"Between Breaths", A Story of Addiction and Recovery, by Elizabeth Vargas - Book Review

Her fantasy: “Sipping a golden elixir from a beautiful piece of stemware while a steady amber glow settles over your world.”

Her reality: “Staring in the bathroom mirror at the miserable woman in the glass, gulping down her wine from a plastic cup.”

Elizabeth Vargas was gripped by the illusion of many alcoholics that she could figure out a way to drink like a normal person despite clear, consistent evidence to the contrary. Eventually, finally, she realized she could not manage alcohol as a part of her existence. With it, her life was completely unmanageable. Without it, maybe she had a fighting chance.

Vargas was a game changer in the news world, becoming the second female anchor (Connie Chung was the first) of a network world nightly news program. She reported on the ground from the Iraq war, covered both Amanda Knox trials in Italy, reported on the Elian Gonzalez controversy and interviewed President Bush. She married successful singer-song writer, Marc Cohn, and they had two lovely boys together.

From outside looking in, she had it all. But Vargas speaks of her sometimes paralyzing anxiety in great detail. Starting early in her life, panic attacks gripped her and continued, even during her most successful and visible days as a leading woman in the news. Initially, she found that a glass of wine or two made her high stress life just a little more tolerable. Until it wasn’t just a glass or two but large quantities that she went to great pains to try and hide from those close to her.  

Vargas writes with sophistication and grace about her drinking history but her stories are no different than those of alcoholics with less education, stature, success and wealth. It took repeated rehab stays, destroying her family, and self-induced, life threatening experiences before she could come to terms with the fact that she was not “terminally unique”: neither in her drinking habits nor in her internal demons.

While she’s sometimes hard to relate to because of her success and notoriety, when she opens up about her inability to control her drinking and the roads it led her down, she’s just another drunk telling a story.

Her beauty, class and grace in looks and storytelling stand as a stark reminder that alcoholism is indiscriminate in its victims and that you don’t ever actually know what it is going on in someone’s life unless they tell you. Vargas didn’t have to tell this story, but she did so in order to share her experience, strength and hope (an AA mantra) with others.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

A Qualified Win for "Unqualified", by Anna Faris - Book Review

I’ve always envisioned that Anna Faris– Anna pronounced like “Donna” not like “Manna” – was sweet and gracious. Her book confirms as much. She adores her still happily married parents and credits them with her success, stating repeatedly that their encouragement to pursue the acting gig was what kept her at it. What I didn’t expect was her edginess and guile which, honestly, just made her more likable. I felt like I was sharing a drink with her as she regaled me with stories.

Unqualified
By Anna Faris

Though her book name and mantra is that she’s unqualified to give advice, that is exactly what she does. While she doesn’t have letters behind her name, what she does have is compassion and strong feelings about important topics. But her soft side coexists comfortably with her feminist side. Not at all afraid to call men out on crappy behavior, she’s similarly happy to admit that she loved it when her then husband would send her a huge flower arrangement before every taping of her tv show, “Mom.”

She discusses a broad range of topics including the following: losing her virginity, how terrible she was at dating, managing Hollywood stardom, and how she’s not really a comedic actress. She also has lots to say about love: when it’s right, when it isn’t, whether you should move to be with a guy (who isn’t your husband), the “wedding hoopla”, how to deal with a breakup, and how to make your man into the person you want him to be (you gotta read it to realize she gives solid advice on this one and it’s not about control).

To further demonstrate her likability, she had her soon to be ex-husband, Chris Pratt, write the foreword to the book after they had agreed to divorce. Between that and her words of love to him in her acknowledgements, I finished the book in tears. How can two people who clearly have so much love and respect for one another not have lasted? Well, because they’re people and being famous doesn’t make them any more or less likely to stay together. But, they are clearly good people which makes this book by yet another actress worth a turn.

This is an easy, quick read from a vibrant, caring, and funny woman.

Published:  2017
Publisher:  Dutton

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

When You're "Born a Crime", by Trevor Noah - Book Review

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is fierce and heartbreakingly hilarious, just like he is. The son of an unmarried South African black woman and a much older Swiss man, Noah was literally “born a crime” under South African law. His birth was not by accident; his mother purposefully conceived him knowing full well the difficulties to which it could lead. But Noah’s mother refused to be bound by rules, laws, and religious tenets that did not make sense to her. And she was the definitive architect of Noah’s upbringing and ultimate success.   

The entire book is really an homage to his mom. Even as he portrays her at her harshest, which will be hard for some to read, his reverence for her is ubiquitous. He gives all credit to her. She read to him, encouraged him to learn as many South African languages as he could (plus English, of course) and let him know that he was free to do WHATEVER he wanted in life. She also chased after him A LOT because, in his own words, he was naughty as shit. “We only moved forward and we always moved fast.”  

Trevor, by his own description was ugly and ridiculous looking, but he found a way to use that to his advantage. Being a clown can garner attention and he used that attention to develop industrious business opportunities in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. Despite his present polish, in his writing he occasionally reverts to slang, starting sentences with “me and him.” As annoying as this grammatical error is to me, somehow, it’s endearing from Noah. It reminds you of where he’s been and what he’s gone through to get to where he is now.

Through his own life story, Noah tells the more general story of apartheid and the plight of the truly poor in South Africa. Noah realized early on that having money gave you choices. “People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose.” And, the “teach a man to fish” parable? Noah suggests that’s nice, but you need to give him a fishing rod too. He uses his own illegitimate birth to lay out the racial caste system in the country and to demonstrate how his mixed race secured him advantage in some circumstances and utter discrimination in others.   

