Tag Archives: divorce

Coming Attractions

This is a quick look at recently released books, and soon-to-be-released books that I’m looking forward to reading.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster; 10/24/11)

This is already the best-selling book in the country, based on pre-release orders at Amazon.   Isaacson earlier wrote the mega-selling Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and the recent, tragic death of Steve Jobs will only heighten the interest in this almost 700 page biography.   This is an authorized bio, as (according to Reuters) Jobs knew that his death was imminent and wanted his kids to know him through this expected-to-be definitive work.   Jobs had made clear to his friends and co-workers that nothing in his personal or professional life was off-limits.

Steve Jobs will also be available as an audiobook; unfortunately, an abridged one.

Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador; 09/27/11)

If you’re like me, one of the two dozen or so individuals who did not read this book when it was originally released, you now have a chance to pick it up as a Picador trade paperback for just $16.00.   USA Today called Franzen’s novel about a troubled marriage, “Smart, witty and ultimately moving.”

Blueprints for Building Better Girls: Fiction by Elissa Schappell (Simon and Schuster; 09/06/11)

This is a hybrid between a short story collection and a novel, as Schappell has penned eight interlinked tales (“Spanning the late 1970s to the current day…”) about the experiences that turn girls into women.   Tom Perrota, author of The Leftovers and Little Children, says of Blueprints for Building Better Girls:  “Elizabeth Schappell’s characters live in that zone where toughness and vulnerability overlap.   In this remarkable, deeply engaging collection of stories, Schappell introduces us to a wide variety of female characters, from reckless teenagers to rueful middle-aged moms, and asks us to ponder how those girls became these women.”

The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 10/11/11)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides returns with a story about a not-so-calm year in the lives of three college seniors (one female and two males) attending Brown University in the early 1980s.   It’s about love lost and found, and the mental preparations that young people must make before entering the stolid world of adults.

The Drop: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company; 11/28/11)

From the author of The Lincoln Lawyer and The Reversal, comes the latest thriller involving LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.   A bored Bosch is getting ready for retirement when two huge criminal cases with political and other implications land on his desk.   Both cases need to be solved immediately and, as usual, Bosch must break some major investigative rules in order to do so.

“Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer.”   Booklist

Joseph Arellano

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Astral Weeks

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (Anchor, $15.95, 320 pages)

astral-novel

“We were all crazy, that was a given.”

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”   Van Morrison (“Astral Weeks”)

This is an oddly engaging novel despite a number of very clear flaws in the telling of the story.   For one, it is difficult to stick with a tale stacked with characters that are simply unlikable.   Our male protagonist, Harry Quirk, is a poet married (but not for long) to Luz.   They live in Brooklyn and he writes “strict poems,” meaning formal ones of the type whose time came and went very long ago.

“When I was a wet-eyed boy starting out in the poetry racket, I pledged my lights to metered, rhymed verse.   My models were old-fashioned, and so was I.”

Harry engages in many irritating behavior patterns (What did Luz ever see in him?), the worst of which is the habit of picking at and cutting his own skin until a severe infection results.   Oh, but this is part of the story because it’s the reason that Harry seeks medical treatment and is first seen by Luz the nurse.

Harry’s best friend is a woman that’s he’s known for decades.   This shouldn’t be major but it is to Luz, who is convinced beyond a doubt that her husband is having a mad affair with this woman.   If Harry is not likable, neither is his long-term woman friend and Luz is definitely not.   In Harry’s words, “I was deeply tired of her unpredictable oscillations between abject devotion and irrational psychodrama.”

“She had wrecked everything I loved with her furious, insecure need to control my thoughts, my mind, my body, like a one-woman government.”

Harry doesn’t make any money with his poems – at least he hasn’t in decades.   But when he splits from Luz (“I was a wild animal who’d been trying to live in a cage.”) he’s able to rely on the kindness of his friend James who runs a very improbable business.   The business is called Custom Case, which designs and builds one-of-a-kind guitar cases for ultra-millionaire rock stars.   Yeah, right…

True to form, however, even our good man James is not likable.   “James was pragmatically cold, deep down, for all his seeming generosity and caring towards his wife.”

One of the key and basic issues with this novel is that Harry’s male voice just does not sound authentic coming from a female writer.   This is not to say this can’t work, it just doesn’t work here especially when Harry’s thoughts are often expressed in very dense language.   And some of the writing by author Christensen is close to painful, as in this sample:  “The brown shingled beach houses of the rich and privileged sat humped amid bare woods and dunes like big harmless cartoon bears.”   Cartoon bears?   Really?   (Maybe this is more embarrassing than painful.)

