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Crying, Waiting, Hoping

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 448 pages)

McKenzie presents sensitive topics with such blatant honesty and humor that I found myself laughing out loud.

Kate Sanford is trying to hold on to her college days, scheduling parties instead of business meetings, when she is given an interview for the job of a lifetime as a music writer for her favorite magazine, The Line.   The night before the interview, to celebrate her potential life changing opportunity and as well her thirtieth birthday, she agrees to go out with her friends for a quick drink.   Still intoxicated the morning after, she bombs the interview but is offered an ironic opportunity.   Kate’s assignment is to go undercover and follow a Lindsay-Lohan-type icon…  in rehab!

Kate signs into rehab (drunk) and begins to go through the steps to recovery as she writes about the “it girl” Amber Sheppard and her “young James Bond” boyfriend, Connor.   Yet the story begins to spin as Kate befriends Amber as well as Connor’s perpetual assistant, Henry.   As Kate continues her assignment, she is challenged with perhaps the real reasons she is in rehab and the ultimate decision of whether her “dream job” is worth hurting those she has met along the way.

My head is spinning out questions, but I don’t have any answers.   I feel like they’re floating in front of me, but they haven’t taken shape.   And instead of making progress, I’m in suspended animation, waiting, hoping for something to happen, but unable to make it so.

Spin is a lighthearted, quick read full of interesting characters and believable experiences.   McKenzie presents sensitive topics with such blatant honesty and humor that I found myself at times laughing out loud.   Her characters are real, both the famous and infamous, with evident flaws but each possessing their own charm.   Everyone is on their own path of self-discovery and yield realistic and often disappointing conclusions as they deal with their addictions and shortcomings.   As the story unfolds they find that perhaps they have more in common than anticipated.

McKenzie touches upon the realism of chemical dependency.   Through her characters’ therapy discussions she presents scenarios on how individuals find themselves in these situations, how relationships are affected and how difficult it can be to continue down the path of sobriety.   She keeps the topics light through the quirkiness of her characters and with the flowing humorous dialogue throughout the novel.

McKenzie demonstrates Kate’s love of music with random references to songs that have particular meaning to her main character and provides “Kate’s Playlist” at the end of the novel.   This would have been an interesting way to perhaps introduce more of Kate’s past and further describe her family dynamics but I enjoyed the references for their simplicity.

If you are searching for a deep, life-changing novel, you will be disappointed, but if you are interested in a well-written story laden with real issues presented with quick wit and humor, this is the novel for you.   Spin would make a fabulous holiday or book club read.   I enjoyed the book from page one through to the end; therefore, this novel is…  Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way, and you are beginning to grasp the literary roller coaster ride that is Catherine McKenzie’s Spin.   Filled with brutal honesty and wry humour, Spin is a story for everyone who has ever woken up hung over and thought, “Do I have a problem?   Yes – I need to find a greasy breakfast.”   And by that I mean everyone I know.   Leah McLaren, Globe and Mail Columnist, author of The Continuity Girl

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Tears in Heaven

History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books, $24.00, 252 pages)

“The tragedy of suicide is that only in its aftermath does everything that came before suddenly seem important and clear.”

This is a memoir that expresses the author’s unimaginable grief over the loss of a sister and a daughter within three and one-half months, and it is primarily a tribute to her late sister Kim.   Kim was just 21 when, after being dumped by her boyfriend, she killed herself by leaving her mother’s car running in the garage of the family home.   The work is an attempt by Bialosky to understand the depths of her sister’s long-time depression, and any hereditary factors that may have entered into it (this is a family that experienced three suicides in three generations).

In her personal research, Bialosky found that Kim had been depressed at  least since high school.   At that time she wrote:  “I wish I would get (a major illness) or something so I could just die.   I don’t want to live anymore this way.   It’s too unsatisfying…  I need a way out.   Please help!”

Bialosky also came to realize that her mother’s detachment from the realities of lie may have been a factor:  “Perhaps my mother was able to sustain herself through her dark times by creating a hazy world of dreams and fantasies for a future in which everything would eventually work out.”

“I have private conversations with Kim on the beach.   I am thinking about you, I say to her.   Can you hear me?”

Despite her careful and caring research, Bialosky winds up being unable to pinpoint the exact nature of her sister’s inherent struggle with life and living.   She comes to see that persons who have been affected by suicide are often twice victimized – first, by the unexpected (and often violent) death; second, by the stigma attached to the act.   She cites as an example a young male in her neighborhood who was ostracized at school after his sister killed herself…  Punishing one of the victims of the act thus turns into a type of psychological piling on; it’s no wonder that those who were closest to the person who committed suicide often feel lost – literally without direction – for long periods of time.

