Success is a Process: Reflecting on 20 years of book reviews

by Laurel C. Wemett

In the Winter 2002 issue of this magazine the Book Look department was introduced by editor Mark Stash, “presenting our first ever look at books that are Finger Lakes related.” This became a regular department the first few years in the winter issues. Beginning in 2008, the annual Book Look went bi-annual. Normally, at least six to eight books are featured. With this issue we celebrate a 20-year milestone with reflections on the past two decades and some 250 books related to the Finger Lakes.

Nonfiction titles have outnumbered fiction, over two to one, perhaps not surprising with the rich history and natural wonders of the region to explore. Books on outdoor pursuits like hiking, fishing, and sailing, as well as landmarks and scenery, have provided seemingly endless ways to discover the Finger Lakes. A few memoirs have chronicled growing up in a Finger Lakes locale while other titles offered poetic content or stimulating photography.

Mystery lovers were treated to a fair number of fictional crimes (and real ones, too). Occasionally, a love story has been set in a locale inspired by the region’s historic communities and lakes. We have featured a few books for children of different ages so younger readers might learn more about their surroundings.

A word about authors – they range from those which have made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers List to first time writers. Some manage to write multiple titles, creating anticipation of the next in a series. Publishers include major publishing companies, vanity presses, historical societies, and regional university presses like Syracuse University Press, Cornell, and RIT.

On some occasions we featured excerpts from a single book in a stand-alone article. Memorably, the sale of Willy of Crooked Lake, the children’s story of a rescued dog, helped raise funds for the expansion of the Finger Lakes SPCA’s Animal Shelter in Bath, New York.

It has been uplifting to “meet” so many talented authors, largely through their works. The reviews we offer hopefully introduce our readers to new books so they can seek them out in a brick and mortar store, online, or at their local library to enjoy and share with friends or perhaps their Book Club.

This issue brings new selections on a significant architect, stories from Cazenovia, women related to a Tompkins County community, tales of personal grief, mid-life change and introspection, as well as a small town where everybody knows everybody (and their secrets).

If you care to read past reviews, they are archived on the magazine’s website, Search on “Book Look.”

Happy reading!



The Architecture of James H. Johnson
Katie Eggers Comeau and
Christopher Brandt
Greece Historical Society

Structures designed by James H. Johnson (1932-2016), a mid-twentieth century architect known for his often-innovative style, are the subject of this valuable historic resource survey and book. It raises the public’s awareness of the architect’s many residential, religious, and public works over his 60-year career in the Rochester area. The loss of the Johnson-designed Our Lady of Mercy Rectory in Greece, New York, in 2013 led to the sponsorship of this project by the Greece Historical Society.

The authors divide Johnson’s architecture by themes from 1961 to 2016. Some structures are well-known like the Liberty Pole in downtown Rochester or the unconventional private home in Perinton, which, due to its pod shapes, is known as the “Mushroom House.” The latter is one of his earth-formed concrete structures built during the 1965 to 1970 period and categorized as one of Johnson’s “Organic Sculptural Projects” with forms inspired by nature.

Christopher Brandt, historic preservation architect, and Katie Eggers Comeau, architectural historian, both of Bero Architecture PLLC have written a well-researched in-depth and fully-illustrated book which has already merited several awards.

Read the “House of Pods” story about the “Mushroom House” in the Summer 2013 Life in the Finger Lakes. An article on some of Johnson’s other works including St. Januarius Church in Naples, New York, is planned for a future issue.


Dana Spiotta
Alfred A. Knopf

It is 2017 and 53-year old Samantha (“Sam”) Raymond upends her life when she purchases a rundown Arts and Crafts bungalow in a derelict Syracuse neighborhood. She abandons her suburban home, a patient but predictable husband, and their teenaged child for an uncertain inner-city existence. Sam’s impulsive behavior is as much a reaction to the recent Presidential election as to her mid-life changes.

New friendships are formed with women Sam meets online who encourage her to embrace her less bourgeois lifestyle. She finds self-expression in her part-time job at a fictional house museum, once lived in by a woman who advocated eugenics. The architectural details of Sam’s home continue to delight her but a break-in threatens her security. She also witnesses the death of an unarmed, young Black man by police officers.

This provocative plot also explores the relationships of three generations of women. The solace Sam finds with Lily, her loving but ailing mother contrasts with the tension felt with Ally, her 16-year old daughter who rarely communicates with her. Ally’s perspective, including a secret romance with an older man, is presented separately.

Author Dana Spiotta credits the “beautiful old structures in Syracuse,” for inspiring this, her fifth book. The award-winning highly respected author teaches in the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program.


Comfort in the Wings
Jennifer Collins
Words in the Wings Press, Inc.

Profound loss has overwhelmed the life of Larissa Whitcomb. The middle-aged woman hopes returning to work may eliminate her feelings of acute helplessness. She undertakes a business trip eager to heal the grief caused by the tragic death of her daughter and the disappearance of her son.  Her innermost thoughts surrounding the intense heartbreak caused by Larissa’s family crisis are expressed through her first-person narration.

