several options from which to choose.  There is the phrase ‘slug line’ used in a song written by John Hiatt in 1979 acquiescing to the music industry to pimp him up so his music gets air time.  Then there are several references to the news industry. Ah, in journalism a slug line is the abbreviated text at the beginning of news copy describing the content of the story. “House Speaker Selected-300”, translation, the story is about a new Speaker of the House and is three hundred words in length. That fits with the House of Cards story but why are DC commuters called slugs?

Also listed is a website which reveals the how’s and why’s slugging of the commuter variety began.  In the mass transit world slugs are metal tokens used in place of coins by commuters looking for a free ride. As with coins and metal tokens, it’s a challenge for the bus drivers to distinguish the paying riders from the freeloading slugs waiting to be warm bodies for that expedited ride down the I-395 HOV lanes.

Eureka!  All this time I’ve imagined that my co-worker had slimy mollusks crawling around in the back seat of her car, when instead she had only a bunch of metal tokens.

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Noah’s Wife

Noah’s Wife by T. K. Thorne

Set in 5500 BCE in ancient Turkey, this story is inspired by the theories penned in Noah’s Flood, The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).

In our childhood Sunday school classes, we have been taught that God spoke directly to the patriarch Noah and instructed him to build a vessel to protect his family and all the creatures from the great flood-or deluge.

Ms. Thorne constructs a story that asks very interesting questions.  What if God speaks to Noah through his wife?  And, what if his wife has the ability to “see” the coming doom before others?

Na’amah, Noah’s wife and protagonist, is born with what her grandmother says is a special gift but others see it as a disability. (In the book’s acknowledgements, the author speaks of Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism.)  Na’amah’s gift of heightened senses causes mistrust and provides strong conflict between Na’amah and her family, her village and her own beliefs.

Na’amah’s days involve tending sheep, finding honey, and other domestic chores like sewing and cooking.  The author imagines that even before electrical appliances not every woman is meant to be a Julia Child.

The story features a woman of Biblical times supporting her man, bearing his children, and keeping his house, or his boat in this instance.  However, not only is Na’amah all those things, she is also a visionary and a leader in spite of her gender and her unique mental capacities. Or, is it because of these traits?

Noah’s Wife is a tender story that asks some mighty tough questions.  Any book club would find lots to talk about if it chose this book.  If you enjoyed The Red Tent or other such stories about strong Biblical women, you will find Noah’s Wife an interesting read.

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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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