Tag Archives: survival

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow (Gotham Reprint, $16.00, 352 pages)

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman,” “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never been fully resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls From Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   This review is dedicated to the memory of Jeffrey Lloyd Zaslow, who was killed in an auto accident on February 10, 2012.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Bobblehead Dad

Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew by Jim Higley (Greenleaf Book Group; $14.95; 201 pages)

There is something about cancer that strikes a chord with nearly everyone.   Whether it is the fear that it could happen to anyone at anytime, the fact that nearly everyone knows somebody who has suffered through the dreaded disease, or some other mysterious quality that separates this affliction from others, there is no disputing the fact that the mere mention of cancer quickly gets people’s attention.

In his early forties, Jim Higley, a single dad with three young children was diagnosed with prostate cancer.   The prognosis was particularly ominous due to his family’s history of cancer and the fact that he had lost his brother to brain cancer just a few years earlier.

Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew is his story.   The term bobblehead refers to the sports replica figurines whose heads bobble.   Early in the book, Higley recalls his fondness for them as a child and realizes that he has taken on that characteristic as a dad by routinely bobbing his head dismissively when he returns home from work and listens to his children’s stories of their days.

That is the beginning of the format of the book in which the author pairs childhood memories with his real-time cancer experiences to craft a series of 25 lessons focused on choices that allow for happiness and healthy relationships.

The writing is excellent.   The lessons initially appear to be a bit simplistic or quaint, but in the context of the author’s battle with cancer, the reader is much more inclined to internalize the inherent wisdom of many of them.   My personal favorite is Lesson 12:  Rest.   Some other examples include “Embrace Who You Are” and “Lessons Happen Every Day.”   Again, out of context, they might appear too unsophisticated for 21st Century America, but that appears to be exactly the point – they are not.   In fact, they are presented as foundational building blocks for life.

Due to consistency in voice and presentation, the book flows seamlessly from page to page.   The reader can easily relate to the anecdotes, topics, and relationships that permeate the true tale.   In no way is the book’s audience limited to males, cancer survivors, or other types of age ranges or subgroups.   It can be read quickly in a  few settings or in short segments as time allows.   Overall, Bobblehead Dad is a gem.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author.   Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.   Note:  Readers who relate to this book might also be interested in The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and/or Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Miles From Nowhere

Sliding on the Edge: A Novel by C. Lee McKenzie (WestSide Books, $16.95, 268 pages)

The rent is overdue and Jackie, a compulsive gambler, has skipped town with the latest in a long line of bad boyfriends.   She leaves a hundred dollars, a bus ticket to Sacramento, California, and a note telling her daughter to look up the grandmother she’s never met.   So when sixteen-year-old Shawna wakes up to find herself alone in their seedy rental, we expect a coming-of-age story set against the bright lights and gritty underbelly of Las Vegas.

But Sliding on the Edge by first-time novelist C. Lee McKenzie delivers something quite different.   It’s an interesting look at the lives of two women – grandmother Kay’s and Shawna’s – linked by blood and stained by tragedy.   They are each others’ last chance for happiness, as impossible as that seems to both when they first set eyes on each other.

McKenzie tells the story of their uneasy first months together, alternating chapters in Shawna’s words and in Kay’s and sometimes recounting the same scene from each character’s perspective.   It’s a technique that deftly lets the reader in on Kay’s past and on Shawna’s self-destructive present.   But it falls short of making Shawna a likeable character.   When Kay’s teenaged stable hand develops a crush on Shawna; and Marta, a classmate, pursues her friendship, this reader wondered why?

Kay is a far more sympathetic character, which is brilliant:  It lets the reader, likely a teen, see that authority figures are people, too.   At times, however, it seemed to have been edited too tightly at the expense of details that might have developed the characters further.   Who is the redhead with the ice cream about whom Shawna thinks?

Sliding on the Edge tackles the difficult issues of depression, cutting, and attempted suicide in an unflinching manner and ends on a hopeful note.   Recommended.

By Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the author.   “Sliding on the Edge is the compelling, courageous chronicle of one girl – destined to be a no-one – who fights back against her secret grief and pain and finds her life.”   Judy Gregerson, author of Bad Girls Club.

C. Lee McKenzie has released her second novel, The Princess of Las Pulgas.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

When the Ship Comes In

Between Shades of Gray: A Novel by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel; $17.99; 344 pages)

In the epilogue to Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, protagonist Lina speaks to us from a time capsule:  “It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar…  prompt you to do something, to tell someone.   Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.”

The story that she has buried in that jar begins in 1941 in Lithuania.   Lina, who is fifteen, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are at home one evening when the Soviet secret police come to the door.   Through her eyes we watch as the three are deported to Siberia.   Lina’s father, a professor who has aided relatives’ emigration to Germany has been arrested.   His actions were prompted by the hope that the relatives might, in turn, help his own family escape Stalin’s tyranny.

