Tag Archives: aging

The Finer Things

Real Life & Liars: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (William Morrow Paperbacks; $13.99; 327 pages)

It seems to me that growing older means a growing collection of paths not taken.   More and more “what-ifs” left behind.

With the onset of Mirabelle (Mira) Zielinski’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and the anticipation of reuniting with her family, Mira has a great deal to be proud of:  a loving husband, three healthy children and three loving grandchildren.   But the reality of life and disappointments have settled in as Mira contemplates the past sixty years.

Katya, Mira’s oldest daughter, appears to have the perfect life.   A wealthy husband, a spotless home, a thriving business and three children who have everything they have ever wanted.   Yet Mira speculates that her daughter’s desire to always want to fit in and have the best of everything may have resulted in a mundane marriage to a husband addicted to his job and three spoiled, disrespectful children.

Ivan, Mira’s talented son, writes songs and works in a school inspiring children.   However, he has never been recognized as an artist and his abysmal taste in women has left him lonely and desolate.

Irina, the baby, is beautiful and spontaneous.   Yet when she comes for the weekend announcing that she is pregnant and introduces her husband, who is twice her age, Mira suspects she has hit her all-time low.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”   Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Mira clings to her hippie past as she rebels against conforming and endures her loving, yet distracted, husband who is engaged in writing a major novel.   Her ideals of life and self-worth are challenged with the recent tragedy she is refusing to deal with.

As the family reunites for a long celebratory weekend, each will have to face their own fears and realities as secrets are revealed and truths uncovered.   They will be challenged to redefine their understanding of one another and their own destinies.   Mira may experience the greatest surprise as she is forced to contemplate how blessed she truly is and how happiness and peace are found in even the most surprising of circumstances.

Kristina Riggle presents her story with sincere family dynamics that anyone with siblings or children can relate to.   Her characters are well-developed and so clearly defined that you will become attached to their story as if you’re part of the family.   Riggle writes with the ease and grace of a veteran writer.   It is hard to believe that this was her debut novel.   I look forward to reading more from Kristina Riggle!

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Funny, sad and utterly believable.”   Elizabeth Letts, author of Family Planning.

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Kiss From A Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; $24.95; 336 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and the smart one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story flawlessly – I kept searching in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone – it is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in this tale, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, of course, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters on a stage.

As the story unfolds, each of the daughters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external version of achievement and an internal one.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no use wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was published on January 20, 2011.

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When I Was Young

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine Books trade paperback; $15.00; 288 pages)

last-time-i-saw-you

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg is a novel guaranteed to appeal to Boomers.   It’s the story of 58-year-olds who attended Whitley High School together and who are gathering for what is said to be their “last reunion.”   Why they won’t be gathering again is never clear, but we do know that the glamorous Candy Sullivan has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.   Her husband insists that this is just a first opinion, but Candy knows better and is determined to enjoy what little time is left to her.

“The diagnosis let her recalculate the meaning of time and relationships.”

Berg, the author of Home Safe, has a smooth and relaxing style and she’s at her best when describing human vulnerabilities.   At one point, a male character feels sorry for the spouses who have been dragged along to the reunion.   Then “all of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.  Here they all are, these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

The Last Time celebrates the joy of spending moments with those who knew you in times past, while highlighting the futility of getting them to accept you as a new and different person.   It’s an enjoyable read that’s deeper than it first appears.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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What Went Wrong with Tomorrow?

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Holt Paperbacks; $15.00; 250 pages)

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.”

This is an interesting and slyly engaging novel built around the theme that people never quite get what they want  out of life.   The story tells the tale of Frank Allcroft, a TV news anchorman working in his home town of Birmingham, England.   Frank appears to have everything possible in life – a great and glamorous job (one that makes people want to buy him his drinks), a beautiful and intelligent wife, and a bright, inquisitive and strangely optimistic daughter.   But things are unraveling at the seams.   His idol Phil, his predecessor in the anchor chair has died under mysterious circumstances; his late architect father’s buildings are being torn down; and his mother wants to be left alone to die in an assisted-living facility.

It seems that Frank will only be able to shake his malaise if he manages to figure out the details of Phil’s death.   Was it an accident, a suicide or something else?   Phil was always a positive extrovert but in the weeks before his death he was tearful and gloomy, drinking too much and telling his co-workers how much he loved them.   Something just doesn’t add up.