As the plot unfolds, the protagonist’s journey becomes more than just a return to a career. Healing slowly seems possible thanks to the honest exchanges with the strangers that Larissa encounters while stranded in an airport. There are supportive conversations with two close friends at a reunion in the Finger Lakes. Meetings with her ex-husband disclose long-buried secrets. Larissa values the connections she finds with other parents who have suffered similar losses, and in her search to understand the absence of her adult children, she consults a psychic medium. Birds and butterflies in the natural world also provide Larissa with profound renewed hope and consolation.

Jennifer Collins is a retired physical therapist and college professor. This, her debut novel, was prompted by a number of personal losses. She welcomes reader feedback and includes thoughtful questions for any group discussion of the book’s themes.


Women as Bright As Stars: The 19th Century Women of Newfield, New York
Rosemary Rowland
Troy Book Makers

“Women As Bright as Stars” was the description for Saponi Native American women who lived during the 1770s in the area known as Newfield, NY. Beginning with that matrilineal tribe, followed by the early pioneers and settlers, this well-researched collection examines the multitude of women’s roles throughout the 1800s. Here is a long overdue focus on women of all statures in society who are often missing from existing histories of the small Tompkins County community.

Well-written thoughtful narratives, organized by broad themes, present the life of each woman in context. Surviving records reveal how historical events like the Civil War greatly increased female responsibilities. They often nursed soldiers, maintained the home front, and if widowed, had to seek their Veteran husband’s pension. During the war the songstress, Miss Kate Dean of Newfield, who knew widespread fame, even performed at hospitals and camps throughout the North.

Traditional female pastimes of needlework, gardening, and culinary arts are covered. Scandals and crimes committed by women, and other females marginalized in society are no longer forgotten in history. Photographs, endnotes, and an index of named women make this a valuable research tool.

Rosemary Rowland, who has certification in genealogical research, is the former Deputy historian of Newfield where she managed its archives. This is her first book.


Hanover Falls The Bouquet
Virginia Elizabeth Rose
Rose Publishing

The lives and loves of residents of a small town are the focus of this warm and witty tale. Hanover Falls resembles the canalside community of Brockport, New York. The novel’s imaginative locations are a twist on actual businesses such as A Singing Bird Café, inspired by Brockport’s Red Bird Café. Hanover Falls’ Everyone is an Open Book Store, is reminiscent of Brockport’s Lift Bridge Book Store.

The main character, Esther Sue, lives alone with her three felines. Her life before arriving in Hanover Falls holds secrets which explain her hostility toward others, especially Caroline Tucker whose Pug dog invades Esther Sue’s garden. Esther Sue’s past is accidentally revealed after the “Major Mail Mix-up” leads to the incorrect delivery of all residents’ letters. How this public humiliation impacts Esther Sue’s relationship with the hardware store owner and his late brother’s orphaned children, is the crux of the tale.

This is the first novel by SUNY Brockport alumna and retiree Virginia Campbell, now Emerita Associate Director of Marketing Communications. She is working on a sequel and previously wrote an unpublished series for her grandchildren about a magical community. Artist Fran Bliek, affiliated with the Arts Center of Yates County, painted a bouquet used for the book cover with flowers representing each orphaned child’s name.   


The Bear Tree and Other Stories from Cazenovia’s History 
Erica Barnes and Jason Emerson
Syracuse University Press

The village of Cazenovia in Madison County is known for Lorenzo, the family home of one of its founders. While some stories relate to the stately mansion, the authors uncover the lesser known individuals and personalities who inhabited or visited the lakeside community. This collection of solidly researched stories features educators, politicians, military heroes, circus entertainers, and local characters linked to Cazenovia.

Topics range from Native American legends to slave ownership and wartime heroics. Featured individuals include Lucia Zora Cord, known as the “Bravest Woman in the World,” President Grover Cleveland who shook hands with thousands of people when he visited, and Elizabeth Smith Miller, a women’s rights advocate credited for originating the Bloomer costume. The Cazenovia Mummy may be the oldest person at the age of 2000 years, but his arrival in Cazenovia in 1894 as a souvenir from a trip to Egypt, was long after his death. One chapter focuses on 1816; known as “the year without a summer” and the impact of the climate anomaly on the community.

A lengthy bibliography makes this a valuable resource. Co-authors are Erica Barnes, a teacher and historian who compiled “Years Ago in History” for the Cazenovia Republican and Jason Emerson, an independent historian and journalist. Emerson is the former editor of that newspaper.




These new books will be included in a future Book Look.


The Archaeology of Harriet Tubman’s Life in Freedom
Douglas V. Armstrong
Syracuse University Press

Harriet Tubman’s efforts as a soldier, nurse, and spy are familiar. Less is known about her later years and her continued efforts for social justice, women’s rights, and care for the elderly. Syracuse University Professor Douglas Armstrong reconstructs and interprets Tubman’s public and private life in freedom through integrating his archaeological findings with historical research.


The People We Keep
Allison Larkin
Simon and Schuster, Gallery Books,

This coming of age story follows April Sawicki, a young songwriter longing to find her place in the world. April’s journey toward belonging and self-acceptance includes a nostalgic escape into Ithaca, NY and Asheville NC in the 1990s.

Allison Larkin, who attended Ithaca College, is an internationally-bestselling author of several novels.

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