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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Cultural Psyche at the End of the 60's in "The White Album", by Joan Didion - Book Review

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This has to be one of the great opening lines. As you continue through The White Album, you’ll find many profound lines throughout. Joan Didion’s collection of essays encompasses a ten year period of writing; a supplement to her reporting that is deeply personal and revealing, with keen insights into her own psyche and that of the time. 

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Can Addiction be Dark and Funny? Perhaps, in "How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir", by Cat Marnell - Book Review

What exactly does murdering one’s life entail? Cat Marnell’s biography about her experiences as an alcohol soaked, drug riddled magazine beauty editor give you a front row seat into how she murdered hers.

[BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT AHEAD]

After reading over 300 pages about Marnell’s teeth gritting addictions and accompanying behaviors, I cannot express my level of disappointment to find out, at the end, that she didn’t get sober. Despite her raw exposure of the tortuous life she led, the jobs she lost, the abuse she suffered, the friends she screwed over, the family she manipulated, only to find out that she is still using, was a severe letdown.

To give credit where credit is due, Marnell is a fantastic storyteller and skilled writer. As she’s recounting some of her more harrowing experiences, she manages to do it in such a cavalier, causal way, that only after a few pages do you realize the severity of what she has just disclosed. She also has an acerbic wit. Her banter warms you to her and makes you feel as though she’s just telling you her story. 

Marnell seems to understand the dangers of her addiction. At one point she asks the reader, “is reading this stuff getting repetitive? Welcome to addiction.” The highs she describes do not read as fun. They read as desperate and edgy, painful both physically and mentally. The lows, as one can imagine, are soul crushing.

That is why her ending is so unsatisfying. Why take the time to expose your pain and agony in this shocking regard only to continue on the same path? In her epilogue, she alleges she’s cut out all the “hard stuff” as well as alcohol. I know the latter is not true, though, because I checked out her Twitter page which is rife with photos of booze.

If you’re interested in reading the well-written, harrowing biography of a drug addict who isn’t clean, I recommend How to Murder Your Life fully. If you read these kinds of books to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, skip it.

Perhaps Ms. Marnell is just doing research for her REAL foray into sobriety. For her sake, I hope she finds it.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: Halfway down the middle, 2.5

Search for the Truth and Grit Take Down a President in "All the President's Men", by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was my first time reading All the President’s Men. For those of you who read it twenty-five years or more ago, it warrants a second read. For those who have never read it, pick it up.

Written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, journalists for the Washington Post, it chronicles their development of the Watergate story from hotel break-in to the exposure of systemic fraud, deception, and illegal recording carried on by the Nixon administration. What started off as a story about a low-level burglary resulted in the resignation of the President of the United States.

All the President's Men
By Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein

Long before email and the internet, Woodward and Bernstein were knocking on doors and making phones calls. Though initially rivals at the Post, they eventually realized that they were stronger together. Bernstein was the better writer, Woodward had grit. Woodward’s clandestine relationship with his White House informant, Deep Throat, was spy novel worthy and proved to be paramount in the unraveling of the full story.

As the story was being developed, the White House issued repeated statements accusing the writers and the Post of false, biased reporting. They remained undeterred, though, and continued investigating and reporting. Through their relentless search for the truth, in the end, they got their men.

At the time of the book’s publication, some of the President’s men had pled guilty to crimes, many had resigned, and others were singing like birds. Less than two months after its publication, President Nixon resigned.

This book is full of facts, dates, and names so extensive that you cannot possibly keep it all straight. It reads like one long newspaper article and while sometimes tedious, it is fascinating. It is also at times barely believable, both in the lengths the reporters were willing to go to uncover the truth and the level of corruption that they exposed teeming through the Nixon administration.

Whatever side of the political aisle you’re on, this book supports the notion that this country has survived, and will continue to survive, times of severe political unrest which, while in the midst of it, might seem insurmountable. It also acts as a litmus test for how important our ‘free press’ was and is.

Published: 1975
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: 5  stars   

Your Summer Feel Good Read: "A Man Called Ove", by Fredrik Backman - Book Review

Though A Man Called Ove was published in 2012, I only just read it. Better late than never.

This is your summer feel good read.

With all the unrest and negativity in the world of late, this book will bring you back to center, at least as it relates to the importance of forging personal relationships with people who aren’t really like you.

It is the simple, well told story of a grumpy old man who, pursuant to encounters throughout the book, turns out to be not so grumpy after all.

A Man Called Ove: A Novel
By Fredrik Backman

Author Fredrik Backman touches on many of today’s big discrimination issues so gently that you don’t realize until after you’ve finished that you were maybe in the midst of an author’s platform.

The deep and probing character development of Ove is really the star of this book. While all of the other characters matter to the story, some of them are more caricatures of an idea rather than fully developed people. But Ove we see through to his core. And by learning about his past, we come to understand exactly why he is how he is and why he does the things he does.

Ah, if we all had such insight into people’s back stories, how different might our interactions be?

