The Book Of My Life

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Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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Lucretia MacEvil

moral-defenseMoral Defense: A Samantha Brinkman Book by Marcia Clark (Thomas & Mercer, $24.95, 416 pages)

I quite enjoyed Marcia Clark’s first two criminal justice system novels, Guilt By Association and Guilt By Degrees.  At that time Clark’s writing was biting but concise; somewhat in the vein of Michael Connelly.  David Baldacci wrote, “Clark’s pace, plot and dialogue are as sharp as they come.”  Well, those days seem to be over.

Moral Defense is not a terrible work, but it’s far too long at 416 pages, and Clark should have relied on the main story – about a young woman whose family members were brutally attacked – instead of loading the novel up with multiple crime stories.  Defense attorney Sam Brinkman ties up so  many loose ends in this tale that she might as well be a seamstress.  Unlike prosecutor Rachel Knight, who seems to represent Clark’s alter ego, Brinkman is a Super Woman in a decidedly unlikeable package.  She’s as mean – and perhaps as evil, as the dastardly criminals she represents.

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The key problem is that Clark has devolved to a writing style that’s choppy and no longer crisp.  This was especially true of the first 200 pages.  By the time the second half speeds up, the reader has long passed the point of caring about the denouements.  Not good.  Not good at all.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on November 8, 2016.

 

 

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Take it Easy

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Moments of Mindfulness: Anti-Stress Coloring & Activities for Busy People by Emma Farrarons (Boxtree Ltd., $9.95, 112 pages)

It’s a first aid kit for stress wrapped in the covers of a book – more than just a coloring book and less than a full-blown self-help treatise.  Author/illustrator Emma Farrarons infuses each page with her cheery and charming approach to life. Her drawing style is flowing and energetic, in a positive energy way.  A third of the book is devoted to mindfulness activities that are scattered among the pages.

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The activity topics vary widely from small exercises like neck stretches that can be accomplished anywhere to regular daily tasks done at home such as ironing and food preparation.  There is even a template for embroidery.  Farrarons realizes that life in general offers opportunities for releasing stress and becoming mindful, hence the suggestions for walking along a different route to work or while out walking for exercise.

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The book is 5″ by 7″ by one-half inch, making it just the right size for slipping into a tote bag or jacket pocket.  There are many small sets of colored pens and pencils available for purchase in art supply stores or over the Internet to complete an anti-stress kit.  Of course crayons will work as well.

Moments of Mindfulness delivers on its promise.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Come In From The Rain

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They’re Playing Our Song: A Memoir by Carole Bayer Sager (Simon & Schuster, $28.00, 352 pages)

“I loved my parents, but I didn’t want to be like them.  I didn’t want to be afraid of life.  The trouble was, it was all I knew.”  Dani Shapiro (“Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life”)

“Music saved my life and gave me life.  It was where I allowed myself to feel fully alive, where it was safe…  As long as I stayed in that lane, I was protected from the frightening stories I would otherwise tell myself.”  Carole Bayer Sager

Carole Bayer Sager’s memoir – which, in an ideal world would have been accompanied by a CD of her songs (performed by Sager and others) – is an entertaining but somewhat bewildering work.  It’s interesting to read about how her songs, beginning with “A Groovy Kind of Love” were written, but there’s an odd dichotomy that pervades her life story.  On the one hand, Sager portrays herself as a person unnaturally afraid of almost everything, from flying to performing.  But then there’s the ultra confident Sager who writes songs with the likes of Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach, Carly Simon, Carole King, Bob Dylan and so many others.  This is the Sager who hung out with Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Dylan, David Foster, Peter Allen, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, David Geffen, and so many others.

There’s no co-writer listed, no indication that this memoir is an “as told to…” work.   Perhaps if a professional writer-editor had been directly involved, he or she would have pointed out the inherent contradiction in the telling.  In addition, a writing assistant might have advised Sager to cut down the long, long list of famous people in her account; this book transforms name dropping into an art!   In fact, it might have been easier for Sager to have listed the famous people she has not run across in her existence.

