Drinking Diaries (an anthology)…………..

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The tag line under the title of Drinking Diaries reads “Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up”.  And they do with brutal honestly and reflection.

I bought this book because Jane Friedman has an essay in it. She’s very well known in the world o’ writing and her essays appear on quite a few websites I read regularly. In one essay titled Finding and Longing for Community, Jane comes across as quiet, academic, and maybe even reserved. Of course, I don’t know Jane, but she seems so down to earth and grounded. She is certainly successful in the writing world. So, the fact that she has a drinking story intrigued me. And her essay is intriguing – and quite revealing.

As are all the essays.

I am not really sure how to describe this book. It’s great that it’s an anthology because, not unlike drinking, it’s best served in small doses. The stories are heavy and heart-breaking and real. There is humor sprinkled here and there like an olive adorning a potent cocktail.

If drinking has been a part of your life in any way – even via its absence – I think you will be glad you read these stories. You might also start to see your own drinking in a different way.

A lot of the stories come from the perspective of daughters who were affected by drinking parents. If you are a parent, it’s interesting to see drinking through a child’s lens. If you had a parent who drank (or drinks), the stories might feel pretty raw.

In a very general way, this books feels like an AL-ANON meeting (the support group for those who love an addict). It’s just a simple sharing of stories and experiences without too much judgement. And it’s a great place to start a discussion about drinking in our lives and what affect it really has on those we love and those who love us.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot……

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art from www.amazon.com

This non-fiction story is about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cervical cancer in the early 1950s.

While Henrietta was undergoing treatment for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. George Gey  (a researcher) obtained some of her cells – without her knowledge or consent. Those cells were the first human cells to remain “alive” outside of the human body. Sadly, Henrietta died – but miraculously, her cells live on even today.

And the study of those cells has led to amazing advancements in medicine, including the polio vaccine, various cancer treatments, and so much more.

Normally, I read a book with my eyes wide open – but this book I read with my mouth wide open. I simply could not believe the liberties that doctors were allowed (and by the by, still are allowed) to take with human tissues. No consent necessary. Even if they will profit from it.

And it’s not just taking samples – it’s testing. While doctors and researchers were dissecting and analyzing cells outside of Henrietta’s body, other doctors were conducting research – including injecting cancer cells into their patients – without asking permission or forgiveness.

Rebecca Skloot does a lovely job of introducing us to the Lacks family and sharing their journey with us.

It was by complete accident that the Lacks children even learned that Henrietta’s cells were taken from her and being used all over the world. The cells were named HeLa cells (the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names). And they have not profited in any way from their discovery or continued sale – even though they struggle to pay their own medical bills.

This book sounded a little intimidating to me because of the science/research tilt – but Rebecca explains everything so easily that even I (a mere English major) can understand it.

The Lacks family saga saddened me tremendously. In a land where these types of things just aren’t supposed to happen, they simply do happen.

The bottom line for me is – please use my discarded tissue for research if it will help other people, but you really should ask me first if it’s okay. And if you are going to make millions on my tissue, please share at least some of those profits. Yes, thank you.

This is an amazing story and I think you will be very glad you read it!

You can purchase it on Amazon here.

And NPR did a story here.

Defending Jacob by William Landay……..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I read Defending Jacob by William Landay for my book club. If you want a book rich with discussion possibilities, this one is it.

Jacob is a high schooler who lives in a small town. In that town, one of his fellow students is murdered. Jacob’s dad is the Defense Attorney on the case – until Jacob is accused of the murder. It turns out that Ben (the murdered boy) was bullying Jacob, giving him quite a motive.

This book opens a lot of avenues of discussion….

  • Nature v. Nuture
  • The Impact of Working Parents
  • Genetic Predisposition
  • Bullying
  • Community Reaction to Crime
  • Murder and Suicide
  • What Defines Normal Behavior in Children
  • What Parents Are Willing/Unwilling to Believe About Their Children

You better serve wine. 8-)

The story was well-paced and I really liked the first half of the book. I felt like Jacob’s story could go either way and I struggled to decide whether Jacob was innocent or guilty. But then the book turns and a lot of surprising things happen. Which is generally good in a book. But this story just had too many twists. It felt contrived and too easy at the same time.