As the truth of their situation gradually unfolds for Lina, she draws images of horror and images of heroism, and tucks the sketches into the lining of her suitcase.   It’s an act of silent rebellion that she knows is both brave and foolish.   But she is an artist who is desperate to record the history of the ordinary people swept up in Stalin’s purges.   Through Lina’s eyes we see a portrait of true grace emerge in Mother, a woman whose calm, kindness, and humanity buoy the spirits of everyone else.   We see how memories have the power to sustain and what happens when hope is lost.

What we do not see is why Stalin shipped this trainload of slave labor all the way across Siberia and north to the Arctic Circle to do work that seems only to sustain the comfort of the soldiers who guard them.   Perhaps Sepetys intended the apparent illogic of the labor camp’s location to be yet another layer of punishment – another obstacle to hopefulness.

Sepety’s characters are fascinating, even those who are the verbal equivalent of pencil sketchesthe bald man, the man who wound his watch, the repeater.   Her spare prose is reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s.   Between Shades of Gray depicts the effects of a moral disaster rather than Buck’s natural ones, but both authors know their story is so intrinsically dramatic that it needs no melodrama.   Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, published the novel, Sepety’s first, in March of 2011.   Highly recommended – and not just for young readers.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Of Missing Persons

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Books; $25.95; 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 got 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 traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that has been done on the human grieving process.   She even touches upon grief in animal colonies.   One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has been grossly misinterpreted.   These were not intended to be the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through; they were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through.

O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with us.   She has been afraid, since childhood, of the notion of death but it remained an abstract, if frightening, notion up until her mom’s passing.   Then her grief became all-encompassing and something she could not put aside in order to lead a “normal” life.   Grief, in a sense, made her insane for a period of time but it also taught her some very valuable  lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life.   As her father told her many months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to look at what he did have in the world and in 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 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 us more than we actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.

At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive in regard to social relationships.   At the time that her mother died (it’s Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without explanation – comes back into her life, and O’Rourke 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 macro and micro; as something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is most important 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 has gone 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 – survival with 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 received from the publisher.   “She is gone, and I will be, too, one day…  all the while my brain will be preoccupied by the question of death.   And that makes it hard, at times, to pay my bills…”


Comments Off on Of Missing Persons

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

On the Way Home

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt has built a reputation for insightful probing of motives, desires, and the emotional gears that mesh, don’t mesh, or can be worn to mesh as lives intersect.   Pictures of You (Algonquin Books) demonstrates that human gears, unlike their mechanical counterparts, have the ability to regrow and change shape, like calluses that evolve in response to physical exertion.

The synopsis on the back cover of Pictures of You does not do the book justice.   It sets up the bleak scenario of two thirty-something women, both married, one with a child and the other unable to conceive, whose paths cross in a violent collision on a foggy highway as they both flee unhappy marriages.   Isabelle survives the crash.   April, the mother of nine-year-old Sam, who is hobbled by severe asthma, does not.   Potential readers with an aversion to made-for-TV melodrama might hesitate to wade into an emotional journey so fraught with tragedy.   But that would be a mistake.   The story, alternately told from the viewpoints of Isabelle, Sam, and his grief-stricken father, Charlie, is an examination of assumptions and the actions that spring from them.   It’s not a book that leaves one with a happy glow of contentment.   Rather, it is a wake-up call to talk, ask questions, challenge operating principles and decisions, to dive below the surface and know the people you love, or think you might be able to love.

Sam witnesses the collision from the side of the road, and in the fog, he sees Isabelle, whom he assumes is an angel.   It is that childish impression – like a photograph without a caption – that drives the plot forward, prompting the intersections of Charlie and Isabelle’s lives.   And Sam ultimately provides the closure that eludes Charlie and Isabelle, as well as a note of hopefulness.   Ironically, however, Sam’s viewpoint is the only one of the three that sometimes rings false, his thoughts seeming too adult for a nine-year-old, or too precious.   “He didn’t care that people might say it was impossible.   Lots of things were impossible.   At school, Mr. Moto, his science teacher told them how light could be both a wave and a particle, which was supposed to be impossible.   You could go to a distant planet and somehow come back younger than you were when you left because the laws of time were all screwy.”

But the way Isabelle’s feelings develop – the clash of grief and guilt with the thrill of new love – and Charlie’s struggles to solve the mystery of April’s desertion and to balance his needs and his son’s are beautifully drawn.   Leavitt’s prose is luminous and her characters are layered.   Charlie, a house builder, takes bold steps, and then reverses himself; Isabelle, a photographer, watches, reacts, questions her own impulses.   Pictures of You is compelling, not so much because of the tragic intersection of paths chosen, but because of the characters’ failure to know each other as they envision their lives together.   It’s not the portrait of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam that will haunt you long after you finish the book, but its negative.   Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Pictures of You was released by Algonquin Books in January of 2011.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized