Tag Archives: Gotham Books

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow (Gotham Reprint, $16.00, 352 pages)

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also 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 Mary McCarthy’s 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 been fully 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.   This review is dedicated to the memory of Jeffrey Lloyd Zaslow, who was killed in an auto accident on February 10, 2012.

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Dead to the World

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden

It’s not just the folks with the famous names who live outrageous lives.   Their relatives, in this case the children and grandchildren, also feel the effects of super wealth and status.   Wendy Burden falls into this category.   She is the great, great, great, great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt.   There was still plenty of money and status associated with the family when she was born.   Unfortunately, her father William A. M. Burden III, a direct descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt, could  not take the pressure of life and committed suicide when Wendy was six years of age.

This sad event precipitated the handing off of Wendy and her younger brother Will to Grandpa and Grandma Burden for intermittent visits while mom escaped life and responsibilities overseas in the company of a variety of men.   This memoir is an over-the-top expose with all the dirty little stuff prominently featured.   The self-indulgence, disregard for others and general insular behavior exhibited by the Grandparents Burden is easy fodder for Wendy’s 21-gun salute to the grosser aspects of wealth.   Oh, did I happen to mention that the guns are loaded with bizarre details?

Who among us cares to know that Wendy collected dead birds and observed their decomposition a la the scientific method used at the body farm at the University of Tennessee?   If you’d rather eavesdrop on cocktails and dinner with the grandparents, you would learn that grandma was a champion at farting whenever she felt the urge.   According to Wendy, this urge was never ignored regardless of the folks in her vicinity.   The walls in their home may have been covered with museum quality paintings and sculpture; however, grandma and grandpa were usually too sloshed to notice.

The crisp details and well-crafted accounts of life with the super-rich begin to seem a bit suspicious once the reader gets past the shock and wit.   Yes, Wendy Burden is an excellent story teller.   Just how much is fact and how much is convenient recall – or perhaps fiction disguised as the truth – is anyone’s guess.   This reviewer finished the book with a sense of gratitude for a seemingly ordinary life.  

Recommended for snoopy readers who follow OMG! on the internet.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer..

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The Ragged Tiger

Paper Tiger:  An Obsessed Golfer’s Quest to Play with the Pros by Tom Coyne (Gotham, $15.00)

Yes, 7 and the Ragged Tiger was my favorite album from the 80s mega rock-disco group Duran Duran.   This book’s title has no connection to that band, nor – as one browsing Borders might think – to Tiger Woods.   But it is about the maddening sport of golf.

Tom Coyne has authored two other well-received books about the sport, A Gentleman’s Game and A Course Called Ireland.   The one-time college golfer is one of those guys who has had a few beers with his friends in the clubhouse and wondered what it would be like to devote a year or two of one’s life to nothing but the game.   He has a bit of talent, so would dedicating himself completely to golf turn him into a PGA qualifier?

You can probably guess what the answer is, but to Coyne’s credit he gave it a very good shot.   In one year he hit 75,000 range balls to practice his old killer swing, and he woke up early and hit until dark while living in an apartment that joined the greens in Florida.   What did he find out?   That even with the best technology (free Mizuno high-tech clubs) and the best in coaching (Dr. Jim Suttie) you can’t turn a paper tiger into a roaring lion.

Statistically, amateur entrants into a U.S. Open qualifying tournament have a .893 percent (less than nine-tenths of one percent) chance “of making it into the final field this year.”   So it’s not a shock that our hero – a rusty and overweight golfer when he begins his links journey – does not manage to accomplish the impossible.   But the fun is in the read, following an Everyman who’s as likely to flame out under the pressure of possible success as any one of us mortals.   To paraphrase what someone else said, Coyne tried to play with the killers on the course and they killed him.

The Philadelphia Inquirer got it right when the newspaper wrote that Paper Tiger is, “A breezy, poignant read…  Hilarious.”   The book contains several very funny true stories and scenes, the best of which is when a rookie caddy mistakes the author for the great lefty Phil Mickelson!   Under the pressure of attempting to “be” Phil, Coyne shoots an 89 and finishes his 18-holes with the young caddy screaming at him – “It’s about G– Damn time!”

This one is quite funny.   Look for the trade paperback at a large bookstore and then take it along on your next multi-hour plane or train trip.   It will well be worth it.   Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Glory Days

If there’s one thing you learn as an undergraduate, it’s that trouble can always be found on a college campus.   More than a few of us will recognize facets of our own schools in Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost by Richard Rushfield.   Rushfield here writes of his years at Hampshire College “in the twilight of the 80’s.”

Hampshire, in Massachusetts, comes off as the east coast version of U.C. Santa Cruz.   At this college in the woods there  were no grades, students could design their own learning program and attending classes was – well – optional.Don't Follow MeRushfield majored in drugs, alcohol and trouble.   He found his way into the major trouble-making group on campus, the Supreme D—s.   The Supremes sound a bit like the Yellow Turban Alliance from my own first college – a legendary group whose exploits may have been real or fictional.   (Very real or highly fictional.)

The first few dozen pages of Don’t Follow can irritate the reader due to the fact that the young Rushfield is not easy to relate to.   But whether you wish to or not, you’ll soon be laughing at the exploits of Richard and his friends.   At one point in the memoir, they’re already in trouble (with administrators and their fellow students) when they decide to form a 3-member fraternity.   Oh, they decide to do this since it will make them eligible for the social activity funds (party money) distributed by the student council.   Never mind that they don’t seek recognition from the national fraternity’s headquarters.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?   And you can probably see why it took Rushfield two years to learn that he could no longer “try anything” on the Hampshire College campus, and a full five years to graduate.

Once you get a good start on this truly hilarious read, you’ll find it hard to put down!   Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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