Tag Archives: fear

Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown

My Age of Anxiety (nook book)

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossell (Knopf, $27.95, 416 pages)

“So am I, with my phobias and worries and general twitchiness, ‘neurotically’ anxious? Or just ‘normally’ so? What’s the difference between ‘normal’ anxiety and anxiety as a clinical problem? …If anxiety disorders and depression are so similar, why do we distinguish between them? …Mightn’t my anxiety be just a normal human emotional response to life, even if the response is perhaps somewhat more severe for me than for others? How do you draw the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘clinical’?”

Scott Stossel

The unfortunate thing about this book is that the very people who will be attracted to it may be those who’ll get the least from it. I’m speaking of those who suffer from anxiety, something that Scott Stossel is unable to define although he claims to suffer from it. Stossel is not an expert but he combines a survey like approach – what he calls “a cultural and intellectual history of anxiety,” to the topic with his own experiences. (This takes up over 400 pages.) The problem with the initial approach is that Stossel plunges into deep waters quickly, discussing Kierkegaard and Sartre and the nature of Existentialism. All readers who were not Philosophy majors in college are likely to be lost immediately.

The author might have grabbed the reader by relating his own anxious experiences first. However, there are two problems with his stories. Firstly, one wonders whether some of them actually happened. And, secondly, they must have been greatly exaggerated in the telling.

Those who pick up My Age of Anxiety thinking it’s a self-help book will likely be disappointed, especially as Stossel self absorbedly and somewhat relentlessly relates the exact nature of his confused and anxious mental state ad infinitum (to infinity).

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

Age of Anxiety

Anxiety Stossel

A review of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Piece of Mind by Scott Stossel.

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The Art of Dying

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Trade, $16.00, 320 pages)

Someone once wrote: “We fear death the way children fear going into the dark.”   Meghan O’Rourke

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading/ When things that seemed so very plain/ Became an awful pain/ Searching for the truth among the lying/ And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying…  But you’re still with me.   George Harrison (“The Art of Dying”)

Meghan O’Rourke has presented us with a serious, somber and thoughtful memoir about the grief she suffered when her mother died at the age of fifty-five.   Although her  mother’s age is noted, one has the impression that she would have felt the same burden if her mother had lived to be 100, as O’Rourke was simply unprepared to live in a world without its (to her) most important resident.   As she states so well, “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you used to be when the lost one was alive…  One night (my brother) Liam said to me, as we were driving home from my dad’s to Brooklyn, ‘I am not as sad as I was, but the thing is, it’s just less fun and good without her.'”

In order to deal with her pain, O’Rourke conducted a personal study of death, the standard fear of it, religious beliefs and the traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that’s been done on the human grieving process.   She even addresses the matter of grief in animal colonies.   One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has often been misunderstood.   These were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through, not the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through.

O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with the reader.   She has been afraid since childhood of the notion of death and yet it remained an abstract – if still frightening – notion up until her mother’s passing.   Then her grief became all-consuming, and it became something that she could not put aside in order to live a “normal” life.   Grief, in a sense, made her crazy for a period of time but it also brought with it some very valuable lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life.   As O’Rourke’s father told her several months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to appreciate what he did possess in the world and the universe.

After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead.   It doesn’t come naturally.

There’s a sense of accepting humbleness that permeates O’Rourke’s account.   Although she was raised as a Catholic, she refers numerous times to Buddhism.   If there’s a weakness in the telling, it’s a factor that naturally affects most memoirs, a tendency to make one’s own life sound more important than that of the others that share the planet with the writer.   And, like Julie Metz in Perfection, O’Rourke tends to tell her readers more than they would actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.

At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive when it comes to social relationships.   At the time that her mother died (at Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without the benefit of an explanation – comes back into her life, and she wonders why, “…he always seemed to be holding back – why, I did not know.”   The reader wants to scream back at her, “Because you dumped him when you went away to college!”   (The ex was simply acting like a normal, scarred, self-protective human being.)

But these are minor points, because O’Rourke succeeds quite well in making us examine death as something both micro and macro;  internal and external.   It is something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is key in our lives.   In her almost philosophical approach to examining death and dying, she has written not only a monumental love story for the person who went missing in her life, she has also placed death in its natural and proper context.

(I think I wanted to grow up to be my mother, and it was confusing to me that she already was her.)

This is, in the end, a work about acceptance – the good with the bad – life continuing on through death, the sudden eclipse of a life and eternal love.   O’Rourke masterfully teaches us about the art of dying, a matter for both hearts and heads (minds).

Very, very well done.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Long Goodbye: A Memoir was released as a trade paperback book on April 5, 2012.   “We feel our own grief, past and potential, as O’Rourke grapples with hers…  Now her book can provide similar comfort for others.”   The Washington Post

“And life flows on within you and without you…”   George Harrison (“Love You To”)

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Bobblehead Dad

Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew by Jim Higley (Greenleaf Book Group; $14.95; 201 pages)

There is something about cancer that strikes a chord with nearly everyone.   Whether it is the fear that it could happen to anyone at anytime, the fact that nearly everyone knows somebody who has suffered through the dreaded disease, or some other mysterious quality that separates this affliction from others, there is no disputing the fact that the mere mention of cancer quickly gets people’s attention.

In his early forties, Jim Higley, a single dad with three young children was diagnosed with prostate cancer.   The prognosis was particularly ominous due to his family’s history of cancer and the fact that he had lost his brother to brain cancer just a few years earlier.

Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew is his story.   The term bobblehead refers to the sports replica figurines whose heads bobble.   Early in the book, Higley recalls his fondness for them as a child and realizes that he has taken on that characteristic as a dad by routinely bobbing his head dismissively when he returns home from work and listens to his children’s stories of their days.

That is the beginning of the format of the book in which the author pairs childhood memories with his real-time cancer experiences to craft a series of 25 lessons focused on choices that allow for happiness and healthy relationships.

The writing is excellent.   The lessons initially appear to be a bit simplistic or quaint, but in the context of the author’s battle with cancer, the reader is much more inclined to internalize the inherent wisdom of many of them.   My personal favorite is Lesson 12:  Rest.   Some other examples include “Embrace Who You Are” and “Lessons Happen Every Day.”   Again, out of context, they might appear too unsophisticated for 21st Century America, but that appears to be exactly the point – they are not.   In fact, they are presented as foundational building blocks for life.

Due to consistency in voice and presentation, the book flows seamlessly from page to page.   The reader can easily relate to the anecdotes, topics, and relationships that permeate the true tale.   In no way is the book’s audience limited to males, cancer survivors, or other types of age ranges or subgroups.   It can be read quickly in a  few settings or in short segments as time allows.   Overall, Bobblehead Dad is a gem.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author.   Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.   Note:  Readers who relate to this book might also be interested in The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and/or Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.  

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Back in Black

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $24.95; 272 pages)

The Descent of Man explores an interesting premise:  In the face of fear, can humans actually de-evolve into their basest nature creating a world where self-preservation overtakes reason and higher-order thinking?

The book opens when the main character, Jim, and his wife, Marla, hear two car thieves attempting to steal their car in the wee hours of the morning.   Jim’ s subsequent decision on how to act, and then an impulsive, unplanned act, come together instantly to set off a chain of events that involve a lie, which, of course, leads to subsequent lies and more complications before the story finally resolves itself.

The tale starts off well.   While the theft of a car may lead one to initially assume that the book will be an action/suspense story, a great deal of the early portion of the book is told from a psychological, philosophical point of view through the inner workings of the minds of the main characters.   This is where the book works best.

As the story unfolds, a promising concept begins to unravel.   It is possible the author tried to do too much at once.   For a while, the reader may want this to be a thriller, with humans hunting down other humans, car chases, accidents, and scenes that take place in the seediest part of town.   Or, they may like the parts that stick to the introduction and are a psychological drama about tormented and tortured souls.   Or, they may like the scenes that touch on the relationship between Jim and Marla and want more of the “love story”, for lack of a better term.   But the reader gets a little bit of each and not enough of any of them to be truly satisfied.

It is hard to know what to make of the detective in the story.   Does he want to help Jim, or is he setting Jim up?   Clearly, he does not trust Jim, yet at the end, they seem to form an interesting, through unrealistic bond.   One painful incident from the couple’s past is introduced, but does not do much to advance the story or give hints as to the current nature of their relationship.   Perhaps, in fact, the most unsatisfying parts of the story are those that focus on Jim and Marla.   Jim is supposedly desperately in love with her, and she wants badly to reconcile after events cause them to be apart for a while.   But most of this picks up about halfway through, when the reader believes the story is headed in a different direction.   There just isn’t enough to them to care very much about their relationship.   The crimes, lies and curiosity about who might get caught, killed, or whatever, is much more intriguing.

There are some other problems from a plausibility standpoint, like when Jim buys a gun from a hooker he hardly knows during one of his insomniac-based ventures into the town’s red light district.

In this reviewer’s opinion, author Kevin Desinger has promise, but the book falls a bit short despite some strong passages that peak the reader’s interest.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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Tragedy

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Random House; $15.00; 352 pages)

“Most of our fears are petty and small…  Only our love is monumental.”

In Every Last One, author Anna Quindlen gives us a monumental – yet quietly reserved – look at the life of a typical American family, before and after the family is rocked by an unimaginable tragedy.   This is the story of Mary Beth Latham, a basically stay-at-home mom who operates a landscaping business; her ophthalmologist husband, Glen; daughter Ruby; and her fraternal twin sons, Max and Alex.   Although we observe their lives through Mary Beth’s eyes, we come to know Ruby the best.   She’s a senior in high school who is about to leave the nest for a yet-to-be determined college.

Mary Beth at one point ponders whether it is a woman’s role to persevere after everyone she loves has left her.   But she thinks about this at a time when everyone she loves remains close to her.   This is when she’s the woman who worries about the smallest of concerns, when her life goes on as normal.   But normal is not lasting…

Daughter Ruby has known her friend Kiernan since childhood, and he becomes obsessed with her and all of the Lathams.   Kiernan comes to become less of a boyfriend to Ruby than a stalker, and someone who uses any excuse to keep company with the Latham family.   Ruby realizes that she’s going to have to reject Kiernan soon – and before she departs for her future life.

When tragedy strikes Mary Beth must become a survivor.   Everyone around her fails at offering comfort; instead, they impose their expectations on her as to how they believe she should act.   The people she worked so hard to please, to impress, to be close to all let her down.

Eventually Mary Beth comes to see – as we all must – that she cannot live her life in a manner that pleases others.   She simply must continue, even if the reasons for doing so are not clear.

“It’s all I know how to do.   This is my life.   I am trying.”

It is impossible to describe the nature of the calamity that Mary Beth experiences without betraying the story, and this summary does not disclose it.   Suffice it to say that when it occurs the reader will think the narrative is over.   In the hands of a less skilled writer it would be.   But Quindlen is at her best in writing the tale of a woman who is strong when the world believes she has been stripped of her heart and her soul.

“The silence is as big as the sky…”

Author Quindlen teaches the reader that life is not predictable, that one must be prepared to start over at any time.   It is, after all, the nature of every life.   Life, for better or worse, every year, month, day, and each and every minute.   It is all to be treasured, and readers may come to justifiably treasure this impressive work from the subtly gifted mind and pen of Anna Quindlen.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Every Last One will be released in trade paperback form on Tuesday, March 22, 2011.

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An Unflappable Giveaway

Thanks to Anna at the Hachette Book Group, we have three (3) copies to give away of a new nonfiction book which was just released on March 6, 2011.   This is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool; a hardbound release from Little, Brown and Company valued at $25.99.   Here is the official synopsis:

Nerves make us bomb job interviews, first dates and SATs.   With a presentation looming at work, fear robs us of sleep for days.   It paralyzes seasoned concert musicians and freezes rookie cops in tight situations.   And yet not everyone cracks.   Soldiers keep their heads in combat; firemen rush into burning buildings; unflappable trauma doctors juggle patient after patient.   It’s not just that these people feel no fear; often, in fact, they’re riddled with it.

In Nerve, Taylor Clark draws upon cutting-edge science and painstaking reporting to explore the very heart of panic and poise.   Using a wide range of case studies, Clark overturns the popular myth about anxiety and fear to explain why some people thrive under pressure, while others falter – and how we can go forward with steadier nerves and increased confidence.

