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Perfection

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Revival by Julie Metz (Voice, $14.99)

“There is no real perfection, there’ll be no perfect day.”   Pete Ham

“A good place to spend life.   That’s what I would need to find for myself.”   Julie Metz

I honestly thought that I would likely hate this book, based on a couple of synopses that I looked at before deciding to take a leap of faith and purchase it anyway.   This is the nonfiction tale of graphic designer-wife-mother Julie Metz, who is 43 with a five-year-old daughter when her writer-husband suddenly drops dead.   Metz goes through an extended period of mourning and loss before finding out that her husband, while alive, had several affairs with women both close to her and unknown.   The actions appear to be unforgivable and Metz begins to isolate herself with her anger.   She becomes highly dysfunctional and comes close to shutting down.

I feared this was going to be the second coming of Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies, an unpleasant memoir with a lot of whining and anger.   In Happens Every Day Gillies is unable to come to terms with her husband’s suddenly leaving her for someone else (a female former friend), even though her own mother is quoted as stating that Gillies has an overly controlling personality.   Apparently her husband simply escaped.

But Happens Every Day was basically a tale of depression and loss, while Metz – true to the sub-title – learns to revive her life after her shock and period of denial.   When her lawyer brother helps to locate her husband’s e-mail communications with his mistresses, she’s able to analyze what happened and when things happened, and even speaks with some of his women flings.   Eventually, she puts things in context (“Perhaps we all want our secrets to be found out at last…”) and learns to grant her husband Henry a type of forgiveness.

“I see that, having been through a year of loss and change, I will change still more in this next time of my life.”

The telling flows pretty easily.   Metz tends to have a lot of deep thoughts, but she also has an excellent memory and applies it to good use here.   She tells the story of a marriage – in non-chronological order – even if it was a bit unusual.   As Metz made money, Henry worked for years and years on a book about what constitutes great food; it remained incomplete at his death.   Henry had, however, chosen the title for what was to be his literary masterpiece – Perfection.

Metz can also be funny, as in relating the scene where she and her daughter decide to sprinkle some of Henry’s fine ashes (that still contain a few traces of bone and metal) in the backyard.   They do so but mix Henry’s ashes with those of a deceased male cat.   That kind of put Henry in his place!

Metz’ almost photographic memory is jarring when she writes about her sexual relationships, both before and after her marriage.   She seems to feel the need to describe every encounter she’s ever had with a male, and it becomes numbing and weary.   (Metz is clearly highly attractive but she seems to have had a life-long need to be desired by men.)   There are so many sex scenes that one can only wonder what her young daughter Emily will think of all this one day.   Perhaps she will just decide that her mom had a good time in life.

“It was helpful to remember that life could offer flavors other than sour and bitter.”

At the end of this memoir’s 342 pages, Metz has moved herself and her daughter to Brooklyn, she’s found a nice man to live with (one who is kind to her daughter), and is re-energized and hopeful.   She and her mate become domestic partners and she comes to see that this new life may well be a contented one – a “perfect fit.”

This reader had his doubts – serious doubts – about this work but Metz pulls this one out before the screen goes black.   Recommended.

As noted previously, this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Not the One

The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch (Shaye Areheart Books, June 1, 2010)

“…I wonder if being too satisfied with your life and becoming numb to it aren’t somehow intertwined.   Like there isn’t something just as dangerous about playing it safe.”

It’s odd to love a novel by a writer and then be disappointed by her next effort.   That is the position this reviewer is in with the release of Allison Winn Scotch’s The One That I Want, which follows her very successful Time of My Life.   Lifewas a glorious read with a plot that was a variation on the storyline in the film “Peggy Sue Got Married.”   In Scotch’s novel a young woman isn’t sure that she’s made the best choices in her life and wishes she could return to a certain point in her life.   In Time of My Life the protagonist Jillian Westfield is a 34-year-old woman – married with a husband and a toddler – who is permitted to return to the age of 27 (her life becomes a “do over”).   The reader follows along to see if Jillian can make better use of these 7 years with the so-called benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

It was easy to identify with Jillian Westfield from page one and the story seemed to move along effortlessly.   Author Scotch also provided the reader with some very nice insights such as noting that in romantic relationships, “One person is always changing too much and the other not enough.”   Unfortunately, The One That I Want does not share the positives of Life.

In The One, our protagonist is Tilly Farmer, a 32-year-old young woman with the seemingly perfect marriage and life.   Then everything falls apart, not gradually but all at once.   If this were not bad enough, Farmer is given the gift of seeing the future, although it’s not a gift she welcomes.   It’s an unpleasant gift as her future looks bleak.

It’s obvious that Scotch has fashioned an inside-out version of her earlier novel here.   But Tilly Farmer is hard to identify with – she’s externally forgiving of other’s faults but boils inside.   This reviewer felt that he never actually knew the character even after 288 pages.   There’s also the awkward means by which Farmer’s fortune-telling skills are triggered.   It would have been easy to have her experience visions in her sleep or in daydreams.   But, no, Farmer must experience painful blackouts – she sees the future only while unconscious.   Farmer pays for her views into the future by experiencing physical trauma, and this makes the reader uncomfortable and less willing to wait for the next such incident.

A number of things happen in this novel that strain credulity from the outset.   But perhaps the key is that in Life Scotch wrote a complete story, almost as if it came to her all at once.   With this story, it felt as if Scotch was writing it a line, a paragraph, a page at a time; the flow is not present.   A number of the sentences are awkward and stiff, such as this second half of a long sentence:  “…I realize that lessons are meant to be learned, honored even, or else you spend your life running so far from them that you erect a false existence around the very thing you should be embracing.”

Perhaps Scotch was playing it safe here; in any case, this novel felt strangely numbing.   It never came to life.   Her fictional journey into the past in Time of My Life was satisfying in a way that The One That I Want – a journey into the future – is not.   Apparently Jackson Browne got it wrong – it’s simply not easier to change the future than the past.

Take Away:   Pass on this one and pick up a copy of Time of My Life instead.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Embraced and loved

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also felt 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 the 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 fully been 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.

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Everything Lovely

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel by first-time author Jenny Hollowell will be released by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. on June 8, 2010.   Here is a preview look including a synopsis of the novel, blurbs from other authors and an excerpt from its opening pages.

Synopsis

A young woman caught at the turning point between success and failure hopes fame and fortune will finally let her leave her old life – and her old self – behind.   Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.   At twenty-two, she sets off to do just that.   Walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents, she leaves behind her small-town, part-time life and gets on a bus to Los Angeles.

Quotes

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe introduces a strong new voice, poised and sharp, beautifully suited to both the satiric task of dismantling Hollywood, and the empathetic one of rendering a young actress’s grinding struggle for stardom.”   – Jennifer Egan

“There’s some Joan Didion here, some Lorrie Moore, some Nathanael West, but really, it’s all Jenny Hollowell, a new name to remember.”   – Christopher Tilghman

“Jenny Hollowell’s writing is gorgeous and edgy, lyrical and in-your-face.”   – Sheri Reynolds

Excerpt

Prologue

Ask Birdie how she got here and she’ll pretend she doesn’t remember.   “Honestly,” she’ll say, “it all blends together.”   She doesn’t want to talk about the past.   It’s only cocktail talk, but still everyone wants a story.   That’s Los Angeles for you.   Everything’s a pitch.   Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.

The truth is rarely filmic.   Lies are better.   Once she’d told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately was sleeping with her:  My whole family is dead.   We were in a car accident together.   My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor.   What did he say?   “What an amazing story,” which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.

Semantics, anyway.   There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.

Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass.   Two things she’s good at:  drinking and keeping secrets.   In the melting cubes she sees the past…

At her agent’s insistence her bio contains the basics:  1979, Powhatan, Virginia.   Even that doesn’t matter.   Redmond changed it to 1983.   “Whoever said thirty is the new twenty-two wasn’t trying to get you work.”   Proof positive: no one really wants the truth…

Going West and the Rest, 2001.   In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:

To Judah and My Parents,

I don’t know if you will be surprised to find this note.   I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that.   But you have to know I have no other choice.   I have been a liar and a hypocrite.   I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not.   Every day, I am full of doubt.   I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of.   Let’s hope God understands my decision.   I’m sorry.

Love, Birdie.

PS – Don’t try to find me.   I’m safe, but I’m going somewhere far away.

The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes.   For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy-faced, waiting to take her back.   But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real.   Nothing is familiar – the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs.   Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled.   She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react – her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.      

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She’s Gone Country

Jane Porter is the author of several successful popular fiction books including Easy on the Eyes, Flirting with Forty, Mrs. Perfect and Odd Man Out.   Her next book, She’s Gone Country, will be released on August 23, 2010.   Thanks to the folks at five spot and Hachette Book Group, we’re giving you a sneak peek right now.   The following is an excerpt from Chapter One.

Brick calls me on his cell about an hour later.   “That was the most boring sermon ever, Shey.   You owe me.”

I grin at the misery in his deep voice.   He might be the oldest and I might be the youngest but we’ve always been tight.   “You don’t have to pretend to like church just because she’s here,” I answer, taking a step outside the house to stretch and stand on the screened porch with its view of the oak lined drive.   More oak trees dot the pasture between the house and the six stall barn.   There’s not a lot else to see but trees, cows, and land.   Mama and Pop lived here for fifty-some years, and Pop’s parents before that.

“If it makes her happy,” he says.

“That’s why you’ll go to heaven and I won’t,” I laugh and ruffle my hair.   I’ve always gotten along well with all my brothers, but I enjoy teasing Brick the most, probably because he takes his job as the oldest so damn seriously.   “You all on your way home now?”

“No.   We’re going for breakfast.   Mama’s still worked up, and Charlotte thought a good hot meal would put her in a better mood, especially when she’s driving back to Jefferson this afternoon.   Don’t want her on the road when she’s in a mood.”

“No, we certainly don’t.   So where are you going, and are we invited?”

“Um, Shey, you’re the reason Mama’s in a bad mood.   You’re probably better off staying at the house.”

“Gotcha.”   My lips twist in a rueful smile.   My mother and I have a funny relationship.   Given that I’m the only daughter and the baby of the family, you’d think we would have been close.   Only it didn’t work out that way.   Mama prefers boys.   But I can’t complain.   I certainly wasn’t neglected growing up.   I had three brothers to chase after and always was the apple of my Daddy’s eye.   “We’ll see you later, then, and don’t rush your meal.   We’ll be here when you return.”

(Used by permission.)

 

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Waiting for McLean Stevenson

Cakewalk: A Memoir by Kate Moses

“The byproduct of suffering, if you’re lucky, is appreciation…  My windfall has always been a sweet tooth, the gold watch that deflected the bullet aimed straight at my heart.”

I was more than 50 pages into reading a galley of Cakewalk before I realized that this is a non-fiction memoir.   At the start it reads like a novel that might have been written by Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen, although I should have taken a clue from its overly upbeat nature.   “Mom, did you know the words ‘treat’ and ‘threat’ are separated by just one letter?”   But the tone shifted before many more pages had been turned.

Kate Moses was in first grade in 1969 and this re-telling of her life story reads like a memorial to an earlier time, the 1950’s.   It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that Moses grew up living in several places including Palo Alto, Petaluma, Sonoma, outside of Philadelphia (where the Main Line ended), Virginia and Fairbanks, Alaska.   She also had relatives in San Francisco and Dayton, Ohio (“…along every road in Ohio the corn stood high as an elephant’s eye.”)

This initially appears to be an ode to food, the many treats and meals that an overweight young girl took in growing up.   She sees a cross-country trip as “an opportunity for reunion with Howard Johnson’s coconut cake.”   And she “spent every cent I was given on candy and pink Hostess Sno Balls.”   The impression that this is all about food is given further credence by a recipe that concludes each chapter.   Yet the food talk is a cover.

“My family was totally screwed up…”

This memoir is, to a great extent, about the pain of growing up.   Moses’ parents had a very unhappy marriage.   Her father was an overly serious man and her mother was fun-loving.   It did not make for a good mix.   One fault with the telling is that Moses makes a few too many negative references to her father.   He was “a rigid bullying husband…” and a violent father who caught his wife in “the stranglehold of… marriage” due to his “brutalizing domination.”   The reader gets the point after the first couple of references.

This brings up the issue of editing.   All in all, this is an entertaining read but not so much that the typical reader will want to stick with it for 368 pages.   It could easily have been shortened by a third of its length, and there is a bit too much repetition.   Ah, and a minor point, some of Peter Frampton’s lyrics are quoted incorrectly.

“It was the year we started waiting for McLean Stevenson…”

Still, there are some very entertaining stories included in Cakewalk, some of which prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.   Kate’s mother fantasized about being rescued by the actor McLean Stevenson, and she eventually was arrested – or rather, detained – while visiting the White House after being caught taking something from Pat Nixon’s bathroom!

Further, if you absolutely love food more than life itself, there are plenty of intriguing descriptions here of meals and snacks.   In fact, this autobiography is gorged with tales of food consumption.   Then there are the recipes to try out.   Be sure to try the one for chocolate chip cookies!

Cakewalk will be released on May 11, 2010.   An advance review copy was provided by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House.

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Time Goes By

In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50 will be released by Atria on April 27, 2010 in trade paperback form ($16.00).   This collection of essays, poems, photographs and drawings was edited by Emily W. Upham and Linda Gravenson.   The following is an excerpt from one of the essays included in the compilation.

“My Narrow Escape” – Abigail Thomas

I like living alone.   I like not having to make male conversation.   I like that I can take as many naps as I feel like taking and nobody knows.   I like that if I’m painting trees and the telephone receiver gets sticky with hunter green and there’s a long drool of blue sky running down the front of the dishwasher, nobody complains.  

I’m seldom lonely.   I have three dogs, twelve grandchildren and four grown kids.   I have a good friend who now and then drives down with his dog.   We’ve known each other so long that we don’t have to talk and when we do we don’t have to say anything.   When he asks me if I’d like to take a trip around the world, I can say yes, knowing that I’ll never have to go.

Inertia is a driving force in both our lives.  

Sometimes I feel sorry for my friends who are looking around for a mate.   I don’t want one, and I don’t want to want one.   It has taken me the better part of 60 years to enjoy the inside of my own head and I do that best when I’m by myself.

I am smug.   I am probably insufferable.

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