Bialosky  comes to find a measure of recovery and balance in her life by attending a monthly suicide survivors support group:  “…in the white room… sealed off from the cacophony of traffic on the avenue below us – …the litany of what ifs and why didn’t I and if only rings like a chorus of voices in a Greek tragedy…  It seems to me that it isn’t as if they wanted to die but more that they wished to feel better and didn’t know how.”

The author’s sister Kim left a suicide note:  “I know everyone loved me very much.   Please don’t feel you could have helped.   I am very happy now.   All my love, K”

This all-too-sad memoir reminds us that the world holds “mystery and terror far beyond our grasp,” but also contains a great measure of forgiveness, acceptance and eternal love.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note: The reviewer worked as a  volunteer suicide prevention counselor, and was taught that (as a counselor):  “You never lose someone and you never save someone.”   Mystery and terror, indeed.

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Against the Wind

In the Rooms: A Novel by Tom Shone (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 342 pages)

She probably only dated snowboarders with a rap sheet as long as their arm, the cheekbones of Viggo Mortensen, and a penchant for whittling driftwood into small but meaningful tokens of their appreciation for Life’s Bounteous Gifts.   I failed on both fronts.   I had neither misbehaved with sufficient abandon nor reformed myself with enough zeal.   I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else.

This debut novel might have been entitled Dim Lights, Big City as it is a reverse  image of Jay McInerney’s book and film Bright Lights, Big City.   In McInerney’s story, a young man turns to drinking and drugs to evade the memories of  his dead mother and an estranged wife.   In Tom Shone’s novel, protagonist Patrick Miller turns to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as a way of shoring up his sagging career as a Manhattan-based literary agent.

Miller, who grew up in England (like his creator), has been shaken up by relationship problems – his girlfriend is bitterly honest about his flaws – and this has affected his ability to attract successful writers to the firm he works for.   And then, suddenly, he finds that his favorite author in the world – one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Douglas Kelsey – is back in the Big Apple after spending years hiding out in the artists’ community of Woodstock.   Miller impulsively follows Kelsey when he spots him one day out on the streets of the city, and learns that the trail ends at an AA meeting in a church.

How is Miller going to get to speak to the reclusive Kelsey, a modern-day J.D. Salinger?   Well, simple, he will just pretend that he has a drinking problem and begin joining the meetings “in the rooms” of NYC.   But, actually, it’s not so simple because as he carries out his plan, Miller finds that he’s now lying all of the time to the two sets of people in his life – to his co-workers, he insists that he’s not a heavy drinker and does not have a problem (they think he’s in denial); to his new fellow AA members, he insists that he can’t handle his liquor or his women (oh, so he’s co-addicted to sex, just as they suspected).

If things aren’t complicated enough, Miller is soon attracted to Lola, a young woman he meets at one of these meetings – a woman who serves as a trusted liaison between him and the respected author – and they begin to get physical.   But, Catch-22, the rules of AA prohibit them from getting close to each other for a minimum of a year – a year based on mutual sobriety.   Eventually, Miller is not quite sure what he wants and just as he’s becoming addicted to Lola, his ex-flame comes back into his life.

If all of this sounds a bit glum, it’s not as told by Shone.   The novel is quite funny, as my wife can testify since I read no less than 8 or 9 lengthy excerpts of it to her…  Readers will identify with Miller as he’s a want-to-be nice guy who makes mistake after mistake, even after he’s decided mentally that he’s going to get his act together.   It seems that he just can’t win, as life keeps throwing unexpected changes his way.

Shone makes the telling especially interesting with many insights into both the book publishing world and AA.   While his characters are sometimes critical of the 12-step process, they’re also positive that the program works.   Here’s the ever-cynical Kelsey on Bill (Wilson) of the Big Book:   “Well, Bill’s no Steinbeck.   That’s for sure.   There’s nothing original to any of it.   He filched the whole thing.   It’s just religion’s greatest hits.”

The more that Patrick Miller learns about AA, the more he wonders if he may indeed have some problems.   Whether he drinks too much or not, virtually every AA member that he encounters tells him that he spends too much time inside of his head.   Miller is so busy analyzing life, and trying to find the right path and rules to follow, that it seems to be passing him by.

The true charm of In the Rooms, is its conclusion, in which our hero must make the right choices – the exact right choices – to prove to himself and others that he  is, in truth, the nice guy that he’s always wanted to be.   He’s helped along in this by what he’s come to learn “in the rooms” and so he comes to see that – ah, yes – it works!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “Sharp, funny, and ultimately touching…  Recommended for readers of Nick Hornby and Joshua Ferris.”   Library Journal

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Torn Between Two Lovers

A Place of Yes: 10 Rules for Getting Everything You Want Out of Life by Bethenny Frankel with Eve Adamson (Touchstone; $24.99; 336 pages) or The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brenne Brown (Hazelden Publishing; $14.95; 260 pages)

Let’s be practical and admit that one size does not fit all.   For that matter, one approach to self-realization is not the answer for everyone.   With that in mind these two books are being reviewed in a comparison of sorts.

Each of the authors is a well-known figure with their own realm.   Bethenny Frankel has accomplished the following: hosting her own reality TV show – Bethenny Ever After, developing a wildly popular beverage line – Skinny Girl Margaritas, which she has recently sold to the big boys of the adult beverage industry, and writing several well-received books relating to her expertise in dieting and healthy cooking.   Dr. Brenne Brown is also the author of several books, a university professor and a licensed social worker in the state of Texas.   She is an expert in the area of shame and her findings have been featured on Public Broadcasting as well as on commercial television, including the Oprah Show.Both women are mothers and profess to be very happily married to their respective husbands.   They share the need to overcome traumas from their childhoods that have had great impact on their adult lives.   The reader is presented with 10 steps to use in moving toward a better life that the author has crafted based on her own growth and development.   In Bethenny’s case, the 10 rules for living are dished up with a generous helping of her life story and in Brene’s, they are guideposts based on her qualitative research of the notion of wholehearted living along with glimpses into her life.

You may be seeking a wholehearted life or wish to come from a place of yes.   These are the two concepts featured in the books.   The reader is addressed directly by the authors and made privy to rather personal information that serves to create a somewhat therapeutic relationship.   Both of them provide insights into the notion of leading a satisfying and fulfilling life.   Here is where the similarities end.

Bethenny sounds like the New Yorker she is and comes off as a combination cheerleader/Dutch uncle – in a good way.   There’s plenty of straight talk offered in a smart, funny convincing style.   Her freewheeling, no guts, no glory approach to life’s challenges is blunt and direct.   She urges the reader to break the chain that anchors the reader to the past.   Yes, s**t happens and something happened to you.   The reader is told to quit looking back letting what happened then shape your life now.

Brene uses a voice as one would imagine coming from a credentialed university professor and lecturer.   Moreover, her publisher, Hazelden, is a well-respected institution in the field of addiction treatment and recovery.   Her style can best be described as reporting out, speaking directly to the reader using conclusions she has reached after years of carefully conducted research.   The gently encouraging guideposts are clearly non-threatening.   A sense of disclosure reminiscent of a Twelve-Step meeting permeates the book.

The choice is up to you!   Regardless of your style preference, the book you choose will be quite engaging and may even get you to move your life in a better direction.   Highly recommended are both books.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Everybody’s Got Something to Hide*

*except for me and my monkey

Kasey to the Rescue: The Remarkable Story of a Monkey and a Miracle by Ellen Rogers (Hyperion; $23.99; 288 pages)

“Walk through one door at a time, I told myself, then look for a key to the next.   That was my strategy, and I was sticking to it.”

If you’re looking for a heartwarming present for someone this Christmas, this book may be it.   I had a copy of Kasey to the Rescue in my stash of books at the office, picked it up to scan during the lunch hour, and found it hard to close.  

Ellen Rogers’ 22-year-old son Ned was a student at the University of Arizona when he had a horrible auto accident that left him close to death.   The opening scene describing how Ellen got from Concord, Massachusetts to Tucson overnight is worth the price of admission as something amazing happened to speed her journey.   Her son survived the crash but as a quadriplegic with a brain injury.

“Pride.   Courage.   Hope.   They were all there in those three little words.”

Ned had always been extremely athletic and daring – despite a lack of natural skills – so his life came to a grim halt after the tragic event.   Inaction and depression crept in until the gift of an amazingly smart and social female Capuchin monkey gave him back his spirit, his mobility and his hope of persevering.   Kasey the monkey had been ever so patiently trained by foster parents and by the Monkey College maintained by Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.   (As with a human college, it takes two to four years to matriculate at Monkey College.)

Rogers’ telling of this tough, but inspirational, tale is as humorous as it is gripping and touching.   If this were an advertisement for a Disney film, you would read, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.”   This story is not a Disney film…  It’s real life.   You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

Well recommended.

“This gem of a book will capture the hearts of readers everywhere.”   Doris Kearns Goodwin

“A book to change your life.”   David Doss, Making Rounds with Oscar

“The story told in this book is one of hope, perserverance, laughter, and most importantly, family.”   Megan Talbert, Executive Director, Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, Inc.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Addicted to Shopping

Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella (Little, Brown & Company, 272 pages)

“I used shopping to avoid myself.”

