Thursday, July 31, 2008

SURPRISE PACKAGES - who waves a swim wrap at Clark Gable?

by Shirley Bahlmann
“Surprise Packages,” by authors Carroll Morris, Lael Littke, and Nancy Anderson is an epic volume covering years, like “Gone With the Wind.” It follows the lives of three women (hm… three protagonists… three authors… yeah, that works) who’ve been friends for, I don’t know, ever? Or maybe just from the time they met at Education Week in 1980.
These ladies are tight, I mean old-fashioned rubber girdle tight, turning to each other for help in dealing with children, spouses, neighbors, in-laws and outlaws. The problems range from prescription drug abuse to divorce, remarriage, interfaith engagements, and kicking the dog.
This book is several layers deep, including emails, narration, and dialog, with each of the women taking turns sharing their news from celebrations to dilemmas. If you can get to a place where you care about the characters, it’s like reading the big, fat, juicy family newsletter you always wish you had. Even the odd swear word is bleeped out by curlicues and exclamation marks.
And names – oh, if you like unusual names, just wait until you feast your eyes on the likes of Shoshana, Rhiannan, Juneau, Evvy, Willadene (or Deenie, she answers to both), Sahrita, Beto, Flower Telford, and Ira. It’s like a big Hollywood production, with a cast of thousands.
This book is not the type I usually read. It was a bit too fast paced and multi-layered to sit on my favorites shelf, but maybe that’s because I didn’t read the earlier books in the series. It’s possible that one other reason it didn’t resonate deeply with me is that I don’t have any girlfriends as involved in my life as Deenie, Juneau, and Erin are in each others’. But then, I grew up in the middle of six sisters. As I turned page after page, I found that the cast of thousands didn’t always have faces I recognized. Yet I found myself pulled forward to see if I could catch the next thread in the life of Beto and Nicole, the star crossed lovers. And I was rather interested in the outcome of Dex (who I privately nicknamed “Dex, Tyrannosaurus Rex.”) Not everything wraps up with a perfect, pretty bow, which is life, and I like that about this book. I also like the hopeful ending.
If you let yourself read along and sink into the lives of this amusing, insightful trio, they’ll wrap their loving arms around you and draw you into the story.
Plus you have to like reading other people’s emails.
Be sure to clear your calendar for nearly 400 pages full of drama and joy.

Shirley: Ah, Tahiti! I’ve wanted to visit this place ever since I read, “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Nancy: Thanks, Shirley, for taking us on this all-expense-paid trip to Tahiti.
Lael: When I first saw “Mutiny,” it starred Clark Gable. I’d appreciate if you’d nudge me if he passes by -- unless, of course, he has Scarlett O’Hara with him.

Shirley: Oh, you’d give her a run for her money. You all look so nice in your tropical wraps. I’m wrapping mine around my shoulders. Warding off sunburn, you know.
Lael: I’m wrapping mine around my whole bod because I’m too old to sit around in a bikini. Oh, you say this isn’t a bikini? Well, I guess I’ve put on more weight than I thought.
Shirley: Ahem. That’s why my wrap reaches my ankles. Let’s go sit at the table under this umbrella and stare at the ocean. I just watched a documentary on sharks, so this is close as I get. There. All settled? Anyone want something to drink, perhaps liquid refreshment served in a coconut shell or crab claw?
Nancy: I think I’ll go for something softer with a little less bite.
Shirley: All right. Umbrella drinks all around. How long have the three of you been friends? Are you as close as your characters in “Surprise Packages?”
Carroll: I’ve known Nancy since she was a little dark-haired bundle—she and I are real sisters. I met Lael, our almost sister, at a mutual friend’s home in Minnesota in the 80s, but the three of us didn’t get together until we attended Women’s Conference at BYU and ended up on the same shuttle bus. We offered to share the food in our cooler with Lael. The rest is history.
Lael: I’ll always take a free lunch. Hint, hint.