Still, what keeps the reader involved is the desire to see Harry find and develop a new life free of the shackles of Luz, who “twists any idea  until it matches her need to be right.”   Harry’s a man who’s been freed by accident – by a simple twist of fate – and we wonder if he’ll make the best of the opportunity.

At its end, this is a novel about a human who must find a way to let go of what was lost (like so much of the past in our own lives).   He must do this in order to move on with grace.

Extremely patient, tolerant and forgiving readers may like this story.   It’s hard to see that being true for most readers.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Things We Said Today

Things We Didn’t Say: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 352 pages)

As with her first novel, Real Life and Liars, Kristina Riggle presents an interesting story with well-defined characters in her recently released novel, Things We Didn’t Say.

Casey (Edna Leigh Casey) is attempting to reinvent herself while erasing her past by delving into a new relationship with her fiancé Michael and his three children.   While taking on her new role of step-mother-to-be, she believes she has escaped her former alcoholic life and the tragedy in her past that she still blames herself for.   That is, until her challenging teenage future stepdaughter Angel finds Casey’s personal journal and discovers the details of Casey’s past and her feelings about her current frustrations with taking on the role of stepmother.   This realization, combined with recent distance from her controlling, workaholic fiancé, leads to her decision to leave her current situation and – once again – start over.   However, on the very day that Casey decides to leave she receives a call that Michael’s son Dylan has gone missing.

The search for Dylan takes Casey, Michael, his children, and ex-wife on an emotionally charged journey that will change how each of them perceives their current situation.

Riggle writes with extreme clarity and develops her characters with variable dialogue that provide each of them with their own identity.   Each character’s challenges and reactions to a family crisis are believable, although a bit extreme, while presented in a modern-day blended family scenario.   Riggle also presents realistic themes such as the dangers of online communication and the prevalence of runaway teens.

However, as much as I enjoyed her writing, I have to admit that for most of the story I found the adults in her novel to be unlikable.   Casey is a meek, insecure individual who allows her fiancé to make all the decisions and accepts his criticism with silence, even when boundaries are crossed with his crazy ex-wife Mallory.   Michael is self-absorbed and so focused on the legality of child custody that he allows and even instigates ridiculous behavior from Mallory.   And Mallory is the stereotypical example of a woman with a horrid past experiencing bouts of mental illness.   I found myself entranced in the novel, hoping for a miracle that would give the children some sense of “normalcy” in their lives.

But that said, I found the book entertaining and the characters begin to redeem themselves as the story unfolds; and Riggle begins to fashion a more realistic view of a blended family undergoing a family crisis.   I have to commend Riggle for presenting her view of the possible and probable challenges that families in an atypical family structure might face.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Things We Didn’t Say was released on June 28, 2011.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Things We Didn’t Say: A Novel by Kristina Riggle.

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Shattered Dreams

The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books; $25.00; 336 pages)

“I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”   Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Paula McLain presents a convincing rendition of the unique but endearing relationship between Earnest Hemingway and his first wife, the conscientious and serene Hadley Richardson, in her novel The Paris Wife.

After a brief long distance relationship, the young but confident twenty-year-old Earnest proposes to his first wife Hadley, a conservative spinster in her late twenties.   On the quest for the ideal inspirational setting to write, McLain’s story takes us to the art scene in Paris in the 1920s as artists, on the brink of greatness, share their hopes and dreams in local cafes hoping to gain exposure for their new stories.

McClain’s story is so detailed and believable that you can imagine spending time with the Hemmingways as they meet fellow artists and enjoy tea with individuals such as Gertrude Stein.   Hadley actually recalls a conversation that she and Earnest had while sharing drinks with F. Scott Fitgerald as he announced his hopes for success with his recent novel The Great Gatsby.

The reader will understand why Earnest was so inspired during the couple’s trips to Europe, especially while watching the bullfights in Pamplona.   The reader will sympathize with Hadley, the ever-loyal wife who strives to maintain the attention of her husband – standing by his side through circumstances from which even the strongest of us would run.   The depth of the conversations and the personalities of the characters come alive through McLain’s dialogues and Hadley’s interpretations of the relationships that develop during this phase of Earnest’s life, including that of his second wife.

McLain does a remarkable job of defining all of her characters as well as describing the landscape and culture during the couple’s travels.   You will become so entranced by her story you will forget you are not actually reading Hadley’s autobiography.

The story left me with a desire to rediscover Hemmingway by re-reading A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.   I know that I look forward to my next trip to Paris where, while sitting at some of the same cafes visited by the Hemmingways, I will try and imagine what it was like for this young couple in the Paris art scene of the roaring twenties and contemplate what Earnest’s life might have been like if he had stayed with his first love, Hadley.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.


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These Dreams of You

Cleaning Nabokov’s House: A Novel by Leslie Daniels (Touchstone; $24.00; 336 pages)

Debut author and literary agent Leslie Daniels sets the reader up for a tough and jarring ride before she detours us onto a softer road.   This begins as the story of a woman, Barb Barnett, who has no domestic skills and little self-esteem.   She leaves her husband John and her two children before they discover that she doesn’t know how to run the dishwasher in their home.   It may be the beginning of a period of freedom and growth for her – instead, she finds that she’s powerless, a helpless and hopeless person who’s utterly lost in the world.

Barb finds a weathered rental home in her husband’s (“the experson”) Upstate New York community of Onkwedo, home of Waindell University; a not too thinly disguised version of Ithaca, home to Cornell.   This turns out to have once been the temporary home of the famed writer Vladimir Nabokov; it may have been the home in which he wrote the classic Lolita over a two-year period.   The very lonely Barb finds that she’s not free of her ex-husband’s demands since she must do what he says in order to see her young children – a  purse-collecting girl and a very serious boy.   Even when John Barnett takes his kids and new girlfriend and moves a two-hour drive away from Onkwedo, Barb is expected to act as his servant, even taking care of John’s new dog for periods of up to six days at a time.

Barb’s powerlessness may have come to an end when she happens to find a manuscript in the rental home, a not fully completed novel about Babe Ruth that may or may not have been written by Nabokov.   Ah, the reader sees, this is going to be her ticket out…  Well, maybe.   At the urging of a literary agent, Barb takes it upon herself to complete the novel and takes it with her to New York City for authentication by literary experts.   (No doubt it’s going to be a genuine Nabokov and she’ll be rich.)

“My mother didn’t like bad things to happen to anyone, particularly herself.   To be fair, she didn’t like bad things to happen to me either, so she pretended they didn’t.   Her warding off of bad things involved revisions of reality.   When I was a child, she told me two years in a row that ‘Grandma is in Florida and can’t come for Christmas.’   The third year, I pinned her down and discovered that Grandma was dead.”

Forty-five percent of the way through this tale, the reader is certain of what’s going to happen.   Everything seems to be all sewn up in a neat little bundle for resolution.   And then everything changes.

While in Manhattan, Barb discovers a successful brothel that’s visited by men.   It dawns on her that her path to power and riches may lie in establishing a brothel in sleepy Onkwedo, although one that will meet the needs of the women in the village rather than the men.   One of the university’s heralded sports teams has just the young bloods she needs for her own unique team of athletes.   This is exactly where the fun and the sense of personal empowerment comes into play, for Barb realizes that if she can make enough money for herself she can stand up and take on John Barnett in a fair custody fight.

“John used to be right all the time.   It was a cornerstone belief of our former relationship: we both knew that John was always right.   Only that was no longer true.”

The once weak and timid Barb is assisted in her efforts by finding a strong and understanding man, who seems (and this is part of the charm of the story) to have suddenly appeared from the pages of a romance novel.   He’s a working man who knows better than to come on too strong with her, so she’s the one who makes the moves, even when it comes to their first kiss.

And so the serious becomes the sublime, with a heavy trace of satire and comedy, in a very unique offering from Daniels.   What makes it all work – and work so well, from start to finish – is that the reader is always in Barb Barnett’s corner even through all the script, set and background changes.   It’s a dizzying and sometimes puzzling read; all in all, a fun and tremendously engaging read.

Leslie Daniels pulls out all of the stops in this well recommended debut.   Bravo!  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Cleaning Nabokov’s House was released on March 1, 2011.

“An odd mix of silly, ridiculous, and inspiring…  a pleasure to read.”   Publishers Weekly.

