Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Books of 2011

Best Books of 2011
It's time for my list of what I've read in 2011 and my best books of 2011.
It's been an interesting year. Due to a new job, among other things, my reading has been drastically reduced for the last part of the year. I've freely set aside anything that hasn't interested me, though, which made for more quality books in the long run.

Top Fiction - in no particular order. (If I put two books by the same author on this list I've just listed the books together.)

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz
In the Walled City: Stories and Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan,
River of the Brokenhearted and The Friends of Meager Fortune  by David Adams Richards
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun  by China Miéville
Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum

Top Nonfiction
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by  Anne Fadiman
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
Atlantic by Simon Winchester
Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas
Inside a Cutter's Mind by Jerusha Clark, with Dr. Earl R Henslin
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Ava's Man by Rick Bragg

2011 Books:
98 books; 37,166 pages,
* denotes very highly recommended books
(book, author, pages, date reviewed, rating)

January - 11 books, 4,600 pages
*1. The Doomsday Key by James Rollins, 448 pages, 1/2/11, very highly recommended 
*2. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer, 704 pages, 1/6/11, very highly recommended
3. Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer, 352 pages, 1/8/11, highly recommended
4. Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, 339 pages, 1/9/11, very highly recommended
*5. The Lost City of Z  by David Grann, 448 pages, 1/18/11, very highly recommended
*6. Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn, 270 pages, 1/19/11, very highly recommended
*7. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, 336 pages, 1/21/11, very highly recommended
*8. Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas, 240 pages, 1/23/11, very highly recommended
9. The Hunt for Atlantis by Andy McDermott, 544 pages, 1/24/11, highly recommended
10. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, 592 pages, 1/30/11, highly recommended
11. Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, 327 pages, 1/31/11, so-so

February - 9 books, 4367 pages
*12. Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds, 704 pages, 2/4/11 very highly recommended
13. Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds, 768 pages, 2/8/11, recommended
14. Ancients by David L. Golemon, 480 pages, 2/11/11, recommended (in series)
15. Leviathan by David L. Golemon, 368 pages, 2/14/11, highly recommended
16. The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, 255 pages, 2/16/11, highly recommended
17. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, 272 pages, 2/19/11, highly recommended
18. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, 496 pages, 2/22/11, not recommended
19. Deeper Than the Dead by Tami Hoag, 560 pages, 2/25/11, highly recommended
20. Secrets to the Grave by Tami Hoag, 464 pages, 2/27/11, highly recommended

March - 15 books, 5101 pages
21. Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, 352 pages, 3/1/11, highly recommended
*22. In the Walled City: Stories by Stewart O'Nan, 170 pages, 3/2/11, very highly recommended
*23. Comes the Darkness, Comes the Light: A Memoir of Cutting, Healing, and Hope by Vanessa Vega, 240 pages, 3/5/11, very highly recommended
24. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris, 336 pages, 3/4/11, highly recommended
*25. Inside a Cutter's Mind by Jerusha Clark, with Dr. Earl R Henslin, 240 pages, 3/6/11, very highly recommended
26. The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly, 432 pages, 3/7/11, highly recommended
27. The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, 288 pages, 3/10/11, highly recommended
28. Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez, 288 pages, 3/13/11, highly recommended
*29. River of the Brokenhearted by David Adams Richards, 381 pages, 3/16/11, very highly recommended
30. Into the Looking Glass  by John Ringo, 366 pages, 3/18/11, highly recommended
31. Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal, 388 pages, 3/20/11, recommended 
*32. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, 334 pages, 3/22/11, very highly recommended
33. Feed by Mira Grant, 608 pages, 3/24/11, highly recommended
34. Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress, 288 pages, 3/25/11, recommended
35. Deep Black: Death Wave by Stephen Coonts and William H. Keith, 390 pages, 3/28/11, recommended
(not counted) LaRue Across America by Mark Teague,  40 pages, 3/29/11, childrens book

April - 12 books, 4384 pages
*36. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, 720 pages, 4/2/11, very highly recommended
37. Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire, 352 pages, 4/6/11, recommended
*38. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett, 272 pages, 4/8/11, very highly recommended
39. Stealing the Marbles by E. J. Knapp, 302 pages, 4/10/11, highly recommended
*40. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, 272 pages, 4/12/11, very highly recommended
*41. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, 368 pages, 4/14/11, very highly recommended
*42. The City and the City by China Miéville, 336 pages, 4/16/11, very highly recommended
43. Solomon Spring by Michelle Black, 314 pages, 4/19, recommended
*44. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by  Anne Fadiman, 360 pages, 4/22, very highly recommended
45. Death of a Chimney Sweep  by M. C. Beaton, 247 pages, 4/23, highly recommended
*46. The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards, 377 pages, 4/27/11, very highly recommended
47. Juniper Tree Burning by Goldberry Long, 464 pages, 4/30/11, highly recommended

May - 9 books, 3138 pages
48. Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, 306 pages, 5/4/11, highly recommended
49. Tabloid City by Pete Hamill, 278 pages, 5/6/11, highly recommended 
50. Pitch Dark by Steven Sidor, 320 pages, 5/8/11, recommended
51. Zor: Philosophy, Spirituality and Science by J. B., 268 pages, 5/9/11, highly recommended
*52. You're Next by Gregg Hurwitz, 406 pages, 5/12/11, very highly recommended53. Exponential Apocalypse by Eirik Gumeny, 200 pages, 5/17/11, highly recommended
*54. Pulse by Jeremy Robinson, 336 pages, 5/20/11, very highly recommended 
*55. Flood by Stephen Baxter, 496 pages, 5/27/11, very highly recommended
56. Rules of Betrayal by Christopher Reich, 528 pages, 5/31/11, recommended

June - 3 books, 1136 pages
57. The Sister by Poppy Adams, 304 pages, 6/2/11, highly recommended
*58. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, 464 pages, 6/7/11, very highly recommended 
59. Embassytown by China Miéville, 368 pages, 6/11/11, highly recommended

July - 10 books, 3635 pages
*60. Ark by Stephen Baxter, 544 pages, 7/5/11, very highly recommended
61. Dry Ice by Bill Evans and Marianna Jameson,  320 pages, 7/9/11, recommended
*62. As Silver Refined by Kay Arthur, pg 356, 7/12/11, very highly recommended
*63. It Came from The '70s by Connie Corcoran Wilson, 260 pages, 7/13/11, very highly recommended 
*64. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, 368 pages, 7/15/11, very highly recommended
*65. Doc by Mary Doria Russell, 416 pages, 7/17/11, very highly recommended
66. The Memory of All That by Katharine Weber, 267 pages, 7/20/11 recommended
67. The Ledge by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan, 288 pages, 7/24/11, highly recommended 
*68. Instinct by Jeremy Robinson, 368 pages, 7/27/11, very highly recommended
69. Meg: Hell's Aquarium by Steve Alten, 448 pages, 7/28/11, highly recommended

August - 8 books, 2965
70. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, 352 pages, 8/2/11, highly recommended
*71. Un Lun Dun by China Miéville, 496 pages, 8/8/11, very highly recommended
72. Valley of Day-Glo by Nick DiChario, 240 pages, 8/10/11, highly recommended
*73. Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz, 304 pages, 8/11/11, very highly recommended
*74. Due Preparations for the Plague by Janette Turner Hospital, 401 pages, 8/14/11, very highly recommended
75. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, 291 pages, 8/16/11, highly recommended
76. Germ by Robert Liparulo, 496 pages, 8/22/11, recommended
77. Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, 385 pages, 8/27/11, highly recommended

September - 8 books, 2991 pages
78. Kraken by China Miéville, 528 pages, 9/5/11, highly recommended
79. Model Home by Eric Puchner, 360 pages, 9/6/11, highly recommended
80. Carry Yourself Back to Me by Deborah Reed, 303 pages, 9/11/11, recommended
*81. Ava's Man by Rick Bragg, 272 pages, 9/14/11, very highly recommended
82. Love At Absolute Zero by Christopher Meeks, 312 pages, 9/21/11, highly recommended
*83. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, 416 pages, 9/22/11, very highly recommended
*84. Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud , Dr. John Townsend, 304 pages, 9/26/11, very highly recommended
85. My God, What Have We Done? by Susan V. Weiss, 496 pages, 9/29/11,  highly recommended

October - 4 books, 1552 pages
*86. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King, 384 pages, 10/4/11, very highly recommended
*87. Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan, 272 pages, 10/8/11, very highly recommended
*88. Atlantic by Simon Winchester. 512 pages, 10/22/11, very highly recommended
*89. Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum, 384 pages, 10/29/11, very highly recommended

November - 5 books, 1520 pages
90. King Rat by China Miéville, 320 pages, 11/4/11, highly recommended
*91.Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, 224 pages, 11/6/11, very highly recommended
92.Tunnel Vision by Gary Braver, 384 pages, 11/12/11, highly recommended
93. The Accidental Activist by Alon Shalev, 272 pages, 11/16/11, recommended
94. Rollback by Robert Sawyer, 320 pages, 11/20/11, highly recommended

December - 4 books, 1777 pages
95. Laughing Through Life by Connie Corcoran Wilson, 180 pages, 12/1/11, recommended
96. So Far Away by Christine W. Hartmann, 224 pages, 12/14/11, highly recommended
97. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, 944 pages, 12/17/11, highly recommended
98. Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston, 429 pages, 12/21/11, highly recommended

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston
HarperCollins, November 2011
Hardcover, 429 pages
ISBN-13: 9780060873028

In a locked Honolulu office building, three men are found dead with no sign of struggle except for the ultrafine, razor-sharp cuts covering their bodies. The only clue left behind is a tiny bladed robot, nearly invisible to the human eye.
In the lush forests of Oahu, groundbreaking technology has ushered in a revolutionary era of biological prospecting. Trillions of microorganisms, tens of thousands of bacteria species, are being discovered; they are feeding a search for priceless drugs and applications on a scale beyond anything previously imagined.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, seven graduate students at the forefront of their fields are recruited by a pioneering microbiology start-up. Nanigen MicroTechnologies dispatches the group to a mysterious lab in Hawaii, where they are promised access to tools that will open a whole new scientific frontier.
But once in the Oahu rain forest, the scientists are thrust into a hostile wilderness that reveals profound and surprising dangers at every turn. Armed only with their knowledge of the natural world, they find themselves prey to a technology of radical and unbridled power. To survive, they must harness the inherent forces of nature itself.
An instant classic, Micro pits nature against technology in vintage Crichton fashion. Completed by visionary science writer Richard Preston, this boundary-pushing thriller melds scientific fact with pulse-pounding fiction to create yet another masterpiece of sophisticated, cutting-edge entertainment.

My Thoughts:
Micro was being written by Michael Crichton at the time of his death in 2008. Richard Preston (The Hot Zone, The Cobra Event, The Wild Trees) was chosen by Crichton's estate to finish the novel. Micro begins with the mysterious death of three men. The deaths occurred after one of them had secretly investigated the high tech company Nanigen. Then it moves on to the main characters, a group of microbiology grad students who are being recruited for research by Nanigen. The group is invited to visit the company's research facilities in Hawaii. 
Nanigen's owner turns out to be a deranged killer who uses the technology to shrink the grad students to 1/2 an inch tall. The grad students end up out in the wilds of Hawaii, trying to survive what is found in nature - things such as ants, wasps, centipedes, spiders, birds, and bats to name a few. All of the students are experts in some area that could potentially help them survive.
In the Introduction it becomes clear what Crichton was thinking when he started writing Micro. He pointed out that "...David Attenborough expressed concern that modern schoolchildren could not identify common plants and insects found in nature, although previous generations identified them without hesitation. Modern children, it seemed, were cut off from the experience of nature, and from play in the natural world."  Additionally, he wrote that a lesson we all need to learn is that "the natural world, with all its elements and interconnections, represents a complex system and therefore we cannot understand it and can not predict its behavior. It is delusional to behave as if we can...."
The natural world can be full of violence. "What is it about nature that is so terrifying to the modern mind? Why is it so intolerable? Because nature is fundamentally indifferent. It's unforgiving, uninterested. If you live or die, succeed or fail, feel pleasure or pain, it doesn't care. That's intolerable to us. How can we live in a world so indifferent to us. So we redefined nature. We call it Mother Nature when it's not a parent in any real sense of the term. (pg. 126)"
Micro is a fast-paced adventure that will give many readers pleasure. The story was, at times, scary, silly, and suspenseful. It did bring Fantastic Voyage to mind, as well as a "nature of tooth and claw" version of Honey I shrunk the Kids, Gulliver's Travels, The Borrowers, and all the other books and movies featuring very small people. If you think about it, this really is a well-traveled theme, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable. It's a well explored theme for a reason. It's .
A case could easily be made that the characters were all one dimensional caricatures and not well developed. I can not criticize Preston's work on Micro because, to his credit, you simply can't tell what parts he wrote, but I also have a feeling that if Crichton had finished writing this novel, he might have fleshed out all the characters more, including the students, villains, and the Honolulu homicide detective, and worked on the plot.
In order to enjoy Micro, the reader needs to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the adventure. This would make a great movie. (I also appreciated the inclusion of a bibliography which I have to think was part of Preston's contribution.) 
Highly recommended because it does have a few flaws, but honestly, I would say it was  
very highly recommended when considering the pure enjoyment and escapism it provided.

In 2008, the famous naturalist David Attenborough expressed concern that modern schoolchildren could not identify common plants and insects found in nature, although previous generations identified them without hesitation. Modern children, it seemed, were cut off from the experience of nature, and from play in the natural world. Introduction, pg. XI

Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned by direct experience is that the natural world, with all its elements and interconnections, represents a complex system and therefore we cannot understand it and can not predict its behavior. It is delusional to behave as if we can.... Introduction, pg. XII

From her he had learned that Nanigen was forty thousand square feet of labs and high-tech facilities, where she said they did advanced work in robotics. What kind of advanced work, she wasn’t sure, except the robots were extremely small. "They do some kind of research on chemicals and plants," she said vaguely.
"You need robots for that?"
"They do, yes." She shrugged.
But she also told him the building itself had no security: no alarm system, no motion detectors, no guards, cameras, laser beams. "Then what do you use?" he asked her. "Dogs?"
The receptionist shook her head. "Nothing," she said. "Just a lock on the front door. They say they don’t need any security."
At the time, Rodriguez suspected strongly that Nanigen was a scam or a tax dodge. No high-technology company would house itself in a dusty warehouse, far from downtown Honolulu and the university, from which all high-tech companies drew. If Nanigen was way out here, they must have something to hide. pg. 4

Rodriguez crouched down to look more closely, and as he peered at the hexagons below, he saw a drop of blood spatter on the floor. Then another drop. Rodriguez stared curiously, before he thought to put his hand to his forehead. He was bleeding, just above his right eyebrow.
"What the—?"
He’d been cut, somehow. He hadn’t felt anything but there was blood on his gloved hand, and blood still dripping from his eyebrow. He stood. The blood was dripping onto his cheek, and chin, and onto the uniform. He put his hand to his forehead and hurried into the nearest lab, looking for a Kleenex or a cloth. He found a box of tissues, and stepped to a washbasin with a small mirror over it. He dabbed at his face. The bleeding had already begun to stop; the cut was small but razor-sharp; he didn’t see how it had happened but paper cuts could look like that. pg. 7

"No," Dan Watanabe answered. "There wasn’t any blood in the bathroom. Means nobody went in there after the cutting started. So we got three dead guys slashed to death in a locked room. No motive, no weapon, no nothing."  pg. 10

"Anybody doing good work in the fields that we're interested in," Vin Drake said to the students clustered around him. "Microbiology, entomology, chemical ecology, ethnobotany, phytopathology - in other words, all research into the natural world at the micro- or nano-level. That's what we're after, and we're hiring now. pg. 17

"But listen: if you talk to your brother, ask him why drug companies put up so much money for micro-botics, okay?" pg. 30

Peter said little on the drive back. He wasn't inclined to talk, and the detective didn't press him. It was true the images of his brother vanishing in the surf were disturbing. But not as disturbing as the woman on the hill, the woman in white pointing at the boat with some object in her hand. Because that woman was Alyson Bender, the CFO of Nanigen, and her presence at the scene changed everything. pg. 48

What is it about nature that is so terrifying to the modern mind? Why is it so intolerable? Because nature is fundamentally indifferent. It's unforgiving, uninterested. If you live or die, succeed or fail, feel pleasure or pain, it doesn't care. That's intolerable to us. How can we live in a world so indifferent to us. So we redefined nature. We call it Mother Nature when it's not a parent in any real sense of the term. pg. 126

Saturday, December 17, 2011


1Q84 by Haruki Murakami,
Translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Knopf Doubleday, 2011
Hardcover, 944 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307593313 

The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo. A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.   As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.
A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.
My Thoughts:

I have just spent the last three weeks working my way through the eagerly anticipated English translation of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. The English translation of this best selling novel includes all three parts of the novels that were originally published separately in Japan. The chapters alternate between two characters,  Aomame and Tengo, for the first two books. In book three the chapters follow three characters, Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa. 

Set in 1984, or the alternate reality of 1Q84 (the Q stands for "question mark"), the novel is science fiction but mostly a story about two people who are drawn into an alternate reality and, eventually, begin searching for each other. Aomame is a physical trainer and assassin. Tengo is a math teacher and writer. Aomame enters the alternate reality while on her way to a planned assassination. Tengo enters it after he accepts the assignment of rewriting Air Chrysalis, the debut novel of a young writer. At the beginning, the stories of Aomame and Tengo are separate. About halfway through the novel we learn of their connection and the stories begin to join together. 

1Q84 explores the nature of reality - how one's perspective can alter reality and how events are viewed. What is reality for you may not be for someone else. We may all be living in parallel universes, pursuing personal meaning in our own lives. It also explores fate, powerlessness, fringe religious groups, free will, domestic violence, and vengeance. 

I'll admit, at the conclusion, to mixed feelings about 1Q84.  With the entire pre-publication buzz surrounding 1Q84, I was looking forward to an alternate reality science fiction novel. While it fits that description, it also is filled to a much greater extent with the trivialities of everyday life in the alternate reality, and those mundane activities are very much the same activities we would all encounter. There were tantalizing bits of surreal information disclosed and then pages of the banal activities of the everyday life of the characters. 

While I read all 900+ pages during some very busy weeks, it soon became clear that 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is not really that com­plex, but it is a very long novel. This feeling that it is excessively lengthy could be because it was originally published as three novels in Japan but one very large novel here. The repetition of information and descriptions makes the novel feel overly wordy when the three books are published as one novel. 
In the end I liked 1Q84, but it is not the novel of the year that I was looking forward to reading.
Highly Recommended - when you have the time and patience to tackle it.  



