Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy - Book Review

If you’re looking for an uplifting read, pass this one up. If you’re interested in serious anecdotal and statistical research into the opioid epidemic in this country, read it.

Macy focuses mainly on the epidemic in and around her home town of Roanoke and in some of the poorer white areas of the Appalachia’s, but the book is global in its application.

 Macy interviewed and garnered the confidence of numerous users, users’ families and even a drug dealer, serving a 23-year prison sentence for heroin distribution. Interestingly, that dealer never did ‘herr-on’ as he refers to heroin. He was wise enough to know that his using would only result in his own addiction which would eat into his profits. While he might be a large fish in the dealing pond, he is hardly responsible for the epidemic. Many of the white addicts he sold to turned into dealers themselves just so they could fund their own habits. And small time players can make addicts just as quickly as big ones.  

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New York of "The Dakota Winters", by Tom Barbash is Highly Thoughtful and Readable - Book Review

Invoking so much of factual 1979 New York, I had to look twice to ensure I was reading a work of fiction. Indeed, author Tom Barbash used real events of that year as a backdrop for his novel, The Dakota Winters. We meet the Winters family through the voice of 23-year old Anton whom returns early from a Peace Corps assignment in Africa, having contracted malaria. Anton arrives in time to help his father Buddy Winters, America’s premier and loved talk show host, recover his career from walking off the set during a monologue and disappearing for months.

After much self-reflection, Buddy makes ready for his comeback and needs his son’s support to do so. With maturity and poise beyond his years, Anton traverses his father’s fragile emotions, regaining the trust of those in the business whom felt betrayed by Buddy’s walk off, his mother and siblings trepidation about his father’s readiness for return to t.v., and his own growth as an adult and professional. All of this takes place with his home as the anchor - The Dakota - a real building in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and home to New York’s wealthy, including the Winters, restaurant magnates, authors, artists, and of course, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

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A Remarkable Memoir: "Educated", by Tara Westover - Book Review

Having no expectation when I picked this book up based on a friend’s recommendation, I was surprised by this jarring true story and the austerity with which it was told. Author Tara Westover has written a memoir about her upbringing in Idaho, living under the iron fists of her father and brother, both abusive in different ways, yet all in the name of religion and family good.  

Westover begins her childhood largely in isolation from mainstream society helping with her father’s scrap business and watching her older siblings leave one by one. Her father, self-righteous, delusional, and paranoid, managed the family by fear. Her mother followed him regardless of his destructive path. The family did not believe in organized education nor modern medicine, and had a great distrust for the government. Tara and her siblings were “home schooled”. Except really, they were not academically educated at all unless they sought to teach themselves. Injuries, of which there were many, were treated by their mother with essential oils and energy healing.

Educated: A Memoir
By Tara Westover

Westover had the intelligence and fortitude to understand, even as a child, that hers was not a healthy environment. She’s built up defenses to survive, yet it was not enough, and she had the fortitude to pursue a formal education. In doing so, this small act of defiance created a riff with some in her family, yet it helped to grow her awareness of the world and her own place in it. And over time, she confronted her family’s abuse.

Educated is about a family in crisis that calls to mind Marry Karr’s Liar’s Club. These people are severely broken, yet the author finds her inner strength to break away and discover her own path, fraught with its own challenges. Westover’s narrative style is without melodrama - she soberly conveys her experiences and emotional struggles, sometimes including the perspectives of siblings. She is quite remarkable for not only surviving, but earning her doctorate at Oxford and creating a career and life for herself; although, I’m sure still deals with the aftermath of her family’s decisions and hers. 

Published: 2018
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

"A Heart in the Body of the World", by Deb Caletti

Finding it marketed as Young Adult, I picked this book up with little expectation. Boy, was I in for a surprise. It grabbed me from the start and never let go until the very end which I read with tears dripping onto the pages.

In the opening scene, Annabelle, the main character, has a mild encounter with some overly flirtatious boys that sets her off on a ten-mile sprint - in her school clothes and flats while still holding her fast food drink cup. At this point, we understand that there is clearly something going on with her.

After spending the night in a hotel just a couple of miles from home, she decides she’s going to run across the country. On her own. She doesn’t know how or really why, but she can’t stay in her current circumstance. Her loud Italian mom, Gina, is having none of it, but younger brother Malcolm, her biggest cheerleader, understands and helps her get going. And, on her second day of running, her true guardian angel, Grandpa Ed, shows up in his RV to follow her during the day and house her during the night.

Annabelle’s tragedy comes out piece by piece. We learn she is going to have to face Sean Greggory but we don’t know who he is. We learn of The Taker, a boy whom she never names, but we know she had a relationship with him that went very wrong. We learn of her old boyfriend, Will, and her best friend, Kat, and how she has mental conversations with them.

