Tag Archives: non-fiction

Between Me and the River

Between Me and the River: Living Beyond Cancer by Carrie Host (Harlequin; $22.95; 304 pages)

Carrie Host’s book Between Me and the River is a moving memoir that chronicles her journey and struggles to survive an incurable form of cancer.   In the book, Carries shares all the pain, physical and emotional, she went through after her diagnosis.   She also relates the guilt she felt and anger at her new life.   But more than that, she provides a story of hope, love and self-awareness that many of us have never felt in our lives.

Host compares her trial in dealing with cancer to falling in a river.   Whether sinking into the deep water, rushing toward a waterfall, or resting in an eddy, it’s easy to identify with her as she explains where in the river she feels on any particular day.   It is heart wrenching to read of her account (being a mother of five) of how she delivered the news of her fate to her children, to follow along as she struggles to do the simplest tasks a mother must do, and to see her relationship with her husband flourish under the strain of what they have to deal with.

I applaud Carrie for having the courage to write so openly and honestly about her disease.   Reading this book has changed my life in a profound way.   It has made me more patient and loving with my children and more thankful of my husband.   While Host’s book at first is a heavy read, as you turn more pages you start to see the positive impact this devastation has on her family, her friends and her own consciousness.   Overall I found this book very easy to read, though I had to put it down at times to wipe the tears away.   I would definitely keep a tissue handy.

This review was written by Denna Gibbons and is used with her permission.   You can see more of her reviews at http://www.thebookwormblog.com/ .   Between Me and the River is also available in a low-cost Kindle Edition version and as an Unabridged Audio Edition.

 

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Clothes Make the Man

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini, Translated by Eric Karpeles (Ecco; $19.99; 144 pages)

“A rare and wonderfully written book.”   Michael Ondaatje

“Proust had also been measured for an overcoat in plaid with a bright purple lining.   He said he was going to leave it in the cloakroom…”   William C. Carter (Proust: A Life)

A confession is in order here at the beginning of the review.   I have never read the writings of Marcel Proust.   The only sense I have of him comes from the charming line drawing made by his friend Jean Cocteau.   The drawing is indicative of the clique of quirky artists who lived in France at the end of the 19th century.   It is the drawing and collage-like cover of Lorenza Foschini’s petite volume that drew me to this book.  

Don’t let the size of the book influence a purchase decision.   This is not a casual account of the artifacts of a world-famous writer’s life.   Rather, Proust’s Overcoat reveals the power of the collecting urge that can take hold of a person.  

Jacques Guerin was the collector whose passion for everything Proust led him to stalk the belongings that remained after Proust’s death.   Guerin’s perfume business afforded him the funds necessary to purchase the desk, bed, pictures and, of course, the iconic overcoat.   The surviving Proust family members and a junk dealer named Werner made these and many other acquisitions into sequential victories that were celebrated by Guerin over the course of many years.

Just as a curator arranges the items of the museum’s collection into a catalogue, author Foschini has done the same with the written and pictorial history of the items from Marcel Proust’s life.   The way in which his surviving family members treated the belongings revealed the mixed feelings they felt for him.   Isn’t that always the way with families?

Highly recommended.   A knowledge of literature or museums is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Loneliness Is Just A Word

Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White

“…the lonely were more likely to have died than the nonlonely.”

Emily White’s Lonely succeeds as a survey book, specifically when she examines the surprising lack of research on what would appear to be a nearly essential topic for study – human loneliness.   She finds, for example, one study which demonstrated that post heart surgery patients were twice as likely to die if they experienced the effects of loneliness.   She also describes the  more standard physical impacts that plague the person who is determined to be lonely, and to her credit she had “to find the papers…  myself.”

The book is much less effective when it attempts to serve as a self-proclaimed memoir.   To be explicit, the book would have been far more engaging if it had begun with a review of the research on the matter of loneliness, and then finished with White describing its impact on her own life.   This is because much of what she stated in the opening seems either odd or contradictory.

This reviewer suspects that most readers will approach the topic with an understanding of loneliness as isolation.   We are lonely when we must be away from the people who are close to us; as when, for example, someone leaves the family nest to go to a faraway college.   But such loneliness is temporary and others come in to fill the empty spots in our existence.

White, however, is the person who is lonely in crowds; she states that, “I just feel a lack of connection around people, even when I’m around people.”   Thus, she responds to this by spending more time alone and, “The more time I spent alone, the more difficult I found it to be around others.”   This seems desperately confusing, especially when we read about how she chose to live way across town from friends and relatives:  “…odd…that I should have chosen a place so far removed (to live).”

White also appears to display a knack for making lemons out of lemonade.   Of cherished car drives with her father she complains that they “always ended.”   And although in law school she was surrounded by smart people, it seemed to signal the start of her era of self-isolation.

This reviewer must disclose that my life and the author’s appear to be considerably parallel as to our experiences, and yet, the very ones that she found limiting were for me empowering.   Thus, we may have a clash of perspectives here.   So, I will re-emphasize that White presents some valuable information when one views this work as a review of a little-developed field.   To her credit, she raises some questions that do call out for an answer – such as whether or not loneliness is inherited.

White might have been served by having the assistance of a professional writer who could have toned down her tendency to look at life through somber dark-colored glasses.   A second set of eyes in the person of an editor might have added a bit of needed joy to this look at our lives and the need we have to share it with others.

A review copy was provided by Harper.

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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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