Patti Callahan Henry’s Coming Up for Air. Plus grilled sandwiches: one savory, one sweet.

Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan HenryI read a wonderful book this week: Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry.

I know Patti through the Atlanta writing community. She is one of those lovely, effervescent people full of warmth and laughter. One of those people whom you want to smile at because she’s smiling and looks like she’s having fun and you want to join her. If I were a betting woman (why am I saying “if?”; I love betting), I’d wager that Patti enjoys a shrimp boil, that she slides right up to the newspaper covered table, peels a shrimp, dunks it in cocktail sauce, and washes it down with a beer before settling in to eat her buttered corn on the cob, potatoes and sausage. Which is to say, Patti seems to be a woman who enjoys life.

Shrimp Boil

Shrimp boil from earlier this summer. Patti was not involved. But I bet she would have loved it.

Patti is also a woman who has raised three kids. And before having her kids, she was a nurse. Meaning, Patti has wisdom. And has seen hard things.

All well and good, I can hear you saying, but how’s the book?

Why it’s excellent. Thank you for asking. In it Patti’s warmth, wisdom, and engagment with life–the miraculous and the mundane–is on full display.

Here’s the skinny: Coming Up for Air is the story of 48 year old Ellie Calvin. At the book’s start, Ellie’s mother Lillian dies suddenly, just as Ellie’s only child goes away to college, leaving Ellie alone with her husband, Rusty, a man more interested in his golf game than understanding any part of his wife’s interior life. After Lillian’s death, Ellie reads her mother’s locked away journals, discovering two things: Her mother was passionately in love with someone other than Ellie’s dad, and her mother was involved with the civil rights movement in Alabama during the summer of 1961. Both realizations are shocking to Ellie, who knew her mother only as a Buckhead doyenne, locally famous for her organization and practicality, and not one to feel passion about anything other than following the rules. In fact Lillian, a consummate botanical gardener, discouraged Ellie’s own passionate, wildflower nature. But from reading her mother’s journals, Ellie realizes Lillian was not always like that. At a certain point in her life, Lillian chose safety over love, and then tried to drill that choice into Ellie, an effort that largely succeeded. Until now.

The plot of Coming Up for Air is rich and layered, and I am only giving you a teeny-tiny slice of it, in part because I don’t want to include any spoilers, but mostly because I want to talk about the underlying theology of the book. Because that’s what made me unable to put CUFA down until I had read it cover to cover–the theology that Patti Callahan Henry expresses in Ellie’s reawakening to spirit and love. It is not a theology of rules and regulations and exclusion; in fact it is the opposite. It is a theology of risk over safety, of love over rigidity, of choosing spiritual wholeness over a comfortable lifestyle. It is a theology that says everyone deserves an abundance of love–you, me, even that guy over there picking his nose on the subway. And occasionally divine abundance shows itself in our earthly life, if we are open to it, if we show up.

When you get to the jubilee scene, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

I really loved this book. Was totally immersed in the plot and was moved by the steady wisdom behind it. I even read it on the subway–and I have the hardest time reading on the subway because I’m always so interested in eavesdropping on my fellow passengers’ conversations…but Ellie’s story was more captivating.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Simple, simple, simple. But oh so good.

I got a big spiritual lift from Patti’s book, and then I got a mini spiritual lift by coming home this evening and making myself two kinds of grilled sandwiches. The first was nothing unusual, just a grilled cheese with lots of butter on Pepperidge Farm white bread. My only embellishment was to rub each side of the bread with a raw glove of garlic, and to use good sharp cheddar cheese as my filling. Then, for dessert, I tried a sandwich based on a Donna Hay recipe. For it I also used Pepperidge Farm white bread, each slice spread with nutella, and then one slice dotted with raspberries. When I sandwiched the bread I pressed the two sides together so that the raspberries would flatten a bit. Then I just fried the whole thing in lots of butter, so that the nutella got all oozy and melty and the raspberries warmed up and got all bursty. I sat at my little table in my little apartment kitchen and ate the sandwiches, first the cheese, then the chocolate. It had been a hard day and I needed the comfort. I was eating the grilled cheese, thinking about the Christian tradition of taking bread and wine as a way to experience the divine. It made a lot of sense to me–that God would come to us in such a tactile, necessary package as food and drink. I hunched over my plate, concentrating on what was before me, tasting the crisped butter against my tongue.

4 Responses to Patti Callahan Henry’s Coming Up for Air. Plus grilled sandwiches: one savory, one sweet.

  1. Anonymous August 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm #


    What a beautiful way to review a book. It was both personal and profound. I am sure you pleased Patti as well as those of us who admire your writing talent.

  2. Susan White August 10, 2011 at 5:42 pm #


    Oh thank you! I was personally moved by the book–and so it made sense to make the review a personal one. So happy it resonated with you.

  3. Virginia June 5, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Your review makes me want to buy the book you reviewed AND the book you wrote! I love the way you write. Your description of the grilled sandwiches makes me add Pepperidge Farm bread to my shopping list. I have everything else. Thanks!

    • Susan June 6, 2013 at 9:18 am #

      Thanks so much, Virginia! It’s funny, I almost always have a loaf of Pepperidge Farm white bread in my freezer, because it’s so useful for bread crumbs, pimento cheese sandwiches, and of course grilled cheese! The slices are so thin they thaw in about five minutes once out of the freezer.

      Happy cooking, and reading!