Tag Archives: non-fiction

Embraced and loved

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also felt 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 the 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 fully been 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.

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The Art of Choosing

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

The notion of choosing is so complex that there are now two popular books on the subject.   Each was written by an author who is an expert in their field of study.   Scientific writer Jonah Lehrer provides examples of how the brain and neurology affect the choices we make in How We Decide.   Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University, explores the notion of choice in her recently published book, The Art of Choosing, focusing primarily on psychology; however, she also views choice from the perspectives of business, philosophy, public policy and medicine.

Dr. Iyengar draws upon her personal experience, a vast network of academic associates and other experts, including Lehrer, to achieve her goal of broadening the reader’s perspective and understanding of the implications of the notion of choice.   She encourages her reader to engage in self-exploration in order to make more informed decisions.   In true professorial style, Dr. Iyengar supports her approach with accounts of past scientific experiments, both human and animal.   The tone of her writing in the opening chapter is calm and patient.   It is clear that she expects the reader to pay close attention.

The story of her parents’ marriage in chapter two is engaging and thought-provoking; however, other aspects of this chapter are dry and academic.   There is also a sharp contrast between the description of her parents’ Sikh wedding and what might easily be the text of a general survey course in psychology.   One heavily academic sentence contains 65 words.

The reader must employ perseverance in wading through Dr. Iyengar’s expansive discussion of the concept of the cultural differences between socialism and capitalism as they relate to choice.   Her notion of striving “for a metaphorical multilingualism” takes on a note of proselytizing that seems out of sync for a book that purports to be about making informed personal choices.   There is a disconnect between the colloquial and academic voices that Dr. Iyengar uses as she brings the reader along on her journey of exploring the concept of choice.

By the fourth chapter the book settles into a pleasant, advice-giving counselor’s voice.   There are well-related concepts and suggestions for making personal choices.   While these helpful hints are supported using psychological terms, Dr. Iyengar brings in popular references to illustrate her points such as the television show “Lie to Me” and the rental of movies using Netflix.

The seventh and final chapter brings the matter of choice down to the most personal aspect, that of making medical and other unpleasant decisions.   It is here that the reader is fully engaged via role-playing scenarios concerning life and death.   The concepts of worth and value are well developed and they lead the reader to the inevitable conclusion that choice involves price and responsibility.   Clearly, there is no surefire solution to the challenge of making a selection given the wide array of choices available today, whether it is among the many breakfast cereals in the supermarket or in deciding which path to take in life.

The Art of Choosing illustrates several approaches to making sense of the puzzle of life that so many authors and readers find challenging.   This book does a good job of providing an overall survey of the topic and, although a bit disjointed, provides the reader with food for thought.   However, if this reviewer were asked to choose which book someone with an interest in the subject should purchase, it would be How We Decide.   Author Jonah Lehrer begins each chapter with a compelling vignette that illustrates the aspect of decision-making being addressed.   His writing style is smooth, authoritative and entertaining.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

 The Art of Choosing is available from Twelve Books and in audiobook form from Hachette Audio.   How We Decide is available in trade paperback (Mariner Books, $14.95, 320 pages) and as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

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Solitary Man

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reviewer

Mid-to long-distance runners are said to be lonely individuals.   That’s because they put in their miles and miles by themselves, then suddenly one day they join hundreds or thousands of other runners in a competitive event.   Book reviewing is a bit like that.  

The book reviewer is alone while he/she reads advance copies of books that others will not see for weeks or months.   Then, when the book is released he/she joins the crowd and finds out what is the consensus about the book.   The reviewer’s call has been made earlier at a time when he or she could not reflect public opinion because it has not been formed.

Let me state this again.   If I like or dislike a book it’s a call that I have to make early on in the publishing process, often when there are no other reviews to read.   This can be fun but it also introduces a scary aspect to the process.   To use the running analogy again, it’s like being excited about running a marathon on a course that no one has ever run before.

There’s also a loneliness based on distance.   The great majority of publishers are on the east coast, and most of them are based in New York City.   When review copies are mailed out, the publishers often provide a reviewer with the names of persons to be contacted if there are questions.   But the contacts are three hours ahead of our time in the west, and a reviewer with questions after 2:00 p.m. in Sacramento or San Francisco is not going to get a quick answer.   Thus, the questions are not usually asked.

Then there’s the Catch-22 of galleys.   Galleys are early release copies of forthcoming books that, by definition, are not yet ready for prime time.   It can be a sign of recognition for a reviewer to begin receiving more galleys but… 

One source has said that a great majority of the corrections to soon-to-be-released books are made at the 11th hour.   In reading a galley, a reviewer is often reading the draft that precedes the final draft.   The reviewer who wants to add life and depth to his/her review by including quotations from the upcoming book is hampered by the standard publisher’s statement that, in effect, “No quotations should be taken from this version without checking them against the final version.”  

It’s a bit hard to finish a review near the publication date when one does not and will not have access to the final version.   The result is that a reviewer is going to pull out a quote with a hope and a prayer that it was not changed in publication.   Ah, well, this is just another frustrating aspect of the work of the solitary book reviewer.   Yet there’s still something special about reading one of only a few hundred copies of a galley or an advance review copy (which often cost more to produce than the finished product) of an upcoming release.   It seems like an honor.

The lonely runner keeps putting in the next mile and then the next.   The lonely reviewer reads the next chapter in the galley and then the next.   The race never ends, but the reward is found in the journey.  

Joseph Arellano     

This article was originally published by the Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.

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Another Rookie

The Long Snapper by Jeffrey Marx (Harper One, $24.99, 245 pages)

The Long Snapper would be a charming true story except that we’ve read and seen it before.   In the book and film version of The Rookie (Dennis Quaid starred in the movie), we were told the true story of Jim Morris, a professional baseball player who becomes a school teacher when his athletic career is over.   Years pass before he’s suddenly contacted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who want him to try out for a pitching opening.   He’s undecided but his students encourage him to take the try-out, and this “rookie” returns to “the Show.”

Take the exact same story and substitute the football player Brian Kitchen for Morris and you have The Long Snapper.   Kinchen played pro football for 12 years before losing his job and becoming a school teacher.   Two years pass and then guess what?   Oh, yes, the same thing that happened in The Rookie.   Except that Kinchen is invited to try out for a team that’s two wins away from the Super Bowl.

You can probably guess what the ending is going to be.   Does our hero come through in the Big Game?   The climax will only surprise those who haven’t seen Hoosiers, The Bad News Bears, Invincible or Remember the Titans.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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A Preview of a True Story

Unbillable Hours: A True Story by Ian Graham will be released by Kaplan Publishing on May 4, 2010 (256 pages, $24.95).   The sub-title of this non-fiction book is:  A Young Lawyer, Big Law and a Murder Case That Saved Two Lives.   Here is the publisher’s synopsis:

The story – part memoir, part hard-hitting expose – of a first-year law associate negotiating the arduous path through a system designed to break those who enter it before it makes them.

Landing a job at a prestigious L.A. law firm, complete with a six-figure income, signaled the beginning of the good life for Ian Graham.   But the harsh reality of life as an associate quickly became evident.   The work was grueling and boring, the days were impossibly long, and Graham’s sole purpose was to rack up billable hours.   But when he took an unpaid pro bono case to escape the drudgery, Graham found the meaning in his work that he’d been looking for.   As he worked to free Mario Rocha, a gifted young Latino who had been wrongly convicted at 16 and sentenced to life without parole, the shocking contrast between the greed and hypocrisy of law firm life and Mario’s desperate struggle for freedom led Graham to look long and hard at his future as a corporate lawyer.

Clear-eyed and moving, written with the drama and speed of a John Grisham novel and the personal appeal of Scott Turow’s account of his law school years, Unbillable Hours is an arresting personal story with implications for all of us.

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Time Goes By

In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50 will be released by Atria on April 27, 2010 in trade paperback form ($16.00).   This collection of essays, poems, photographs and drawings was edited by Emily W. Upham and Linda Gravenson.   The following is an excerpt from one of the essays included in the compilation.

“My Narrow Escape” – Abigail Thomas

I like living alone.   I like not having to make male conversation.   I like that I can take as many naps as I feel like taking and nobody knows.   I like that if I’m painting trees and the telephone receiver gets sticky with hunter green and there’s a long drool of blue sky running down the front of the dishwasher, nobody complains.  

I’m seldom lonely.   I have three dogs, twelve grandchildren and four grown kids.   I have a good friend who now and then drives down with his dog.   We’ve known each other so long that we don’t have to talk and when we do we don’t have to say anything.   When he asks me if I’d like to take a trip around the world, I can say yes, knowing that I’ll never have to go.

Inertia is a driving force in both our lives.  

Sometimes I feel sorry for my friends who are looking around for a mate.   I don’t want one, and I don’t want to want one.   It has taken me the better part of 60 years to enjoy the inside of my own head and I do that best when I’m by myself.

I am smug.   I am probably insufferable.

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Number 9

The book Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero was released on March 16, 2010.   Here is an excerpt from this book written by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Touchstone, $26.99, 432 pages).

October 1, 1961

The savviest photographers got the two money shots.   The first, taken from behind and near the Yankee dugout, was of Roger Maris making solid contact over the plate on a 2-0 fastball by Tracy Stallard.   The left-handed pull hitter is exhibiting his much praised swing with extended bat and arms parallel to the ground, his left hand turning over, his right leg straight and left leg flexed, his right foot pointing toward third base and his left one perpendicular to the ground, his muscles in his face, neck, and upper arms tense, and his hips rotating.

The second picture, taken from the front, was of Maris, one breath later.   With, surprisingly, still-seated fans behind him, he is completing his pivot, releasing the bat with his left hand, and watching with hopeful eyes the flight of his historic home run into Yankee Stadium’s parked right-field stands.   But even the award winners among them missed something quite extraordinary that took place seconds later.   Fortunately, one of the greatest, if most neglected, visual metaphors in sports history would be preserved on celluloid.

Having completed what his bedridden Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle always called the “greatest sports feat I ever saw,” the new single-season home run champion dropped his bat and ran down the baseline.   He rounded first at the same time nineteen-year-old Sal Durante held up the 61st home run ball in his right hand; another ecstatic young male fan leaped into the field; and the clearly dejected Red Sox pitcher concocted an upbeat postgame response to the media (“I’ll now make some money on the banquet circuit!”).

As he neared second base, Maris suddenly escaped dark shadows and moved into the bright, warm sunlight.   Just like that, he had finally found a slice of heaven after a long season he’d sum up as “sheer hell.”   In Roger Maris’s version of hell, he was the prey in a daily media feeding frenzy, lost his privacy, shed some hair, received hate mail by the bundle, experienced vicious heckling from even home fans, and having arrived in New York from Kansas City only twenty-two months before, was treated by the Yankees organization like an outsider, an ugly duckling in a pond of swans.   His blow on the last day of the season was a telling response to all that nonsense.

Maris ran as he always did after a home run – head down and at a measured pace, exhibiting nothing offensively ostentatious or celebratory, nothing to indicate he was circling the bases one time more in a season than anyone else in history.   He was pounded on the back by joyous third-base coach Frank Crosetti as he came down the homestretch.   Crossing home plate, he was greeted by on-deck batter Yogi Berra, then bat boy Frank Prudenti, and, finally, the anonymous Zelig-like fan.   Then he made his way into the dugout – at least he tried to.   Several Yankees formed a barricade and turned Maris around and pushed him upward so he could acknowledge the standing ovation.

He reluctantly inched back up the steps, stretching his neck as if he were a turtle warily emerging from its shell.   He dutifully waved his cap and gave his teammates a pleading look, hoping they would agree that he had been out there too long already.   They urged him to stay put and allow the fans to shower him with the adulation that had been missing all year.   So he waved his hat some more and smiled sheepishly.

The television camera zoomed in, and everyone could see that during his sunlit jaunt around the bases, he had, amazingly, been transformed.   With the burden of unreasonable expectations suddenly lifted and the knowledge that not one more dopey reporter would ask, “Are you going to break Babe Ruth’s record, Rog?”  the strain in his face and haunted look in his eyes had vanished.   He no longer looked double his twenty-seven years and on the verge of a meltdown.

Baseball fans would, in their mind’s eye, freeze-frame forever this image of the young, cheery innocent with the trademark blond crew cut who had just claimed sports’ most revered record.   For that one moment Maris believed all the bad stuff was behind him.   For that one brief moment, he felt free.   In reality, it was the calm before an even more vicious storm…

 

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Corked

Corked by Kathryn Borel (Grand Central Publishing, $23.99, 262 pages)

Katherine Borel has cobbled together a crass, in-your-face, self-indulgent account of her fifteen-day trek with her father across France.   Borel flits back and forth between recollections of past incidents, which feed into her need to connect with her father before time gets past her, and this seemingly epic journey.   Phillipe Borel, an aging hotelier, comes off as highly opinionated and not the least shy about meting out criticism to anyone who has the misfortune of serving him.

