Tag Archives: suicide

The Unexplained

A Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman (Henry Holt and Co., $28.00, 288 pages)

an unexplained death

Author Mikita Brottman lives at the Belvedere Hotel, a Baltimore landmark with a long history of strange occurrences, suicides, and mysterious deaths.  Brottman here professes her fascination with the occult, tarot cards, and suicide so the examination of the apparent 2006 suicide of Rey Rivera – a once-fellow resident of the Belvedere, would seem to be a perfect topic for her writing.

Brottman’s account of events, An Uexplained Death, provides numerous details surrounding Rivera’s death as well as a tremendous amount of conjecture on her part.  What it fails to do is to provide clarity or new information beyond what was already known or presumed. (The authorities found the death to be a suicide.)  Brottman goes on – in what seems like a stretch – to explore cultural attitudes about suicide from around the world, and she provides her personal views on various matters whether related or not.

Rey Rivera was a tall and attractive aspiring film maker who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles with his new wife, Allison.  He joined with Porter Stansberry of Agora, publishing newsletters offering financial advice.  His death happened to come at the time when he had borrowed money to produce his own film, was getting ready to quit Agora – which was engulfed in an SEC investigation – and was about to move back to L.A.

Did Rivera jump from the roof of the Belvedere, falling through a skylight at the top of a space which once housed the hotel’s swimming pool, or was he running from someone intending to do him harm?  Brottman investigates various alternatives to suicide possibilities, but none of them seem either likely or probable.  She wonders aloud whether Rivera was depressed about the Agora investigation or whether he became entangled in a homosexual affair.  It’s all so much smoke and mirrors because each such alternate explanation is discarded shortly after being raised.  And Brottman’s conclusion of this strange, quasi-fictional investigation of a real-life death provides nothing of substance.

The story is slightly compelling during the few periods in which Brottman sticks to the subject matter at hand.  But she spends far too much time writing about herself, her life, and her obsessions.  Oh, but for an editor!

The typical reader is unlikely to find Brottman’s affinity for rats very endearing.  The same is true concerning her fascination with strangely committed murders, and the time she spends imagining herself in another person’s shoes (such as Allison Reyes’s).  All in all, this is a book of rambling distractions, which is as generally uninteresting as it is undisciplined.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

Notes:

The Beaux Arts style Belvedere Hotel was opened as Baltimore’s first luxury hotel in 1903 and was converted to residential condos in 1991.

I read the book and wondered why the writer spent an obsessive amount of time attempting to solve a crime which the local authorities had already solved, resolved and literally closed the book on.  – Joseph Arellano

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For a Dancer

Five Days Left (nook book)

Five Days Left

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, $26.95, 352 pages)

At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision, keeping her illness from them. She was in denial in the beginning, as loathe to admit to herself that everything was wrong as she was to admit it to them. But then, after her diagnosis, everyone around her became so overly concerned, so insufferably attentive that she started to regret anyone knew… (I)t was infuriating to watch herself deteriorate in the eyes of the people around her. Use the word “disease” and suddenly everyone will instantly treat you like you’re ill, Mara learned, even on days you feel fine.

Five Days Left is a close to perfect debut novel from Julie Lawson Timmer, whose background is in law. This is the story of Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, wife and mother whose life is put on hold by a diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease. Mara fights to hide her symptoms from her co-workers and family members for months and years, but eventually realizes that her body is breaking down and out-of-control; the disease is going to take her life. So Mara decides that she will commit suicide on her next birthday. The narrative begins five days before the birthday on which Mara will end it all. Or will she?

(Her death by suicide) was a dreadful thing to do to a child, a husband, to such caring parents and friends, but really, who were any of them to judge? How could they ever truly know what she had gone through? Who were any of them to say they wouldn’t have at least considered the same thing?

Timmer does an excellent job of portraying how infirmity can make a coward out of the strongest individual. Mara goes from being a life-long workaholic to becoming a virtual invalid. Once proud, she eventually simply wants everything to be over with and no longer cares about how she’ll be judged upon her self-inflicted demise. It’s a timely, unique look at the mindset of a suicidal person.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

There’s a secondary character and story that’s not as strong, and that story is a touch unrealistic. But all in all, this is a stunning work from Timmer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“…this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.” Jodi Picoult

Five Days Left is a heart-wrenching drama about a world in which there are no easy answers… This novel feels as true as life.” Christina Baker Kline

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A Coming Attraction

A Working Theory of Love: A Novel by Scott Hutchins (Penguin Press, $25.95, 336 pages)

This debut novel by Scott Hutchins – a University of Michigan graduate, a former Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program and a current Instructor at Stanford University – will be released on October 2, 2012.   The protagonist, Neill Bassett, lives in a San Francisco apartment building “on the south hill overlooking Dolores Park.”   He commutes to work in Menlo Park, where he works at a small but innovative Silicon Valley company.   Here is a synopsis of A Working Theory of Love:

Neil Bassett is now just going through the motions, again joining the San Francisco singles scene after the implosion of his very short-lived starter marriage to ex-wife Erin.   He’s begun to live a life of routine, living with his cat in the apartment that he and Erin once shared.   On one otherwise ordinary day he discovers that his upstairs neighbor Fred has broken a hip.   Neil summons an ambulance, and when the paramedics arrive Fred says to Neil, “I’m sorry, Neill.   I’m sorry.   I’m so sorry.”   This sets Neil to wondering about life itself — was Fred apologizing for “his basic existence in this world, the inconvenience of his living and breathing?”

Neil’s physician father committed suicide ten years earlier, leaving behind personal diaries of thousands of pages.   The artificial intelligence company Neil works for, Amiante Systems, is using the diaries to create a human-like computer which uses the words of Neil’s late dad to communicate.   To Neil’s surprise, the experiment seems to be working as the computer not only gains an apparent conscious awareness it even begins asking Neill difficult questions about his childhood.

While in a state of shock over the events at Amiante, Neil meets an intended one-night stand named Rachel.   He falls for her and wonders what his life would be like in her company; and, yet, he remains bogged down with his feelings for Erin.   To make matters worse, Erin continues to intersect with Neil at unlikely and unexpected times.   When Neil discovers a missing year in the diaries – a year that might unleash the secret to his parents’ seemingly troubled marriage and perhaps the reason for his father’s suicide – everything Neil thought he knew about his past comes into question.   Neil now becomes paralyzed with confusion and indecision. 

Scott Hutchins’s story deals with love, grief and reconciliation while teaching us about life’s lessons.   He shows us how we have the chance to be free once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our family histories – our sad or disappointing childhoods, our poor youthful decisions, and our unintended miscommunications with those we love and have loved.   A Working Theory of Love presents the reader with a unique, highly gifted new writing talent in the form of Scott Hutchins.

“A brainy, bright, laughter-through tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel…  This book’s got something for everyone!”   Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan

“Scott Hutchins’s wonderful new novel is right on the border of what is possible…  The book is brilliantly observant about the way we live now, and its comic and haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”   Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love

“It takes a genius, a supercomputer, a disembodied voice, and a man who’s stopped believing to create A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins’s brilliantly inventive deubt novel…  This book is astonishing.”   Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son

Joseph Arellano

The synopsis of A Working Theory of Love was based on information provided by the publisher, and on an Advanced Uncorrected Proof.   The novel will be released in hardbound form in October, and will also be available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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Into The Great Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross (William Morrow, $25.99, 338 pages)

“A horrible family tragedy that may not be what it seems…”

Location, location, location…   They say that these are the three most important factors in real estate, and on occasion location, location, location matters in fiction, also.   Take this novel, Eyes Wide Open, by Andrew Gross (author of Reckless).   You will probably enjoy this thriller of a crime story if you’ve visited at least two of the three California locations in which the action takes place:  Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border.   Since I’ve visited all three – the first for play; the latter two for work – it was easy to visualize the scenes in this novel.

In the tale (based on something that happened in real life to author Gross), our protagonist New York State-based physician Jay Erlich learns that his nephew has apparently committed suicide by jumping off the famed 600-foot high volcanic rock in Morro Bay.   At the request of his troubled older brother Charlie, Erlich flies out to the calm, coastal community to see if what the police have reported is correct.   Early on it’s clear that someone is covering something up, as there are problems with the offical story.

Charlie Erlich was once a chart-topping musician, but then he fell in with a wild group of drug users in Marin County.   And this is where the story telling goes a bit sideways.   It’s immediately clear to the reader that Charlie was once a member of the Charles Manson Family, but here Manson is fictionalized as the “leering and wild-eyed” person known as Russell Houvanian.   [Houvanian, of course, is first imprisoned at San Quentin before being moved to Pelican Bay – just like Charles Manson.]   The author devotes page after page to recreating the events surrounding the Manson Family, but for some strange reason moves them from Ventura and Los Angeles counties to Marin and Santa Barbara counties.

I have no idea why Gross spent so much time and energy to transforming Manson into a fictional character.   But instead of adding to the story, it significantly detracts from it.   It’s as if I were to write a novel about the first Irish-Catholic president elected in the 1960s, a character that I decide to name John McNeal.   McNeal, in my story, has a brother named Richard who happens to be the U.S. Attorney General, and another brother, Ned, who is a senator from Massachusetts.   It wouldn’t take the reader long to ask the questions, “Why not just set this period novel among the Kennedys?   Why fictionalize actual events and real people?”

While the author’s credibility takes a hit with his strangely disguised historical events, the story itself is engaging.   Lives are at risk and it’s up to Doctor Erlich to become an instant, skilled criminal investigator in order to figure out which authority figures are telling the truth and which are telling lies to protect their own reputations.   As with the novels of David Baldacci, Joseph Finder and Michael Connelly, events speed up rapidly as the conclusion approaches, and it all ends in a rather breathless fashion.

Once you’ve finished Eyes Wide Open, you may want to check on the availability of a room at The Inn at Morro Bay.   Just make sure to be very careful if you decide to climb the famed  rock of Morro Bay!

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Should be read with the lights on and the door closed.   A rare and menacing psychological thriller…”   Nelson DeMille

Note:   Morro Rock is actually 576-feet high.   While it’s illegal to climb it, as per Wikipedia, “every few years, someone is caught trying to climb the rock.”

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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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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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Carry On

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)

A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for.   Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read.   Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end.   For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia.   There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.   They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death.   An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives.   More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.

Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants.   She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more.   The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith.   It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband.   Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction.   Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.   It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction.   The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father.   It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc.   The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.

After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing.   However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output.   Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.

Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one.   It is simply too good to miss.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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On the Road Again

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale; $14.99; 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also brief encounters with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You might be thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of Java.   Hilburn makes very clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was full of excitement and energy – and the telling seems to get tired and pessimistic as we approach present times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a lot of pessimism about the current music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses, he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the artists he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician is afraid that the public will become tired of him.   Bono answers, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted that he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at its best – as when it’s performed by Bruce Springsteen, “rock ‘n roll (can) still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s great figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   Take what you need from this account and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

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What Went Wrong with Tomorrow?

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Holt Paperbacks; $15.00; 250 pages)

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.”

This is an interesting and slyly engaging novel built around the theme that people never quite get what they want  out of life.   The story tells the tale of Frank Allcroft, a TV news anchorman working in his home town of Birmingham, England.   Frank appears to have everything possible in life – a great and glamorous job (one that makes people want to buy him his drinks), a beautiful and intelligent wife, and a bright, inquisitive and strangely optimistic daughter.   But things are unraveling at the seams.   His idol Phil, his predecessor in the anchor chair has died under mysterious circumstances; his late architect father’s buildings are being torn down; and his mother wants to be left alone to die in an assisted-living facility.

It seems that Frank will only be able to shake his malaise if he manages to figure out the details of Phil’s death.   Was it an accident, a suicide or something else?   Phil was always a positive extrovert but in the weeks before his death he was tearful and gloomy, drinking too much and telling his co-workers how much he loved them.   Something just doesn’t add up.

Frank likely saw Phil as a second father, one whose death brings back all of his memories of his father’s passing only a month after a professional setback.   Frank’s now seeing that nothing in life lasts, and the promise of a better future appears to be quickly diminishing in line with his own aging (he can no longer see to drive at night).   Yet, just when the reader sees that he or she has this one all figured out, O’Flynn puts in some sharp curves on what’s been an otherwise straight drive.   We learn the shocking truth behind Phil’s death as we see that, for some, life offers new rewards, gifts.

The reader receives the message from O’Flynn that some people never recover from a death; it’s a harsh fact of life.   “He’s never once felt Elsie’s presence since she died.   He watched the last breath leave her body and then the world changed.   She was gone.   He feels her presence all the time…  He understands now.   Our absence is what remains of us.”

O’Flynn has provided her audience with a beautifully balanced treatise on the things that life provides and the things that life takes away from us.   It is a quietly stunning work.

Well recommended.

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

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Dead to the World

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden

It’s not just the folks with the famous names who live outrageous lives.   Their relatives, in this case the children and grandchildren, also feel the effects of super wealth and status.   Wendy Burden falls into this category.   She is the great, great, great, great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt.   There was still plenty of money and status associated with the family when she was born.   Unfortunately, her father William A. M. Burden III, a direct descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt, could  not take the pressure of life and committed suicide when Wendy was six years of age.

This sad event precipitated the handing off of Wendy and her younger brother Will to Grandpa and Grandma Burden for intermittent visits while mom escaped life and responsibilities overseas in the company of a variety of men.   This memoir is an over-the-top expose with all the dirty little stuff prominently featured.   The self-indulgence, disregard for others and general insular behavior exhibited by the Grandparents Burden is easy fodder for Wendy’s 21-gun salute to the grosser aspects of wealth.   Oh, did I happen to mention that the guns are loaded with bizarre details?

Who among us cares to know that Wendy collected dead birds and observed their decomposition a la the scientific method used at the body farm at the University of Tennessee?   If you’d rather eavesdrop on cocktails and dinner with the grandparents, you would learn that grandma was a champion at farting whenever she felt the urge.   According to Wendy, this urge was never ignored regardless of the folks in her vicinity.   The walls in their home may have been covered with museum quality paintings and sculpture; however, grandma and grandpa were usually too sloshed to notice.

The crisp details and well-crafted accounts of life with the super-rich begin to seem a bit suspicious once the reader gets past the shock and wit.   Yes, Wendy Burden is an excellent story teller.   Just how much is fact and how much is convenient recall – or perhaps fiction disguised as the truth – is anyone’s guess.   This reviewer finished the book with a sense of gratitude for a seemingly ordinary life.  

Recommended for snoopy readers who follow OMG! on the internet.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer..

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