As Annabelle goes through staggering physical challenges on her cross country run, so, too, does she emotionally. At first, she is consumed by guilt and shame. Then grief. Then rage. Which carries her through all those times when she just wants to quit. “When you are a human being, you must decide and decide again to go forward. You must, or you won’t move from the worst that life offers to here……”

Caletti writes a breathtakingly beautiful story about so much pain. And, without giving away the story, I will just say that she touches on a number of today’s very hot topics with searing clarity. She writes from the perspective of a teenage girl in a fashion that makes it hard to believe she isn’t one. She shows how ALL love has its weaknesses, that no love is perfect, but what IS perfect is that we keep on trying. She speaks of activism and how all it takes is one person to start a chain reaction. “People plus people plus anger is how things can change.”

This is not a young adult book. This is an EVERYONE book. I think it should be required reading for all of those going through life. Caletti captures the frailty of the human existence while simultaneously extolling the absolute strength that can come from the human spirit – even one that seems crushed beyond recovery.

A compelling story with outstanding writing, A Heart in a Body in the World is ALL HEART.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse

Elizabeth’s rating: 5 stars

Social Commentary in an Elegantly Written Novel - "Unsheltered", by Barbara Kingsolver

This is my first time reading work by Barbara Kingsolver, and I’ve clearly been missing out. Her newest, Unsheltered, is her 15th published book. It is focused on protagonist Willa Knox, her charming and handsome husband, Iano, his ailing father who lives with them, and their two children in various stages of early adulthood and discovery.  Willa and Iano are doing all the right things - working hard, saving, kind and loving; yet things are literally falling apart around them - Iano cannot get tenure at the college where he teaches; Willa’s magazine has shut down and she’s now freelancing; her father-in-law’s health is deteriorating, and insurance doesn’t cover enough of the costs; and the house they recently moved into at Sixth and Plum is crumbling around them. Oh, then there are her two children - Tig, the caring, but mostly distant daughter who lives at home; and Zeke, trying to make it in a new career with an infant.

Unsheltered: A Novel
By Barbara Kingsolver

Willa has a lot going on, and while she works to hold everything and everyone together, including herself, Kingsolver introduces us to a parallel narrative over a century earlier - of a truth seeking science teacher with troubles of his own.  Thatcher Greenwood finds himself newlywed to a privileged wife, along with her sister and social climbing mother, living in a crumbling house…on the corner of Sixth and Plum. Thatcher’s progressive, Darwinism ideas is at odds with the local establishment. He is quite confined by both his family and employer, but holds rather dangerous friendships with both a woman scientist, Mary Treat, and a local newspaper editor who is at odds with the towns’ restrictive leadership. They both encourage Thatcher to work to change the traditional notions of science and learning - a dangerous path, as he discovers. Kingsolver has researched the real Mary Treat for this novel, a nineteenth century biologist, to bring her to life for us as a somewhat eccentric, intelligent, and lovely character.

The house is not the only common thread between Willa and Thatcher. Societal and dogmatic parallels can be found in characters across the years.  In Unsheltered, while Kingsolver displays a very human side - a happy marriage beset with adversity, children finding their way in adulthood, and well-intentioned people struggling with day to day conflict. She openly shares her social and political stance through her characters, and there is a bit of self-righteousness that comes through. While Willa is a super human to manage the crises that keep coming, it’s the fluid writing and authentic dialogue that really make this book special.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

"Southernmost", by Silas House - Book Review

Southernmost starts with a flood of biblical proportions. And sends its (mostly) protagonist preacher, Asher Sharp, awash in his own doubts. After a gay couple loses their home yet helps Asher and his son, Justin, to safety during the storm, Asher’s wife refuses to allow them to seek shelter with the Sharps because of their homosexuality. Asher begins to question every bit of his faith. As he internally wrestles with his feelings, he implores his congregation to do the same. Unfortunately, the most scalding portion of his otherwise reasonably tempered speech was captured on video by a child. And it went viral.

With the completely expected ouster from his church and demise of his marriage, Asher cannot accept his limited court granted access with his tender-hearted son, Justin, so he kidnaps him. Is it really kidnapping, you think, as you empathize with his desperate love for his child? Well, yes, taking a kid without letting the other parent know you are doing so and disappearing into the night to places unknown is exactly that.

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"I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer", by Michelle McNamara - Book Review

McNamara, comedian Patton Oswalt’s late wife, was obsessed with the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed The Golden State Killer. And when I say obsessed, I mean all encompassing, decades long, detective like obsessed. This book is the result of her obsession and to show just how much it affected her personally, at one point, she casually states, “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.”

Because what she was obsessed with was terrifying.

The book is a murder mystery of epic proportion and frustration. At the time of McNamara’s death, the book had not yet been published nor had the mystery been solved. She died without seeing her monstrous (pun intended) efforts in print and not knowing just how close officials were to getting her man. She died not knowing what we all know now. In April of this year, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., was arrested and is being held without bail as the Golden State Killer.

