Monday, April 27, 2009

Let's Be Friends Award

Jules, over at Jules' Book Reviews awarded me with the Let's Be Friends Award!

Blogs that received the Let’s Be Friends Award are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers.

Thanks so much for Jules for this award! It is really an honor to receive it, and I want to thank everyone who stops by here so much for finding a bit of merit in my reviews. Through my forays within the blogging world, I have met many other bloggers who have been supremely kind to me and have gotten recommendations for so many great books that I would have never discovered on my own. In addition, I have seen some really great writing out there, and I hope to be able to widen my net and meet some more wonderful people.

In the spirit of this award, I would like to pass it on to:

Ink Horn Platypus at A Platypus With a Book Walks Into A Bar .

Marie at The Boston Bibliophile.

Aarti at Book Lust

Lotus at Lotus Reads.

Petunia at Educating Petunia.


Meghan at Medieval Bookworm.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister byTerrell Harris Dougan - 224 pages

Book CoverTerrell Harris never expected that the beautiful baby sister born on that stormy March day would be different from the other children in the neighborhood, but as she ducks a flying chicken thrown at her by her sister in the supermarket isle many years later, she reflects back on her life with Irene by her side. As youngsters, the girls' parents struggled to give them the most joyful life possible. For Terrell, that meant going to the theater, taking horseback riding lessons and learning to ice skate. For Irene, things weren't that simple. Functioning at the mental level of a three year old, Irene grows up throwing dangerous tantrums and is unable to learn to read or write. Her disability forces her personality into disarray and she is in constant need of attention and affection. All the while, her loving family strives to give her the least restrictive and most fulfilling life possible, knowing that to do otherwise would be a grave disservice to the little girl who touches so many lives in the community and at home. Advised to institutionalize Irene, both her parents refuse and begin the long fight to create agencies and programs for the handicapped in their community. Their desire is to create a safe place for people like Irene to go to school, have friends and adjust to the rigors of normal life. Working tirelessly, they spearhead campaigns, speak to governors and senators and fight against the state for control of their daughter's future. In the process, they meet other parents who are going through the same situations with their handicapped children.

As their parents begin to age, Terrell steps into their shoes and begins to selflessly devote herself to giving her sister a normal life. But Irene can be stubborn, and sometimes doesn't want the things that her family wants for her. And so begins the struggle between the sisters, for each has their own interpretations of the ideal life for Irene. But this is not a sorrowful story, for Irene is a natural comedian and loves to endlessly thwart those around her. Whether she is inviting the firemen over to partake of her lemonade stand, holding a secret garage sale, or stealing the show by announcing for the seventeenth time this month that it is her birthday, Irene remains engaged and engaging. She is inspired, confident and headstrong, and by some strange turn of events, she teaches those around her to live with meaning and substance, proving time and time again that one can never underestimate those who we think are different.

I have to say that this is by far the best memoir I have read over the past two years. The courage and tenacity of Terrell and her family's reaction to Irene's handicap stunned and moved me. I can't imagine being as brave as these people were, and the fact that they fought to such extremes is both impressive and inspiring to say the least. Terrell makes no bones about how difficult it can be to look after Irene, and her uncompromising honesty is the glue that holds this book together. To me, Irene sounds like a card, and I laughed with glee at her antics and behaviors. I especially like her adamant refusal to change her Mickey Mouse socks, even when going to a formal event, or her sly attempts at sneaking junk food whenever she can get her hands on it. But underneath all that, there must have been some really frightening times for this family. I think back to the time when she was lost somewhere in the bus terminal, and her family didn't know if she was on a bus halfway across the country or just hidden in a bathroom playing with her dolls. I think about the times when her tantrums cause her to injure herself, or when she is violent with other people, and I marvel at the fortitude that her family shows when the unthinkable becomes the everyday.

Terrell goes on to explain that her husband and children all look after Irene with the same love and attention that she has demonstrated, and that, too, warms my heart. It was angering to see how little support was given to the families of handicapped children at that time in the United States. It seems that everyone thought the best thing to do was to lock them up and forget about them, and changing this was an uphill struggle all the way. But the Harris family had other solutions. Using behavior modification, they manage to get Irene to comply with many things and they strive continuously to improve the quality of her life with new and inventive methods that others had never even thought of.

Another wonderful thing about this book was the strong undercurrent of feeling running through it. Whether Terrell was tired, frustrated, elated or dejected, she never spared her truth and forthrightness, and that was something that elevated this book in to the must-read category. This is not a woman who sits around feeling sorry for herself, this is a woman who sees the path she is on,and marches straight downit with a resolute strength that many would not have. Although Irene is a handful, and sometimes her life seems a never-ending set of trials, Terrell maintains her plucky attitude and stays the course. Did I mention that in the intervening time she has made a name for herself with a weekly newspaper column? Well she has, along with raising a family, helping her parents, and lobbying for the mentally handicapped. Terrell also has an extremely humorous presence on the page, at times laugh out loud funny and at times quietly amusing. She seems to have the gift of portraying everything with just the right touch of levity. This book was written both cleverly and deeply, and there were times I wanted to laugh as well as cry.

Please don't just take my word for it, go out and get this book and see for yourself! As I have said before, it is a must read in the category of memoirs, and I would highly recommend it to all types of readers. The story told within these pages is an honest and awe inspiring tale of one family's love for each other, and it was such a pleasure to read. One day I hope to get a chance to tell the author of this book how much this story touched me, and how wonderful I think she and Irene really are. A stellar read.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bedlam South Giveaway!

Bedlam South is a tale of the Civil War. Filled with action, pathos and hope, the book explores not only the themes of the war, but gives the reader a sneak peek into the lives of the soldiers in action, the men who were broken by battle, and the people in between who were left to pick up the pieces of their once unmarred families and homes. The book is a tremendously involving account of life under the fist of war.

I have one copy available to give to one lucky reader, so if you would like a chance to win a copy of this unusual and interesting book, please leave a comment here. If you would like a second entry, you can also tweet this giveaway on Twitter. Please leave a separate comment if you do. Also, please include your e-mail address so I have a way to get in contact with you, and good luck!

I will draw one random winner for this contest on May 5, 2009, and will post the results on the following day.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bedlam South by Mark Grisham and David Donaldson - 325 pgs

Bedlam South is a thrilling and evocative triple tale of the action and the atrocities of the Civil War as told by its participants. Zeke and Billy, two brothers enlisted in the army of northern Virginia, struggle to stay alive and connected to each other amidst the horrors that the war is inflicting upon them and the men around them. They both spend a good deal of time wondering about the safety of their family and the home they left behind. As they march across the country and get pummeled by the Union forces, they see their friends and fellow soldiers slaughtered one by one, until the day of a particularly ferocious battle when Billy goes missing among the carnage. Zeke, injured and scared, must continue the march with his unit, leaving Billy behind to a fate that he struggles to comprehend and accept. Meanwhile, the mysterious Dr. Joseph Bryarly arrives in Virginia from England, ready to become the supervisor of one of the most vile and notorious mental institutions, Richmond's Wingate Asylum. What the humble and compassionate doctor doesn't know is that the hospital has already been commandeered by the sadistic and unstable Captain Percy and his band of thugs. Without any oversight, Percy and his bandits have made the asylum a living hell for all who enter, be they the mentally afflicted, deserters, or prisoners of war. Doctor Bryarly must find a way to keep his patients and himself alive and safe from the maniac Percy, who is intent on torturing and murdering whoever gets in his way. Bridging the gap between these stories is the tale of Miss Mary Beth, a woman forced to sell her body to soldiers in order to survive. Although Mary Beth is despised by most of the town's women and adored by most of the men, she hides a secret. It is Mary Beth who will discover that her secret has the power to save Dr. Bryarly and his ragged group of patients, saving herself in the process.

This was a very arresting book. The three stories told within the pages were a unique mix of topics and situations. I have read stories of war, stories of mental asylums, and stories of hard luck women before, but never all in the same book. I think that all told, the elements of the story were well integrated and ran together very smoothly. Each story held great tension and drama and seemed to flow perfectly from one section to the next. It was with mild frustration that I realized that each section was ending right at the moment I had been most anticipating, until I realized that I was actually getting back to a section that I had been engrossed in and waiting for as well.

The battle sections were done in an almost academic fashion, and I thought, very well researched and accurate. Each skirmish and rout was told with substance and weight, with a full exploration of the human element as well. Although I tended to prefer Dr. Bryarly's sections over those depicting the war, I really felt that the authors honed in wonderfully on the tremendous difficulties that faced the Confederate soldiers. Through the myriad of battles, the characters extemporized on what war means to societies, families, and individuals. These astute observations were both interesting and at times distressing. The sheer magnitude of the casualties was difficult to stomach. All these men were someone's brother, father, husband or son, and it was especially hard to see beloved characters being sacrificed to the cause.

The sections that revolved around Wingate Asylum were both incredibly interesting but at the same time very painful to read. The level of torture that went on behind the gates of the asylum was wrenching and terrifying, and at times I had to take small breaks from the book due to the graphic nature of some of the "treatments." At one point, a patient's head was shaved and he was forced to kneel while a caustic mixture of mustard plaster was applied to his head, face and neck. He screamed in agony as angry blisters and weeping sores broke out over the mustard-covered surfaces. At other times patients endured "therapeutic immersions" (i.e., attempted drowning), a horrible device called the "Utica crib" and many other things that turned my stomach. It is hard to say that I liked these sections, because surely I did not, but I appreciated the historical accuracy that was being reflected in them. In no way was I prepared for the brutality I faced during these scenes, but I had always been more than a little curious about the way the mentally ill had been treated in earlier times. I believe that most of these sections were accurate, as the authors indicate that they scoured several reference works regarding the treatment of the mentally ill in the last section of the book.

