Tag Archives: death

Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

i-liked-my-life-amazon

I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

i-liked-my-life-back

Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Twelfth of Never

Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Washington Square Press, $15.00, 324 pages)

Forever, Interrupted (nook book)

Not your average love story…

I knew your father for four years before I agreed to even go on a date with him, Eleanor. We dated for another five before we got married. You can’t possibly know enough about another person after a few months.

Life lessons happen when they are least expected. Or, as John Lennon is frequently quoted as saying, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The lessons to be learned in Forever, Interrupted are deeply felt by the characters and the reader. The questions raised within the tale include: can a person love someone they’ve only known for a short time, will love last for decades, and is grieving possible with a stranger?

There is no need to tiptoe though these pages while steeling yourself for the gut-wrenching sadness of a love lost which is often placed at or near the end of a novel (think One Day). Taylor Jenkins Reid gets right down to business in the first nine pages of this her debut novel. Ms. Reid is remarkably adept at conveying feelings using crisp dialogue. She uses the literary technique of alternating chapters that move between the end and the beginning of Elsie Porter’s whirlwind romance with Ben Ross.

Ben and Elsie have been married a few days and they are enjoying the comfort of being together as husband and wife when she has a hankering for real Fruity Pebbles. As if in a fairy tale, Ben hops up from the couch and zooms off on his bicycle to the local CVS to buy a box of Fruity Pebbles for his darling new wife. That’s when all hell breaks loose, literally, as the sirens of fire engines and emergency vehicles right down the street grab Elsie’s attention. Ben has been the victim of a collision with a large moving truck that snuffs out his life.

Although Ben and Elsie briefly had each other, she discovers that being a widow carries a stigma and grieving brings nearly uncontrollable heartache. Elsie’s best friend, Ana Romano, is a stalwart buddy who willingly jumps in to keep Elsie afloat and Susan Ross, Ben’s mother, is resistant, resentful and rude when she meets Elsie at the hospital following her son’s tragic death.

There are others who populate Elsie’s climb back to normal — whatever that might be. The work required by all is remarkable and demonstrates to Elsie that she is loved and can love again, just not with Ben.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Another Roundup

Quick Looks at Books

True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life by Kevin Sorbo (Da Capo Lifelong)

The overly-long title gives you some idea of what this memoir is about.   The actor who played Hercules on TV was hit with a series of puzzling strokes that disabled him for quite a long time.   The first half of this true tale is interesting, but then the reader fully expects to find out – in the second half of the telling – what caused the strokes and/or how Sorbo was cured.   Neither happens and nothing much of interest (other than Sorbo’s getting married and having children) occurs in the last 140 or so pages.

This is the type of account that, if boiled down to six or seven pages, would have made for a heck of an interesting magazine article.   Unfortunately, at 276 pages it just seemed to go on and on without resolution.

The Me Generation by Me: Growing Up in the ’60s by Ken Levine (Ken Levine)

Levine writes about much of the growing up male territory covered so well previously by Bob Greene.   Levine, however, grew up in the greater Los Angeles area rather than in the Midwest.   While there are a lot of funny bits in this memoir, a good amount of the (Jewish-American) humor seems forced – more Woody Allen, if you will, than Jerry Seinfeld.   Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet (Riverhead Books)God's Hotel (B&N)

This medical memoir is best summed up in the quote, “The secret in the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”   Dr. Sweet, who has practiced medicine for more than two decades at the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, is a doctor who truly cares for the most indigent of patients; and she cares for the human-paced hospital which barely survived a closure scare.   At a time when some still wish to debate the benefits of a national health care system, Sweet explains why we should “still believe and act as if taking care of the sick poor is something that a society should do.”

Sweet goes on to explain how a physician can learn lessons from patients, such as the fact that “medicine no longer (needs to seem) so complicated.”   A hospital should still be just that rather than a dreaded modern “health care facility.”   Sweet also details how literally dangerous it can be for a budget-cutting hospital administrator to meet and get to know the patients – actual human beings and not just “residents” – for whose lives he’s ultimately responsible.

Most readers will find themselves wishing that Dr. Sweet could be their own personal M.D., providing medical care that’s less technology and more about instinct, feeling and a sense of bonding.   Oliver Sacks said this book “should be required reading.”   Indeed.   Well recommended.

How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old by Marc E. Agronin, M.D. (Da Capo Lifelong)

HowWeAge_358“…the burden of illness and the proximity of death force a special bond (between a health care professional and) patient and family.”

Marc Agronin, a psychiatrist for the Miami Jewish Health Systems is another caring doctor who has written about his relationships with elderly patients in How We Age.   Agronin makes clear that he’s also learned much from them:  “…no matter how many years I’ve practiced, I still find myself a student to the life lessons offered by these (patients).”   He specifically learns that his patients, no matter what their illness or psychological state, generally die with dignity and prior to their expiration, they acquire “the crowning glory of old age” (Cicero) – namely wisdom.   “Wisdom serves to calm (the) maelstrom (of decay), providing a way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing that brings order, harmony, and, for many, a great measure of happiness.”

To his credit, Dr. Agronin also – like Dr. Sweet – rejects the notion that the business of medicine has evolved into nothing more than “a business transaction between strangers.”   In his view, a doctor or psychiatrist and patient should be no less than truly friends, if not more.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers or authors.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Summer Place

Summerland: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Reagan Arthur Books, $26.99, 400 pages)

Life can be traumatic and daunting even on Nantucket Island, the idyllic summer vacation destination for generations of families, including the wealthy and famous like Martha Stewart.   These are the summer people who see the island as an escape from reality.   Of course on Nantucket, like any resort, there must be the year-round residents who live their lives in full on the island 30 miles from the mainland.

Elin Hilderbrand knows of what she writes.   As a resident, she knows the year-around version of island life.   Summerland is the eleventh novel based in her neck of the woods.   Two of her most recent past novels, Silver Girl and The Island have been reviewed on this site.   Both of these reviews were based on the audio versions of the books.   Each was superb; however, the magic of seeing the story in hard copy was most evident for this book.

The narrative is written from the perspective of each of the main characters, including Nantucket.   There are two generations represented here, teenagers and their parents.   This time around the human experiences up for exploration are death, loss, parenting and children.   Both generations are subjected to the fallout effects when the golden girl of her class, Penny Alistair, dies in a horrific auto crash on high school graduation night.   Her twin brother Hobby, short for Hobson, is mangled and left in a coma.   Two other juniors, Jake and Demeter escape unscathed.

The story line is believable and somewhat predictable but it is the way the characters are developed that makes this a compelling read.   Regardless of the reader’s age, adult or young adult, the very poignant lessons learned are delivered in a manner that’s achievable only by a master story teller. 

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Comin’ Back to Me

You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 416 pages)

“…he’d spent the year before Brendan’s death sullen and sulky as a little boy…  he’d spent his nights drinking and staring at the Internet instead of trying to explain to Chloe how he felt.”

Great ghost stories – ones that seem both plausible and questionable – don’t come along every day.   One of the most recent great ones was Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   Symmetry had us so enthralled that we posted three separate reviews of the haunting novel on this site.   Now Christopher Coake has presented a story with all the depth of Symmetry, interestingly set in the neighborhoods of Columbus that adjoin the Ohio State University campus.

Our protagonist, Mark Fife, entered a period of isolating and drinking too much, which spurred his wife Chloe – the true love of his life – to leave him at home one night, supervising their young son Brendan.   Mark orders his son to go upstairs while he drinks and watches an Ohio State basketball game on the TV downstairs.   At some point Mark hears a strange sound and gets up to find that Brendan has fallen down the staircase, and has died from a broken neck.   Thus begins the ruination of Mark’s existence.   Chloe, who blames him for their only child’s death, divorces him and sells the house where the family once happily lived.   Mark goes on to spend years living in a townhouse, drinking far too much and thinking about ending it all.

As the story opens, seven full years have gone by and Mark’s now happy with his life.   He’s met Allie, the upbeat woman he’s engaged to, and he’s got a great friend from college, Lewis, who helps him to remain firmly footed in reality.   And then…  The woman who purchased Mark and Chloe’s former home has a story to tell.   Chloe eventually sends Mark a letter explaining that this woman’s son has seen and heard Brendan’s ghost in the house.   Is this for real or is it simply a ruse for Chloe – who hated Mark when she filed for divorce but now professes to once again be in love with him – to break up Mark’s forthcoming marriage to Allie?

Mark has spent his adult life being powerless when it comes to Chloe, and now she’s asking him to go to their old house to see Brendan’s ghost.   Mark doesn’t believe in ghosts (“I’ve never believed anything like this.   Never.   This is hard.“), he never has, but then remembers that his serious and grounded friend Lewis once saw a ghost – and Lewis now tells him that seeing the ghost was one of the most authentic experiences in his life.

Will Mark run back to Chloe and in the process perhaps re-destroy his own life?   Or will he spurn her and maybe lose out on the chance to again communicate with his long-lost son?   What is real and important in life?   Mark Fife is about to find out…

“…he went over the same looping sentences.   If-thens, what-ifs.   He came to no answers.   Either Brendan was in the house or he wasn’t.   Either way, Mark himself was trapped.   Either way, he would hurt Allison or Chloe.”

Coake writes in an all-too-smooth style; one in which flawed humans are portrayed so realistically that the tale moves along as if it’s being projected onto a film screen.   And, like Niffenegger, there’s a calmness about the telling that draws you in – but with the understanding that you’ll receive hints when the story is about to dramatically explode.

You’ll have to devote the time to reading 400 plus pages to appreciate Coake’s offerings.   It’s a worthwhile price to pay for discovering a highly talented, powerfully skilled writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   You Came Back was released on June 12, 2012.  

“When I finished the last page of Christopher Coake’s amazing new novel, I set the book down with a real sense of wonder…  (This story) is less concerned with the supernatural than with the all-too-real specters that haunt us all – the ghosts of our former selves, the ghosts of the lives we might have lived had just a few things turned out differently…  What an incredible writer.”   Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You.

Here is a link to one of the reviews of Her Fearful Symmetry

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Missing You

The Beginner’s Goodbye: A Novel by Anne Tyler (Knopf, $24.95, 208 pages; Random House Audio, $35.00, Unabridged on 6 CDs)

What we have here is (a) failure to communicate.   Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

Aaron Woolcott has led a life full of physical challenges.   A childhood illness left him with a crippled hand and leg.   Moreover, his sister, Nandina, has been overly protective of him.   Aaron reacts to her babying by retreating into a defensive and self-reliant personal style.   He rejects tenderness and caring which leads him to be attracted to a brusk oncology radiologist who seemingly lacks a softer side.   They meet in a work-related situation which sets the stage for further discussions and interactions.

The Woolcott family’s publishing house features a series of books – The Beginner’s Guide, similar to, but less ambitious than, the popular Idiot’s Guide books.   The Beginner’s Guides are aimed at readers who want to skim the surface of a simplified topic or activity, such as hosting one’s first dinner party.   Aaron is doing background work on a new title about cancer treatment patients when he interviews Dr. Dorothy Rosales.   He is smitten right away when Dorothy comments on his physical condition in a clinical way.   Although Aaron could easily be portrayed sympathetically, there is something off-putting about him that becomes more evident as the story unfolds.

Author Tyler takes the theme of miscommunication and focuses on the way that Aaron’s approach to life has stifled and limited the relationship that he and Dorothy have shared during their marriage.   His family and work relationships have suffered as well.   Too often, what we experience within ourselves is not always in sync with what others are feeling and thinking.

As is her forte, Anne Tyler turns an accidental death into a humbling tale of grief and recovery for Aaron.   The large oak tree outside their home’s sunroom falls through the roof onto Dorothy as she sits at her desk.   Aaron is powerless to help her and the tree becomes the catalyst for the story.   Sometime after her death, Dorothy appears to Aaron as though she’s still alive.   This is not a new story device and, not surprisingly, Tyler uses it as a way to force Aaron to confront reality.   There are many lessons that each of the characters learns as he or she examines the way Dorothy’s death has triggered recovery efforts, both emotional and physical.

The audio book features Kirby Heyborne, a veteran actor who portrays Aaron in a very convincing manner.   This reviewer found the story to be the usual low-keyed take on life’s challenges that Anne Tyler is considered one of the best at writing.   It is almost too slowly paced; however, Tyler is a master at drawing in the reader so that she has the opportunity to thoroughly make her case for living a fully-conscious life.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The audiobook version of The Beginner’s Goodbye was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Coming Up Next…

A review of The Beginner’s Goodbye: A Novel by Anne Tyler.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized