Tag Archives: nonfiction

Brownout

The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawell (Bloomsbury, $35.00, 496 pages)

browns of california

The Browns of California is an interesting, sometimes engaging look at a unique California political family that produced two governors (Edmund G. and Jerry) and a state treasurer (Kathleen).  The work appears to be well edited and contains no evident factual errors.  Yet the book lacks something.

We get a hint of what’s lacking when Pawell references, on seven different pages, former California historian, state librarian, and USC professor Kevin Starr. Starr wrote an impressive multi-volume history of the state under the series title, “Americans and the California Dream.”  The most impressive of these works may have been Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s.  Each volume soared in flight because of Starr’s uniquely impressive writing style which reflected his childlike wonderment over the miracle that is California.  By contrast, Pawel’s style is competent, but flat.  This vehicle never leaves the runway.

Another issue is that while Pawel addresses Jerry Brown’s uniqueness, she never stops to reflect on how very strange his ideas appeared at the time he arrived at them.  Yes, he may have been – to his credit, ahead of his time but he was never of his time.

The Browns is a seemingly credible, but just passable, account that never quite comes to life.  For this reason, it is not recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released on September 4, 2018.

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30 Years in the Hole

30 years

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor by Karen Gedney, M.D. (DRG Consulting Company, $14.95, 384 pages)

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is an engaging and seemingly highly factual account of the work of a prison physician. I say this because I worked for doctors in a state’s prison system. As Doctor Karen Gedney makes abundantly clear, one never knows what one will encounter each day behind bars. One day inside a prison may be as quiet and reserved as a Catholic mass. The next day, all hell can, and will, break out.

Dr. Gedney intended to work for just four years under the National Health Corps in order to pay back her medical school scholarship. But the work was so fascinating to her that she stayed for three full decades. And she saw it as her mission to not just treat physical medical issues but also hearts and minds: “It was clear to me that as long as these men viewed themselves as victims, they had little chance of doing well on the outside. I had to help them perceive themselves not as victims, but as people who had what it takes to be responsible for the choices they made in life.”

And so, Dr. Gedney wound up bringing life skills classes to a high-security prison. An intriguing twist in her story is that Gedney, who is white, has a husband who is African-American. He wound up working with her to develop classes for inmates, the type intended to provide them with a “second chance.”

Dr. Gedney’s perspective is best summarized in these words: “I was always a sucker for the underdog.”

Of course,  no good deed goes unpunished, so Gedney often had to deal with wardens who either did not support her rehabilitation efforts or dismantled them. Even physicians are bound by the chains of bureaucracy. Luckily for Gedney, she encountered inmate success stories, such as the inmate she assisted who received a pardon after serving fifty years in prison. “Fifty years in prison. How does one survive that so well? How did he manage to walk out with confidence, into a world that was so different than the one he knew?”

Sometimes Dr. Gedney gets a bit too deep into attempting to cure the world as when she states: “The only thing that made sense to me was trying to gain an understanding of why someone commits a crime, and what could be done to prevent or stop the behavior.” Some would argue that this mission is not the role of a doctor in the correctional system. And this raises the one issue with 30 Years Behind Bars. At times, it becomes a political polemic, and this can distract from the story of Dr. Gedney’s medical career. And I suspect that it may, to some extent, limit the audience for the book.

Dr. Gedney might have avoided the sections of the book that deal with changing the system and the world. But then it would not have been her true account.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book is available as an eBook and as a trade paperback book.

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A Death in the Sunshine State

Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime by Cutter Wood (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $26.99, 225 pages)

love and death

This book arrived at the right time.  I had just finished reading a true crime book and found it to be sadly disappointing.  The writer put down all the facts about a triple murderer and his trial but seemingly without context.  When one sentence follows another in this manner – without drama, suspense or the seeming presence of actual people, it’s far less than engaging.

Cutter Wood’s book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is like the antidote to the typical true crime story.  Wood, an MFA graduate in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, touched base with all of the principals about a murder that he felt somewhat connected with.  You see, after graduating from Brown he felt directionless – like Benjamin in The Graduate, so he spent months at a secluded hotel in Florida.  The woman who ran the hotel with her husband later disappeared and Wood was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Wood knew some of the principals involved and was also given access to law enforcement officials and the man suspected of killing the missing woman.  But once the crime was solved, Wood felt that little was resolved.  The facts did not seem to add up to a whole, complete story.  Therefore, he elected to pursue a unique option.

Instead of writing a dry nonfiction account of the crime, Wood decided to write a fictional version of a relationship between a former criminal and a successful married businesswoman whose lives intersected.  It’s a story of an unlikely attraction, a loving relationship, and a tragic ending.  Wood never attempts to explain the crime or the murderer’s mind, but paints the events – both real and imaginary – as something that was fated to occur.

As Wood is free to explore events and scenarios that may or may not have played out, he develops a story that feels fully real.  This is not Law and Order – a stereotypical version of crime and justice, nor is it a fly-over account of a crime developed for a one hour cable TV network show.  It is a story of two imperfect people who were drawn to each other for all of the wrong reasons.

By leaving out some of the seemingly critical crime details and facts that would be highlighted in the standard true crime book sold in an airport gift shop, Wood proves again that less is more.  His “story of a crime” focuses on the small yet significant aspects of the lives of two people.  In doing so, he brings the individuals to life and causes us to mourn – in a quiet, dignified way, the loss of one of them.

It’s a sad, tough story but Cutter Wood takes the reader to the heart of the matter.  His is a respectful approach to human imperfection and frailty.

I look forward to reading Wood’s future works.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Love and Death in the Sunshine State will be released on April 17, 2018.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Don’t Look Back

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul by Jeremiah Moss (Dey St., $28.99, 480 pages)

An initially interesting work about missing the places from the past that have disappeared – something we can all relate to – devolves into a screed.

It was hard to see in 1993, but 42nd Street, aka the Deuce, was already in the midst of “renewal.”  I had, again, arrived too late.

vanishing new york

Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss (not the writer’s real name) is an initially engaging but ultimately frustrating look at the effects of hyper-gentrification on New York City.  The first hundred pages or so are fascinating,  like a good magazine article about places that once existed at a tourist destination.  But once the reader has passed the 400-page mark, the charm of the work is completely absent.

I broke into tears, trying to hold back my grief for that place [Cafe Edison] and its people, but also for all of Times Square, and for the whole lost city.  As I wept over blueberry blintzes, I asked myself, as I often did, What is left to love about New York?

“Moss” – who acknowledges in the book’s opening that he may soon disappear “like the New York I love” – is an individual who would have been praised in graduate school for his issue spotting skills.  If he had devoted 50 to 60 percent of the book to identifying the problems with gentrification, and 40 to 50 percent to proposed legislative or social solutions the work might have been uplifting.  Instead, it’s 95+ percent devoted to kvetching about what’s been lost.  This gets boring quickly.  Very quickly.

And, make no mistake, Moss – or whoever he is, goes quite overboard in his language about the Big Apple:  “I stay because I need New York.  I can’t live anywhere else.”  Of course, he could live somewhere else but he elects to stay and complain rather aimlessly about the changing and evolving face of a major city.

Everything changes, Moss.  Get over it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Tinker Tailor

writer sailor

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 by Nicholas Reynolds (William Morrow, $27.99, 384 pages)

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds chronicles Ernest Hemingway’s time as a spy and his involvement in politics on the world stage during the years 1935 through 1961.

As to credibility, Reynolds was a Marine for 30 years, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and eventually became the curator of the CIA Museum.  He references 107 primary sources and each chapter is replete with citations to support his claims.

While Writer, Sailor is almost certainly factually accurate, I am not certain this book entirely succeeds.

The book chronicles some aspects of Hemingway’s personal life such as his downward spiral into depression, his four wives, and his extremely excessive alcohol intake; though this is not news, nor is it the main point.  Reynolds also tries to tie some of Hemingway’s writing to his wartime experiences, particularly with For Whom the Bell Tolls and his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and then his final book, The Old Man and the Sea.  He also name drops quite a bit.  For example, correspondence with Archibald MacLeish and his friendship with John Dos Passos are frequently referenced.  The book tells of Hemingway’s love of Cuba and briefly alludes to some interactions with Batista and Castro.  But, again, there is not much new ground covered here.

What would be considered new ground for most is Hemingway’s dalliance with the Soviet NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, and involvement with the American OSS, the predecessor of the CIA.  Hemingway was not a Communist, and perhaps not even a Socialist, but he hated Fascism and during the 1930s was disappointed in America’s lack of resolve to fight against it.  He was particularly upset with the Pearl Harbor attack, which he believed was due to complete negligence on the part of the American government.