Be prepared for a brutally honest, yet somewhat elusive account of Avis Cardella’s journey into, and recovery from, the nearly overwhelming habit of shopping and shopping and shopping.   Alongside her own story, Cardella incorporates general information regarding the evolution of shopping in excess beginning with Madame Bovary up through today.   This is no laughing matter.   The prevalence of shopping as therapy or a habit is so great that the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders may contain “compulsive shopping disorder” as a separate listing rather than an entry under the heading of obsessive compulsive disorders.

The mix of confessional talk, some statistics and the events that were pivotal in the author’s life and, more importantly, her relationships with men, surround her almost as if she were dancing around herself, changing costumes as she assumed roles.   There is so much numbness expressed in the narrative that is almost like seeing her through a blanket of fog – not hot or cold, just thick and obscuring.

Cardella was drawn to fashion at an early age.   As a girl she had a regular supply of magazines like Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Glamour that her mother purchased faithfully each month.   This mother-daughter duo spent their best time together on shopping expeditions.   Cardella’s mother loved dressing up, especially in costume-like outfits.   Sadly, she died at an early age which left a gaping hole in her daughter’s life.

Jobs became a means to enable shopping, first as a teen employee at Macy’s and then as an adult flight attendant.   That first Macy’s card was managed well as were her purchases.   It was only later that the spending got out of hand.   Cardella writes of her precipitous decline into a world of shopping that sounds more like a drug addiction than the usual garden variety retail therapy most people indulge in once in a while.   She describes it as being taken over by need and experiencing a trance-like state when wandering through stores in Manhattan.

The lure of fashion is hard to resist in this book and Cardella has an amazing talent for describing the garments and accessories that became part of her.   Each page contains at least one designer name or a reference to the lifestyle she sometimes lead that went with wearing the best labels money, or credit, could buy.   In all honesty, this reviewer had some vivid recollections of her first pair of flats, in an awesome turquoise color and a champagne-colored taffeta dress worn to dancing classes in junior high school.

Cardella readily admits that her wardrobe began as mix-and-match pieces acquired without a strategy or goal in mind.   This wardrobe could easily be a metaphor for the way she lived acquiring relationships.   After all, if you don’t know yourself, how can you possibly know what will suit you?   She had no real sense of the future, nor did she make plans.

The writing style is calm, even and well-spoken with the exception of a few minor grammatical blunders and three funny homonyms (peak for peek, weary for wary, and reeled for railed), that crept in along the way.   Two thirds of the way through the book, this reviewer found herself wondering how far a shopping addict has to go to hit bottom.

The takeaway from Spent  is that stuff has power!   Whether that power is good or bad may depend upon the strength of the individual acquiring the stuff.   Highly recommended for moms and daughters.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her by her husband.

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Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life

“I have gotten things from the [sobriety] program.   It forced me to look at the unexamined parts of my life, to acknowledge my deceptions and rationalizations.”   So reads an excerpt from Chicago Sun Times columnist Neil Steinberg’s book about a hard-drinking life.   Part of the  multi-step court-ordered recovery program he went through (after slapping his wife and getting arrested for domestic violence during an apparent drinking binge) hinged on being brutally honest.   Likewise, I will be honest in this review.

I very much wanted to very much like this book – to find something here that was deep and meaningful, something that would make me not only rave about this story but also recommend it to others.   But, Steinberg fell short.

In 1998, another prominent newspaper writer produced a book called Getting Better.   In that book, Nan Robertson wrote about how she thought she had gamed her program of recovery, fooling all the medical professionals and counselors with her high IQ, telling them what she thought they wanted and needed to hear.   But they saw through her perfect student routine (in the words of Bob Dylan, she “only got juiced in it”), shaming her into truly adopting a new life.   Such is true life and true honesty.

Steinberg’s memoir is a good story that moves along without too much difficulty.   Even so, it was neither “a terribly compelling read,” nor “hysterically funny,” nor “a universal essay on human frailty and resilience,” as the book cover purports.   It is simply the story of a reporter who drank too much for too long until the legal system gave him no choice but to stop – nothing more, nothing less.

The great take-home lesson of this book is the same one found in Getting Better.   One counselor said to Steinberg that he was to always remember that he is “no better, no worse than anyone else.”

To his credit, Steinberg admits to the sin of ego.   “Those who have been around me longer are cooler…   Something in me must turn people off – ego, I suppose.   You see a guy stuck on himself, no matter how he struggles to hide it…”   Bingo!   Lesson learned.

Plume, $15.00, 272 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.drunkard 4

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