Book Review: A Loving Thanks for Life in ‘Shoebox Full of Toads’

Shoebox Full of Toads front cover“I had to laugh,” Tim Ghianni writes early in his touching and intimate “Shoebox Full of Toads: Farewell to Mom” tribute. “You take joy on its own terms.”

Ghianni’s insightful words come after one of his mother’s frequent battles with the effects of the genetic lung disorder that eventually claimed her life. In a book where death is never far away – most of it is what the author had to say to his mother in the hospital shortly before her demise, to let her know he knew it was time for her to stop fighting and rest from earthly struggles – there’s always a sense of pungent life. That’s because Dot Ghianni did more than just survive, she thrived (in among other roles) as a journalist, a wife, a mother and the best friend a stray animal could ever have.

I should make a full disclosure here; the author is (and the following title for me is the highest compliment I can pay a colleague) an old-school journalist and he would do the same thing if the situation was reversed. Ghianni has contributed some of his well-written and insightful prose to ArtsNash, but he also had the task (and probably deserves a medal or at least a good steak dinner for it) of editing my work at the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean. Before he wrote and edited for those papers he was an award-winning columnist and eventually managing editor of the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle (for more on those days I highly recommend “When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers & Their Shades of Glory”, which he co-wrote with fellow Fourth Estate traveler Rob Dollar). He’s a champion for social justice, a gifted writer and editor and one of the kindest, most generous souls I’ve ever met.

Now, you might think that means I’m too biased to give a fair opinion on his work. I think the opposite is true – because I’ve known him professionally and personally for years I think I’m better prepared to catch any shortcomings since I know just how wonderful his writing can be. And after reading this honest, uncompromising, beautiful, poignant and often funny stream of easy-flowing prose in one thoroughly-engrossed sitting I promise you’ll find something in its 123 pages to which you can connect.

Why? Well, maybe you’re a baby boomer with similar life references (Elvis, The Beatles, drinking lime phosphates and malteds, the Ford Falcon Futura automobile, Vietnam and The Rolling Stones to name a few); maybe you’ve been a journalist who wanted to share what you’ve found with your community; maybe you’ve been a spouse and a parent that marvels at the love and strength you draw each day from them; maybe you’re the grown child of a parent who is about to leave – or has left – this life and you know there are things you ought to say, or should have said, to your parent. If you personally connect in any way with the previous possibilities “Shoebox Full of Toads” will connect with you.

Ghianni does a masterful job of weaving in childhood memories of a mom who always seemed to know where to find him and what he was up to; of beloved Champ and Ghianni grandparents, his father Em (and the 54 years of loving marriage he shared with Dot), his brother Eric and his wife Suzanne through the years as they related to his mother and each other; of the teasing he constantly got about the length of his hair (what would she think of his ponytail now?); and the grandchildren who adored her (particularly a little guy named Joey who called Dot “Nonny”).

Shoebox Full of Toads back coverHe also notes the cats and eventually dogs – including a fella named Flapjacks, who decided to adopt Ghianni one cold night in Clarksville whether the author wanted him to or not – that found a loving home with various family members because of his mom’s compassion for all God’s creatures in need, and why there may be descendants of some Walnut Lake, Mich. toads now residing behind a certain house in Deerfield, Ill. “(u)nless they’ve made it into a shopping mall.” And he doesn’t hold back when it comes to detailing difficult times, such as when his mother suffered a stroke, or when he returned home after the collapse of his first marriage; Ghianni knows such trials make us appreciate the good moments even more.

And through the memories, tears and laughter Ghianni ultimately gives thanks. He gives thanks for her well-lived life, but no less importantly for the inspiration she provided him as he made his way through personal and professional ups and downs. We often speak of legacy when it comes to someone’s life and work as if it’s only attained through special circumstances; we sometimes forget that we’re the living legacy of those who have cared for, protected and guided us. Ghianni’s recognition of the ways his mother shaped him is a powerful reminder than none of us is truly self-made; we owe a debt that should indeed be paid forward as Ghianni does with his life and this lovely book.

“Shoebox Full of Toads: Farewell to Mom” is available through such online booksellers as Amazon and Barnes and Noble; copies can also be obtained by sending $25 (which includes shipping and handling charges) to Tim Ghianni at 471 Rochelle Drive, Nashville TN 37220. There’s also a Facebook page devoted to the book.

*Cover images courtesy Tim Ghianni.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (