Tag Archives: life’s lessons

Forever Young

Trading Manny: How a Father & Son Learned to Love Baseball Again by Jim Gullo (Da Capo Press, $23.00, 272 pages)

“May you grow up to be righteous/ May you grow to be true/ May you always know the truth/ And see the lights surrounding you…”   Bob Dylan (Forever Young)

In Trading Manny: How a Father & Son Learned to Love Baseball Again, Jim Gullo has a big problem.   His seven-year-old son, Joe, suffers from two afflictions:  he loves baseball, and he is terminally honest.   At first, neither would seem to be a problem.   Many boys love baseball, and there are certainly worse worries for fathers than a son with a very well-developed conscience.   However, the publication of the Mitchell Report in 2007 changes everything for both of them.

For the record, the Mitchell Report is the infamous document chronicling widespread steroid abuse in professional baseball.   It is then that Jim is flooded with questions from his son that he feels he cannot adequately answer, such as:  “Aren’t drugs bad for you?” and, “If someone cheated shouldn’t they be punished?”, etc., etc.

Befuddled by baseball’s apparent unwillingness to either address the issue or respond, the players’ blatant refusal to discuss anything related to steroids, and his own inability to respond adequately to his son’s confusion, Jim goes on his own personal quest for answers.   Meanwhile, his son separates his precious baseball card collection into cheaters and non-cheaters.

The title of this book comes from his son’s incessant belief that his favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, should trade for Manny Ramirez, only to later learn that, he too, was a steroid user.

On their joint journey, father and son become friends with Dirk Hayhurst, a marginal left-handed pitching prospect, who eventually makes a couple of brief appearances in “the show” after years of watching the users pass him by.   This sets up the reality that cheating was so common and the financial stakes so high, some reluctant users simply felt that their choices were to use or face an early end to their career.

This reviewer, a Milwaukee Brewers season ticket holder, recently faced a similar situation, when two of his sons yanked their Ryan Braun posters off the wall and refused to go to baseball workouts following Braun’s positive test for performance enhancing drugs.   Though the suspension was later overturned, none of us will ever seem to know the real truth, and the emotional damage had already been done.

With that as the backdrop, I read the book expecting a more visceral, emotional reaction to the story, one which I did not experience.   Trading Manny is a good book, and the ending is satisfactory, but apparently I have become numb to the whole thing myself.   It was either that or have my heart ripped out, and I decided that not being able to live without baseball – like the players themselves – I would have to pretend that none of it ever happened.   Baseball can have its statistical lists, and I can have mine.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent, and the author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and a singer named Bob Dylan. 

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Starry Starry Night

Objects of My Affection: A Novel by Jill Smolinski (Touchstone, $24.99, 307 pages)

It is very easy to be drawn into this little story with a big message.   The narrator, Lucy Bloom, could be any single mom you know.   She cares deeply about her teenage son who has become a drug user.   As is her pattern in life, Lucy springs to action a little too late.   She sells her house to pay for his drug rehab stay in Florida.   Lucy, who wrote a book about organizing (Things Are Not People), happens to be out of work.   In a move to keep herself fed, she takes on the job of clearing the home of a hoarder.   The hoarder is approaching her 65th birthday and wants to put her home in order before the birthdate arrives.   Lucy has about eight weeks to accomplish the daunting task.

Both Lucy and the hoarder are mothers who have vastly differing views of life.   Each has a son and the sons seem to be similar in their self-centeredness.   While this novel is poignant from the perspective of each of the main characters, it also carries the message that being a mother does not mean losing yourself.   This reviewer found the message encouraging for parents.   It seems to say that realizing you own role in life as well as those around you is very important for each of us.

Author Jill Smolinski’s narrator, Lucy Bloom, is best summed up as self-effacing, yet not a total loser.   Lucy’s newly-found skills learned the hard way while clearing out the jam-packed house, include the value of recognizing true friendship and going after what matters most to her.   There is enough drama and suspense to keep the reader engaged and the dialogue is snappy without becoming a parody of the sensitive characters that populate this tale.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Simultaneously breezy yet thought provoking, this is a fun read that stays with you.”   Sarah Pekkanen, author of These Girls and The Opposite of Me.

