Tag Archives: illness

Love Story

marrow-a-love-story

Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

When a deadly disease strikes, it’s often not clear whether this is harder on the afflicted person or those who surround him/her. This is a point well made in the memoir Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser. Lesser’s sister Maggie battled lymphoma cancer which went into remission, only to return after seven years.

Maggie had one chance for survival, a bone marrow transplant from the perfect donor. That perfect donor happened to be her older sister, Elizabeth. If successful, Maggie would live on with her sister’s blood literally coursing through her veins. In a sense, the sisters would become one, the team known as Maggie-Liz. But the sisters had not gotten along superbly well in their five-plus decades of living, so they realized they would have to overcome the issues that had sadly separated them in the past.

Marrow is a fascinating look at how two people worked extremely hard to find love and forgiveness among the ruins of pain and suffering. Lesser makes clear, however, that what worked for her and Maggie might not work for others. (If there’s a flaw in the telling, it is that Lesser often gets caught up in the forest – the world, the universe, the meaning of Existence, instead of focusing on the trees – the lives of her and her sister.) And yet, this is an inspiring tale of courage. It’s also a reminder that love conquers all, even when death stands poised to strike.


Well recommended
.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on September 20, 2016. Elizabeth Lesser also wrote Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

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For a Dancer

Five Days Left (nook book)

Five Days Left

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, $26.95, 352 pages)

At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision, keeping her illness from them. She was in denial in the beginning, as loathe to admit to herself that everything was wrong as she was to admit it to them. But then, after her diagnosis, everyone around her became so overly concerned, so insufferably attentive that she started to regret anyone knew… (I)t was infuriating to watch herself deteriorate in the eyes of the people around her. Use the word “disease” and suddenly everyone will instantly treat you like you’re ill, Mara learned, even on days you feel fine.

Five Days Left is a close to perfect debut novel from Julie Lawson Timmer, whose background is in law. This is the story of Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, wife and mother whose life is put on hold by a diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease. Mara fights to hide her symptoms from her co-workers and family members for months and years, but eventually realizes that her body is breaking down and out-of-control; the disease is going to take her life. So Mara decides that she will commit suicide on her next birthday. The narrative begins five days before the birthday on which Mara will end it all. Or will she?

(Her death by suicide) was a dreadful thing to do to a child, a husband, to such caring parents and friends, but really, who were any of them to judge? How could they ever truly know what she had gone through? Who were any of them to say they wouldn’t have at least considered the same thing?

Timmer does an excellent job of portraying how infirmity can make a coward out of the strongest individual. Mara goes from being a life-long workaholic to becoming a virtual invalid. Once proud, she eventually simply wants everything to be over with and no longer cares about how she’ll be judged upon her self-inflicted demise. It’s a timely, unique look at the mindset of a suicidal person.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

There’s a secondary character and story that’s not as strong, and that story is a touch unrealistic. But all in all, this is a stunning work from Timmer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“…this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.” Jodi Picoult

Five Days Left is a heart-wrenching drama about a world in which there are no easy answers… This novel feels as true as life.” Christina Baker Kline

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Another Roundup

Quick Looks at Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers or authors.

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Every Day Is a Miracle

Every Day Is a Miracle by Victoria Jackson, Author of Saving Each Other: A Mystery Illness, A Search for a Cure, A Mother-Daughter Love Story (Vanguard Press)

Every day is a miracle.   That I do know, even though I forget it sometimes.

Isn’t that kind of the point of 2%?   It’s like by throwing a rare light show or random nightmare storm in our direction, the universe is just trying to get our attention so we don’t take anything for granted and just appreciate our days and the hours and minutes that make them up.

That’s what’s on my mind as I talk to a mom who has just lost her son, my daughter Ami’s age to Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO).   She sounds so strong.   For all these years I’ve been waging war with the image of Ali having to be wheeled across the stage at her graduation, maybe not even getting there.   Maybe that’s why I’m looking for ways to delay the ceremony.   And here is a mother whose son didn’t make it.   Not only that, incredibly, she’s calling not to talk about her loss but to thank us for the work of the foundation that gave him longer than they had expected.   She lets me know that friends and family have sent in donations for our Guthy-Jackson Charitable Foundation to be used in his memory.   Her voice is clear and resolute as she tells me to call on her for anything she can do to help raise awareness in the ongoing search for a cure.

When I get off the phone, sad and mad that we couldn’t do more, I fight a flood of fearful thoughts and just try to be in the moment to appreciate where we are.   The truth is that every worst fear that I could and did imagine for Ali – none of it has happened.   The dire prognosis that we were given hasn’t come to pass.

It’s true that I have lived too often with the subliminal concern that special events and usual rites of passage may be her last.   The irony, of course, is that she prefers low-key.   But my impulse was always to give the kind happy memories and make all the details so memorable that they’ll be able to relish them long into the years to come.

Even thinking that there could be a cap on the years to come for Ali is so sacrilegious, not even something I allow myself to think about, that I compensate by making every milestone the ultimate.

Senior prom, of course, had to be the absolute best in the world because (a) it’s prom, (b) there might not be another event like it and (c) I never went to prom and refuse to let her miss out on anything that life has to offer.

The logic and the love were really uppermost in my mind.   But then again, finding the most amazing dress and then having it altered — I went a little crazy, almost going so far as to tell the tailor that it has to be perfect because only God knew how much time she had left.

Evan once told me that you have to try to just have faith in the world.   That’s the lullaby I kept trying to sing myself now.   He has always said that to me.   Still, I looked around at other moms at the pre-prom party and realized that probably no other mother was thinking of her daughter in her very special dress the same way I was thinking of Ali.

This piece is an excerpt from Saving Each Other: A Mother-Daughter Love Story by Victoria Jackson and Ali Guthy.   Used by permission of Vanguard Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.   Copyright 2012.   Saving Each Other will be reviewed in the near future on this site.

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Book Of Dreams

The Last Kiss: A True Story of Love, Joy and Loss by Leslie Brody (Title Town Publishing, $17.95, 227 pages)

“…that place where you are is the best place I’ve ever been.”

Leslie Brody has fashioned an intimate account of love, heartbreak and loss in her memoir, The Last Kiss.   Brody’s husband Elliot Pinsley was diagnosed with a highly deadly form of cancer at the age of 55, and told that he would live for just another year or less.   Elliot gallantly fought to stay alive and managed to survive for more than two years post-diagnosis.

Elliot was Brody’s second husband and she tells the story of how they met at work and dated for months before marrying the day before she turned thirty-nine.   The stunning news about Elliot’s cancer would arrive just six years later.

“One night I watched a well-coiffed woman with shiny patent pumps get irritated waiting for the (hotel) elevator.   So little patience…  I wondered how well she would manage what I was doing – unhooking IVs, washing sheets drenched with night sweats and taking care of children who were putting up with an awful lot of stress.   Maybe she wouldn’t succeed in my world.”

Brody writes honestly about the struggles of dealing with a type of cancer “that can’t be cured,” and about how even the most supportive of spouses can hit the hard wall of exhaustion.   Elliot’s disease comes to teach her some simple but key lessons about life, such as the value of having patience and living in the moment.   Her honesty throughout the entire account is admirable, as when she struggles with the concept of finding another partner in life.   (The memoir examines what Brody had, what she lost, and what may lie ahead for her and her children.)

“Don’t be aftaid to get closer.”

This is a tribute to a good man who met tragedy with dignity, knowing that he was loved – well loved – in sickness and in health.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Last Kiss is also available as an Amazon Kindle Edition download.

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(A) Kiss from a Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 368 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and smartest one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s a beauty but not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story in flawless fashion – I kept looking in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone which is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in The Weird Sisters, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, naturally, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters in a play.

As the story unfolds, the three sisters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external (public) or internal (private) version of achievement.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no one wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was released in trade paperback form on February 7, 2012.   “Hilarious, thought-provoking and poignant.”   J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the novels Maine and Commencement.

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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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