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Down the Drain

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Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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Savory Stories

Reader, I Married Him Amazon

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre; Edited by Tracy Chevalier (An Anthology; William Morrow, $15.99, 304 pages)

The concept of a short story collection is not new. What is new, at least to this reviewer, is the breadth of topics covered by the 21 well-known female authors who contributed to the collection titled, Reader, I Married Him. The variety of voices and themes of these short stories are tied to the quote from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Eyre is a favorite of many readers and as such is an excellent jumping off point or conclusion for authors. Tracy Chevalier, also a celebrated author as well as the editor of this collection, sets up the premise in her forward. Each story has its own pace and locale; however, all of them touch on the premise set forth in the book’s title. A wide variety of cultures are woven into the book. Many are indicative of the author’s roots. Most of the authors are English-speaking and based in the UK, Canada and the USA. Also, many of them are professors at well-regarded institutions of higher learning.

Reader, I Married Him back cover

Reader, I Married Him is not a breezy read to be tucked in with one’s swimsuit and sandals along with sunblock and a floppy hat. Rather, it is meant to be deliciously savored one story at a time. A brisk read may be confusing and cheat the reader out of the quirky and sometimes deeply moving sentiments offered by these masters of their craft.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by HarperCollins Publishers. This book will be released on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

Reader, I Married Him

These are the writers who contributed to Reader, I Married Him: Tracy Chevalier, Tessa Hadley, Helen Dunmore, Kirsty Gunn, Joanna Briscoe, Jane Gardam, Emma Donoghue, Susan Hill, Francine Prose, Elif Shafak, Evie Wyld, Patricia Park, Salley Vickers, Nadifa Mohamed, Esther Freud, Linda Grant, Sarah Hall, Lionel Shriver, Audrey Niffenegger, Namwall Serpell, and Elizabeth McCracken.

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Aftermath

Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice by Alisa Statman with Brie Tate (It Books, $26.99, 380 pages)

“Pardoning is God’s domain…  I forgave Sharon’s killers through His grace.   But, within, the laws of man, this forgiveness didn’t lessen the killer’s culpability or diminish my ambition to keep them in prison.”

This is an engaging and sometimes moving (and sometimes overdone) account of the life of a family that was terribly affected and afflicted by a brutal crime – the murder of Sharon Tate.   There are two names listed as authors, one being the domestic partner of Tate’s younger sister and the other her niece.   But, in fact, the book was written by four parties since it incorporates the words of Sharon Tate’s mother and father; both of whom intended to write their own memoirs.   And, to some extent, it was also written by Vincent Bugliosi as it borrows generously from his bestselling book Helter Skelter.

The one major flaw with this nonfiction work is that it was likely released at the exact wrong time.   I may not be correct (and I am not taking a side on this issue), but the political winds seem to be blowing in the direction of a moderately to dramatically less “tough on crime” approach than was exercised in the past.   This, at the least, appears to be true in California.

Restless Souls at times reads like a legal and political brief for locking them up and throwing away the key.   This is understandable as Doris Tate, Sharon’s mother, was a prominent figure in the victim’s rights movement in California and throughout the country a few decades ago.   She was recognized as one of the Thousand Points of Light by the first President Bush and worked very closely with California governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.   Had this book been released in the period between 1980 and 1991, it would likely have drawn a great deal more attention that it’s going to get today.

A major part of the “Crusade for Justice” addressed in this account were the attempts by the Tate family to ensure that none of the Manson Family members were released from state prison.   These efforts were successful (Susan Atkins died in her cell); a fact which, ironically, takes away the weight and suspense of the telling.

Probably the most interesting of the four family member’s accounts is the one written by Sharon’s father P. J. who was in court during the Manson Family trials.   P. J.’s version of the courtroom dramas is fascinating, yet it takes a back seat to Bugliosi’s chilling version (Helter Skelter perhaps being the second best nonfiction account of a crime ever written, next to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood).   This is something that’s apparent to Statman and Tate since a surprisingly – almost shockingly – lengthy excerpt of Helter Skelter is used here to describe the murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring and the others at the home on Cielo Drive above Beverly Hills.

Astoundingly, Statman goes on to claim that Bugliosi’s book “was missing emotion” for the crime victims, something that could hardly seem to be less true based on the prosecutor’s writings and his work in court.   It’s the authors’ emotions, on full display, that make otherwise cold accounts, Helter Skelter, In Cold Blood and Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, so very stunning and moving.   These three books, once read are never, ever forgotten.

“Parents are covictims, and many of them get worse when the legal process is finished…  Now they begin to pine for their (lost) child in earnest…  They have to reconstruct their whole belief system because their assumptions about the decency of humanity, the security of social order, and justice are all shattered.”

Restless Souls serves as a needed reminder of how crime victims are often twice brutalized in our society and in the criminal justice system (having to deal with both a crime and its true aftermath in human terms), but I suspect it will mostly be read by criminal justice students as an historical account and not much more.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Restless Souls was released on February 21, 2012.

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Come and Get It

Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy by James A. Roberts (HarperOne, $25.99, 368 pages)

“The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.”   – H. L. Mencken

Author James A. Roberts is a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.   There’s no doubt that he knows of what he writes.   In some ways Shiny Objects is similar to The Man Who Sold America by Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz, and Shoptimism – Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What by Lee Eisenberg.   Among them, the three  books capture a wide view of the marketing tricks, human weaknesses and buying trends that are behind the urge to attain the American dream.

Shiny Objects is clearly written for readers in the USA.   Author Roberts tailors what could easily be just another self-help book into a person-centered experience complete with memorable quotes at the start of each chapter (such as the one posted above).   He includes graphs, charts, sidebars and illustrations that enliven the very serious subject – compulsive acquisition that most folks cloak in the guise of the pursuit of the Great American Dream.

There is a strong interactive presence in many chapters that gently allows the reader to respond to the questionnaires that are designed to reveal personal tendencies, proclivities or urges related to material possessions and their appearance – which is, sadly, a false one – of granting happiness.

There is some original research associated with the writing of the book as well as numerous well-annotated references, data and quotes.   Roberts also references his survey of other researchers’ research on consumption/consumerism.

The marketing classes at Baylor presented by Dr. Roberts must be very popular given his smooth conversational style and ability to weave useful strategies through his narrative.   Perhaps this book, which is highly skeptical of the marketing practices in this country, is his way of offsetting the marketing skills he teaches in his college classes.   This quote makes the point: “The primary goal of this book is to make the argument that lasting happiness lies outside the consumer realm, beyond the shiny-object ethos.”

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Shiny Objects was released on November 8, 2011, and is available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   “Shiny Objects is ultimately a hopeful statement about the power we each hold to redefine the pursuit of happiness.”   Amazon

Readers who find this book interesting may also want to consider Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage, $15.95, 336 pages) and Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt (William Morrow Paperbacks, $15.99, 315 pages).

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross.

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Weight of the World

The Life You’ve Imagined: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (Avon; $13.99; 334 pages)

“…I’m thinking of making a change myself.”   She gapes up at me, searching my face as if she’s not sure who I am.   I know the feeling.

If you love the novels of Elizabeth Berg, and especially The Last Time I Saw You, you’re likely to feel a great sense of fondness for this book by Kristina Riggle.   As with Berg, she hits the sweet spot of human emotion in telling the stories of women who’ve arrived at the point in life where they must either evolve or accept their failure in life.   In the words of Bob Dylan, Riggle’s characters are either busy being born or they are busy dying.

Like Berg’s The Last Time, this is an ensemble piece…  The Life is about four women, three still relatively young and one clearly not, who are united by circumstances in the town of Haven, Michigan.   Haven is not to be mistaken with Heaven.

Anna Geneva is the high-powered Chicago attorney who returns home after being rattled by the death of an older male colleague and mentor.   Here she must deal with her mother Maeve, whose mom-and-pop convenience store is failing.   Morever, Maeve holds out hope of being reunited with the man who long ago abandoned her and Anna.   Anna will also encounter two of her best female friends from high school – Cami Drayton, who has come back to live with a monster of a father, and Amy Rickart, the now slender and beautiful bride-to-be who used to be overweight and socially ostracized.

Only Amy lives a life to be envied as she prepares to marry the loving and considerate man of her dreams.   But her husband-to-be’s career will place him in conflict with Anna and Maeve and Cami and she will soon come to wonder about his values in life.   She will even come to wonder if he loves her at all after he announces that their wedding must be postponed.

About three-quarters to four-fifths of the way through the telling of this tale, you – the reader – will figure out exactly what the resolution will be.   Except that Riggle has other ideas and soon you’re following unexpected twists and turns as you near the end.   In this fashion, it’s like real life which is never quite what we imagined it would be.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “A richly woven story laced with unforgettable characters…”   Therese Walsh, author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy

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Nobody Told Me

On Book Reviewer-Author Relationships

“Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word.”   John Lennon (“Nobody Told Me”)

Here’s an experience that I’ve had multiple times, four times to be exact.   I’m involved in an e-mail conversation with a writer who is new to me, and communication is taking place naturally.   Then, all of a sudden, comes this message – as if taken from a new author’s handbook, “My publicist/editor/publisher (someone, in other words) has told me that I’m not supposed to become friendly with book reviewers.”   Naturally, my response to this is to type “Why?”

I don’t think I’ve ever received a very specific answer other than the statement that it would make the author-writer appear to be currying favor, or angling for a positive review.   This explanation may well make sense to others, but not to me.   I say this because I’m about to go on to read this author’s book – about which I virtually never have a pre-impression – and write a review of this product; I have no interest in writing about the author’s personality.

I also doubt that there’s much connection between how much I know and like the author as a person and my review, or reviews written by other reviewers.   Let me provide an example.   One author is someone I’ve known for decades.   He is a friend and yet when I wrote my review of one of his novels I think I wrote about its positives and negatives in the same way I would have with anyone else, known or unknown to me.   So my friendship with this good gentleman did not result in my insisting that everyone go out and purchase his book!   Even more curious, my wife read a different novel from this author.   She has never met him, e-mailed him or spoken with him.   Her review of his more recent novel was effusive and glowing, thus showing the lack of a direct connection between friendship and an honest review.

There’s also the fact that I know authors who have written both very, very good and average books.   If I read the very, very good book first and the average one later, I never decide that I’ve had it with this writer.   No, I think, “He/she has it in him/her to write an outstanding book, so he/she will probably do so the next time around.”   Maybe this is just me, but I disconnect the product from the person, and I keep hope alive for the next time around.

I pray this is the same with my reviews and my readers.   If I write several good reviews and then one that you find is sloppy, I hope you won’t say, “I will never read another one of his reviews again!”   Hey, we all have off days, weeks, months, and/or years – sometimes lifetimes.   But as I have stated in Our Fairness Policy, if I write a review you disagree with, feel free to write your own review (of about the same length) with a different perspective.   I will post it.

A few readers have taken me up on this offer, and I have very much enjoyed – literally enjoyed – reading their views.   Why?   Because I don’t think they’re judging me, they’re simply offering more information.   And this is why I’ve posted multiple reviews of some books.   Information is good, not just for readers but also for the authors who happened to have written the books in question.   If some information is good, more information – more perspectives – should be better for their own writing futures.   (If I write that I loved the first half of a novel but not the second half, and you feel the opposite and we both explain our views in writing, does this not help the author  to identify his/her strengths and weaknesses?   I think so, I honestly do.)

I was taught, as a one-time debater and as a law student, that all information has value.   Sure, some pieces of information and some perspectives may have more intrinsic value than other pieces and perspectives, but how do we know that without testing them in the real world?   This is what I hope we’re doing with books and book reviews…  Reading them, making some honest assumptions or conclusions about their values, and asking others to do the same.   In this way, I think we writers and reviewers are assisting each other.

We’re helping each other through open and honest dialogue while avoiding unnecessary division and rancor.   As I’ve written before, the book review/opinion process should not be a debate; there’s no true right or wrong.   There are no definitive reviews, at least in my opinion.   If I looked up all of the reviews on the internet of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, could I find one of each that I would point to and say, “That’s the one!   No one should ever dare write another word because that was a perfect review of a near-perfect book!”   I hardly think so.

Our dialogue should continue to be open and honest and friendly.   And perhaps one day authors and reviewers will live in harmony…  Until then, write on my friend.   Let’s talk a few months after the book comes out and reviews are over and done.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt, which will be released on January 2, 2011 by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

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Someone Saved My Life Tonight

On Reading – A Book That Changed My Life

I read The Language of Trees not long after it was first published this past summer.   The massive review in the local paper promised it would be a good read, and it did seem to be right along the lines of something I would normally pick off the shelf.

I came to learn rather quickly that Ilie Ruby has a wonderful way of carrying you through a story, pulling you deeper and deeper and then when you least expect it, WHAM, she hits you with an emotional truth that is so deep and profound that it sends you sprawling, gasping for something to hang onto.   This happened to me in the process of reading this book.   I would go from a relaxed reading position, to sitting straight up, to leaning on the edge of my seat, to standing, to pacing, to talking to myself and holding my forehead, wondering how she could possibly know such detailed things about ME.   It was unnerving and fascinating in a way that only a magnificently written novel can be.

There was a movie in the 80’s called The Neverending Story, about a little boy who steals a book from an old bookshop and has the sense as he hides away in an old attic reading by candlelight that the people in the book are aware of him.   The old book-keeper had warned him that this book wasn’t safe for him to read, it wasn’t like other books, because the old man knew that those who delved into the pages of that book became part of the story.   There was a point as the boy was reading that the characters talk about him as if he is there with him.   They say they were there with him as he entered the bookstore and took the book with the oren symbol on the cover and they are with him as he reads the book.

“But that’s impossible, it’s not real,” he says to himself, looking up from the book disturbed and confused, “they can’t be talking about me, it’s just a story.”   But it wasn’t just a story.   It was a book that forced the little boy to confront fears, to take a good long hard look at himself, and ultimately gave him courage and power.

I found myself thinking and feeling the same thing as I read The Language of Trees and its characters continued to speak to me.   “How,” I asked myself out loud, looking at the book as if could look back at me, “how does she know these things about me?”   “It’s not real, it’s just a story.”   But as it wasn’t just a story in the movie, it wasn’t just a story for me.   It forced me to confront fears, to look deeply into myself, and when it was over, I had found courage, comfort and healing.

A book filled with forgiveness and the hope of second chances and healing, it’s a compilation of love stories, old ones and new ones, reborn ones and healing ones.   It’s about Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell and whether or not they can heal and find the love they lost all those years ago.   It’s a ghost story about little Luke Ellis who was lost in the waters of Canandaigua Lake many years before, and who now haunts the people on the lake out of love for his sister Melanie who has recently vanished without a trace.   It’s a book full of secrets, secrets kept by Clarisse Mellon who knows the truth needs to come out or Melanie Ellis will never be found and things will never be right.

It’s a book about facing fears and finding yourself and allowing yourself to reach out a lonely hand, trusting someone else in the process.   As Clarisse Mellon says, “A full life, a life where she captures her heart’s desire, requires that chances be taken.”

This book is full of hope, and in a day where people seem to lose their hopes and forget their dreams, this book is a welcome respite, a place where the desires of the heart are encouraged to fly.   Read this book, allow it to take you on its journey, find the truths in its pages and open yourself up to the infinite possibilities it offers.

“You must go alone,” the movie says of the journey, if you’re willing to take it.   “You must leave all your weapons behind.   It will be very dangerous.”   It’s true, looking inside ones self with no walls and no weapons can be very dangerous, for those willing to make the journey.   It took me many years to find that “Neverending Story” experience and it changed my life.   The Language of Trees changed my life.

“Show no fear, for it may fade away, in your hands, the birth of a new day.”   No, it’s definitely not just a story.

 

The Language of Trees: A Novel by Ilie Ruby has been published by Avon ($14.99). 

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We’re giving away an amazing book!

Double Take: A Memoir is an amazing new book from Kevin Michael Connolly; it’s 5-star rated at Amazon.   We will post our own review of this inspiring book in the near future, but in the interim you can win one of three copies that we have to give away!   Yes, we have 3 new, hardbound, copies of Double Take to give away courtesy of SallyAnne McCartin and Associates and HarperStudio.

Here is a synopsis of the book:

Kevin Michael Connolly is a 23-year-old who has seen the world in a way most of us never will.   Whether swarmed by Japanese tourists at Epcot Center as a child or holding court at the X Games on his mono-ski as a teenager, Kevin has been an object of curiousity since the day he was born without legs.   Growing up in rural Montana, he was raised like any other kid (except, that is, for his father’s MacGyver-like contraptions such as the “butt boot”).   As a college student, Kevin traveled to 17 countries on his skateboard and, in an attempt to capture the stares of others, he took more than 30,000 photographs of people staring at him.   In this dazzling memoir, Connolly casts the lens inward to explore how we view ourselves and what it is to truly see another person.   We also get to know his quirky and unflappable parents and his spunky girlfriend.   From the home of his family in Helena, Montana to the streets of Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, Connolly’s remarkable journey will change the way you look at others, and the way you see yourself.

Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants said of Connolly’s book, “Kevin Connolly has used an unusual physical circumstance to create a gripping work of art.   This deeply affecting memoir will place him in the company of Jeanette Walls and Augusten Burroughs.”

And a reader, Cathy Yetter, said:  “I read the book straight through, only stopping to sleep and snack.   Kevin Connolly’s book ‘Double Take’ gave me the feeling of sitting by a campfire with intimate friends just back from distant parts unknown, listening to their adventure tales that you know are true but hard to believe none the less.”

Here are the simple rules for entering this book giveway contest.   To enter the contest once, just send an e-mail to josephsreviews@gmail.com .   For a second entry, you just need to indicate who has been your inspiration in life, and why.   That’s it.   Only persons who live in the United States are eligible and you should be able to supply a residential (street) address rather than a P.O. Box for delivery.   Prior contest winners at this site are again eligible.   This contest will close to entries at midnight Pacific Standard Time on Friday, January 8, 2010.  

Munchy the Norwegian Forest Cat – our contest administrator – will pick the names of the three winners out of a large plastic container on January 9th, and we hope and expect to announce the winners on this site on Sunday, January 10, 2010.  

Good luck and good reading!

 

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