Frank likely saw Phil as a second father, one whose death brings back all of his memories of his father’s passing only a month after a professional setback.   Frank’s now seeing that nothing in life lasts, and the promise of a better future appears to be quickly diminishing in line with his own aging (he can no longer see to drive at night).   Yet, just when the reader sees that he or she has this one all figured out, O’Flynn puts in some sharp curves on what’s been an otherwise straight drive.   We learn the shocking truth behind Phil’s death as we see that, for some, life offers new rewards, gifts.

The reader receives the message from O’Flynn that some people never recover from a death; it’s a harsh fact of life.   “He’s never once felt Elsie’s presence since she died.   He watched the last breath leave her body and then the world changed.   She was gone.   He feels her presence all the time…  He understands now.   Our absence is what remains of us.”

O’Flynn has provided her audience with a beautifully balanced treatise on the things that life provides and the things that life takes away from us.   It is a quietly stunning work.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Embraced and loved

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also felt embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman”, “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in the novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never fully been resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls from Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet, they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Time Goes By

In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50 will be released by Atria on April 27, 2010 in trade paperback form ($16.00).   This collection of essays, poems, photographs and drawings was edited by Emily W. Upham and Linda Gravenson.   The following is an excerpt from one of the essays included in the compilation.

“My Narrow Escape” – Abigail Thomas

I like living alone.   I like not having to make male conversation.   I like that I can take as many naps as I feel like taking and nobody knows.   I like that if I’m painting trees and the telephone receiver gets sticky with hunter green and there’s a long drool of blue sky running down the front of the dishwasher, nobody complains.  

I’m seldom lonely.   I have three dogs, twelve grandchildren and four grown kids.   I have a good friend who now and then drives down with his dog.   We’ve known each other so long that we don’t have to talk and when we do we don’t have to say anything.   When he asks me if I’d like to take a trip around the world, I can say yes, knowing that I’ll never have to go.

Inertia is a driving force in both our lives.  

Sometimes I feel sorry for my friends who are looking around for a mate.   I don’t want one, and I don’t want to want one.   It has taken me the better part of 60 years to enjoy the inside of my own head and I do that best when I’m by myself.

I am smug.   I am probably insufferable.

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Running Full

For Haruki Murakami the solitude that running brings “is a pretty wonderful thing.”   Murakami – who lives in Tokyo and annually lectures in Cambridge, Massachusetts – wrote this series of essays while preparing for the New York City Marathon.   His goal was to answer the question often asked of runners, “What do you think about when you run?”   The answer, for Murakami, is nothing:  “I’m not thinking of a thing…   (I) keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence.”

But Murakami finds that running, like the art of writing each day, is something difficult and exhausting that makes him stronger.   By his own admission (“…is it ever possible for a professional writer to be liked by people?”) the loneliness of the long-distance runner and of the writer appears to be one and the same.

This “memoir”, though, is not really a collection of essays about the sport of running.   Running is just the hook.   Like the writings from the late Dr. George Sheehan (Running and Being, This Running Life), this is actually a book about personal philosophy, comfort and self-esteem.   Murakami shows us that we must enjoy our lives in our own way, meeting our own needs even if this displeases others.   In his case, he turns down social obligations and dinner invitations in order to write and run and plan his lectures.   What could be better?

Haruki also addresses the need to gracefully accept the aging process.   “It might not be a very enjoyable process, and what I discover might not be all that pleasant.   But what choice do I have anyway?”about running (paper)

The writer’s style is so engaging – and here’s another parallel with Dr. Sheehan – because of his humbleness and self-deprecation.   This is a Japanese citizen who lectures at Harvard but says of himself, “I’m not the brightest person.”   He’s also a tremendously successful writer who does not expect to be adored, “…I just can’t picture someone liking me on a personal level.”   But Murakami has a wife who loves and accepts him even as she wonders why he runs slower each year.

Yes, Murakami is a brilliant, quirky man who in 180 pages demonstrates for us the value of living on our own terms, with self-acceptance – despite our admitted flaws and limitations – being key.   The reader need not concur with everything Murakami writes but, in the end, you will learn to grant him the respect he has granted to himself.

“Long distance running has molded me into the person I am today…  I’m hoping it will remain a part of my life for as long as possible.   I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together.”   Long life!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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