Although his adolescence was an incredible struggle, Noah infuses humor and camaraderie into his story telling. He may have been the gawky clown, but he had friends and love and, even in the darkest of times, hope. Trevor Noah has been a force to be reckoned with since he was a boy. I expect he will continue to be for as long as he’s around.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ stars

Realization of an American Social Crisis in "Hillbilly Elegy", by J.D. Vance - Book Review

These are the people we really don’t talk about. We may drive through their towns on a road trip, but it’s never our destination. We may even roll up the windows as we do, and lock the doors. They live in broken down factory or mining towns, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to hope for.

J.D. Vance is one of them - a hillbilly. He grew up in Ohio, spent time in Kentucky, but always with his people. There are vast numbers of them that stretch across Appalachia and migrated into other states, following the jobs. Vance’s autobiography and account of the mindset and perspectives of the people living in these regions is not only eye opening, but jarring. I know there are millions of poor and undereducated in the U.S., and sometimes see it on the news or come face to face with it on the street - for a fleeting moment.

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Punk's Not Dead in "Die Young With Me", by Rob Rufus - Book Review

To be honest, I didn’t want to like this book. A book about a punk kid (no, really, he was in a punk band), I feared it would be another sad cancer story that would make me feel bad. It did that, yes, but it cracked into my heart in deep and unexpected ways.

Rufus grew up in Huntington, WV, and was living a single dimensional life until one day he found punk rock music. Then, the technicolored lights turned on. He and his identical twin, Nat, fell in love with the genre and after consuming any and every album they could physically get their hands on, they started their own punk band, Defiance of Authority.

The band was gaining traction, Rob was dating a hot cheerleader, and things were on the upswing for the Rufus twins except for the nagging cough Rob couldn’t shake. Rufus’ experiences with the local ER shed light both on the inadequacies of medical care in smaller locales in the country as well as the prejudices that go beyond the color of one’s skin.  

Once properly diagnosed, Rufus began treatment in Columbus Children’s hospital hours away from home. Rufus tells his cancer story in such a gruesome and heartbreaking manner, the book is simultaneously hard to read and tough to put down.

What sets his story apart, I think, is his age. Rufus was seventeen at the time of diagnosis, so still legally a minor. He was far from a child, though, and his stories of the pediatric cancer ward in Columbus are told from the perspective of a man-boy suffering from teenage angst, but with one foot in the adult world. The one person he truly found common ground with was the janitor who cleaned his room.  

And as Rob underwent the horrific chemo treatments necessary to save his life, his brother and the band headed out on the Warped Tour. As Rufus lost his hair, weight, organs and puked at least a million times, his brother – his identical twin - got buff, honed his music skills, toured with their idols and had girl groupies. Rufus took it in stride. It is hard for me to imagine being that magnanimous NOW if I were in a similar situation much less at the self-centered, self-righteous age of seventeen.

In the end, Rufus got through his trials through his own grit, the staunch love and support of his parents, a close, small network of friends, a caring team of doctors that actually appreciated his ‘punkness’ and that unbreakable, unknowable bond that twins always seem to share. One night when Nat was on the road and Rob was stuck in the hospital, Nat urged Rob to look out at the moon. It is the same moon in both places, Nat said. In other words, I’m with you. Always with you.

This isn’t a literary work of genius, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s the story of a punk rocker who fought his way through the mosh pit of cancer hell and got back up on the stage.   

Published: 2016
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars 

Exploring The Bahamas with “Out-Island Doctor”, by Evans W. Cottman - Book Review

Out-Island Doctor is the autobiography of Evans Cottman, starting out as a lonely biology teacher in Indiana. Cottman led a quiet, and by all accounts rather dull, life. His focus was teaching and caring for his aging parents and aunt with whom he lived. Cottman had a strong sense of adventure and hungered to break free from such a conventional lifestyle. Thus begins his exploration and eventual transplant to the exotic islands of the Bahamas.

The story really begins in 1939, when Cottman decided he wanted to visit the out-islands of the Bahamas - lesser inhabited settlements dotting the larger islands and cities. He started a letter writing campaign to commissioners of the islands themselves to arrange visits, and they were very accommodating. In visiting the islands that first summer of 1939, and during subsequent journeys, he came to love the adventure, the climate, and the people. And they returned the admiration for him.

Out-island Doctor
By Evans W. Cottman, Wyatt Blassingame

In discovering his love of his new home, we follow Cottman through turbulent sailing trips, severe seasickness, blistering heat, harsh storms, and insect-ridden abodes. It would be quaint to call his living conditions rustic - they were often in poverty, yet part of the native Bahamian landscape. Eventually, Cottman transitions from summer visits to permanent residence and must determine how to make a living to supplement his modest teachers’ pension.  He settles on medicine, as the remote, out-islands have little or nothing in the way of healthcare, and he takes on a regimen to learn the profession, achieving a doctor’s permit.

Cottman’s story is extraordinary. The physical move to this remote location is one thing, but he continues to surprise by embracing his circumstances - sometimes living in squalor, teaching himself to practice medicine, learning to sail, adventuring the unknown. Cottman continues to bring us along as he builds a home, a profession, and a family, with exceptional determination and perseverance. 

Throughout the book, I often questioned his sanity. However, I couldn’t help but admire his drive to chase his dream. While not a writing masterpiece by any means, the tale is an interesting one of life-changing events and a happy outcome. If you have any interest in the Bahamas, adventure, or simply overcoming the odds, Out-Island Doctor may be a fun read for you.

Published: 1963 / 1989
Publisher: E.P. Dutton & Co. / Media Publishing

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars