December 5, 2010 · 3:00 pm
So Much for That: A Novel by Lionel Shriver (Harper; $25.99; 433 pages)
“…the biggest tipoff that she was not in as much denial as she feigned was that Glynis had no interest in the future. That left everyone pretty much stumped. When you weren’t interested in the future you weren’t interested in the present either. Which left the past, and she really wasn’t interested in that.”
This is a fictional tale of two American families in 2005. They are typical, yet atypical in that they are both being worn and ground down by the twin pressures of a fiscal recession and deadly diseases. The primary family, the Knackers, is composed of Glynis, sculptress, wife and mother and mesothelioma victim (a form of cancer that is killing her quickly); Shep, the ever dutiful husband who is a millionaire on paper; their absent college age daughter Amelia; and their clueless teenage son Zach. Their friends, presumably Jewish, are Jackson and Carol Burdina. Jackson is an angry co-worker of Shep’s who is insecure about being married to the ever-beautiful Carol. They have two daughters, Flicka, who was born with Familial Dysautonomia (FD) – which will likely kill her by the time she is 30 – and Heather, their healthy overeating daughter who is growing larger by the hour.
Shep Knacker’s longtime dream is to cash in on his home improvement business in order to live what he calls The Afterlife on an island. However, just as he sells his business for a cool $1 million, Glynis is diagnosed with the cancer that gives her a little over a year to live. The longer Glynis lives, the more Shep’s Merrill Lynch account will be drawn down. Shep quickly learns that a million dollars does not last long in a world where an aspirin costs $300 and a regimen of chemotherapy goes for $30,000.
“That had been one revelation, insofar as there was any: everything was equal. There were no big things and little things anymore. Aside from pain, which had assumed an elevated position… all matters were of the same importance. So there was no longer any such thing as importance.”
One of the ironies of this tale is that while 51-year-old Glynis fights to hang on to life to the point where she becomes a near madwoman, young Flicka looks forward to the day – at 18 – when she can end her own. And while they trouble themselves with such basic issues, Jackson becomes obsessed with penis enlargement surgery – something he presumes will please his attractive spouse.
“(It was) a world where oblivion was nirvana, where one was never allowed the hope of no pain but only of less.”
Glynis eventually becomes angry as her supposed friends either treat her like a woman already dead, or fail to follow through on their original promises to be there for her when the going gets rough. Yet, she stubbornly refuses to ever accept a fatal diagnosis, even while undergoing a year-long regimen of toxic chemo. She begins to view herself as a marathon runner who never seems to be able to complete the 26th and final mile.
Shep is a man who has prided himself on being responsible his entire life. He’s the man who has always paid his own way and played by the rules. But others tell him that he’s a responsible taxpaying sucker especially when Medicaid won’t buy Glynis even a single aspirin for her pain. He’s not sure what to do until, surprisingly, his ever raging and thought-to-be-dense friend Jackson sends him a message.
This is a work about human values and morals in the face of impending financial ruin and death. What would we do – any of us – in order to keep our health and our homes for an extra day, week, month or year? In this weighty and timely fictional tale you will find an answer.
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher. So Much for That is also available as an unabridged audio book and as a Kindle Edition download.
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May 14, 2010 · 1:15 pm
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (Spiegel & Grau)
“The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”
This uniquely titled nonfiction book was written by Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Army paratrooper and White House Fellow. He is the successful Wes Moore. His namesake from the same town on the east coast is serving a life sentence in the Jessup State Correctional Institution. The crime was murder and there is no possibility of parole.
The author’s recent appearance on the Oprah Show gave this reviewer the opportunity to observe him in the spotlight. He came off as poised, charming and amazingly confident. I wondered if this was an act, perhaps a well-polished persona that wins friends and influences people? There are plenty of hucksters who achieve fame. The book would provide the answer.
Within the first couple of chapters it was obvious that Wes Moore is beautifully literate, yet without pretentiousness. What you see is definitely what you get. His unfaltering curiosity about the other Wes Moore has resulted in a book that explores the outcomes for both these men and how they arrived at adulthood.
The story revolves around two young men with all-too-familiar life circumstances that include being an African American male raised by a single parent living in a poor, or declining, urban neighborhood. The narrative is set forth in three major phases concerning their coming of age. The fellows and their life experiences are differentiated as the author uses the first person for himself and the third person for the other Wes Moore.
The story is filled with painful realities – it’s easy to fall into the gang life; defensiveness and alienation are part of each day; and escaping the neighborhood (Baltimore or the Bronx) requires courage, determination and sacrifice. The author began his life with two parents raising him; however, due to a tragic medical condition his father died of a rare but treatable virus. The other Wes Moore only met his father once, accidentally in passing.
Each man encountered challenges as well as opportunities. The opportunities were provided by family and friends. Always there is balance in the presentation of each man’s life including photographs that illustrate the text. They both tried and failed more than once when attempting to change the course of their lives. The difference in the outcome can be characterized by the expectations placed upon the author and his willingness to keep trying regardless of how hard the challenge might be. He was also immensely fortunate to have family who were willing to make financial sacrifices to obtain some of the opportunities.
Wes Moore, the author, has included a comprehensive resource guide at the back of this book. The nationwide listing features organizations focused on assisting youth. Because this list is a point-in-time snapshot of resources, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to see that a continually updated version is available on the internet.
A reader who is interested in learning more about success and how it can be achieved would be well served to read The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk. Both books explore the impact of environment on personal success and the role hard work plays in achieving it.
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates will alert a reader to the possibilities for a better future for our youth, especially children who face undeniably tough circumstances. Highly recommended.
The Other Wes Moore was released by Spiegel & Grau on April 27, 2010. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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Tagged as a book review by Ruta Arellano: The Other Wes Moore, achieving success, African-Americans, autobiography, Baltimore, best books, book review, books, broken families, children, crime, criminal justice, David Shenk, failure, families, hardbound books, inner cities, inspirational stories, Jessup Correctional Institution, Joseph's Reviews, Kindle Edition, Maryland, memoir, new releases, New York State, nonfiction, One Name, one-parent families, Orah Winfrey, paratrooper, personal hardships, personal responsibility, personal sacrifices, poverty, prison inmates, recommended books, resources guides, Ruta Arellano, self perception, self-esteem, single parent family, social justice, social responsibility, sociology, Spiegel & Grau, success, The Bronx, The Genius in All of Us, The Other Wes Moore, Two Fates, urban neighborhoods, violence, Wes Moore, White House Fellow, youth gangs, youth groups