The taxi's radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janaìcek's Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn't seem to be listening very closely, either. opening

Aomame loved history as much as she loved sports. She rarely read fiction, but history books could keep her occupied for hours. What she liked about history was the way all its facts were linked with particular dates and places. pg. 3

"Aomame" was her real name. Her grandfather on her father's side came from some little mountain town or village in Fukushima Prefecture, where there were supposedly a number of people who bore the name, written with exactly the same characters as the word for "green peas" and pronounced with the same four syllables, "Ah-oh-mah-meh." pg. 4

"And also," the driver said, facing the mirror, "please remember: things are not what they seem."
Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. "What do you mean by that?" she asked with knitted brows.
The driver chose his words carefully: "It's just that you're about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day—especially women."
"I suppose you're right."
"Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I've had that experience myself. But don't let appearances fool you. There's always only one reality." pg. 9

At some point in time, the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place. Like the switching of a track. In other words, my mind, here and now, belongs to the world that was, but the world itself has already changed into something else. pg. 106
1Q84 - that's what I'll call this new world, Aomame decided.
Q is for "question mark." A world that bears a question. pg. 110
We think we’re choosing things for ourselves, but in fact we may not be choosing anything. It could be that everything's decided in advance and we pretend we’re making choices. Free will may be an illusion. pg. 192

... and still these despicable fakes continue to thrive. That is because most people believe not so much in truth as in things they wish were the truth. Their eyes may be wide open, but they don't see a thing. pg. 244


Or was this simply a false memory of Tengo's? Was it just something that his mind had later decided - for whatever purpose or plan - to make up on its own? pg. 13
Tengo did not know for certain whether he wanted to be a professional novelist, nor was he sure he had the talent to write fiction. What he did know was that he could not help spending a large part of everyday writing fiction. To him, writing was like breathing. pg. 21
"...You, on the other hand, know how to write. Your story lines are good. You have taste. You may be built like a lumberjack, but you write with intelligence and sensitivity. And real power. Unlike Fuka-Eri, though, you still haven't grasped exactly what it is you want to write about." pg. 24

He still could not tell, though, how seriously he should take her. There was something out of the ordinary about her, a screw slightly loose. It was an inborn quality, perhaps. He might be in the presence of an authentic talent in its most natural form, or it could all be an act. Intelligent teenagers were often instinctively theatrical, purposefully eccentric, mouthing highly suggestive words to confuse people. He has seen a number of such cases when it was impossible to distinguish the real thing from acting. Tengo decided to bring the conversation back to reality - or, at least, something closer to reality. pg. 50-51

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

So Far Away

So Far Away: A Daughter's Memoir of Life, Loss, and Love 
by Christine W. Hartmann
Vanderbilt University Press; November 18, 2011
Trade Paperback, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780826517968

Christine Hartmann's mother valued control above all else, yet one event appeared beyond her command: the timing of her own death. Not to be denied there either, two decades in advance Irmgard Hartmann chose the date on which to end her life. And her next step was to tell her daughter all about it. For twenty years, Irmgard maintained an unwavering goal, to commit suicide at age seventy. She managed her chronic hypertension, stayed healthy and active, and lived life to the fullest. Meanwhile, Christine fought desperately against the decision. When Irmgard wouldn't listen, the only way to remain part of her life was for Christine to swallow her mother's plans--hook, line, and sinker.
Christine's father, as it turned out, prepared too slowly for old age. Before he had made any decision, fate disabled him through a series of strokes. Confined to a nursing home, severely impaired by dementia and frustrated by his circumstances, his life epitomized the predicament her mother wanted to avoid.
So Far Away gives us an intimate view of a person interacting with and reacting to her parents at the ends of their lives. In a richly detailed, poignant story of family members' separate yet interwoven journeys, it underscores the complexities and opportunities that life presents each one of us.

My Thoughts:

So Far Away: A Daughter's Memoir of Life, Loss, and Love by Christine W. Hartmann is a heart wrenchingly personal and honest account of the last years of the author's parents lives and how she handled their deaths. Her parents approached their eventual decline and demise in dramatically different ways. Christina's mother did not want to become a burden on anyone so she planned to commit suicide by age 70. But, inexplicably, she let Christine know about her plan twenty years before this. Her father wanted to enjoy his life as long as possible and he put off his plans to move into a retirement community as long as possible. In fact he put it off too long.
Losing your parents is difficult no matter what the circumstances are, and it is something that most of us will face at some point. So Far Away is a very personal, introspective, and honest record of how Christine Hartmann handled the very different deaths of her parents and her emotional turmoil at that time. Sharing her story and the struggles she had opens up the discussion for all of us to prepare to form our own opinions about how we are going to approach grief and loss.
It was perhaps more difficult for me to read about her mother's planned suicide and I found it almost unbelievable that a parent in their mid-50's would tell a child, in her 20's, that they are planning their suicide before they reach age 70. It seems such a heartless thing to do... especially to then, subsequently, expect your child to support your decision. It was an unbelievable burden to place on anyone. Perhaps that is because I know that I, and I would think most of us, will be more like her father, trying to live our lives to the fullest as long as possible.
There is one major difference between how Hartmann approached the death of her parents and how I know I will approach the death of my parents and, eventually, my own death: I have a strong Christian faith. I would never consider, as Hartmann's mother did, throwing away something as precious as the gift of life. Having a faith and belief in something higher than yourself actually gives you strength every day to handle things that seem impossible.  
This is a extremely well written memoir. It is profound and genuine. It is not light hearted or easy to read. The situations and emotions within are very real and sometimes raw. It is such an honest account that even though it's not an easy book to read, it is most certainly a worthwhile book to read. Certainly, if you have aging or elderly parents, you will sympathize with Christine and her emotional turmoil during several very difficult years.
Be sure to read the introduction quoted below.
Very Highly Recommended  

Christine W. Hartmann, Research Health Scientist, ENR Memorial Veterans Hospital, Bedford, Massachusetts, and Assistant Professor, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, received her PhD at the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She has published numerous articles on healthcare quality improvement, focusing particularly on long-term care.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Christine W. Hartmann’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, November 21st:  Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, November 23rd:  I Am A Reader, Not A Writer – author Q&A
Thursday, November 24th:  Life in Review
Monday, November 28th:  Boarding in My Forties
Tuesday, November 29th:  Book Hounds
Wednesday, November 30th:  Colloquium
Thursday, December 1st:  Acting Balanced
Monday, December 5th:  The Lost Entwife
Wednesday, December 7th:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, December 12th:  Book Dilettante
Tuesday, December 13th:  Luxury Reading
Wednesday, December 14th:  She Treads Softly
Vanderbilt University Press  ;   The Introduction from So Far Away, pages xi - xiii

"Parents encourage or discourage, praise or scold, remain silent or yell, and yet despite these influences, children grow up to have their own unique quirks and personality traits. In part, we become who we are to protect ourselves from the people we love who can hurt us. I didn’t quite grow up the way my parents expected. But by their own admission, they didn’t fulfill all their parents’ expectations either. Neither did their parents... and so on.
"My mother always wondered how she raised a daughter who enjoyed hugging so much. She never liked long embraces with anyone over the age of four. I could never get enough of them. I lived as a young adult in a very conservative rural area where physical affection was traditionally avoided, and I suffered severe withdrawal from lack of contact. I even took up martial arts as a hobby partially because it allowed me just to touch someone. Periodic sprains and fractures seemed a small price to pay.
"It just goes to show that not everything turns out as planned. At least, that has been a central theme in my adult life. Nothing prepared me for the radical but methodical approach my mother took toward her own aging. Or
not aging, which was actually her point. I’m not talking about plastic surgery to lift her chin or the daily consumption of a bowl of oat bran. She intended to implement a more aggressive strategy for dealing with the uncertainty of growing old. And I rebelled against her in an extraordinary battle of wills.
"My father, on the other hand, always avoided setting a detailed agenda for his senior years. He lived in the moment, never looking far ahead, and we both anticipated his easy and pleasant retirement. But a series of sudden, apocalyptic events derailed his dream and both our lives.
"My parents emigrated to the United States from Germany in the late 1950s. They met here, and my brother and I were born in Toledo, Ohio. Approximately ten years after they married, they divorced. Both entered their sixties in relatively good health, except that my mother had chronic high blood pressure and my father had high cholesterol.
"The true story I tell here (I have sometimes changed names of individuals and locations) focuses on my parents as they neared the ends of their lives—the time between 2003 and 2008. During these years my mother determinedly put in motion the plan she had hatched decades earlier, and I shouldered the burden of my father’s rapidly deteriorating life.

"Despite describing my parents in detail, this book is chiefly a narrative about me. I originally intended to tell
their tales, from their perspectives. I did not get far with that, before having to interject fiction, assumption, repetition, and sheer fantasy into the mix. So instead I recount here, in my own voice, what I know best: myself, and how I reacted to experiences my parents and I shared.
"Our family issues in many respects mirror those faced by most people. We had our measure of dysfunction; each of us carried some emotional baggage passed down from previous generations; we grieved deeply and loved as best we could; and we feared losing each other and losing the structure of life that bound us together. If you identify with some elements of this story, be kind to yourself as you read.
"Sometimes we think we know how things are going to turnout - a drive to the grocery store, next year’s vacation, the book lying on the bedside table. They all seem so predictable. And having a predictable ending can make the entire process more enjoyable, or at least more comforting.

"But sometimes the process itself, not the foreseeable consequences, sets the tone, allows for change, and provides new opportunities for growth. My parents’ final journeys were not easy, for them or for me. Yet each of us achieved a large measure of personal growth in the process, despite the suffering, and perhaps even because of it.
"We all face permanent loss in our lives - loss of parents, loss of other relatives, loss of close friends. The process wrenches our souls, but it also reveals them. In this book I tell a personal story, but I believe the lessons are collective. When the time comes to deal with inevitable loss, solace and companionship may be found within these pages." 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Guest Post by Connie Corcoran Wilson


Connie Corcoran Wilson, author of Laughing Through Life and It Came From the 70's, addresses the importance of laughing your way through a stressful time:

"And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'Tis that I may not weep." (LaBruyere and Beaumarchais)

In 2003 my mother, then 94, began the long slow fade to black that comes for each of us. She was still of sound mind, but she had a series of small strokes which robbed her of the ability to play bridge (her passion), and it was quite clear to me, her youngest daughter, that she was fading fast. In fact, it had become clear to me that the end was near since Thanksgiving.

 Later, nursing home personnel told me it was only my son's  wedding and the festivities  that surrounded it that kept Mom alive six more months. I was hosting a "welcome to the community" party for the bride and groom. They had married in Matamoros and none of our Midwestern friends would be able to attend the ceremony, so a full-on party was planned, a mini-wedding reception, complete with gowns and cakes and flowers.

I carried in various outfits from the nearby shopping mall for mother to try on (over her strenuous objections that she could simply wear an old velour jogging suit I had once given her for Christmas). The preparations to bring her to the party, 60 miles away, for the evening, even though wheelchair-bound, were many and numerous. I even purchased  a giant 52" TV screen (the pre-plasma behemoths) that would replay the actual ceremony in a continuous loop. Mom would be able to see her second (of four) grandchildren being married on this large television set, (contingent upon the store being willing to re-deliver the same TV set to my house after the party was over at no additional fee, which they agreed to do.)

I urged my sister to come with me to visit Mom on Mother's Day in the nursing home where she had resided for 5 years (a necessity imposed by her need for constant medical monitoring for her 4-shots-a-day brittle diabetes.) My 4-years-older sister, who could often be as blank as the proverbial fart,  said, "Let's wait until her birthday."

 My mother's birthday was May 31st.

 I remember saying to my completely oblivious older sister, "Kay, she won't make it to May 31st."

And she didn't.

My mother died  May 2, 2003 and we buried her on May 4, 2003.   I had begun divesting of my businesses, my responsibilities, my very life, in order to be by her side to be able take care of her and, after that, to be able to take care of estate matters when she was gone---something I never really ever believed would actually happen before she hit 100, as my mother was an indomitable force. (My father died in 1986).

 I sold my two businesses (Sylvan Learning Center #3301 and the Prometric Testing Center), businesses I had founded, two months to the day before Mom died, on March 2, 2003.

 I remember asking her, on the final day of her life, as she received oxygen and faded  in and out of consciousness and I held her hand, witnessing her losing the battle that I had always felt  quite sure she would not lose until at least the ripe old age of 100, "What was the favorite city on Earth you ever visited?"

She was very weak, almost to the point of being unable to converse,  but she was lucid. She looked at me and said, "Anywhere your father was. And Iowa City."

Mom died in Iowa City, where she had moved over some objections from her children at the age of 82, after an entire lifetime spent in the small northeast Iowa town of Independence, a life spent teaching kindergarteners while my father worked in the bank he had founded. She slipped away in the early hours of the morning to join her husband of five decades.

While my father's death had come at a time when I was expecting a baby and had just launched a new business, my mother's death came when I had dropped everything else in my life, primarily to care for her. In the process of doing so, I had severed ties with my entire support network of colleagues and co-workers and customers.

My husband, recently retired, was doing taxes for H&R Block. I was at home, alone, for long hours, in what seemed like a very cold house. I later learned that the furnace was broken; it took me the better part of a week wearing a parka and gloves in the house and seeing my own breath in front of me to convince my husband that there really was something wrong with the furnace. (It turned out that it was only blowing out cold air.)

What could I do to cheer myself up? Depression was one silly millimeter away?

I dug out the humor columns I had written for a local paper  in happier times, when I was a young mother, a young teacher, a budding entrepreneur. I added poetry sold, pictures, my lasagna recipe. (Nobody knew what to make of this book, when it was finished, and I imagined it only as a gift for friends and family, like those ubiquitous calendars that you  make as gifts at the holiday season.)  I fashioned anything I had ever sold  into my second book Both Sides Now. (A few of those columns have made their way, again, into Laughing through Life, but much more of the book is new or the product of online blogs for which I have written).

I found that, as I revisited the silly or the ridiculous or the happy times represented in those columns, my mood rose.  Eventually, I sent the columns and pictures off to be published. I did not know this at the time, but this marked the beginning of my "writing long" career. A lifetime hobby had turned into a time-consuming second career as a writer and publisher.

Without humor, for me there is no quality of life. And, in life, even in the grimmest of times, as limned recently in the movie "50/50" about a young man battling a life-threatening form of cancer, there can be humor in hardship.

Humor, to me, is as much what I am all about as weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I hope I can continue to see the humor in life, even when I am at my lowest and things seem most bleak. Humor will sustain me and lift me up, I hope, even on my own deathbed.

Maybe I'll leave an epitaph that says, "I can't be done yet. I still have checks left!"

And let us not forget these sentiments from someone far more eloquent than me:

"They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses;
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream."
                                   (Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longani)

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (MS + 30) graduated from the University of Iowa and Western Illinois University, with additional study at Northern Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago. She taught writing at six Iowa/Illinois colleges and has written for five newspapers and seven blogs, including Associated Content (now owned by Yahoo) which named her its 2008 Content Producer of the Year . She is an active, voting member of HWA (Horror Writers Association).

Her stories and interviews with writers like David Morrell, Joe Hill, Kurt Vonnegut, Frederik Pohl and Anne Perry have appeared online and in numerous journals.  Her work has won prizes from “Whim’s Place Flash Fiction,” “Writer’s Digest” (Screenplay) and she will have 12 books out by the end of the year.  Connie reviewed film and books for the Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa) for 12 years and wrote humor columns and conducted interviews for the (Moline, Illinois) Daily Dispatch and now blogs for 7 blogs, including television reviews and political reporting for Yahoo.

Connie lives in East Moline, Illinois with husband Craig and cat Lucy, and in Chicago, Illinois, where her son, Scott and daughter-in-law Jessica and their two-year-old twins Elise and Ava reside. Her daughter, Stacey, recently graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, as a Music Business graduate.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Laughing Through Life

Laughing Through Life by Connie Corcoran Wilson
Quad City Press July 2011
Trade Paperback, 180 pages
ISBN-13: 9780982444832
A collection of humorous essays and anecdotes that reviewers have compared to “Erma-Bombeck-meets-David-Sedaris.” Whether as a political observer on the campaign trail in 2004 (avoiding arrest at Coors Amphitheater, but just barely), a young mother and teacher, or grandmother to twin two-year-olds (pictured on the cover), this book will help you to laugh through life, providing many chuckles over familiar and universal life situations, whether lost cell phones or golfing foibles.
My Thoughts:
Laughing Through Life by Connie Corcoran Wilson is a collection of humorous essays and anecdotes. The initial essays are all quite funny. Some of the material included in the collection is truly "laugh out loud" funny, while other material, at least for me, is decidedly not as humorous. 
This is an easy to read collection that requires no great time commitment in order to enjoy the essays. It is organized and arranged to facilitate reading the essays and anecdotes in short bursts. I would hazard a guess that if your politics align more closely with Wilson's then you might enjoy some of the political essays much more than I did.
I have a feeling many people will be able to relate to some of Wilson's adventures and observations. I actually had a similar experience as Wilson, when I was getting a second piercing in my ears several years ago, although in my case the audience watching me was my daughter and a whole group of young girls who were there to get their ears pierced for the first time.
I'll admit that I found it odd that even though the front cover shows Wilson's twin granddaughters dancing, there is nary a story about them.
In general, as a whole, the political essays were less humorous and more biting, thus less enjoyable for me. This also made the collection feel uneven. Perhaps it would have behooved Ms. Wilson to organize the material into two different collections, making one book humorous essays and anecdotes and another observations about politics.
 Readers can always follow Connie Corcoran Wilson's blog, Weekly Wilson, for more of her writing and reviews.
Recommended - actually this would be an easy, enjoyable book to read during this time of the year when people are so busy with other activities.
Please come back tomorrow when Connie Corcoran Wilson will have a guest post addressing  the importance of laughing your way through a stressful time.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.
All this came about when my handy dandy space heater shorted out just as I was about to step into the tub. Since I wasn't exactly dressed in my Smokey the Bear fire-fighting costume at bath-time and had no desire to ruin any good towels by putting out the fire with them, I quickly unplugged the heater, crouched on my hands and knees, and blew the flames out.
A charming sight, I assure you. pg. 4
Six people had gathered to watch: two women, obviously as nervous as I, and three sober wide-eyed girls in their teens. And, of course, my first born. pg. 13
Modern-day malapropism is alive and well. Norm Crosby, the stand-up comic, has made a good living from this type of humor for years. I have painstakingly saved a few from my many years of junior high school teaching. pg. 29
I always got the feeling that Mr. Duvall was not really all that enthused about playing golf with a couple of twelve-year old girls who happened to be teacher's kids. Why would I get that impression? Oh, I don't know. Maybe because all we ever did was chip and putt. No REAL playing, just chipping and putting on the hole closest to the winding gravel road. pg. 59
A friend of ours who fancies himself an entrepreneur we have dubbed "the Bar Czar," in honor of one of his schemes: joint ownership of a bar. That project was fairly ordinary by the Bar Czar's standards. pg. 75