“…brings sophisticated science into precise layperson’s language and applies it to our everyday lives with humor and wit.”   Amazon

So, how can you win one of these copies without experiencing too much stress?   Simple, just post a comment here with your name and e-mail address; or send an e-mail message to josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell us the answer to this question – If 1 is a ‘fraidy cat and 10 is a superhero with nerves of steel, which number would a panel of fear and stress experts give you, and why?   Post your answer below, or provide your response in an e-mail, and you will be credited with a second entry.

Our usual furry contest administrator will draw the 3 winning names.   You have until midnight on April 15, 2011 to submit your entry or entries.   In order to be eligible to win this contest, you must live in the United States or Canada and provide a residential address when you are contacted.   Books will not be shipped to a P. O. box or a business-related address.   Only one person can win per household.

This is it for the nervous-making contest rules.   Put on your superhero costume and give it a whirl!   Munchy the cat  says, Yeowk!   (Translated this means, Good luck and good reading!)

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A Hazy Shade of Winter

So Much for That: A Novel by Lionel Shriver (Harper; $25.99; 433 pages)

“…the biggest tipoff that she was not in as much denial as she feigned was that Glynis had no interest in the future.   That left everyone pretty much stumped.   When you weren’t interested in the future you weren’t interested in the present either.   Which left the past, and she really wasn’t interested in that.”

This is a fictional tale of two American families in 2005.   They are typical, yet atypical in that they are both being worn and ground down by the twin pressures of a fiscal recession and deadly diseases.   The primary family, the Knackers, is composed of Glynis, sculptress, wife and mother and mesothelioma victim (a form of cancer that is killing her quickly); Shep, the ever dutiful husband who is a millionaire on paper; their absent college age daughter Amelia; and their clueless teenage son Zach.   Their friends, presumably Jewish, are Jackson and Carol Burdina.   Jackson is an angry co-worker of Shep’s who is insecure about being married to the ever-beautiful Carol.   They have two daughters, Flicka, who was born with Familial Dysautonomia (FD) – which will likely kill her by the time she is 30 – and Heather, their healthy overeating daughter who is growing larger by the hour.

Shep Knacker’s longtime dream is to cash in on his home improvement business in order to live what he calls The Afterlife on an island.   However, just as he sells his business for a cool $1 million, Glynis is diagnosed with the cancer that gives her a little over a year to live.   The longer Glynis lives, the more Shep’s Merrill Lynch account will be drawn down.   Shep quickly learns that a million dollars does not last long in a world where an aspirin costs $300 and a regimen of chemotherapy goes for $30,000.

“That had been one revelation, insofar as there was any: everything was equal.   There were no big things and little things anymore.   Aside from pain, which had assumed an elevated position… all matters were of the same importance.   So there was no longer any such thing as importance.”

One of the ironies of this tale is that while 51-year-old Glynis fights to hang on to life to the point where she becomes a near madwoman, young Flicka looks forward to the day – at 18 – when she can end her own.   And while they trouble themselves with such basic issues, Jackson becomes obsessed with penis enlargement surgery – something he presumes will please his attractive spouse.

“(It was) a world where oblivion was nirvana, where one was never allowed the hope of no pain but only of less.”

Glynis eventually becomes angry as her supposed friends either treat her like a woman already dead, or fail to follow through on their original promises to be there for her when the going gets rough.   Yet, she stubbornly refuses to ever accept a fatal diagnosis, even while undergoing a year-long regimen of toxic chemo.   She begins to view herself as a marathon runner who never seems to be able to complete the 26th and final mile.

Shep is a man who has prided himself on being responsible his entire life.   He’s the man who has always paid his own way and played by the rules.   But others tell him that he’s a responsible taxpaying sucker especially when Medicaid won’t buy Glynis even a single aspirin for her pain.   He’s not sure what to do until, surprisingly, his ever raging and thought-to-be-dense friend Jackson sends him a message.

This is a work about human values and morals in the face of impending financial ruin and death.   What would we do – any of us – in order to keep our health and our homes for an extra day, week, month or year?   In this weighty and timely fictional tale you will find an answer.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   So Much for That is also available as an unabridged audio book and as a Kindle Edition download.

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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Putnam, August 5, 2010)

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Suiko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern-California raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begins to experience serious health issues.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a “Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

On one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in their nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characteristics of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort within the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

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

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