Hemingway’s travels during this time are discussed.  How he managed to get around on both official and personal business is interesting at times.  One of the most interesting stories is the chapter on Pilar, Hemingway’s cabin cruiser, and its role as a spy ship in 1942 and 1943.  This would prove to be the most significant of Hemingway’s wartime adventures.

writer, sailor, soldier, spy back cover

Most Hemingway buffs and literary scholars would find nothing of interest in this work.  But while it succeeds in chronicling his adventures – and there are some interesting tidbits to be gleaned among the way, the truth is that Hemingway’s involvement as a spy did not seem to lead to any major intelligence that impacted the outcome of the war – or particular battles – in any way.  If so, it was not evident in the pages of this book.

Recommended, with the reservation that the book seems to promise more than it delivers.

Dave Moyer.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school district superintendent and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Hard to Grip

Hard to Grip: A Memoir of Youth, Baseball, and Chronic Illness by Emil DeAndreis (Schaffner Press, $16.95, 326 pages)

hard to grip

“You, see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  – Jim Bouton (Ball Four)

Emil DeAndreis is an excellent high school baseball player in a weak conference.  He gets his chance at Division I baseball at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.  Hawaii at Hilo is far from a top tier program, but Division I is Division I.  DeAndreis is a borderline D-1 player, but he is a left-handed pitcher – always a commodity.

Hard to Grip is DeAndreis’s story, subtitled a memoir of youth, baseball, and chronic illness.  Shortly after he graduates from college, he signs a professional contract to play baseball in Belgium, only to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  There are flashes of promise in his writing.  He saves the best for last.

As a high school pitching coach, he tries to express to his players that everyone’s career ends one day, and closes the book with the line, “I tell them it’s like a disease you learn to live with.”

DeAndreis chronicles his passion for baseball, his disillusionment following his diagnosis, and his battle to come to grips with the fact that his life is irrevocably changed.  He does find love, and ultimately reconciles with his loss of having to prematurely let go of the game.

The book is good.  Those who have dreamed of playing and had their careers cut short for whatever reason can probably relate.  It is an honest telling from the get-go, and the parallel of his best friend Charlie – who is more talented, and his challenges in pro ball constitute another side of the story told by DeAndreis. (DeAndreis leaves it up to the reader to determine what happened to Charlie.)

Unfortunately, the book does not have many engaging moments.  Too much of the book is a retelling of events that fail to resonate with the reader.  DeAndreis might have done more to draw the reader in; to see that the events that happened in his life (“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” John Lennon) are the types of unexpected things that happen with others.

hard to grip too

DeAndreis is currently working on a novel, and his fledgling talent may well make it a successful one.  There are high points in Hard to Grip, but not enough of them to sustain the typical reader’s interest from start to finish.  This is a niche book for hardcore baseball fans.  Perhaps the writing promise hinted at in Hard to Grip will fully manifest itself in his future work.

Recommended, for sports fans and/or one-time athletes.

Dave Moyer

Hard to Grip was published on April 1, 2017.  “A vibrant depiction of a ballplayer that finds his way (in life) despite losing his ability to play the game he loves.”  Mike Krukow

Dave Moyer is a public school district superintendent, a drummer who hopes to play on stage with The Who one day, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

 

 

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Rundown

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion by Catriona Menzies-Pike (Crown, $25.00, 256 pages)

long run

In The Long Run, Catriona Menzies-Pike seeks to be inspirational when it comes to summarizing the healing power of running.  Unfortunately, the memoir comes across as flat and turgid.  The latter is the case when Menzies-Pike writes as a feminist.  It’s interesting but her heart does not seem to be in it.  The topical connection between the sport of running and social oppression is weak, to say the least.  Running appears to have empowered Menzies-Pike, so it’s unclear how the feminist complaints fit in.

“Women run when they are chased; women must run from predators to stay chaste.  It is not natural for women to run unless they’re chased; chaste women have no need to run.”

It’s troubling that Menzies-Pike gets some basic details wrong.  At one point she writes of “the weight shifting from the ball to the heel of my foot as I move forward.”  That’s not how people run; the heel hits the ground before one’s weight is transferred to the ball of the foot.  Was she running backwards?

This slim work may benefit a few by making the case that running can empower a person.  Menzies-Pike notes that there’s “nothing… as reliable as running for elevations of mood and emotion, for a sense of self-protection.”  Well and good, but there’s something removed and distant about her writing style.

A novice runner would be better off reading the modern classic What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.  Much better off.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  This book was released on May 23, 2017.

Catriona Menzies-Pike is the editor of the Sydney Review of Books, a link to which can be found on our Blogroll.

 

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