Tag Archives: Riverhead Books

Another Roundup

Quick Looks at Books

True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life by Kevin Sorbo (Da Capo Lifelong)

The overly-long title gives you some idea of what this memoir is about.   The actor who played Hercules on TV was hit with a series of puzzling strokes that disabled him for quite a long time.   The first half of this true tale is interesting, but then the reader fully expects to find out – in the second half of the telling – what caused the strokes and/or how Sorbo was cured.   Neither happens and nothing much of interest (other than Sorbo’s getting married and having children) occurs in the last 140 or so pages.

This is the type of account that, if boiled down to six or seven pages, would have made for a heck of an interesting magazine article.   Unfortunately, at 276 pages it just seemed to go on and on without resolution.

The Me Generation by Me: Growing Up in the ’60s by Ken Levine (Ken Levine)

Levine writes about much of the growing up male territory covered so well previously by Bob Greene.   Levine, however, grew up in the greater Los Angeles area rather than in the Midwest.   While there are a lot of funny bits in this memoir, a good amount of the (Jewish-American) humor seems forced – more Woody Allen, if you will, than Jerry Seinfeld.   Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet (Riverhead Books)God's Hotel (B&N)

This medical memoir is best summed up in the quote, “The secret in the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”   Dr. Sweet, who has practiced medicine for more than two decades at the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, is a doctor who truly cares for the most indigent of patients; and she cares for the human-paced hospital which barely survived a closure scare.   At a time when some still wish to debate the benefits of a national health care system, Sweet explains why we should “still believe and act as if taking care of the sick poor is something that a society should do.”

Sweet goes on to explain how a physician can learn lessons from patients, such as the fact that “medicine no longer (needs to seem) so complicated.”   A hospital should still be just that rather than a dreaded modern “health care facility.”   Sweet also details how literally dangerous it can be for a budget-cutting hospital administrator to meet and get to know the patients – actual human beings and not just “residents” – for whose lives he’s ultimately responsible.

Most readers will find themselves wishing that Dr. Sweet could be their own personal M.D., providing medical care that’s less technology and more about instinct, feeling and a sense of bonding.   Oliver Sacks said this book “should be required reading.”   Indeed.   Well recommended.

How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old by Marc E. Agronin, M.D. (Da Capo Lifelong)

HowWeAge_358“…the burden of illness and the proximity of death force a special bond (between a health care professional and) patient and family.”

Marc Agronin, a psychiatrist for the Miami Jewish Health Systems is another caring doctor who has written about his relationships with elderly patients in How We Age.   Agronin makes clear that he’s also learned much from them:  “…no matter how many years I’ve practiced, I still find myself a student to the life lessons offered by these (patients).”   He specifically learns that his patients, no matter what their illness or psychological state, generally die with dignity and prior to their expiration, they acquire “the crowning glory of old age” (Cicero) – namely wisdom.   “Wisdom serves to calm (the) maelstrom (of decay), providing a way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing that brings order, harmony, and, for many, a great measure of happiness.”

To his credit, Dr. Agronin also – like Dr. Sweet – rejects the notion that the business of medicine has evolved into nothing more than “a business transaction between strangers.”   In his view, a doctor or psychiatrist and patient should be no less than truly friends, if not more.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers or authors.

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A review of God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet, and more.God's Hotel (300)

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The Roundup

The Roundup – Some Quick Looks at Books

Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine Books)  –  Gideon’s creative novel is an all-too-much-fun story of a mid-life crisis wife who elects to take part in a marriage survey, and then decides that she might have fallen in love with the researcher assigned to work with her.   “Soon I’ll have to make a decision – one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life.”   Will Wife 22 sacrifice everything for a man she’s never seen or spoken to (and only exchanged e-mail messages with)?   This is a story with an ending that the reader will never see coming – unless that reader just happens to remember a certain quite clever hit song from the year 1980.

“…when did the real world become so empty?   When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”   Wife 22 is a novel about current times, in which human beings communicate by each and every means except true personal, face-to-face communication.

Highly recommended.

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews (Riverhead Books)  –  Mathews came up with a great premise in this fictional account of a young John F. Kennedy.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly recruits JFK to be his spy in Europe during the period preceding the outbreak of World War II.   The engaging, charismatic personality of JFK is here, but the intelligence of the future world leader is missing in action.

Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love and Loss by Rosemarie Terenzo (Gallery Books)  –  John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s former executive assistant tells us about what it was like to have the “dream job” of working for America’s Prince.   It’s a fascinating account told by Terenzo, a young blue-collar Italian-American girl from the Bronx who became John’s scheduler and gatekeeper.   The problem is that it feels like half a memoir; the deaths of John and his wife Carolyn Bessette in July of 1999 tragically interrupted the charged personal lives chronicled here.   (Terenzo recalls that her final conversation with John was sadly  banal.)

Discretion: A Novel by Allison Leotta (Touchstone)  –  Some readers will no doubt find this to be an exciting political-thriller about a young woman killed while visiting a U.S. Congressman’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol Building.   But I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the main characters, especially the female protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis.   Curtis’s criminal investigation extends into the most sordid sexual aspects of the District of Columbia.   It just seemed unnecessarily overblown.

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria Books)  –  This is a sad, yet moving and life affirming true story of three impoverished children in Mexico whose parents abandon them in order to escape to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, the United States).   Overcoming many obstacles, the two sisters and their brother eventually find their way to Los Angeles, where they discover that their parents are living apart from each other.   Despite such a horrendous upbringing, the siblings survive and Reyna goes on to both forgive her dying father and to graduate from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Those Were the Days

The Bartender’s Tale: A Novel by Ivan Doig (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 387 pages)

“To me now, that culminating day of the summer – of the year, really – seems like one long, twisty dream, everything that began with Proxy’s Cadillac nosing into the driveway and the thunderous disclosures that followed, and then the tremendous gathering at the (fishing) derby, as if the audience would come to see what Tom Harry would bring about next.”

Ivan Doig, author of the bestseller Work Song and 8 other prior novels plus 3 nonfiction works, has fashioned a family novel that at first glance appears to be a very slight story.   It’s the tale of Tom Harry, a single-parent bartender in an isolated town in northern Montana.   The story we read is told by his son Rusty, and it’s a look back in time – the summer of 1960 – when the now-adult son was twelve and his father was still alive.

As told, Rusty meets a young playmate named Zoe who will turn out to be the love of his life and his future wife.   The story that the reader presumes will play out – that Tom Harry dies and Rusty takes over his role as the town’s most skilled bartender – is  not the one that Doig delivers.   (It is also not the story of Rusty and Zoe’s adult romance.)   Instead, it’s about how Tom Harry masterfully handles the stresses in his life, most notably when a former female co-worker shows up in town to present him with a twenty-one year old daughter he never knew existed.   It’s the suddenly on-the-scene daughter Francine who eventually becomes the possible replacement for Tom behind the bar.

If the plotline seems minor, Doig makes up for it because he has a marvelous voice for describing life’s everyday happenings:

“Tomorrow came all too soon.   Pop must have believed fish got up before dawn.   Cats were just scooting home from their nightly prowls, eyes glittering at us in the Hudson’s headlights, as he drove out of town and into a gravel road that seemed to go on and on.   I was more asleep than awake when he stopped the car.”

This is a story about a young man who comes to idolize his “Pop”, and discovers that he’s just a man with a few very human flaws (lust, dishonesty, and others) – and yet also a human being admired as a leader who never departs from his key values in life.   He’s a man who can and will do anything necessary to provide for his son.   The novel ends with a conclusion that Rusty could not see was coming, one which should surprise almost all readers.   It’s about love and life’s tough lessons and once you’ve finished reading The Bartender’s Tale, you will no doubt feel like you’ve left the company of some very decent, struggling yet valiant people who will be missed.

Doig is a unique writer who takes what’s seemingly too small in life to matter, fills the entire stage with it, and makes us care deeply about outcomes.   It’s a very special gift.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

 “(An) enjoyable, old-fashioned, warmhearted story  about fathers and sons, growing up, and big life changes.”   Library Journal

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A preview-review of The Bartender’s Tale: A Novel by Ivan Doig (author of Work Song).

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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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Paint It, Black

The Grief of Others: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead Books; $26.95;  388 pages)

While an author can develop some great sentences and paragraphs in a novel, using language that is either stunningly creative or even gorgeous, it doesn’t mean much if the tale being told does not advance.   In The Grief of Others, a promising and potentially engaging story is overwhelmed by obtuse storytelling.   Because of this, I found the novel to be far more frustrating than pleasing.

The story revolves around Ricky Ryrie, wife and mother of two, who loses a third child (a male) 57 hours after his birth.   The child was diagnosed with Anencephaly four months prior to its birth, a fact that Ricky kept from her husband John.   Since Ricky once had an affair with a work colleague, this raises serious trust issues in the marriage; a marriage which may not survive the tragedy.   Ricky would not let John hold or touch the baby while it was alive, and so he goes on to remind her, “This was my child.  Too.”

But it’s not just Ricky’s story that’s covered here…   We also witness John’s, and those of the children – 13-year-old Paul and 11-year-old Biscuit – and of Jess, John’s daughter by another woman.   And then there’s Gordie, a young man who attaches himself to the Ryries in much the same manner as the troubled young man Kiernan does with the Lathams in Anna Quindlen’s novel Every Last One.

Unfortunately, Cohen’s book does not seem to handle the issue of overwhelming, shattering grief as effectively as Quindlen’s story; nor does it tackle the issues of  marital trust and fidelity quite as well as Commuters, the near brilliant debut novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe.   There may simply be too many characters on the stage here, another one of whom is Will, Gordie’s very sick father.   Cohen seems to have spread herself, and her story, a bit too thin.   Some of the writing is admirable as when John notices that the instant tragedy seems to foster “in everyone around him a sudden, alarming presumption of intimacy.”   (It can be a tad frightening when strangers and coworkers are seemingly a bit too kind and understanding.)

Of all the characters, Ricky’s daughter Biscuit is the one that appears to be the most true-to-life, as if she had been created by Lesley Kagen (Whistling in the Dark, Good Graces); however, the key problem is that the young children Paul and Biscuit are saddled with the thoughts of adults, thoughts that simply don’t seem credible.

Biscuit thinks that, “Her parents seemed like the books you could see (in a bookcase):  they smiled and spoke and dressed and made supper and went off to work and all the other things they were supposed to do, but something, a crucial volume, had slipped down in back and couldn’t be reached.”

Paul, meanwhile, worries that, “(His parents) couldn’t seem to detect anything wrong with each other, never mind that his mother had been silent for most of the past year, or that his father, for all his apparent optimism, was beginning to show fissures.”   How many 13-year-olds would know the meaning of the word fissures, let alone think in such terms?

An intriguing twist – a pregnant Jess lands on the family’s doorstep almost one year after the family’s tragedy of losing the baby – tends to get lost after all this.   This is an almost 400 page novel that feels, in the reading, to be almost twice that long.   At one point, Ricky thinks about her “unbearable helplessness,” and her loneliness in carrying to term a defective child:  “The thought exhausted her.”

This read was something of an exhausting experience.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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