I cried big fat tears and laughed full volume chuckles at this one. It kept me reminded, too, that there is almost AWLAYS more to people than what you see at first blush.

We all need an Ove – in theory and in reality. 

Published:  2012
Publisher: Simon and Schuster / Washington Square Press
Elizabeth's rating: 5 stars

Mini Book Reviews: Spring Break Edition

Spring break is upon us. Schedules are undone, and we're finding different pockets of time to sneak in some reading. Elizabeth's provided us with some great and fun suggestions to get us through the week.

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware – Lo Blacklock finally gets the break she’s been waiting for in her stagnant career as a low-level journalist. Because of her boss’ unavailability, she’s asked to be her magazine’s representative on the maiden voyage of a five-star luxury cruise boat. Closer in size to a yacht than a cruise ship, this trip brings a whole new meaning to the idea of intimate quarters. Just as she did with the house in A Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware makes the location of the mystery, in this case the boat, a character in and of itself. You’re never really sure what is happening on board. Has there been foul play at sea, is the entire story a figment of Lo’s imagination, or does the truth fall somewhere in the middle? You’ll be turning pages quickly to find out.

 Published: 2016
                                              Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                              Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard – Suffering the harshest of outcomes from a one-time drinking and driving incident, Helen finds herself desperately alone. Fortunately, or so she initially thinks, Ava and Swift Havilland come to her rescue. Believing them to be her saviors, she welcomes their generosity and credits them with the slow turnaround of her circumstances from bleak to hopeful. But as her life becomes more intimately intertwined with theirs, she starts to question their motives and their true characters. Are they trying to help her get back on her feet or are they using her to advance their own interests? When tragedy strikes, loyalties are laid out in unexpected ways.  

Published:  2016
Publisher:  William Morrow Paperbacks
Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 ½ stars

All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda – Nic ran away from her small home town Cooley Ridge, NC, after the disappearance of her best friend. A decade later, she returns on the heels of the disappearance of yet another girl with whom she’s connected. Having been the only one of her friends or family to leave town, she is walking back in time to her brother, her ailing dad, and her ex-boyfriend. The telling of the story begins after Nic has been back in town for two weeks. The author then backtracks through Nic’s previous fourteen days, one by one, to tell the entire story weaving in facts about Nic’s high school years and the first girl’s disappearance. While the literary device is novel, it’s confusing. At times, the reader has to sit back and recalculate where exactly the story is which breaks up otherwise effective tension. Disjointed story-telling, good mystery.

                                            Published:  2017
                                            Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 stars

The River at Night
By Erica Ferencik

The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik – This is Deliverance 2.0, 21st century style, with no rape (thankfully). Instead of four men on a camping trip in Georgia, this is four women on a white-water rafting trip in Maine. Instead of dueling banjos between strangers, the common denominator is sign language. A rollicking tale, the story keeps you riveted even though you don’t understand why Winifred, Sandra, and Rachel decided to go on this sketchy trip with their bossy, self-centered friend, Pia, in the first place. The trip should have never gotten off the ground but once you suspend reality to accept that it did, you won’t be able to put the book down until you know what happens. Ferencik also uses some beautiful language that almost seems out of place in this type of read. Good prose + good story telling = great ride. Pun intended.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Murder, Corruption, and Strained Race Relations in “Darktown”, by Thomas Mullen – Book Review

Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.

On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”

Darktown: A Novel
By Thomas Mullen

The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.

This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.

The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.

Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth’s rating:  4 stars

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 

Love Life, by Rob Lowe - Book Review

Knowing Rob Lowe as the gorgeous Brat Pack bad boy with a sex tape that almost derailed his career, I began Love Life, Lowe’s most recent autobiography, with low expectations. But this book changed my mind entirely. Intellectual, insightful and funny, Lowe uses his life experiences to give his reader tips for living a fuller and richer life and shows how he’s managed to navigate the Hollywood world with his family, mind and sobriety in tact.

Love Life
By Rob Lowe

Lowe relishes in the successes of his career but is also quick to point out the one offs. Turning down the role of Dr. Derek Shepard on Grey’s Anatomy to star on a show that was cancelled almost immediately might seem a failure to most. But to Lowe, it was a learning experience that positioned him for the next right role; a nine year stint on Parks & Recreation as the consummate optimist, Chris Trager.

Emphasizing the significance he places on being a dad and crediting his wife for his biggest successes in life, he shows his true heart lies with his family. His chapter about taking his eldest son to college will leave you teary eyed.

Meanwhile, his anecdotes about his first trip to the Playboy Mansion, his beyond awkward ‘love scene’ with Jewel and his off screen antics with Matt Damon on the set of Behind the Candelabra are laugh out loud funny.

Lowe is not without a touch of arrogance about his successes in show biz but, seriously, would we expect any different from a man who truly seems to get better looking with age? He also had me writing down some of his sayings in my journal, poignant to the last page. “Be creative in adding drama and scope to your life,” he says, and through his prose demonstrated he did just that for himself. 

Published:  2015
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's Rating: 4 Stars