Tag Archives: sisters

Lean On Me

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Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

In this extraordinary – at times harrowing – memoir we see the Lesser family deal with the impending death of Maggie, the high-spirited hummingbird in the family. Maggie needs a bone marrow transplant and her older sister Liz is the perfect match. The other two sisters remain outliers (not by choice), intensifying the family conflict.

Intense, raw, and brutally honest, Liz and Maggie are forced to communicate in a way that had eluded them growing up. Things unsaid were embedded in the family’s core and, through acts of bravery, the “wounded healing” begins.

While “marrow” refers to the painful transplant Liz undergoes in an attempt to save Maggie’s life, “marrow” is more frequently and powerfully used as a metaphor for the core of the sisters’ relationship — where the “stem cells of life” originate and the sisters’ assumptions about each other are often distortions and lies. Each sister tells a different story of her childhood, viewing the family dynamics though a different lens.

“We will dig for our goodness and harvest the marrow of ourselves for each other…” the two sisters promise each other as they consent to therapy and spiritual approaches to death and dying. The author mingles Buddhist meditation, philosophy and literary allusions sometimes successfully (and sometimes not) in seeking meaning not only for Maggie’s premature and terminal illness but also for human connection. At the end there is only the feeling of being “helpless with love” and a lesson for us all in facing the death of loved ones – and our own death.

marrow-rear-cover

Marrow is a deeply affecting trigger to the heart about love, family and learning to let go. This memoir is for those who can face a narrative about trauma in life without getting depressed or angry. I highly recommend it!

Diana Y. Paul

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was published on September 20, 2016.

Diana Y. Paul, a retired Stanford professor, is the author of three books on Buddhism and Things Unsaid: A Novel (She Writes Press). You can read her reviews of films and art at: http://www.unhealedwound.com/.

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Love Story

marrow-a-love-story

Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

When a deadly disease strikes, it’s often not clear whether this is harder on the afflicted person or those who surround him/her. This is a point well made in the memoir Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser. Lesser’s sister Maggie battled lymphoma cancer which went into remission, only to return after seven years.

Maggie had one chance for survival, a bone marrow transplant from the perfect donor. That perfect donor happened to be her older sister, Elizabeth. If successful, Maggie would live on with her sister’s blood literally coursing through her veins. In a sense, the sisters would become one, the team known as Maggie-Liz. But the sisters had not gotten along superbly well in their five-plus decades of living, so they realized they would have to overcome the issues that had sadly separated them in the past.

Marrow is a fascinating look at how two people worked extremely hard to find love and forgiveness among the ruins of pain and suffering. Lesser makes clear, however, that what worked for her and Maggie might not work for others. (If there’s a flaw in the telling, it is that Lesser often gets caught up in the forest – the world, the universe, the meaning of Existence, instead of focusing on the trees – the lives of her and her sister.) And yet, this is an inspiring tale of courage. It’s also a reminder that love conquers all, even when death stands poised to strike.


Well recommended
.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on September 20, 2016. Elizabeth Lesser also wrote Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

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Only the Good Die Young

Good Graces: A Novel by Lesley Kagen (Dutton, $25.95, 337 pages)

“The almighty works in mysterious ways, ma cherie.”

It’s 1960.   You’re a young girl living in a quiet suburb of Milwaukee, in a community whose foundation is the Feelin’ Good Cookie Factory (the closer one lives to the odoriferous factory, the poorer one’s family is), with your cunning sister Troo.   The problem is that the adults in the community seem to be clueless to the problems in their midst, including juvenile delinquency.   Troo’s reporting of the troublemaker known as Greasy Al means that he’s been sent to a juvenile detention facility, which seems like good news until you find out from your police detective step-dad-to-be (he’s engaged to your  mother) that the evil kid has escaped.   Now it’s up to Troo to come up with a perfect plan for dealing with Greasy Al’s imminent return.

As Troo’s sister, you know that she’s no amateur when it comes to this business.   You previously had a problem with a male summer camp counselor, and Troo made him disappear from the face of the earth.   So now you’re hoping that Troo’s plan for Greasy Al is not too efficient…   And just when you’re dealing with this, you learn from other kids in the neighborhood that one of the respected pillars of the community is making young boys “do bad things,” which immediately changes everything.   Now Troo puts Plan A on the back-burner while she develops a new plan to bring law and order to your town.

You and Troo must rely on a couple of other youngsters to help you – one male and one female – and you have to hope that they can keep their lips sealed forever if Troo’s new solution works.   You both think you can count on Artie and Mary Lane, especially the latter since:  “She’s been tortured by the best in the world – nuns.   So detectives asking her a couple of questions wouldn’t bother her at all.”

Good Graces, written in a child’s voice, is simply one of the most enjoyable novels that I’ve read in years (at least three or more).   Kagen’s ability to write in an adolescent’s voice is remarkable, and she has fun toying with the artifacts of the time, such as the TV shows Queen for a Day and Howdy Doody.   Adult readers who grew up in less prosperous homes will identify with the characters, as will Catholics and lapsed Catholics.   The young characters in the tale attend Catholic school and learn that the  nuns can indeed inflict pain when it’s needed and otherwise.

At its base, this is a fine and fun morality play in which children save a community and the almost-brainless adults are never the wiser.   It’s the sequel to Whistling in the Dark, and I can hardly wait for the third part of Lesley Kagen’s true justice trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Moving, funny, and full of unexpected delights…   Kagen crafts a gorgeous page-turner about love, loss, and loyalty, all told in the sparkling voices of two extraordinary sisters.”   Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You.

Good Graces was released on September 1, 2011.

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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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Coming Up Next…

A review of History of a Suicide: my sister’s unfinished life by Jill Bialosky.

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Blue on Blue

Amaryllis in Blueberry: A Novel by Christina Meldrum (Gallery Books; $15.00; 365 pages)

“Life goes on?   I don’t know the answer to this question.   I don’t know if there’s room in this world.   Because all other times each life feels unwieldy to me, all-powerful, all-consuming, just knowing how much the choices made by one person can affect others’ lives.   In this respect, each of our lives seems huge…”

Christina Meldrum shares a mesmerizing story of love, faith, family and betrayal in her new novel, Amaryllis in Blueberry. Her story takes us through the calm, serene nature of the family’s Michigan cabin to the beauty and desolateness of their African mission.

Seena and her husband Dick Slepy have four beautiful but drastically different daughters, each of whom is in the midst of her own journey.   Mary Grace, struggling with the impact of her own physical beauty;  Mary Catherine, sacrificing everything to prove her faith; Mary Tessa, a precocious young girl trying to figure out her own place in the world; and Amaryllis, the daughter who has unexplainable gifts of sensing the truth, but does not seem to belong.

Following an encounter with his daughter Amaryllis who is the dark-haired, dark-skinned daughter amongst blond, fair-skinned girls and who believes she is not his biological daughter, Dick insists that the family move from their home in Michigan to do missionary work in Africa.   Dick’s attempts to reestablish his own worth and run away from his aching, although unproven fear, that Amaryllis may be right, unravels a string of events that affects each of his children and ultimately his lovely but distant wife Seena.

Seena, a book-loving storyteller, reluctantly agrees to support the journey to Africa but is unable to let go of the memory of a former lover.   This obsession takes on a life of its own.   The characters in the story become real as they struggle with both the cultural shift of their move to Africa and the realities of their own personal downfalls and fears.

Meldrum unleashes a series of unpredictable events that will leave you wondering…  how well can you truly know someone and how great is the impact of your own choices on the lives of those around you?

Recommended.

This review was written by Kelly Monson.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Kiss From A Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; $24.95; 336 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and the smart one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story flawlessly – I kept searching in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone – it is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in this tale, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, of course, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters on a stage.

As the story unfolds, each of the daughters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external version of achievement and an internal one.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no use wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was published on January 20, 2011.

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Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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With a Little Help From My Friends

The Island: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Unabridged Hachette audio book on 13 CDs; $34.98)

When the going gets tough for Chess Cousins, she and three other East Coast ladies retreat to Tuckernuck Island off the coast of Nantucket.   These ladies are not just anyone; they are Chess’s mother Birdie Cousins, aunt Ida Bishop and sister Tate Cousins.   Tough doesn’t begin to describe Chess’s situation as her recently dumped fiance has died in a rock climbing incident and she has walked out on her editorial job at a prestigious culinary magazine.   To make matters worse, Chess decides to cut her shining golden hair and shave her head.

Birdie masterminds their trip to the family vacation home on Tuckernuck.   The house lacks hot water, electricity, and television and cell phone reception.   After a 13-year family hiatus from vacationing on the property, the ladies come together for the month of July.   The plan is to allow Chess the solitude and support she needs to get beyond her depression.

Author Hilderbrand present a masterfully simple story that expands as the days on the island are counted off, one by one.   The cadence of the story, narrated by Denice Hicks, is one of calm repetition that includes descriptions of the locale, conversations, meal preparation and the introspective thoughts of the ladies.   The activities they perform daily become part of the story line.   There are bursts of emotion that erupt from the interactions of the characters.   The narrator balances the dulcet tones of Birdie with the harsh outbursts from Tate and Chess.   India’s throaty voice is a sharp contrast to those of her sister and nieces.   This is only right as she is a worldly woman who is herself the widow.

The key male character is Barrett Lee, a golden hunk of a man in his thirties, who is the caretaker of the house.   He brings the food, wine, ice and clean laundry daily from Nantucket.   Although Nantucket is only a half-mile away by boat, it might as well be on another continent.   Both Barrett and his father Chuck before him have captured the hearts and imaginations of the respective generations of sisters.

The sense of isolation felt by Birdie, India and Tate serves to prompt them to deal with their own issues even though they are supposed to be assisting Chess.   There is a sense of dancing around each one’s life situation, avoiding the whole truth, shying away and then revisiting them again and again.   Each revisit brings more of the backstories to the fore.   The complexity of the emotions and fears brought on by the need for someone to love is flavored with loving kindness, frustration, self-awareness and anxiety.

In a sense, the book is a confessional.   The four points of view on love and loss, sibling rivalry and what it means to be loved are beautifully portrayed in this multi-generational saga.

Highly recommended, and, yes, it’s a fine example of chick lit.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the audio book was provided by Hachette Audio.

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After the Goldrush

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon; $14.99; 339 pages)

“I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie…”   Neil Young

“I could always heal the birds,” he admits…  Echo takes his hand, “Joseph says that birds are the only creatures that have blind faith.   This is why they are able to fly.”

Ilie Ruby has crafted a magically moving novel composed of disparate elements: a tragic childhood death, a kidnapped woman, American Indian (Seneca) ghosts and spirits, wolves that interact with humans, unrequited love, and a parent’s illness.   The book is also replete with dysfunctional families who, sadly, may represent normality in American life.   Dysfunctional families are fueled by shame and secrets, and the secrets are kept until they must be divulged in order to save lives.

Two of the key characters in The Language of Trees are Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell.   Grant is a half-blooded Seneca with the power to cure sick and wounded birds and animals.   He is also a person who cannot cure himself.   Then there’s Echo, who feels that she is lost in her life in spite of the fact that she’s true to herself.   Echo is the one person in the story who is free, except that she’s not aware of it.   And, except for Echo, the book is populated with characters that are haunted by the past – literally and figuratively – as they search for peace and redemption.

“Happiness is just as hard to get used to as anything else.”

The Language of Trees is written in a cinematic style.   It begins slowly and it takes the reader some time to absorb all of the many characters and to understand the personal issues affecting them all.   There’s also more than a touch of mysticism and magic to the story.   There are unique and spiritual events that will seem almost commonplace to those with even a touch of Native American blood.   (The author demonstrates a great deal of respect for Indian folklore and beliefs.)

What is initially calm builds to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion.   Coming to the final pages, I was reminded of the style of Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides, which found this reader both excited and sad that the journey was about to end.   As with Conroy’s novels, Ruby leaves us with a life’s lesson, which is that one must let go of the demons of the past in order to “not (be) afraid of the future anymore.”   Once the nightmares of the past have been left behind, we are free to soar like birds.

At its conclusion, this novel has the power to transport the reader to a better place.

“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.”   (N. Young)

The Language of Trees is nothing less than masterful and transformational.   Let’s hope that we will not have to wait too long for Ms. Ruby’s next novel.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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