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Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty by Diane Williams……

March 8, 2012

Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty

I might be admitting my significant literary limitations here, but I just did not get this book.

Reading it was akin to what it must have been like for the characters watching the king’s parade in the Emperor’s New Clothes. I tried really hard to see what was not right in front of me. It’s likely I should have been making real connections but they simply did not appear for me. I didn’t understand the symbolism that is probably very profound.

Diane Williams book is a collection of contemporary short stories – some of them very short (barely even one paragraph). So it is a book you can read in small doses or quick spurts.

If you like digesting a book and figuring it out, this might just be the book for you. The descriptions are vivid and the cover of the book is fabulous!

There is an interview with the author here if you want to hear her take on it all.

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The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

February 7, 2012

(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.”

Follow up with David A Koop…….

January 18, 2012

When David Koop sent me his book to review, he wrote in his letter that I could reach out with any questions I had. Of course, I had questions – this man is fighting a killer disease and he writes a book called “Cancer – It’s a Good Thing I Got It!” So I wrote to him with two questions.

David and his ostrich boots

Honestly, I figured he’d be a little busy with his family, doctors appointments, speaking engagements, book signings, and, I dunno, waging a war on cancer. But true to his word, David wrote me back. Here is what he had to say…

1. You took a big risk with your title and I am curious about that, especially given the battle you are waging. Why was it important to you to put a cheery spin on such a daunting topic – even though you do not write the rest of the book from a PollyAnna perspective?

The title came from two things in my mind.  First was the very real fact that just a few short days after getting the diagnosis I would have fallen over dead. Because of the bone and tissue scans the doctors performed to diagnose the cancer, they found that massive pulmonary embolism and a few days later it broke loose. Had the filter not been in place, I would have fallen over dead. So in my mind I am very lucky I got cancer, for if not, I would not be here, period.

Second is my understanding that each and every year, depending where you look, there are about 150,000 to 200,000 books published. That is quite a bit of noise to be heard through. I wanted people to notice my book and to understand from the title that it would not be anything like so many other books. Here is something different, fun and interesting to read.

2. Now that the book is out there, is there anything you wish you had included?

I am fortunate to say that I am very happy with how the book came out and more importantly that it is being received so well by so many different people across the globe. My message is being heard and it is helping people and that warms my heart and gives me motivation to get up and push through those days that are just so hard. I am making a difference in the world, who can really ask for more?

As I said in my review, there is a lot to take away from this book whether you are battling cancer or not. David’s attitude is contagious and his optimism infectious. It is a testament to the power of being grateful for every blessing and taking advantage of every moment. Thanks David for sharing your story! Your story is being heard and you are making a difference.

(David’s book can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Outskirts Press, or the Someday Group.

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

January 17, 2012

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……

January 9, 2012

(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 Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas…….

January 3, 2012

“But through it all, they wrote.” 

That line is the opening sentence on the book trailer for YouTube and that is the beauty of the stories in The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas.

This book captures why women have continued to write against tremendous odds for centuries. It is a celebration of the way 12 amazing women captured words with a pen, pencil, or quill and poetically spread them across pages.

The authors spotlighted are…

Lousia May Alcott
Jane Austen
Charlotte Brontë
Willa Cather
Enda Ferber
Madeleine L’Engle
L.M. Montgomery
Anaïs Nin
George Sand
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Edith Wharton
Virginia Woolf

The author is not only fabulous with her own words and insights, but she is an amazing illustrator as well. The pages spill over with wonderful stories decorated with amazing art. It is clear that a lot of research went into getting this book right – the stories are drawn from diaries, journals, memoirs, and good old-fashioned letters. They give us the gift of so many lessons – struggling but not giving up, doubting and not doubting, and exceeding our own expectations.

I will end this review by simply saying that I love this book so much that I have already purchased it as a gift for a friend. And she loves it too!

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

January 3, 2012

(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.