It really would make a good book for any discussion group and maybe even a good book for parents/teenagers to read together. I just wasn’t thrilled with plot development toward the end.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case. This disclaimer doesn’t matter so much in this review because from the very beginning of this book, we know that one Wes Moore becomes a Rhodes Scholar and another Wes Moore is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail. But I will discuss details from the book, just so you know.)

This is a story about two men, both named Wes Moore who live just a few streets away from each other in Baltimore, Maryland. They both grow up relatively poor, without fathers, in less than ideal neighborhoods. One Wes Moore goes on to become a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated veteran, White House Fellow, world traveler, and a successful writer/businessman. The other Wes Moore lands in jail, convicted of murder and sentenced to confinement for life.

Of course the questions  beg, “How could this happen? What was the difference?”

I won’t say that this is the most eloquent story that I have read but it is perhaps one of the most important.  I don’t think I have ever felt the full weight of my parenting responsibilities as strongly as when I turned the last page.

This book is about Wes Moore and his literary twin but it also about their mothers – the decisions they did and didn’t make. It is about what they did and didn’t do because they wanted desperately to believe in their sons. And it is about what they refused to believe or were too tired to believe, ultimately understanding that their children were not innocent bystanders in their own destinies.

The author of this book is the success story – he beat the odds. But some might argue the odds were in his favor. He had parents who had gone to college and expected him to go to college. He had tremendous support from his grandparents and his mother was willing to work her arse off to make sure her son went to a school that offered him a chance to succeed. And finally, he accepted that a life without fear was a life worth working for. He doesn’t look over his shoulder to make sure the shadows of his mistakes don’t eat him alive.

I would also argue that it was critical that his mother refused to believe that her son could do no wrong. She watched for warning signs and paid attention to them. When Wes seemed to be getting lost in the streets, his mother shipped him off to military school. This decision infuriated Wes and he tried hard to distance himself from his mom. That is a tremendous sacrifice. She risked losing her relationship with him in order to save him.

We don’t learn a lot about the other Wes Moore’s mother but we did hear that she ignored some pretty significant warning signs (and even real evidence) about her son and drug activity.

The tragedy in this story is that the other Wes Moore did try to turn his life around. He entered a work training program and sought legitimate employment. But the draw of life on the streets with his older brother proved too alluring. The other Wes Moore claims he was not at the robbery when a police officer was shot but the jury decided otherwise. He will spend the rest of his life in jail. The shadows of his mistakes will sleep under him and taunt him at night.

In this time of Presidential elections and debates, the argument over “right to life/freedom of choice” cannot help but surface. What this book shows is that we must must distract ourselves from the rhetoric and turn instead to the reality of it all. We must shift the focus from judgment and blame to education and support. And I do not mean just financial support. We are very busy demanding that young girls not get pregnant in the first place, but we are hesitant to support sex education. And once the babies are born, we literally cut the umbilical cord and send them home with parents who are just children themselves.

It is a vicious cycle of ill-equipped parents raising children who will become ill-equipped parents at often very young ages. Of course, wealthy parents make horrible choices too. Their denial and ignorance is simply more gracefully coupled with the resources that allow access to lawyers, treatment, support, and forgiveness.

I wish this book had contained more of the other Wes Moore’s stories. The author interviewed him extensively and I missed hearing more from him.

What I did really like is that this book was written from a journalistic standpoint. The author did a great job of writing without judgment, apologies, or excuses. He tells the story that is and leaves the reader to determine why.

Several colleges are giving this book to their incoming freshmen so that they can weigh the importance of the choices they make. I would argue that doctors should be giving this book to new parents when they have their first sonogram so that they can weigh the importance of the choices they make.

The words on the back of the jacket seem to capture the essence of the story best, “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

Cancer – It’s a Good Thing I Got It by David A. Koop……..

