Sarah White

Every family's journey to parenthood is unique, and that's particularly true when it comes to families that choose foreign adoption. In The Red Thread, Ann Hood (The Knitting Circle) explores the reasons and reactions different couples have in the course of adopting children from China.

Maya Lange opened The Red Thread, an adoption agency for people wishing to adopt from China, after she lost her own child in a freak accident, a story she keeps to herself. Hood’s narrative follows a group of couples as they make their way through the adoption process.

There's the famous retired baseball player and his wife, both of whom worry that a child will ruin their relationship; the type-A mom-to-be who wants her child now, if not sooner; the woman who wants loads of children—her own and adopted kids—but whose husband ran away when his last girlfriend got pregnant; the couple with a biological child with a congenital health problem who long for a healthy child; the woman struggling with a series of miscarriages and the difficult relationship with her stepdaughter; and Lange herself, who thinks she's finally ready to let love into her life again nine years after her first child's death.

The individual family stories feel a little bit clichéd—desperate women, ambivalent (or worse) husbands—and the fairy tale ending of the book will leave readers wanting a sequel that explores the reality of integrating adopted children into families with other children, or into the life of a single mom just starting to open herself up to other people after a long stagnant period.

Readers who are at all familiar with foreign adoption will have trouble suspending disbelief at how smooth and quickly things go for these families. The timeline is truncated, and at least a couple of the characters who adopt wouldn't be able to do so under China's current regulations.

But for readers who don't know a lot about foreign adoption or why a couple might choose to go that route, the book is illuminating and heartwarming. The stories of the Chinese women who gave up the adopted girls add another layer to the story that many people might not think about: these children were loved by the women who left them behind, and it was a huge sacrifice leave the children with an unknowable future.

The Red Thread reminds readers of the joy and magic that come with welcoming a new life into your world, even if that life originally came from thousands of miles away.

Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas and is a friend of two families that have grown through the  adoption of children from Asia.

Every family's journey to parenthood is unique, and that's particularly true when it comes to families that choose foreign adoption. In The Red Thread, Ann Hood (The Knitting Circle) explores the reasons and reactions different couples have in the course of adopting children from China. Maya Lange opened The Red Thread, an adoption agency for […]

Things haven't been going too well lately for Paul Gustavson, protagonist of Pete Nelson's I Thought You Were Dead. The freelance writer has signed on to write the book Nature for Morons, part of the wildly popular Morons series, but he enjoys drinking at his favorite dive bar far more than he enjoys working. His wife has left him, his girlfriend is simultaneously dating another man, and his father has just had a stroke, leaving his older brother Carl to once again take over and show everyone how much more together his life is than Paul's.

The best thing going for Paul is Stella: she's witty, wise and unconditionally accepting of Paul's many flaws. She also happens to be a geriatric German Shepherd/yellow Lab mix who can no longer climb the stairs and is feeling her health slipping away.

Yes, Stella can talk. And while that might turn off many readers of serious literature—many readers, period—Stella is actually quite the well-rounded character. So well rounded, in fact, readers may wonder why she's a dog at all and not an office mate or pal at the bar—in short, a human of some sort.

But this oddball relationship is what makes Paul seem redeemable; this affection will cause readers to root for him. Though the book is often murky, sad and mired in "a dark, private, pissy place" where Paul is "free to loathe himself"—secure in the knowledge that no human loves or cares about him—the resolution of the story is happier than that. It's so neat, in fact, that one can almost see the novel as a big-screen romantic comedy, with Steve Carell as Paul and maybe Sandra Bullock as the woman who sees past his gruff exterior, limited prospects and romantic issues—who finds something that’s worth paying attention.

Ultimately, I Thought You Were Dead is about the catastrophes that make a person realize his life is a mess, then do everything he can to put his life back together—perhaps, in the process, creating something better than he dared to hope for.

Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas.

Things haven't been going too well lately for Paul Gustavson, protagonist of Pete Nelson's I Thought You Were Dead. The freelance writer has signed on to write the book Nature for Morons, part of the wildly popular Morons series, but he enjoys drinking at his favorite dive bar far more than he enjoys working. His […]

Evangelical Christians are a growing force in America, to the frustration—and sometimes fear—of nonbelievers like Gina Welch. Raised a secular Jew by a single mom in Berkeley, California, Welch moved to Virginia in 2002 to complete her master’s degree and became fascinated by the hardcore Christians that surrounded her. To learn more about these people, what drives them and why they’re so interested in converting the rest of the world to their point of view, Welch infiltrated Thomas Road Baptist Church, the church founded by über-evangelist Jerry Falwell. She spent two years pretending to be a Christian—even getting “saved” and baptized and going on a mission trip to Alaska—in order to get at the truth of who evangelicals are as individuals and what the movement means for America. She shares what she found in her book In the Land of Believers.

Readers less cynical than Welch may find her initial treatment of the faithful harsh and mean-spirited. She didn’t seem to take what she was doing seriously, and readers may wonder why she wanted to spend so much time getting to know people she clearly didn’t respect. In time, though, she began to see the members of the church as more than their ideology and to find comfort in their community, the regularity church attendance brought to her life, even the cheesy praise music sung at every opportunity. In the end, she says she felt “a kind of belonging” and understanding that evangelicals are so enthusiastic about their faith because they see its potential to change other people’s lives just as they feel it has altered their own.

No matter the reader’s opinion of evangelicals, Welch says they’re a group that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored: “Listen to them, include them in the public conversation, understand the sentiments behind their convictions, and you invent the possibility of kinship.” That’s what Welch aims to do with her book, which provides a candid inside look at faith for people who don’t have a clue where evangelicals are coming from. If readers can make the same sort of mindset change Welch made by writing the book, it could forever alter the way they think about people of all faiths.

Sarah E. White is neither an evangelical nor a Christian. She writes from Arkansas, home of former Baptist preacher-turned-governor-turned-evangelical darling, Mike Huckabee.

Evangelical Christians are a growing force in America, to the frustration—and sometimes fear—of nonbelievers like Gina Welch. Raised a secular Jew by a single mom in Berkeley, California, Welch moved to Virginia in 2002 to complete her master’s degree and became fascinated by the hardcore Christians that surrounded her. To learn more about these people, […]

Peter Bognanni would probably not appreciate the word "sweet" being used to describe his punk-rock-fueled debut novel, The House of Tomorrow, but parts of the story are decidedly so. This memorable tale tells the story of 16-year-old Sebastian Prendergrast, who lives in a geodesic dome outside North Branch, Iowa, with his Nana, who has homeschooled him in the gospel according to Buckminster Fuller since he was orphaned at the age of 5.

When Nana (real name Josephine) has a stroke while the Whitcomb family is visiting the dome, Sebastian is thrust into the wider world for the first time. Sixteen-year-old Jared Whitcomb, who is recovering from a heart transplant, decides he and Sebastian should start a punk band to ensure he's earned the heart he only received because another teenager died. His older sister, the beguiling Meredith, is a constant distraction to Sebastian and an irritation to Jared. Their mother, Janice, a church youth group leader, struggles to hold the family together since her husband left after Jared's transplant.

Bognanni deftly describes the angst and loneliness of these two teen boys, which they seek to scream out with their band, "The Rash," while making their debut at the church talent show. They talk of "wanting something real to happen"—wanting to be outside the clutches of their guardians, yet still longing for their love and protection.

A poignant passage makes a parallel between Nana's enthusiasm for the teachings of futurist architect and philosopher Fuller (and the man himself) and Sebastian's burgeoning obsession with punk—a musical style he didn't know existed until he met the Whitcombs: "Both had distrust for big corporations, big religions, and the government," Bognanni writes. "Both had a do-it-yourself motto. If something wasn't out there in the world that needed to be, whether it was a new sound or a new form of housing, you were supposed to do it yourself. It is only those who dared to do something different who made real contributions to life and art."

The House of Tomorrow is a hard-edged but heartrending story of growing up strange in a small Midwestern town. Anyone who’s been there is sure to relate to Sebastian and Jared—and to hope that The Rash lives on beyond its monumental and unforgettable debut.

Sarah E. White, who was born in Iowa, writes from Arkansas.

Peter Bognanni would probably not appreciate the word "sweet" being used to describe his punk-rock-fueled debut novel, The House of Tomorrow, but parts of the story are decidedly so. This memorable tale tells the story of 16-year-old Sebastian Prendergrast, who lives in a geodesic dome outside North Branch, Iowa, with his Nana, who has homeschooled […]

Britt Johnson, a newly freed slave at the end of the Civil War, moves with his family to the wild country of Texas, where he finds more dangers than the racism and violence of the Kentucky he left behind in Paulette Jiles’ gripping novel The Color of Lightning. The story hangs on what little is known of the real Johnson’s life, making the book feel as much a history as it is a novel.

When his wife and children are abducted during an Indian raid, Johnson decides he must retrieve them, and in that action he becomes a player in the much larger story of the relations between white Americans and “America’s great other,” the Native Americans who want to keep the land they have always known as the government tries to corral them on reservations.

A poet and author of two previous novels, including Enemy Women, Jiles is an adept and thoughtful storyteller who makes all of her characters sympathetic, allowing readers to see that there are no good answers to this historical conundrum. Her novel explores the feelings of settlers whose family members have been kidnapped; the Indians who took them; the captives themselves, some of whom have been with the Indians so long they starve themselves to death when returned to their original families; and the agents sent to deal with the Indian problem. Samuel Hammond, a Quaker Indian agent sent to oversee some of the most violent tribes on the southern Texas plains, beautifully illustrates the dilemma of religious Easterners charged with dealing with the tribes in a nonviolent way.

The Color of Lightning offers no easy answers or safe conclusions about this dark era of American history. It shows that people act in their own self-interest, always doing what is best from their point of view. This engaging story ably illustrates the consequences of trying to shift other people, en masse, to a different point of view, while telling the smaller story of a family trying to recover from the horror of an Indian raid.

Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas.

Britt Johnson, a newly freed slave at the end of the Civil War, moves with his family to the wild country of Texas, where he finds more dangers than the racism and violence of the Kentucky he left behind in Paulette Jiles’ gripping novel The Color of Lightning. The story hangs on what little is […]

Pharmakon is a Greek word meaning both poison and cure. As the title of Dirk Wittenborn's novel, the word not only defines the early days of prescribed mood-altering drugs, but also the difficulty of truly understanding the triumphs and tragedies of a family's story.

The novel is narrated by Zach Friedrich, youngest son of William Friedrich, who, just after World War II, develops a scale of happiness that allows clinicians to rate whether a person is becoming more or less happy (and more or less sane). He goes on to create, with a Yale colleague, something he believes will be a cure for unhappiness, a pill derived from a New Guinea plant. When the trial ends in violence, the project is buried, William gets a job at Rutgers and Zach is born and grows up without knowing the secrets the family left behind.

Despite the heavy subject matter, including murder, mental illness, family secrets and betrayal, Pharmakon is actually quite funny – not surprising, given the author's short stint on “Saturday Night Live.” Wittenborn is a witty and intelligent storyteller, and his own life story mirrors that of Zach's: he's a child born to a psychopharmacologist father who had a few disgruntled patients of his own.

Readers will have fun trying to decide which parts of the story are autobiographical (was there really a girl named Sunshine and a gaggle of parrots in the mulberry tree?) and which parts come from the author's imagination. Either way, this is the kind of book one imagines college professors read on their summer vacations: one that is at once smart, darkly funny, entertaining and informational, told with love and an eye toward the bigger issue of how families endure both the poisons and the curatives of everyday life.

Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas.

Pharmakon is a Greek word meaning both poison and cure. As the title of Dirk Wittenborn's novel, the word not only defines the early days of prescribed mood-altering drugs, but also the difficulty of truly understanding the triumphs and tragedies of a family's story. The novel is narrated by Zach Friedrich, youngest son of William […]

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