Tag Archives: life’s lessons

Can’t Buy Me Love

frugalista 2

The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life by Natalie P. McNeal (Harlequin, $14.95, 179 pages)

Natalie McNeal was in her eighth year of working as a reporter for the Miami Herald newspaper when she woke up to find that she was $21,021.24 in debt. The debut was divided among what she owed on her credit card ($9,785.24), car loan ($8,600.00), and student loan ($2,636.00). This is the story of how, over 2 years and 4 months, she worked her way into a debt-free existence.

This might sound like a rather dreary topic to read about, but McNeal makes it an awful lot of fun.

“For the first time in my life, I can honestly say I need nothing. I have everything.”

“I am clothes coasting. My closet has me cruising.”

This is a true account of how McNeal learned to love what she already owned (including learning how to shop inside of her own closet), and place her self-worth above other person’s opinions of her lifestyle or achievements. In a sense, she created a real-life game out of saving money and she wound up a clear winner at the end. McNeal was to gain such self-esteem and self-reliance from this experience that she decided to quit her job at the Herald and work for herself as a featured blogger (K Mart’s smart shopper suite) and freelance writer.

“Frugalista tip: Before you shell out the cash (for such things as hair styling or new clothes), ask yourself if this is something you really need or just something you want. You’d be surprised!”

Living in Miami, McNeal was used to a young professional’s party lifestyle, something she had to put aside in order to begin spending less – and actually saving money, each month. She began to cook – thank goodness for the George Foreman grill, and stay with relatives when she traveled. She also started to file her work-related travel claims right after a business trip, and adopted a “same day deposit” policy for any checks she received. (The old McNeal often misplaced personal checks, and thus forgot to deposit them.)

Yes, the self-titled Frugalista became a serious person who finally applied the lessons learned in her high school Home Economics class.

As one might expect, McNeal offers some real-world advice on how to save money in very practical ways. She explains, for example, what make-up items must be purchased at top-notch prices and which items can be bought at a discount. You might think this would be boring for a male to read, but it was not thanks to McNeal’s positive attitude and ingrained sense of modesty and humor.

This reminds me to share two frugal tips of my own learned by living life. First, when you buy those expensive dryer sheets (what I call “fluffies”), feel free to cut them in half, or even into thirds or quarters. They’ll still get the job done for virtually all wash loads. And, second – as I learned from my dentist – don’t be afraid to buy the cheaper versions of mouthwash that you find at the larger pharmacies and supermarkets. They’re less expensive because they contain more water, which can actually be a benefit to those with sensitive teeth and gums (i.e., you’ll feel less of a burn). Stronger is not always better.

Less is often more – that’s the lesson of The Frugalista Files, a fun read and fun journey through life’s simpler, basic lessons with Natalie McNeal.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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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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Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)

One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard (Hyperion, $24.95, 254 pages)

“He loved us boys…  He loved us, and we loved him – and we still do.”   Steve Shartzer on Macon high’s former baseball coach Lynn Sweet

One Shot at Forever proves that Bad News Bears stories do happen in real life.   This is the tale of the 1971 high school baseball team from the rust belt town of Macon, Illinois.   The Macon team represented the smallest high school to ever qualify for the Illinois state championship playoff, and they did it not once, but two years in a row.   The talented team with the mismatched uniforms and an unconventional coach (he was said to look like a hung-over version of Frank Zappa) was headed to Peoria in 1970, before being disqualified on a strange technicality.   It looked like the underdog’s day was over, until the slight, long-haired players very improbably made another championship run in ’71.

The boys from Macon adopted Jesus Christ Superstar as their theme song, and they made it all the way to the state championship final game.   Did they win or lose the big game?   You’ll need to read One Shot to find out.

Chris Ballard has produced a great, small but big, book about life’s lessons and the value of competition.   This one’s especially recommended for younger readers whose wins, losses and draws are still ahead of them.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A beautiful and unforgettable book.”   Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard.

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A Summer Place

Summerland: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Reagan Arthur Books, $26.99, 400 pages)

Life can be traumatic and daunting even on Nantucket Island, the idyllic summer vacation destination for generations of families, including the wealthy and famous like Martha Stewart.   These are the summer people who see the island as an escape from reality.   Of course on Nantucket, like any resort, there must be the year-round residents who live their lives in full on the island 30 miles from the mainland.

Elin Hilderbrand knows of what she writes.   As a resident, she knows the year-around version of island life.   Summerland is the eleventh novel based in her neck of the woods.   Two of her most recent past novels, Silver Girl and The Island have been reviewed on this site.   Both of these reviews were based on the audio versions of the books.   Each was superb; however, the magic of seeing the story in hard copy was most evident for this book.

The narrative is written from the perspective of each of the main characters, including Nantucket.   There are two generations represented here, teenagers and their parents.   This time around the human experiences up for exploration are death, loss, parenting and children.   Both generations are subjected to the fallout effects when the golden girl of her class, Penny Alistair, dies in a horrific auto crash on high school graduation night.   Her twin brother Hobby, short for Hobson, is mangled and left in a coma.   Two other juniors, Jake and Demeter escape unscathed.

The story line is believable and somewhat predictable but it is the way the characters are developed that makes this a compelling read.   Regardless of the reader’s age, adult or young adult, the very poignant lessons learned are delivered in a manner that’s achievable only by a master story teller. 

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Those Were the Days

The Bartender’s Tale: A Novel by Ivan Doig (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 387 pages)

“To me now, that culminating day of the summer – of the year, really – seems like one long, twisty dream, everything that began with Proxy’s Cadillac nosing into the driveway and the thunderous disclosures that followed, and then the tremendous gathering at the (fishing) derby, as if the audience would come to see what Tom Harry would bring about next.”

Ivan Doig, author of the bestseller Work Song and 8 other prior novels plus 3 nonfiction works, has fashioned a family novel that at first glance appears to be a very slight story.   It’s the tale of Tom Harry, a single-parent bartender in an isolated town in northern Montana.   The story we read is told by his son Rusty, and it’s a look back in time – the summer of 1960 – when the now-adult son was twelve and his father was still alive.

As told, Rusty meets a young playmate named Zoe who will turn out to be the love of his life and his future wife.   The story that the reader presumes will play out – that Tom Harry dies and Rusty takes over his role as the town’s most skilled bartender – is  not the one that Doig delivers.   (It is also not the story of Rusty and Zoe’s adult romance.)   Instead, it’s about how Tom Harry masterfully handles the stresses in his life, most notably when a former female co-worker shows up in town to present him with a twenty-one year old daughter he never knew existed.   It’s the suddenly on-the-scene daughter Francine who eventually becomes the possible replacement for Tom behind the bar.

If the plotline seems minor, Doig makes up for it because he has a marvelous voice for describing life’s everyday happenings:

“Tomorrow came all too soon.   Pop must have believed fish got up before dawn.   Cats were just scooting home from their nightly prowls, eyes glittering at us in the Hudson’s headlights, as he drove out of town and into a gravel road that seemed to go on and on.   I was more asleep than awake when he stopped the car.”

This is a story about a young man who comes to idolize his “Pop”, and discovers that he’s just a man with a few very human flaws (lust, dishonesty, and others) – and yet also a human being admired as a leader who never departs from his key values in life.   He’s a man who can and will do anything necessary to provide for his son.   The novel ends with a conclusion that Rusty could not see was coming, one which should surprise almost all readers.   It’s about love and life’s tough lessons and once you’ve finished reading The Bartender’s Tale, you will no doubt feel like you’ve left the company of some very decent, struggling yet valiant people who will be missed.

Doig is a unique writer who takes what’s seemingly too small in life to matter, fills the entire stage with it, and makes us care deeply about outcomes.   It’s a very special gift.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

 “(An) enjoyable, old-fashioned, warmhearted story  about fathers and sons, growing up, and big life changes.”   Library Journal

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A Coming Attraction

A Working Theory of Love: A Novel by Scott Hutchins (Penguin Press, $25.95, 336 pages)

This debut novel by Scott Hutchins – a University of Michigan graduate, a former Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program and a current Instructor at Stanford University – will be released on October 2, 2012.   The protagonist, Neill Bassett, lives in a San Francisco apartment building “on the south hill overlooking Dolores Park.”   He commutes to work in Menlo Park, where he works at a small but innovative Silicon Valley company.   Here is a synopsis of A Working Theory of Love:

Neil Bassett is now just going through the motions, again joining the San Francisco singles scene after the implosion of his very short-lived starter marriage to ex-wife Erin.   He’s begun to live a life of routine, living with his cat in the apartment that he and Erin once shared.   On one otherwise ordinary day he discovers that his upstairs neighbor Fred has broken a hip.   Neil summons an ambulance, and when the paramedics arrive Fred says to Neil, “I’m sorry, Neill.   I’m sorry.   I’m so sorry.”   This sets Neil to wondering about life itself — was Fred apologizing for “his basic existence in this world, the inconvenience of his living and breathing?”

Neil’s physician father committed suicide ten years earlier, leaving behind personal diaries of thousands of pages.   The artificial intelligence company Neil works for, Amiante Systems, is using the diaries to create a human-like computer which uses the words of Neil’s late dad to communicate.   To Neil’s surprise, the experiment seems to be working as the computer not only gains an apparent conscious awareness it even begins asking Neill difficult questions about his childhood.

While in a state of shock over the events at Amiante, Neil meets an intended one-night stand named Rachel.   He falls for her and wonders what his life would be like in her company; and, yet, he remains bogged down with his feelings for Erin.   To make matters worse, Erin continues to intersect with Neil at unlikely and unexpected times.   When Neil discovers a missing year in the diaries – a year that might unleash the secret to his parents’ seemingly troubled marriage and perhaps the reason for his father’s suicide – everything Neil thought he knew about his past comes into question.   Neil now becomes paralyzed with confusion and indecision. 

Scott Hutchins’s story deals with love, grief and reconciliation while teaching us about life’s lessons.   He shows us how we have the chance to be free once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our family histories – our sad or disappointing childhoods, our poor youthful decisions, and our unintended miscommunications with those we love and have loved.   A Working Theory of Love presents the reader with a unique, highly gifted new writing talent in the form of Scott Hutchins.

“A brainy, bright, laughter-through tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel…  This book’s got something for everyone!”   Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan

“Scott Hutchins’s wonderful new novel is right on the border of what is possible…  The book is brilliantly observant about the way we live now, and its comic and haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”   Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love

“It takes a genius, a supercomputer, a disembodied voice, and a man who’s stopped believing to create A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins’s brilliantly inventive deubt novel…  This book is astonishing.”   Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son

Joseph Arellano

The synopsis of A Working Theory of Love was based on information provided by the publisher, and on an Advanced Uncorrected Proof.   The novel will be released in hardbound form in October, and will also be available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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In Dreams

Now You See Me & Dead Scared (Lacey Flint Novels) by S. J. Bolton

Now You See Me (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 400 pages)/Dead Scared (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

Have you ever been afraid to read a second book by an author?   If the first one is as convoluted, terrifying and overwhelming as Now You See Me, you’d understand this reviewer’s hesitation to begin reading author S. J. Bolton’s latest novel, Dead Scared.   Bolton knows how to reach that deeply-hidden vulnerable spot in her reader’s emotions.   She has also perfected the scene switch that moves the story line beyond mere entertainment to fully conscious attention.   The locations for the book make like a travel guide for Britain which balances nicely with the sinister and often gory action.

The two books bode well for an engaging series; however, main character Lacey Flint will have to tone down her activities if she wants to reach middle age.   Flint’s shady past is revealed in Now You See Me and her career as a detective constable in England evolves as do her detecting skills in Dead Scared.   There’s a love interest, albeit experienced more as longing and yearning than romance.   The plot lines are not as important as the lessons Bolton puts forth regarding trust, loyalty and vulnerability.   What you see is not always what you get.

Perhaps the best indicator for the success of a book is the affinity a reader develops for the characters.   This holds true for Lacey Flint’s effect on this reviewer.   At least one or two more tales from Bolton that feature the spunky detective would be most welcome.   Let’s hope Lacey keeps her energy level high and finds more baffling mysteries to solve.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.   “Readers will be caught up in the twists and turns that leave them hanging until the final paragraph.”   Library Journal  

  

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I’ll Follow the Sun

Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer (Atria Books, $24.99, 347 pages)

Take what you need…  Take what you want.   Figure it out, find it, do it.   That’s what he was doing.   That’s what he did.

Cathi Hanauer is one heck of a writer; she’s a woman who can write about serious things and funny things in equal proportions.   This may be because this is the way life is…  Sometimes it plays out the way we think it will, sometimes it shocks and astounds us, and sometimes things simply seem to happen at random.

In Gone, we meet Eve Adams, a mother of two and a wife, whose husband Eric has suddenly left their comfortable home in Massachusetts.   Eric, a once successful sculptor, said he would drive the ultra short-skirted babysitter home, and then simply failed to return.   Eve, the author of a decently selling reality-based diet book, finds out from the credit card statements that Eric has headed west to Arizona (his mother lives in Tucson) – and he’s apparently used the credit card to spend nights in hotels with the babysitter.

We run from our lives, from the mediocrity and the abandoned plans and dreams and the people we’re sick of, including ourselves.   But wherever we go, there we are.   And so we go back, to the people we love.   But you can’t really go back, of course.

The story is told in alternating chapters, first in Eve’s words and then in Eric’s.   As might be expected, each has a different perspective on the pressures that drove them apart.   Eve has had to become the family breadwinner since Eric seems to have lost his artistic inspirations.   Eric feels like a failure and comes to view Eve as overly harsh and judgmental – especially when compared to the babysitter Dria, who tells Eric that he’s both an artistic genius and a nice man.

…he didn’t lose himself around Eve.   If anything, he found himself through her, and lost himself when she wasn’t there to reflect it back to him: to praise his work, to admire what he did.   To love him.

Separated for many weeks, both Eve and Eric have some major decisions to make.   Eve needs to decide if she’ll ever forgive Eric once he returns, if he returns.   And Eric needs to determine if he can be the type of practical family man who can place earning a paycheck in front of his need to be creative (as he’s forced to admit that he hasn’t been a creative artist in years).

In Gone, Hanauer serves up not only an admirable family novel, but adds a couple of bonus items to the menu.   First, she does a fine job of describing the essence of Tucson, Arizona – a city she resided in while teaching writing at the University of Arizona.   (Bear down.)   Secondly, she offers a book-within-the-book, as Eve’s practical tips to dieting and nutrition will serve the average reader quite well.   The tips are both common sense-based and near-brilliant, and, if followed, may add years to one’s life.

One nice aspect about the conclusion of Gone is that the reader discovers that Eve and Eric both have new facets of themselves to reveal.   Neither is a stereotype, and each is a human being loaded with underlying strengths and weaknesses.   That’s the way life is.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Cathi Hanauer succeeds beautifully in creating a story that will make you care and keep turning the pages…”   Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion.   “It’s a compelling, big-hearted book.”   Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You.

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