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When I first saw this title come across my email inbox, I have to say, I was skeptical. I thought the title was risky. Who could possibly be thankful for getting cancer – especially osteo sarcoma (a form of bone cancer)? And I as I turned the last page of the book, I understood that David Koop would rather not have cancer than have it. But what David beautifully helps us realize is that it doesn’t much matter what we want – sometimes we just have to deal with what we have. And the fact is, cancer did save David’s life – in the tests for diagnosing his cancer, the doctors found an embolism that would have surely killed him had it not been treated immediately.

His motto throughout the book is “Decide then do.” I love that. David doesn’t seem to have many regrets – disappoints, sure – but not regrets. What a fabulous way to live.

Cancer - It's a good thing I got it

Cancer Memoir by David Koop

What I liked most about David’s story is that it is a wonderful balance – he never underestimates the challenges he faces but he is not trying to scare or shock anyone either. And he is never preachy. His matter-of-fact retelling of his story never asks for pity and never gives up hope.

David was a single father of a seven-year-old boy when his diagnosis came in. His doctors told him frankly to “get his affairs in order.” That was in 2006. In 2012, he is still giving motivational talks, still writing a blog, and still working with The Someday Group. There are days when he can’t get out of bed and days when he is in a lot of pain, but he seems to grab tight to those moments when he isn’t in pain and make the most of them.

It is clear that this is a story about cancer and David begins by telling us his diagnosis story. Then he sidetracks and gives us the history of the important people in his life. Those stories take us about halfway through the book. That was a little frustrating because I wanted to hear right away about his battle. I wanted to get to the end and learn how he is doing now. But that is the way life goes, right? We have to become who we are and journey to our current situation – then delve in to where we are. And, as David shares, waiting is often the hardest part of the cancer journey – waiting for tests, waiting for treatments, waiting for answers, and just waiting, waiting, waiting.

David’s story is honest without really being emotional. For the most part, it is easy to read without crying – which is amazing given all that he faced and continues to face. But it is a story that should resonate with everyone who reads it – battling cancer or not – because it reminds us that time is precious and people are important. He doesn’t pretend that any of this was easy or that it should be. And he doesn’t waste time asking why or trying to change it. He fights hard with the determination of a parent who wants to raise his son. He proves that love can be a forceful weapon.

David begins each chapter with a quote. My favorite quote was the introduction to Chapter 29.

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent”
~ Marilyn Vos Savant.

That just about says it all.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht……

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

Téa Obreht is a storyteller, there is absolutely no doubt about that.

The Tiger’s Wife is a magical folk-take, rich with layers of simple lore, sophistication, complexity, and then, somehow, simplicity. It celebrates the relationship of Natalia and her grandfather beautifully. It explains how their lives are intertwined and tangled in a way that cements relationships beyond simple DNA.

Her debut novel is intricately laced with details and imagery. I personally have a hard time holding on to a lot of details when I read a complicated story, but I don’t think it matters too much if some of the specifics of this story dangle through the knotted threads of my memory. That is the way of folktales – they slip and tilt with every retelling so that the listener (or reader) gets to enhance it in his own remembrance. The larger layers of the story are clear and strong and vibrant, and they easily carry us through the novel.

The characterizations are fabulous. We get to know the people we are reading about and enjoy their nuances. One of my favorites pieces of the story is when Natalia’s grandmother learns that her husband has died. He was out of town when he died and it took some time for the news to get to the family. Natalia’s grandmother is supposed to observe 40 days of mourning and she is angry that 2 days of mourning have been stolen from her because she washed his clothes, made his bed, and prepared food for him not knowing he was already dead. This piece of the story provides lovely insight into the overwhelming loss the widow feels. So much has been taken from her.

As the story unfolds, we see how the four-year-old Natalia at first holds tight onto her grandfather’s hand as he takes her to the zoo to visit the tiger and on walks through trails. We share in her sense of wanting to keep up with his larger stride and not slip behind, to not slow him down. And then we can understand how Natalia temporarily outgrows her grandfather as her companion for adventure because he might instead slow her down.  All the while, walking in his shadow, as if to see if she can fit inside it without being lost herself. She studies medicine just as he did and lives in his house. She embraces and mimics his passion of caring for children in far-away villages.

Finally she yearns once more for the closeness she once shared with her grandfather and they begin their adventures all over. Then, as the deathless man holds tight to his promise, Natalia loses her grandfather again -this time forever. She connects the readers to him largely by sharing the landscape and the people of his stories with us. Through her, we get to meet the tiger’s wife.

But the story captures more than just the connection between a man and his daughter’s daughter. It reveals how legends are born of gossip and based in fear. How  important histories are often not written in books and stocked away on shelves but are captured in slanted memories and shared over cooling cups of coffee.

As a writer, I enjoyed not only the story but the words Téa used to tell it. She has a fabulous way with prose and there were several passages that I stopped to reread just to enjoy the way they flowed. Here are two examples…

The way is nothing like the drive Zora and I made to Brejevina, though here, too, there are vineyards, shining green and yellow toward the east. Old men cross the road in front of you on foot, behind flocks of newly shorn sheep, taking their time, stopping to wave the fat lambs over, or to take off their shoes and look for bits of gravel that have been bothering them for hours. The fact that you are in a hurry is of no particular interest to them; in their opinion, if you are making your journey in a hurry, you are making it poorly.

And the second is Natalia’s reply after hearing that man with whom she is walking had lost his son and had unexpectedly found his body near the trash…

I said: “I’m sorry,” and regretted it immediately, because it just fell out of my mouth and continued to fall, and did nothing.

This book was fabulous and I highly recommend it!

The Wayward Life and Times of Dipsy Doodle Dandy by John Peaker…….

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I read this book some time ago and I have been avoiding writing this review. No, that doesn’t sound so good, does it?

From reading his stories, you can tell that John Peaker had a fun time growing up in the “golden age” of riding bikes without helmets and drinking water straight from the hose. He seems quite impressed with his own antics. But really, to me, the stories were riddled with a bunch of bravado. Reading this book was not unlike sitting next to drunk guy in a bar who was stumbling down memory lane – telling stories that are likely embellished and probably much more interesting in the retelling than the actual happening.

If you know someone who is older and loves to tell bawdy stories, this book might be a good gift. I think the hilarity would be lost on younger generations (some of the stories would simply be bad examples for teenage boys) – which is probably John’s point – we have gotten too far away from the ability to enjoy life without being plugged in to one gadget or another. Kids don’t always pick physical play outside in the fresh air over thumb wrestling with a game controller in dark and dusty basements.

The book is an easy read – it’s just  a series of short essays – even the print is larger than normal.

What I did take away from this book is that we should all turn off the tv or the xbox and take the time to share our stories with each other and maybe even go so far as to write them down.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz…….

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

The Four Agreements is not a new book. In fact, it debuted 15 years ago and has been on the New York Times Bestsellers List for over 7 years. The author is celebrating the book’s fifteen-year anniversary by publishing an illustrated version. And it is lovely.

This book would be a wonderful gift for anyone on your gift list this season. The pages are beautifully illustrated and even their colors are soothing. The message of the book is timeless. Don Miguel Ruiz encourages us to make four agreements with ourselves so that we can each find peace and live joyfully. He calls his book “a practical guide to personal freedom.”

The book is based on the teachings of the ancient Toltecs of southern Mexico who were known as the women and men of knowledge. The lessons in the book are actually quite simple and as I read the words, I kept thinking, “well, yes, that makes perfect sense. I should start doing that. right. now.”

The author reminds us of fundamental truths that can change our perspective and increase our satisfaction with our lives. Perspective is everything. He encourages us to stay away from gossip, which he poetically calls poison, and not to worry so much about what others think of us. He reminds us that very often what people think of us is truly just a reflection of how they view themselves.

Don Miguel Ruiz spells out the agreements right on the inside of the cover of the book – so I don’t think I am revealing a secret when I share them with you. They are:

  1. Be Impeccable with Your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always Do Your Best (and here he reminds us that our best is different under different circumstances – he in not encouraging perfection, just sincere effort)

The gentle ideas in the book are so basic but are also easy to slip away from.

Honestly, there were a few places in the book where I felt like I was reading in circles. But I think that is because the ideas are so important and simple that the author wanted to stretch them out for emphasis. I will absolutely re-read this book periodically to remind myself to keep things in perspective and to not take things personally. And, seriously, this book would make a fantastic gift.

Love from the Other Side by Carol Shimp……….

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

In Love from the Other Side, Carol Shimp delves deep into her own experience with the spiritual and paranormal worlds.

Carol knew from an early age that she had a connection to the spirit world but did not feel like she could discuss that connection with anyone. When her mother died, she decided it was time to find out more about her special link to those who had passed on from their physical existence on this earth.

Her own confidence in her abilities was ultimately tested one day while she was shopping with her daughter. That is when Carol first ran into the spirit of her former fiance/high school boyfriend. He becomes an almost ever-present and quite disturbing part of her life. In order to find out what he wants and how to help him “move to the light”, Carol visits with a spiritual guru. Together they work to uncover what “Danny” wants and needs from Carol.

Honestly, this book will not be for everyone. Readers must come to it with an open mind. It is an interesting story and I was curious to find out how it all came together. But readers wary of all things spiritual will likely find their limits tested when it comes to what they are willing to believe as real. I have no doubt that this book is an honest portrayal of what Carol experienced. But Carol’s encounters are surprising, especially when “Danny” visits Carol while she is sleeping in bed with her husband.

Love from the Other Side is Carol’s first book and the writing is simplistic so it is a quick read. If you want to find out more about her story, you can visit her website.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness…….

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

A Discovery of Witches is a tale of “witch meets vampire” and then, “witch falls in love with vampire” – while almost everyone in the entire other-world (non-human world) tries to stop them from being together.

There are vampires and witches and daemons, oh my.

Diana (the witch) is a historian (specializing in alchemy) who is conducting research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. She stumbles upon an ancient manuscript that is thought to hold many secrets about the beginnings and histories of all of the non-human characters in the book. She herself has avoided magic her entire life. So, while she knows that something mystical happens when she is able to unlock the book and read its pages, she is not fully aware of the significance of the text that sits open before her and simply returns the book to the library shelves when she is finished with it.

Matthew Clairmont (the vampire) has been drawn to the Oxford library because he has heard the fantastic tale of a witch who uses no magic in her daily life yet has the power to summon the lost book called Ashmole 782. Matthew has lived among and studied with the best – Darwin, Guggenheim, and the likes who have defined history. He has turned his focus to studying DNA, particularly in wolves, and in the lineage of all creatures. Matthew fears that vampires might be dying out and hopes to find answers in the crackling pages of Ashmole 782.

Together Matthew and Diana literally take on the world in search of missing pages and answers.

The book kept my attention for all of its nearly 600 pages. But it was clearly written as the first of a series, leaving many, many questions unanswered. I much prefer it when a book stands more on its own and additional tales supplement (rather than rely on) the initial story.

The story held some pieces that just did not make sense to me. The title for example – A Discovery of Witches – the story is not simply about the discovery of witches – but vampires and daemons as well. Hmpf. Additionally, these creatures exist among humans who are suspicious of them but aren’t really supposed to know they exist. Yet, there a few scenes in which humans are clearly aware that these vampires, witches, and daemons are not human. But that’s it. We just know that they know and move on to the next scene. Maybe those (and other) gaps will tighten later in the triology.

The writing was solid but it was riddled with cliches and repeated words/descriptions (especially of smells and clothing). That was distracting to me. I do think it would be hard to write about magic. As an author, you would have to create realistic, believable reasons why magic could not just instantly solve any problem. I thought that obstacles in this book were too easily overcome even without the aid of magic. At one point, Diana is captured and Matthew comes to her rescue. He is able to scoop her away without so much as a challenge.

Toward the end of the story, Diana and Matthew go to visit Diana’s aunts in their enchanted house. The house is a lot of fun and the creativity the author summoned to create and describe the house is really good. It is a clever house and would be so fun to live in.

Overall I liked A Discovery of Witches well enough but probably won’t continue on with the series.