And there are other issues.  One is that Sager repeatedly discusses her body image concerns with the reader.  Although she is a small woman, Sager has viewed herself as battling weight issues since childhood.  Mentioning this a few times would have been understandable.  However, it arises time and time again.  The repetitiveness tends to wear the reader down.  And there’s the matter of her sexual encounters.  She’s determined to tell the reader intimate details of her relationships with famous men.  Not only is this unnecessary – but for the fact that titillating details may sell a few books, it’s boring.

Where They’re Playing Our Song succeeds is in establishing the case for Sager as an extremely talented and successful songwriter.   The book was the impetus for this reviewer to listen to her songs as originally performed and/or covered by many talented recording artists.  Before reading this memoir, I was unaware of the song she wrote for Frank Sinatra, “You and Me (We Wanted It All).”   For someone less blessed and talented than Sager, writing a song recorded by the Chairman of the Board would have been in itself a life’s work, a definitive achievement.

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Recommended, if hesitantly, for music fans and prospective songwriters who will take what they need and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on October 18, 2016.

 

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A Hit and a Miss

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For the Dignified Dead: A Commander Jana Matinova Thriller by Michael Genelin (Brash Books, $14.99, 359 pages)

The woman was already dead.  I didn’t need to spend much time with her.

The dead don’t want us to saunter in, then quickly leave.

Brutality permeates the most recent installment of the Commander Jana Matinova international mystery series written by Michael Genelin.  Returning readers will travel across international borders through a bleak winter landscape as Commander Matinova seeks justice for a murdered woman found encased in the ice of the frozen Danube River. The weapon of choice is an icepick, truly appropriate considering the weather.

The antidote is Matinova’s intense caring and commitment to solving the crime.  Her biggest obstacles are her staff’s indifference to the victim and the endless paperwork and stalling by the bureaucrats both at home in Slovakia and in the neighboring countries.  She manages to maintain a crisp professional demeanor while experiencing a deep sense of responsibility to her role as head of homicide in Bratislava.

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Author Genelin is a master at creating voices that reflect the people and cultures portrayed in his novels.  As is his style, the tale is fast paced and multifaceted.  Everyday police issues are blended seamlessly with danger and intrigue.  One need not be a veteran of international travel or the convoluted structure of bureaucracy to appreciate the wealth of detail Genelin has infused into this most engaging tale.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

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Don’t You Cry: A Novel by Mary Kubica (Mira, $26.99, 320 pages)

Mary Kubica’s third novel shows some early promise but fizzles.

Don’t You Cry is structured such that the story is told through the lens of two different characters, Quinn and Alex, in alternating chapters.  (I sense trouble already.  Ed.) 

Quinn picks up a guy in a bar in downtown Chicago and wakes the next morning to discover that her roommate, Esther, has disappeared.  Alex is a dishwasher in a town an hour outside of Chicago who becomes fascinated with a woman who suddenly appears at the place he works.

The story moves along well enough in the chapters in which Quinn is narrating.  Elements of the mystery and an unexpected twist keep the reader interested, but the chapters with Alex interrupt the flow, and these unfold so slowly that the momentum wanes.  It takes too long to find out why we should care about the characters and their relationships, and Alex’s back story turns out to be irrelevant.

It is difficult to ascertain early in the story any evidence of why Esther and Quinn were close, which makes it difficult to be concerned about Esther’s disappearance.  But because of Kubica’s flair for storytelling, the reader sticks with the tale.  Halfway through, it gets interesting.  But by the time the mystery comes together, almost absurdly quickly in the final chapters, it’s difficult for the reader to put the various pieces together.

The flaw is not Kubica’s imagination or writing style, but due to the way she elected to structure this story the effect of any “aha” moment – when all is revealed, is significantly diminished.

Dave Moyer

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel of love, life, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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China Boy

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The Leavers: A Novel by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books, $25.95, 352 pages)

“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.”   Charles Schulz

Sometimes a writer can outthink herself.   I found this to be the case with The Leavers: A Novel.   The central character is a boy from China who is adopted by American parents.  Deming Gou’s mother, who is an undocumented immigrant in New York City, one day leaves home to go to work at a nail salon but never returns.   Subsequently Deming – who becomes Daniel Wilkinson, is adopted by white parents, both professors at a small private college in upstate New York.

Daniel suddenly becomes a stranger in a strange land.   Used to the hustle and bustle and diversity of the big city, he must learn to survive in a quiet community where he is The Other; being Chinese, he is known to his Anglo classmates as Special No. 2 (a selection from a Chinese menu).

For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song.   For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.  

Daniel is a screw-up but a fascinating character.   He plays electric guitar in a rock band, but keeps dropping out of the group even though success is on the horizon.  He has a problem with gambling (stereotypically) and loses thousands of dollars borrowed from friends.   He drops out of college and ruins multiple chances to go to school at the university where his adopted parents teach.   His story is interesting and linear, and it builds momentum, until…

One third of the way through the book, author Ko suddenly turns her attention to Polly Gou, Deming/Daniel’s birth mother, and transports us to China.   The telling now comes to a halt and the air seems to go out of the story.   Polly was deported from the U.S. and winds up with virtually nothing in her homeland, but somehow goes from rags to riches.   It seems improbable, and Ko spends too much time painting a melodramatic – over-the-top – account of Polly’s pre-deportation period spent in a detention camp in Texas.   The details are highly unpleasant.   Although it’s an attempt to get the reader to identify with, and side with, Gou, for me it had the reverse effect — making me want to put the book down.

The primary issue is that the straight ahead story of Daniel Wilkinson becomes lost and diluted by the long and winding, twisty, road that’s Polly Gou’s story.   It’s as if Ko attempted to meld two different half-novels together.   It didn’t work. The initial story – the fascinating tale of an adoptee attempting to find himself – was dumped for an adjunct creation.   (Basically, Gou’s story subsumes Wilkinson’s.)

Of course, once the final third of the book arrives, Ko has found a means of bringing Daniel Wilkinson and Polly Gou together again after many years.   It’s too clever, and by then I didn’t care.

The Leavers had great potential which sadly goes unfulfilled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Leavers, a debut novel, will be released on May 2, 2017.

 

 

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Trouble in the Heartland

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 528 pages)

“It’s a town full of losers/I’m pulling out of here to win…”  Thunder Road

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run (what else?) is not for the faint of heart.   But, then, neither is his music.

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Springsteen fans have heard many of these tales before, but not directly from The Boss, and not in this format.   The stories of his complex relationship with his father and his battle with depression are quite gripping.   The coming of age tales of his early days trying to break in to the music business are more engaging than his tales of the E Street Band, though many of those are interesting.   (Note for the current generation – there was a day before The Voice).

Springsteen essentially lived as a vagabond for a decade, including after he signed his recording contract with Columbia.   It is hard to believe that after Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town he was not in the clear financially until after The River tour.   This was due to many things – not making much money at first, signing a very one-sided contract, legal fees, and studio time.   It is still rather hard to imagine.

One can hear the song in his prose, and it compels the reader to go back and listen to his records.   Springsteen had a vision.   He put himself on the line until this vision was all he had left; he relentlessly pursued it until it became a reality.   This book reminds us that Springsteen and the E Street Band were singularly unique.   The concert I saw in April of 1984 was the greatest performance I have ever witnessed.

Springsteen impresses with his candor.   Although careful at times, he comes across as genuine and forthright.   Springsteen did not set out to write a fluff book of nostalgia; rather, in his words: “I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story…  I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces… and its power.”   This is some undertaking.

Though his personal relationships were often tumultuous, he views the E Street Band as his family.   He professes his love for wife Patti Scialfa.   And he admits that he did not always treat everyone as he could or should have.

Springsteen speaks with reverence of those that have passed.   He writes of the death of organ player Danny Federici – who asked to play “Sandy” on the accordion at his final concert.   He also writes of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, who had to sit on his last tour and be helped on and off the stage.   Springsteen may be driven, but one comes to like this book because of his honesty.   If he’s not honest here, he may be the biggest con man of all time.

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One thing that does not quite jibe with me is Springsteen’s commentary on drummer Max Weinberg, whom he categorizes as both a great timekeeper and soloist.   I’ve never viewed Weinberg as being in the class of innovative drummers like Keith Moon. But, then, who am I to question The Boss?

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

This book was delivered to the reviewer by Santa Claus.

Dave Moyer is an educator, the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, and a drummer who has yet to be asked to join The Who.

 

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