Tag Archives: mother and daughter

Spirits (Having Flown)

What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel by Sarah Cornwell (Harper, $24.95, 275 pages)

What I Had Before

This is a novel that seemed to promise a good story. Unfortunately, the story was lost in the execution. The book involves two plot lines, the first about a young woman – Olivia Reed – who loses her nine-year-old bipolar son at Funtown Pier on the Jersey Shore. The second plot line involves her coming into contact – years earlier, with the supposed ghosts of her twin sisters that died at birth. This latter plot line caught my attention as I hoped it would offer some of the unique enjoyment found in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

The two disjointed stories, regrettably, come together to no apparent purpose. One reason is that Cornwell sacrifices the two plot lines for a third – the story of Olivia’s psychic and mentally troubled mother, Myla. This means that the narrative jumps awkwardly and often incoherently between present and past times. As greatly disappointing as this is, the reader learns early on that this is no ghost story. The supposed twin ghosts are in fact living young women (how it is that Olivia believed they were the spirits of her dead sisters is never made clear).

Cornwell may have potential as an author but in this debut novel she mixes bad and good writing. Her prose is often leaden as in this example:

The dorm is a high-rise with a view of the Hudson River. In the elevator, older boys look me up and down. I think I’d better be wild tonight: I could use a thrill to get out of my head after all the illuminations of the week. I study Cortney’s warped reflection in the elevator’s chrome wall and see not the flesh-and-blood girl I know she is, but the ghost staring back at me, and this gives me a little push, a little reignition. When the elevator stops and she gets out, we are mortal again, and I feel the loss and need a drink.

And sometimes she writes well as in these two examples:

They are seeing my mother move through the house, while I am seeing the house move through my mother. There is a sense of brokenness and insufficiency and then a sense of crushing loneliness. My mother turns around to look me in the eye and smiles a grim smile. She knows I am receiving her.

I make female friends rarely, but when I do, I find myself acting slightly different: bubblier or quieter or more intellectual, or less. These small calibrations wear me out; I am exhausted after spending time with women.

(Note that Cornwell uses dated words for a story set in modern times – illuminations, calibrations.)

What I Had Before I Had You may appeal to those who harbor intense, lifelong anger at a parent. These readers may identify in some way with the horribly dysfunctional relationship between Olivia and Myla. Yet I suspect that most will fail to connect with this strange, highly troubling tale.

About half way through the reading of this rather short novel, some readers will have figured out a logical conclusion; however, this would rest upon Myla’s being alive. No spoiler alert is needed, but Cornwell figures out a way to get to that conclusion despite the fact that Olivia’s mother is dead. It’s like watching someone pound a square peg into a round hole, and it is not satisfying.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on January 7, 2014.

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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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FTC Disclaimer

In December of 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued rules requiring that blogger product review sites disclose whether they receive products for free or receive monetary compensation for such reviews.   The books received by Joseph’s Reviews are generally Advance Review Copies (ARCs) sent to us by publishers – a common practice in the industry.   Payment is never accepted in exchange for a book review (favorable or otherwise), book preview or the mentioning of a book.

The receipt of ARCs, or finished books, in no way influences or has an impact on, the opinions expressed in the book reviews and other features posted on this site.   All of the reviews posted on Joseph’s Reviews reflect the honest, personal opinion of the individual reviewer.

Joseph Arellano

This disclaimer will be posted periodically.   Pictured: Have Mother, Will Travel: A Mother and Daughter Discover Themselves, Each Other and the World.   This memoir by Claire and Mia Fontaine, a follow-up to Come Back, will be released by William Morrow on July 17, 2012.

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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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Pieces of April

Between Here and April: A Novel by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Algonquin Books; $13.95; 304 pages)

Deborah Copaken Kogan presents a heartrending story in her page-turning novel, Between Here and April.

Elizabeth Burns is determined to research and share the story of the disappearance of her childhood friend, April.   Following multiple blackout episodes, Elizabeth begins to recall the details of her friend and the rumors that followed her absence decades before.   However, as Elizabeth begins to question April’s family members and neighbors, the heart breaking trauma and the revelation of the outcome causes Elizabeth to reflect on her own life and past and reexamine her priorities.

The riveting storyline overlaps Elizabeth’s journey with the details of April’s disappearance and brings the characters to life, past and present.   The main character, Elizabeth, is challenged with balancing career and family with the probable consequences for indulging in reckless desires.   She must decide what portions of her life are worth mending to protect her own priorities.

She (Elizabeth’s daughter) slipped her mittened hand in mine and squeezed it tight, a gesture whose emotional pull is never diminished.   This is all there is, I thought to myself, self-consciously.   This is why we live.

Kogan examines the challenges of motherhood and how far some women will go to protect their children and preserve their cherished life and memories.   Yet, this is only one of the many overlapping controversial topics presented by Kogan throughout the novel, a few too many for my taste.   And although the story also presents some implausible circumstances (such as coming across actual dialogue of April’s mother presented to Elizabeth by a psychologist’s widow), Kogan keeps the reader intrigued through complex, interesting characters and clear, believable dialogue.

Recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “The perfect book club book.”   The Washington Post Book World

Deborah Copaken Kogan also wrote Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War.

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Shake Me, Wake Me

Pinch Me: A Novel by Adena Halpern (Touchstone, $14.99, 288 pages)

“And you thought your life was cursed!”

“Never marry a man unless he’s short, bald, fat, stupid, and treats you badly.”   Grandma Dolly, 82 and Mother Selma, 55

Imagine meeting the man (or woman) of your dreams:  successful, intelligent, loyal, charming, attractive, and who wants nothing more but to spend the rest of your life taking care of you.   Does this sound too good to be true?   Well, for the  main character in Adena Halpern’s novel, Pinch Me, it is.

Lily Burns has spent her twenty’s dating the wrong men…  on purpose.   Throughout her life she has been advised to date someone who she would never love so that the family curse, created generations before she was born, would  not do unthinkable things to the men she loved.   Witnessing what her mother, Selma, and grandmother, Dolly had gone through, Lily takes this advice seriously.   Then she meets Gogo, a handsome, successful pediatrician who adores her and asks for her hand in marriage.   For once ignoring her family’s advice, she marries Gogo and in desperation to prove she has beaten the curse, she asks her new husband to pinch her.   And the curse begins.   The story takes us on Lily’s hilarious and somewhat sad journey to get her husband back while undoing the family curse for good!

I have to admit that I initially thought the theme of this story was hokey and I was hard pressed to believe it would live up to the standards set by the novels I have recently reviewed.   However, I was quickly made optimistic by the author’s direct and flowing dialogue, and the enticing storyline that began on page one and continued throughout the novel.   This was a fun and lighthearted tale and I was entertained to the end.

Halpern kept my attention with Lily – her strong-willed main character – and her quirky but loving mother and grandmother.   I read the story in two short sittings, cheering for Lily and Gogo and I began to wonder if perhaps we all hold some family curse brought on by something we or our predecessors may have done in the past.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading Pinch Me, especially throughout the conversation that takes place between Lily’s mother Selma and grandmother Dolly as they try to convince Lilly that she should not get  married (that conversation alone is worth your time!).   It is a quick read and downright fun.   I will definitely be reading more from Adena Halpern.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Pinch Me was released on July 19, 2011.

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Turn Back the Clock

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok (Free Press, $15.00, 302 pages)

When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine:  “I am thinking of going to nursing school…   That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.”   I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.

In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience.   This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity.   Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior.   Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.

When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home.   Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name.   But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.

As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate.   We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental illness.   They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”

Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed.   One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness.   One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere.   And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.

In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to their mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”).   As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems.   This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.

“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother.   Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”

By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance.   It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself.   It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.

This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs.   It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it.   This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Memory Palace was released in trade paper form on August 9, 2011.   “This is an extraordinary book.”   Audrey Niffenegger

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