Shirley: How many books have you written together, including this one?
Nancy: This series of three is our first joint effort, and we thought our last. Until Lael started being haunted by a whole new set of characters that came in a set of three.
Shirley: Well, writers can’t really stop those ideas from taking over their minds. Oh, here come our drinks. Look at the cute little umbrellas! They won’t keep us dry in a tropical storm, but at least they kept the bugs out of the drinks. Here goes… ouch! Oh. Take out the little umbrella first or it might get up your nose.
I’m really curious how you decided on your character names. Did you toss a dictionary in a blender and draw out scraps of paper to see what they spelled? Some of those monikers are jim-dandies.
Carroll: Nancy and Lael are the wizards in that regard. Go for it, girls.
Lael: Apparently you’ve never lived in a small Idaho Mormon town, Shirley. If you had, you wouldn’t think they were so strange.
Nancy: Or in the South. I have a daughter in Georgia. When we visit there, I’ve kept a list of the unusual names I’ve heard. That got me interested in researching historic names from the history of the southern states. What a fun read aloud those lists were. That’s where most of the names for Florida characters came from. To be fair, some of our less inspired names must seem weird to the folks down South.

Shirley: Okay, I’ll admit it, Shirley’s a weird name, too.
Lael: We had a Stake President named Shirley Palmer in Idaho when I was in high school. And no, we weren’t giving women the priesthood. Shirley was a guy.
Shirley: There are so many interwoven threads in your book. How do you keep them from tangling?
Lael: I’m not sure we did keep them from tangling.
Carroll: I’m not sure we even wanted to! With the characters being so close for over twenty-five years, it was inevitable that the threads of lives would intertwine. The important thing was to knot off those threads in a way that held the whole together.
Nancy: I thought they wove themselves together in the most unexpected way. Sometimes we wrote parallel story lines without realizing it. They often went together like puzzle pieces when we started combining them.

Shirley: Well, I admire your ability to write together. It’s really quite a good idea. You each write a third of the book, and when it comes out, you’re pleasantly surprised at how thick it is!
Carroll: Actually, we were surprised at how thin the book is. Each of us had written enough material for a book—and DB gave us a word limit of 114,000! So, many full scenes shrank down to vignettes and other scenes and minor characters disappeared completely.
Shirley: I’m intrigued by your COB anagram. Crusty Old Broads? Where did that come from? What does it take to “join the club?”
Lael: It came from a character named Gabby Farnsworth in the first book. Her grandson is angry at her and calls her a crazy old broad. She later tells the three women who are staying with her that “I don’t object to the ‘old broad’ part. There’s something of longevity and strength in those words. It’s the choice of adjectives that I don’t like.” Juneau suggests crusty as a replacement for crazy, and the anagram COB was born. And to join the club, you have to deal with whatever life brings you, then pull up your socks and move forward.
Shirley: Hm. I’ll have to change out of my flip flops. Well, well. Look over there, ladies, there’s a tall and tan and young and handsome guy walking along the beach. Do you think it’s…? No, it can’t be. But it is! No, Lael, sit down and quit waving your swim wrap like a flag. It’s not Clark Gable. It’s the guy from Ipanema! I’ve always wanted to meet him, but he just doesn’t see. Maybe it would make a difference if he’d take off those dark sunglasses. I’m going to see if he wants to samba. You ladies go right ahead and work on your tans and your next fun writing project. Do you have any more triple author delights in the blender?
Nancy: You never can tell what will come when characters start showing up in triplets like those nibbling at Lael’s thoughts. For now the working answer is yes, but no more series. Right ladies?
Carroll: Right!
Lael: No more series.

Shirley: Well, it will be fun to see what you come up with next. Thanks for meeting me here today. Have a great vacation. Oh, I heard they’re providing return trip rowboats to offset high gas prices. But look at it this way: each of you will only be rowing one third of the time.
Lael: I knew there was a catch to this all-expense-paid deal. And watch out for that Ipanema dude. He looks like a slicker to me.

· Paperback: 400 pages
· Publisher: Deseret Book (May 14, 2008)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 1590389085
· ISBN-13: 978-1590389089


Nancy Anderson said...

This is my first visit to Tahiti and my first virtual book tour and my first comment on a blog. Thank you for making it all so fun and easy. You're terrific. Come on back for a return visit at or

Tristi Pinkston said...

How fun, Shirley! I wish I'd been there -- I love Clark Gable!

Carroll said...

Boy, I wish I'd been in Tahiti with you. Wait--I was! Only I was upstaged by my co-authors and the guy from Ipanema.

Thanks for launching the virtual tour for Surprise Packages. It's a great way to let people know the book is out there.

Re: Crusty Old Broads, we named our blog! Hope to see visitors there and at our website:

Lael said...

Shirley, what fun it was to go to Tahiti. Thank you so much for the trip! You are one fun lady.

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