 

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Missing You

The Beginner’s Goodbye: A Novel by Anne Tyler (Knopf, $24.95, 208 pages; Random House Audio, $35.00, Unabridged on 6 CDs)

What we have here is (a) failure to communicate.   Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

Aaron Woolcott has led a life full of physical challenges.   A childhood illness left him with a crippled hand and leg.   Moreover, his sister, Nandina, has been overly protective of him.   Aaron reacts to her babying by retreating into a defensive and self-reliant personal style.   He rejects tenderness and caring which leads him to be attracted to a brusk oncology radiologist who seemingly lacks a softer side.   They meet in a work-related situation which sets the stage for further discussions and interactions.

The Woolcott family’s publishing house features a series of books – The Beginner’s Guide, similar to, but less ambitious than, the popular Idiot’s Guide books.   The Beginner’s Guides are aimed at readers who want to skim the surface of a simplified topic or activity, such as hosting one’s first dinner party.   Aaron is doing background work on a new title about cancer treatment patients when he interviews Dr. Dorothy Rosales.   He is smitten right away when Dorothy comments on his physical condition in a clinical way.   Although Aaron could easily be portrayed sympathetically, there is something off-putting about him that becomes more evident as the story unfolds.

Author Tyler takes the theme of miscommunication and focuses on the way that Aaron’s approach to life has stifled and limited the relationship that he and Dorothy have shared during their marriage.   His family and work relationships have suffered as well.   Too often, what we experience within ourselves is not always in sync with what others are feeling and thinking.

As is her forte, Anne Tyler turns an accidental death into a humbling tale of grief and recovery for Aaron.   The large oak tree outside their home’s sunroom falls through the roof onto Dorothy as she sits at her desk.   Aaron is powerless to help her and the tree becomes the catalyst for the story.   Sometime after her death, Dorothy appears to Aaron as though she’s still alive.   This is not a new story device and, not surprisingly, Tyler uses it as a way to force Aaron to confront reality.   There are many lessons that each of the characters learns as he or she examines the way Dorothy’s death has triggered recovery efforts, both emotional and physical.

The audio book features Kirby Heyborne, a veteran actor who portrays Aaron in a very convincing manner.   This reviewer found the story to be the usual low-keyed take on life’s challenges that Anne Tyler is considered one of the best at writing.   It is almost too slowly paced; however, Tyler is a master at drawing in the reader so that she has the opportunity to thoroughly make her case for living a fully-conscious life.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The audiobook version of The Beginner’s Goodbye was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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Right Field

Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick Press, $15.99, 32 pages)

Author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen has fashioned a children’s book that should be quite popular with male children, ages 4 and above.   It will especially appeal to those kids – male or female – who are just being exposed to the game of baseball, either Pee Wee League style or softball.

Randy Riley is a boy who would love more than anything to be the Ted Williams of his Little League team.   But while he’s a very smart whiz-kid when it comes to science and space, he’s not able to hit a baseball no matter how hard he tries.   In this story set in the 1950s, Randy uses his powerful telescope to determine that a meteor fireball is on its way toward earth, and it will destroy the town where he  lives.

Randy is unable to convince anyone – including his absolutely clueless parents, that the meteor is on its way.   So he has just 19 days to find a solution; a way of destroying the fireball before it touches down.   Our hero Randy winds up getting the greatest hit of them all, in a tale that tells children that their own, unique personal strengths are priceless.

Beautifully illustrated and highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit will also appeal to boys who are fascinated with robots.   It is available as a Nook Book download.

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8-Track Flashbacks

8-Track Flashbacks by Tom Alt (Mag Mile Books, $11.99, 128 pages)

Tom Alt’s memoir, 8-Track Flashbacks, is the equivalent of a new band on the scene, which produces an album that has one or two decent songs, but as a whole does not stand on its own.   At 113 pages, it is sized more like a novella than a novel.   It is a story of growing up in the 60s (and early 70s).   Ironically, most of the story takes place before 8-tracks were popular.

Alt grows up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, a few miles west of Milwaukee.   His father leaves, and his early childhood involves sports, girls, drinking, and more girls – not all that dissimilar for boys of almost any era.

A key events almanac for each year of the decade introduces the chapters, though the events listed and the songs referred to are largely isolated from the stories contained in the chapters.

There are some very well-written passages, some vignettes that might cause the reader to recall that time of their life or that era in general.   Perhaps some from the Midwest will relate to the sports teams, towns, or liberalism of the University of Wisconsin.   However, there is a depth to the account that is missing.   The characters exist but the reader does not really get to know them sufficiently to bond with them.

Because of the vagueness, it is difficult to get to the main point of why this memoir might stand out as one to read.   It is hard to distinguish if this is supposed to be about the era, growing up, heartache or survival – too many important issues are introduced and then left dangling.   More time is spent on Alt’s high school years, which basically comes across as a boy clowning around and skating by.   His relationship with his mother and siblings probably should have been more prominent in the story; his college relationships; draft status and subsequent failed physical; and other portions of the story are glanced over a bit too hastily.

The book can be read in one sitting or as time permits.   It’s not a bad book.   It’s just not a great book.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author.   8-Track Flashbacks is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.  

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.   He has recently completed a second novel.

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Full of Grace

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.94, 336 pages)

There was no cause and effect.   There was no karma.   The truth was that he wasn’t so sure he understood how the world worked anymore.

At the start of Pictures of You, two women – April and Isabelle – are literally driving away from their marriages when they collide on a foggy highway.   Only Isabelle survives.   And she’s joined in the role of survivor by her husband Charlie, April’s husband Sam and his needy 9-year-old son, Sam.   In his neediness, Sam comes to view Isabelle as an angel placed on earth to rescue him.

It’s quite an amazing set-up for an extremely well written novel by Caroline Leavitt.   Leavitt writes in a calm, methodical, factual style that calls to mind both Michelle Richmond and Diane Hammond; and like those authors (and Elizabeth Berg), she intends to impart a few of life’s lessons in the process of telling a story.   One lesson has to do with powerlessness:  “You could think you understood things, but the truth was that you could never see the full picture of someone else’s life.”

Then there’s the fact that we look for something more than human in times of grief and trouble:  “Maybe tomorrow, the angel might be the one to come for him.”   “People believed in angels when they were most in trouble.”

…he had somehow photographed her so that her shoulders were dark and burly, as if she had wings under her dress…  (as if) she might spread them to lift off the ground and fly away.

Sam’s desire to make something sacred out of the very human Isabelle is a representation of the notion that everyone seeks comfort and safety in life.   When Sam’s father reads the obituaries in the newspaper, “He (doesn’t) bother to brush away his tears…  each one said the same thing:  Come home.  Come home.”

Isabelle, however, is the one who has the clear chance to re-start her life, and the reader will be intrigued to see what choices she makes.   The beauty of Leavitt’s telling is that what the reader thinks is going to happen does not.   And this, in itself, makes it a very special book.

Pictures of You concludes with a perfect ending in which everything is fully and satisfactorily resolved.   There’s also a Hollywood-style postscript, a look back from 21 years later, that adds a nice cinematic touch to the account.   All in all, this is an amazing second novel.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Magically written, heartbreakingly honest.”   Jodi Picoult

The reader who enjoys this book may also want to read American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn.  

  You can find our review of American Music here:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/late-for-the-sky/

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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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Strangers on a Train

One Moment, One Morning: A Novel by Sarah Rayner (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99, 407 pages)

Sometimes, one moment is all it takes to change a life forever.

“A sudden death like that cuts right across the priorities and sensitivities of the living: one minute Karen was drinking coffee and engrossed in conversation with her husband; the next she was witnessing his last moments.”

Sarah Rayner has written a tremendously engaging novel about three women who are drawn together by an unforeseen tragedy.   The women are on the 7:44 a.m. commuter train into London when the husband of one of them suddenly collapses and dies of a heart attack.   Death happens every day, but this one brings the three together – joined by one sad moment, one morning.

“…as she opens her eyes wide to put on mascara, she is overwhelmed by an urge to cry.   It takes her aback; until now she has been fine,or fineish, operating on automatic pilot.”

If an expected death has the capacity to leave us stunned, then how much more so is it true of an unexpected one?   This is the territory that Rayner explores in her character study of three different personalities.   One woman’s been a contented wife and mother, another’s a counselor of troubled young people who’s busy hiding her personal identity, and the third’s a seemingly sharp women who wonders what people would think if they knew what her boyfriend “is capable of when he’s drunk.”   She supposes, “They’d be horrified, surely.”

Rayner’s story flows so smoothly that it’s easy to forget that this is a novel; it flows the way the best-edited films do on-screen.   She not only writes about common people in a natural way, she also presents the sort of revelations that happen to drop into our consciousness now and then:  “Some people who seem warm and friendly on first impression, turn out to be disappointedly superficial, whereas the aloof ones…  emerge as affectionate and loyal.”

This novel covers the lives of three women during one week, a week that will change everything for them in ways both small and large.   One Moment, One Morning is a book to take along with you on a vacation trip, when you can savor its warm, forgiving sense of humanness without being rushed.   It reminds us of something essential – that out of death comes a reaffirmation of life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

“Oh, what a novel!   It will make you laugh and cry, it will make you want to call your dear ones to tell them how much you love them, it will make you buy it for all your friends…  Anna, Lou and Karen will feel like they are your soul sisters.”   Tatianna de Rosnay, author of A Secret Kept and Sarah’s Key

“You’ll want to inhale it in one breath.”   Easy Living

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The Unforgiven

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

“Grant had never forgiven her for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago…”

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C., Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry him; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their twin toddlers.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.   Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who’s home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is popular fiction wrapped in the guises of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with  Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her married, pregnant daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in stories such as this one.   After another set of implausible events (the second of two sets, if you’re counting), Annabelle has moved to New York City to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will either seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a stretch.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is sometimes plodding by comparison and the time shifts are awkward and distracting.   There may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This is the third of three reviews of The Stuff That Never Happened posted on this site.   The novel was well recommended by Kelly Monson, and highly recommended by Kimberly Caldwell.

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Expecting to Fly

My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir by Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster; $25.99; 368 pages)

“Perhaps there was something buried in this memor that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried somewhere…”

The best memoirs take off and soar as they take us on a journey through the writer’s life.   This memoir by CNN Chief Mark Whitaker seemed to taxi on the runway from its beginning on page 1 until its conclusion 367 pages later.   This reader never felt the presence of Whitaker’s mind or personality in an account that was overly flat and dry:  “My mother taught and my father began writing his dissertation and I played with the other faculty  brats in the spacious yard outside while my brother grew into a toddler.”   The language, in fact, was so dry that I began to wish that this had been prepared as an “As told to…” or “With…” version with some energy to it.

It’s difficult to see what major statement about life was meant to be imparted by this work.   Whitaker’s professor father divorced Whitaker’s mother when Mark was young; thus, he seems to view himself as a unique member of a group that “…had grown up without our fathers around and with very little money in the house.”   That’s actually quite a large group in our society.   Moreover, Whitaker reminds us again and again that he wound up at Harvard.

There’s simply far too much here about Whitaker’s time at Harvard, and the lifelong connections he made there.   It seems that wherever Whitaker goes in the world, he meets people – primarily women – of whom he states, “She had also gone to Harvard.”   It becomes a very clubby account, and it’s hard to see why this would be of interest to the general reader.

“Angry men don’t make great husbands.”

In an attempt to create a story of interest, Whitaker casts aspersions on his father who is portrayed as either “a cruel bully or a selfish baby.”   Cleophaus Sylvester “Syl” Whitaker is also portrayed as a major alcoholic although it’s noted that he only missed teaching three classes in a long and distinguished academic career.   (He once entered a rehabilitation center for treatment.)   Syl held numerous impressive teaching and administrative posts at Swarthmore, Rutgers, UCLA (where he was a key assistant to Chancellor Charles E. Young), Princeton, CUNY and the University of Southern California (from which he retired, at age 60, as professor emeritus of political science and former USC College Dean of Social Sciences).   He was never found asleep in a gutter or under a bridge, so it is hard to see how this squares with Whitaker’s notion that his father’s life was an “arc of blazing early success fading into self-destruction and financial hardship.”

Perhaps there was something buried in this memoir that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried in a sentence such as this one, which I found to be a bit too clouded to understand:  “It was as if the longer I was separated from my father, the more I lost touch with the outgoing child who had modeled himself after him.”

Joseph Arellano

An advance review copy was received from the publisher.   My Long Trip Home will be released on October 18, 2011.

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