I found the book to be very dark and at times provocative, although I think that there really could have been no other way to relate the mayhem and turbulence that permeated the societies that were reflected here. The topic was bleak and dismal, but executed in a way that was both eye-opening and heartrending. There was simply no way that I could remain uninvolved and uninterested in this story. There were, however, areas where I thought the book could have been more smooth. The early dialogue was a bit unbelievable and wooden, but this was only evident in the early sections of the book, when the authors seemed to be getting to know and grasping their characters. Also, I felt that the pace could have been a bit quicker in certain areas, but I admit, it may have been my personal experience with the shifting story lines and my preference of certain sections.

My principal thoughts on this book were very positive. I think the narrative was both eclectic and informative, and although some of the main characters rubbed me the wrong way at times, I think that was an intentional construct that the authors utilized very well. There was just enough action to make the story feel pressurized without sacrificing the depth of character, and not enough coincidence to make things feel forced. There were some amazing moments in this story, and I really felt invested in most of these characters and their plights. Ultimately, this felt like a very good first novel from this writing team. The authors have just completed their second joint effort, Chiasson, which will take place in the years leading up to the Civil War, and focus on the inexorable progress towards the secession. I look forward to it as well.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Following the Whispers - Creating a life of inner peace and acceptance from the depths of despair by Karen Walker - 172 pgs

Book CoverIn this unflinching memoir, Karen Walker exposes the inner struggles and turmoil she faced throughout her childhood and adult life. She describes growing up in a hostile and unloving home with parents who were ill-equipped to raise a child, her traumatization after being molested by a stranger, and the eventual loss of custody of her young child. Walker painfully describes her downward spiral of shame and self-recrimination when her life not only doesn't turn out as expected, but continues to degenerate into unmanagability. Spanning many years and seasons of her life, this is an intimate and potent story of a woman who must fight the destructive tides of cruel familial opposition while still trying to hold on to her self worth.

I am having a hard time reconciling myself with this book. I found the writing to be both cogent and involving, and felt that the narrative power in this book was excellent. Walker surely knows how to weave the events of her life into a story that is both hard to put down and clearly resonates with the reader, but essentially, I had a very hard time understanding the point of this book. The book used a winding technique of narrative that slowly unfolded all of the pertinent facts and information, and the author portrayed her story in a confessional and penetrating way that left me feeling both sympathetic and moved by her plights. The problem came after I had a few days to digest the book. I started to become annoyed that throughout the book she seemed to constantly victimize herself and vilify everyone that she came into contact with. Only her current husband escaped the scoundrel label that she seemed to place on everyone. Her parents, friends, ex-husband and, even more shocking, her young son seemed to be food and fuel to the great blame game that she played. She didn't seem to understand that human interaction has a great potential to be redemptive and healing instead of singularly bleak and distressing. It bothered me that she painted everyone with the "monster" paintbrush and maintained an attitude of helplessness and self woe that I found unhealthy.

When she decided to basically give up the fight for custody of her son in order to have time to grow into a better person, it made me angry. The real world is not like that. In the real world, parents are overwhelmed and confused and sometimes feel taken for granted, but they don't run away from their children and their responsibilities in order to heal themselves. They continue with the daily struggle to raise and nurture their offspring, in the hopes that one day their children will lead happy and safe lives.

Another thing that bothered me was the way she used her episode of molestation as a crutch in which to remain emotionally unhealthy. Several times she related that she was unable to accept happiness, or love, or feelings of adequacy due to this event. It was tiring to see her constantly use this as a means to reject other people and stubbornly remain in emotional stasis throughout the book. She had many years of therapy, yet she was never able to resolve these issues within herself, never able to forgive herself and her offender in order to heal and move on in peace. Instead she seemed to pull this episode out of the past whenever she didn't want to deal with new or uncomfortable situations. Everyone has been a victim at some time in their lives, but to constantly sit in that role and seem to relish it doesn't really impress me as creating a life of inner peace and acceptance at all.

And that brings me to my next point. As a reader, I never really understood how the author grew into having a life of inner peace. Her situations eventually resolved themselves, as most do, but she never really seemed to grow or change in any way that was significant. Mostly this story struck me as a "woe is me, look how I have been wronged" tale, something that many people could tell, but something that failed to inspire the author into any self healing behaviors. I know this reaction may seem harsh, but it is hard to find compassion for a woman who abandons her child to a cruel and unloving father and constantly places herself in damaging and destructive relationships time and time again.

In the end, I ultimately felt a little bad about being so engrossed in reading about someone else's unhappy life. While I was reading the book, it was almost like having a train-wreck kind of mentality, where I could not look away from all the heartache and unhappiness spreading over the pages. Later, I mused to myself that perhaps the point that the author was trying to make with the writing of this book was to gain sympathy from her audience, maybe replacing those who didn't give it to her in her real life. While I sympathize with the author's struggles, I was disappointed with her apparent lack of growth. The book's title promised an outcome which was never realized.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Neurology of Angels by Krista Tibbs - 284 pages

Book CoverThe Neurology of Angels tells the story of three people and their struggles with the American health care system. Years ago, Galen Douglas lost his fiancée to a series of strokes. In a desperate attempt to heal himself of his heartache, the neurologist began to formulate a medicine that will help others avoid his fiancée's fate. When he invents a viable medicine for the treatment of ischemic stroke victims, he must face endless red tape and bureaucratic dead ends in order to get the drug into the people's hands who most desperately need it to survive. Eddy Parker is a family man, living the American dream, when unexpected events lead him into the political arena with the intention of lowering the cost of prescription drugs and health care so that it becomes affordable for everyone. Eddy, like the people he represents, has a vested interest in seeing these issues resolved. Elizabeth Rose is a pharmaceutical industry lawyer facing the task of raising a terminally ill daughter, Sera, alone, after the death of her husband. As Sera grows from toddler to young adult, the clock is relentlessly ticking for someone to find the cure for her disease. Each of these people have a critical role in the battle between the executives, the government and the politicians who govern the modern health care system. This is a tale of the industry of illness and of those who must fight against that industry in order to change lives, one at a time.

This book was a very interesting peek into the major concerns of the American health care crisis that many face every day. Each avenue of the system was clearly and eloquently explored, right down to the frank information regarding the legislation that restricts citizens from purchasing drugs from other countries. The book clearly had a message, but it wasn't pushy or unreasonable in making its point. In a country where the laws and reforms are so complicated and many-faceted, this book did an incredible job of exploring the issues from each side, and even from the perspective of those caught in the middle.

In one section of the book, a character is faced with the choice of paying upwards of $50,000 for one dose of a medicine that has not been approved for off label use, or going without a treatment that is preventing her from having a stroke. The thought of this happening to me or someone I care about is frightening, yet all too real. I also thought the sections regarding the practical sides of the research and development of pharmaceuticals was extremely well done. The author really encompassed all the aspects of drug development, from the discovery right down to the marketing and clinical trials. She didn't shy away from portraying the controversies that go on in this area of science and development, and I truly appreciated that.

Although there were sections in the book that were heavy with scientific and political jargon, I felt that this actually added to the impact and the importance of the book, taking the story to a much more realistic and credible level. It was really impressive to read about the meshing of the medical, governmental, and personal sides of this issue in a way that fleshed out the whole picture. I think many readers will find that this book answers many questions they might have never known they had regarding the availability and cost of health care and medications.

I felt that the author really delved deep creating these characters, because although this was a book with a message, her characters came across as very genuine and were easy to sympathize with. Each character wore a different face of the same issue, but they were all struggling with their beliefs, values, and morals. I particularly liked Galen. He wasn't your typical entrepreneur/scientist. I found him to be a thoughtful and caring man, generous almost to a fault. He struggled endlessly in his quest for a cure: from it's earliest conception to it's final approval, Galen never let go of the dream he had to improve and even save the lives of others. Out of all the characters in this book, I think he was the most interesting and compelling, although he did struggle with many personal issues that tormented him.

Another thing I liked about this book was the way the stories of the three families intertwined. Some of the sections of the story involved a bit of coincidence, but I didn't think that it detracted from the story at all. I found the joining of all of the characters' fates was actually a brilliant move on the part of the author. It was a great way to show the how the singular players' decisions impacted people who were not necessarily in the characters' personal sphere. The best part of the book was the way the author explained and made a plot point of showing some of the alternative solutions to the real life problems that plague the health care system, particularly the inclusion of a fund that allows for bartering services in exchange for health care credits. I am not sure if this type of solution would work, or whether it is indeed feasible, but it is a very interesting idea that may one day shape the future of health care in this country.

I think that this is a very important book, written at a very important time. The impact of this book will depend considerably on its number of readers, and I feel that it should be read by many, if not for its touching story then for its intelligent commentary and its unflinching and honest look at the problems facing the uphill climb in our nation's health care future. It seems that there are no easy answers here, but this story raises the types of questions that each individual needs to be asking themselves, and the questions we need to be asking those in charge of our health systems.
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