The acronym McNamara used throughout the book, and one used by official types, was EAR-ONS: East Side Rapist/Original Night Stalker. This guy carried on a reign of terror and destruction from the late 70s through the mid 80s and he simply could not be caught. This, despite the fact that once he escaped a crime scene on a stolen ten-speed with officers in cars hot on his tail. As McNamara’s title indicates, he was a master of the dark.

To say that McNamara’s research is extensive, is to understate it grievously. She even became a contact for detectives along the way who took her theories and suggestions as seriously as they would from other law enforcement. But she writes a methodically researched subject like a novel. Interspersed with the facts, she adds anecdotal stories of her own life that shine a light into her as well as giving some softness to a book that is both brutal and clinical in its facts and details.

After McNamara’s tragic death in April 2016, her lead investigator and a well-schooled investigative journalist put all of her diligent work together into what resulted in this book. Their task must have been overwhelming and, if McNamara hadn’t made such an important impression on them, there is no way they would have undertaken it. Her husband, Patton, lovingly writes the afterword and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame wrote the foreword.

McNamara’s obsession with the Golden State Killer drove her to some dangerously dark places. After her death was ruled an accidental overdose of a lethal combination of prescription drugs, it isn’t hard to imagine that she may have used medicine to dull the edges of her gruesome hobby.

And, who could blame her? As of her death, the killer was still on the loose and constantly on her mind. Oh, how I hope her spirit knows that her real-life demon has been caught and that she’s finally able to lie peacefully at rest.   

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

An Intimate Portrait of Friendship in "The Ensemble", by Aja Gabel - Book Review

The Ensemble is the perfect debut novel - unique and authentic. Author Aja Gabel brings her musical background to the forefront with the Van Ness Quartet - four musicians who meet, form friendships, struggle, and evolve together. Gabel was herself a musician, playing cello from childhood, so she brings experience with her in writing of these musicians, the music itself, and their emotional struggles. 

We meet the quartet in conservatory, and each have a role in conveying their story throughout the novel. Jana is first violin and the clear leader of the group; Brit, a pretty self-conscious orphan, is second violin; Daniel, who has the least natural talent, is the hardest working of the group on cello; and Henry on viola is the handsome, happy prodigy.  Gabel provides vivid emotional narratives of her characters as they grow up together - through family and personal drama; reliance upon each other; distrust and envy; but always deeply intimate and intertwined.

As the book progresses, her characters mature in different ways, and so does her writing it seems. Her characters’ revelations about themselves and those to whom they are so closely attached become more accurate realizations instead of idealizations, and each member provides an acceptance of other’s successes and flaws alike. They are a cohesive unit that will succeed or fail together, and their futures hinge on the collective mood.

Gabel’s The Ensemble provides us with a different kind of story, and she skillfully succeeds with her first novel.  I’m looking forward to seeing more from her.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

An American Hero and "8 Seconds of Courage", by Flo Groberg and Tom Sileo - Book Review

It’s hard to know where to begin with this review. Maybe it’s with Flo Groberg, one of the authors whom this book is primarily about. Perhaps it’s with the our war in Afghanistan. Or maybe it’s with the Gold Star families and our brave soldiers. All intertwine, and Groberg, along with Tom Sileo create a powerful retelling of Groberg’s experience as a soldier in Afghanistan, of those we’ve lost, and of coming home.

I attended a USO benefit recently, 8 Seconds of Courage was given out at each seat, and Groberg was one of the keynote speakers. His charisma and energy had the large audience completely rapt. Hanging back after the dinner was over to catch up with people, over walks Groberg, so I asked him to autograph two books, and we spoke for a few moments. This young man has enough positivity and drive to power a rocket; and genuine excitement for the future. As he demonstrates in the book, his care for his finance Carsen is endless, and he mentioned their engagement to me. So, I knew the book was jumping to the top of my “to be read” pile.  

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The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses), by Terri-Lynne DeFino

Having read fantasy and romance from DeFino, I wondered how a straight up fiction novel of hers would be. I know that DeFino dislikes being pigeon holed into genres since she sees so many books falling into more than one. Which is exactly the case with The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers. In fact, her straight up fiction book has both romance and fantasy neatly inserted within its pages.

Set in, yes, (you guessed it), Bar Harbor at, yes, (you’re right again), a retirement home for aging writers, DeFino quickly introduces a cast of diverse and thoroughly developed characters. Of the writers, there is Alfonse, a sort of elderly Dos Equis man, the most famous of the authors. Then, there is Olivia, his ex-lover and quick-witted marijuana smoker; Judi, the group stenographer who laments the realization of her increasing dementia, and Switch, the taciturn, good hearted spoil sport. On the employee side, there is Dr. Kintz, kind and flustered, as he tries to manage these aging autocrats as well as his trove of damaged employees. And, Cecibel, the physically marred orderly who becomes Alfonse’s muse; Sal, the massive black nurse who moonlights as Wispy Flicker, the drag queen; and, Fin, the convicted murderer. Yep, I have that right.

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