“We forgot to shut the window before falling asleep and had allowed a swarm of robust northern France mosquitos to enter and do their bidding.”

Corked reads like a frantic TV sitcom with a bad laugh track.   The reader is held hostage while belly button lint smelling is interspersed with nearly poetic descriptions of wine and grapes.   Oh, and did I mention that father Phillipe barfs his way through the first one hundred pages?   Borel delights in describing his actions in nauseating detail.

Alas, these characters are too well-developed for this reviewer’s taste.   A bit more continuity and a bit less trying too hard to be very, very cool might have helped.   Borel may need to connect with her father, but the reader needs a strong stomach to get to what good parts this book may contain.

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Lift

Lift by Rebecca K. O’Connor

Lift is the charming and encouraging true story of a woman’s acquisition of a baby peregrine falcon, something that she’s been fascinated with since being a child.   But it is not just the story of a girl and the bird she loves, it’s also about how the falcon helps author Rebecca O’Connor to understand and accept the past and current events in her life.   Most falconers are hunters but a scarred O’Connor is aware that she’s “more prey than predator.”   This is true because she was abandoned by her parents while very young, lost the grandparents who raised her, and is surprised to discover that her boyfriend has different values.

In the life of the soaring falcon, O’Connor observes a creature that is focused on survival, no matter what it takes.   It is, at first, a massive struggle to tame the bird, but then she sees and accepts that this feathered hunter will always maintain his independence.   O’Connor, in a sense, gets to experience freedom and strength vicariously through her peregrine, and it transforms her into a stronger person.

If you liked Alex and Me or Wesley the Owl, there is an extremely good chance that you will love Lift.

Red Hen Press, $18.95, 206 pages

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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Angels on Earth

CC Theresa Brown

Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between by Theresa Brown (HarperOne, $14.99, 224 pages)

“Death.   It casts a long shadow in this book, and in these stories.   Even when death is not present it hovers just around the corner, unbidden and unwanted, but waiting nonetheless.”

“People say, why wait?   But really they should say, don’t wait.   Listen when you can, tell the people in your life you love them…”

If doctors are the mortal gods of medicine, then nurses are its angels.   At least that’s the case put forth here by Theresa Brown, a former Tufts University Journalism professor turned Registered Nurse (R.N.).

It seems that Brown and a former close female friend were looking for meaning in their lives when they decided to go to nursing school.   Brown started at Penn but finished at Pitt.   In Critical Care, Brown pulls back the curtain on what she somewhat successfully labels the Science of Nursing.   My mother was an emergency room nurse, so much of what I read in Critical Care sounded familiar and true…  Good hearted nurses are worn down by tough-minded superiors.   These nurses rarely receive praise for medical successes but often are blamed for the failures.   And, they have to clean up stool because “doctors don’t do poop.”

Still, this seemed like a somewhat lightweight survey of a crucial field.   There are some specific problems with the telling.   Brown shows us her empathy in writing about patients like the all-too-young David, who is battling leukemia; and Irene, the Pittsburg television personality who does not realize that she’s dying until she hears her former co-workers talking about her on TV.   But as soon as we become engaged with their lives, Brown’s off describing other things – like a voluntary job change.

Brown also loses track of former patients (some of whom have likely died) and their families.   In this age of the Internet, it’s odd that she did not pursue some basic research to find out what happened to them.   Also, the book begins with multiple pages of acknowledgments which seems distracting before we get to the actual content.

A last flaw is that we do not get to know the author’s husband or daughter.   They remain on the edges of the stage.

What Brown does quite well is to convince the reader of the need to enjoy life (and other people) while good health lasts.   Today’s tiredness may be diagnosed as leukemia or some other energy-robbing disease tomorrow.

Critical Care lets you walk in the shoes of some very ill patients, both young and old.   Yet for a better overview of today’s world of medicine – as practiced on a daily basis – I recommend two books by Dr. Atul Gawande.   The most recent is Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (2008).   The contemporary classic is Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (2003).

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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