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Rescue Me

Rescue by Anita Shreve (Hachette Audiobook)

Anita Shreve is one of my all-time favorite authors.   I have read every one of her novels.   This is my first time listening to one of her books instead of reading it the old-fashioned way.   I enjoy audiobooks and it was interesting to determine whether a Shreve novel would translate well to an audiobook.

Rescue is a novel that encompasses many of Shreve’s themes throughout the portfolio of her work.   Sheila Arsenault is a woman on the run from an abusive relationship.   After crashing her car in an alcohol fueled incident, Sheila is rescued by rookie paramedic Peter Webster.   Webster is taken by the beautiful young victim and searches her out after she is discharged from the hospital.   Webster is determined to help her and falls in love along the way.   Sheila is happy to be rescued, but finds that old demons are hard to leave behind.

Eighteen years later, Webster is raising their daughter, Rowan, alone.   Rowan unfortunately seems to have inherited some dangerous addictions and traits from her mother.   Will Webster be able to save his daughter or is it already too late?

I enjoyed listening to this audiobook.   Dennis Holland did a fairly good reading of the novel, although I found his attempts at a Boston accent to be rather jarring.   I almost wanted to do the dishes every day so I could listen to what was going to happen next.   I found the plot to be compelling, but the best thing about the novel was the in-depth character studies.   Rash decisions that were made in one’s youth can lead to consequences that can last a lifetime.

I also found Webster’s job as a paramedic to be very interesting as were the stories of his rescues.   I’ve never read a book with a paramedic as the main character and I really enjoyed it.   It left me wanting to know even more about the profession.   I think it was a great way to talk about how Webster rescued people as his job in life, but that he had troubles with rescuing his wife and his daughter.   It’s not as easy to rescue those you love from addictions and bad behavior.

Anita Shreve is a gifted writer.   I love her style of writing.   That being said, while Rescue was a good book, I still hold some of her earlier works such as The Weight of Water and Fortune’s Rocks in much higher regard.   I miss her historical books!

Overall, Rescue was a compelling read with characters that I enjoyed listening to. This review was written by Laura Gerold and is used with her permisson.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a recommended position on this novel.   You can read more of Laura’s fine reviews at http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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Wild Horses

rescue

Rescue: A Novel by Anita Shreve (Back Bay Books; $14.99; 320 pages)

“He wants to go to her.   He’s used to caring for a person who’s sobbing.   It happens to him at least once a week.   But he can’t go to this particular person.”

When Anita Shreve writes, everything is set forth in perfect human scale – neither too large nor too small.   This is why she can take a tale, that in the words of another writer might seem pedestrian and predictable, and turn it into something cinematic.   While reading the novel Rescue, I often felt as if I were watching a movie on a DVD.

At first it seems like there will be few surprises in this family novel.   A young paramedic, Peter Webster, comes across a car accident in which a drunken young woman has nearly killed herself.   The woman, Sheila, is clearly troubled and promises to darken the life of anyone who comes close to her.   Peter falls in love with her even before she’s removed from the wreckage.   In a matter of weeks, they’re shacking up before getting married and having a child – a little girl named Rowan.

As we expect from the very beginning of this story, Peter has let an accident come in the front door and his life is nearly turned into wreckage by Sheila.   When Sheila has a second DUI accident, and seriously injures a man, Peter knows he needs to protect himself and his daughter.   He banishes Sheila from their lives.

Fast forward 18 years and Rowan suddenly appears to be the second coming of her mother, drinking too much and endangering herself.   And then the completely unexpected happens… the ever-responsible Peter elects to do something that seems almost mad.   He invites Sheila back into their lives.   And this is where Shreve the writer hooks the reader, putting you in a position where you cannot put the novel down.

Peter let Sheila nearly ruin his life once, and now he’s giving her a second chance?   It’s a disorienting twist on what seemed to be a plot that was traveling down a straight road – now it’s gone sideways.   But this is Anita Shreve and in her cinematic style, this is where the cameras begin to zoom-in, to focus on the major players as events escalate.

“Sheila turns her head.   ‘Go slowly and be careful,’ she says.”

No spoiler alert here, but Shreve will surprise you in the way life itself constantly surprises us.   One never knows exactly what’s coming next; the fact that the telling of this tale reflects this is a reason Shreve is one of our best story tellers.   This story is taut, engaging, realistic and fulfilling.   At its conclusion it teaches us that life’s next lesson is not in the here and now, it’s up ahead, just down the road apiece.   You’ll know it when you get there.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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