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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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(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye (Random House, $27.00, 432 pages)

“Elemental power – a simple grandeur of conception – that sticks in the soul and finds it way to the corner of one’s smile.”

Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye is the story of the history behind the world’s most beloved and enduring hero.   Initially created as a villain in 1933, Superman was later revised as a hero by Jerry Siegel and drawn to resemble movie star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. by Joe Shuster (Clark Kent was molded after Harold Lloyd).

I have always liked Superman.   I still remember when my mom took me, an eight-year-old, to the big city to see Superman: The Motion Picture starring Christopher Reeve.   It was a big outing, not only the city…  but a movie!!!

I read everything I could about the movie beforehand, kept every article, studied every picture, and learned the bios of the stars and crew.   Heck, I knew what the movie was about before I even entered the theater.   But you know what?   For those two magical hours I truly believed a man could fly.   And Christopher Reeve will always be “my” Superman.

Since then, Superman has always held a magical hold over me.   I have a huge Superman collection, which I love and my wife abhors.   Lately the collection had to suffer due to kids, rent, food, etc., but at least it’s easy to buy me presents.   My son, who at the age of three and despite a constant brainwashing from his old man, decided to follow Batman (probably just for spite), has an ongoing battle with me about who is the “greatest superhero.”

I’d like to think I’m winning, but really, is there such a thing as winning an argument with a five-year-old?

I got this book from the local library.   When I took my kids there a few weeks ago my son spotted it on the “New Books” shelf, grabbed and proudly presented it to me.   You know I had to check it out.

This is Superman – the granddaddy of all superheroes, the one who started it all, the icon who is held to a higher standard in fiction and has set the standards for many of us in the nonfiction world.   It’s no wonder that the franchise is almost 80 years strong and growing stronger.

The research in the book is excellent and the book itself is fascinating.   Mr. Tye goes through the early development stages of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, through the character’s successes and their mismanagement of their careers, the shysters, the businessmen, and the fanboys who grew up to reclaim their hero and his “parents.”   The tale continues through the years, telling of important story arcs and individuals who shaped the mythology: writers, artists, actors, and publishers.

Along the way the author reaches the conclusion that Superman is not just an American hero, but a hero to children around the world and an icon to look up to.   Especially poignant to me was the time after the death of Superman where, in the comics, heroes rose and ordinary people wore the famous emblem trying to live up to the ideal of Superman himself.

The book is a well-researched document about a beloved character and the people who made him so.   The narrative is full of wonderful anecdotes about the comics (including why many characters have a double-L in their names), the famous copyright trials, the movies and TV shows (including Smallville), and is chock-full of interviews with a cast of characters who deeply care about this mythological titan.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5 (a rating equivalent to Highly Recommended on this site).

This review was written by Man of la Book, and originally appeared on the Blogcritics Books site.   You can read more reviews by Man of la Book at his bookish blog:  http://manoflabook.com/ .

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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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