Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Conflict of Interest

By Adam Mitzner
New York, Gallery Books, 2011
370 pages   Fiction

A Conflict of Interest was a welcome diversion for me from the non-fiction I have been reading for the past week. I was tired of trying to learn something so I could sound knowledgeable on my blog postings. Adam Mitzner has written a law procedural novel that has some surprising twists and turns which leads to a satisfactory conclusion. I enjoyed every minute of it. Pure escapism.

Alex Miller is a young partner in a large New York law firm. At his father’s funeral in Florida, he meets a good friend of his father who is facing prosecution in New York for securities fraud. He asks Alex to represent him. The hefty retainer puts Alex in good stead at the firm, and he is assigned a beautiful second lawyer, Abby, to help him with the case. Just before trial, Alex’s mother is found dead in Florida, an apparent drowning. The trial, his mother’s death, problems in his marriage, and an impending infidelity with Abby all serve to cause the usually unflappable Alex to become unsure of himself and his place in the world. His grounding is his young daughter, and his love for her keeps him moving forward as the world shakes beneath his feet. As Alex deals with the challenges of a difficult client and the fallout following the securities trial, he confronts the demons that would ensnare him and discovers new meaning for his life and the life of his family.

Adam Mitzner knows his way around New York City law firms, and much of the first third of the book establishes his authority as an author who knows this world very well. There may be too much time spent setting the stage, but on the other hand, it is written in a style generous enough that it continues to hold the reader’s interest. Once the premise is firmly established, the law office and courtroom details become minimal and the reader becomes engrossed in the twists and turns of the plot. And the plot is very good. I am always intrigued by characters that face moral dilemmas, and I try to determine what is in the author’s mind as he wrestles with the dilemma. Will the author choose the good and true? Will he choose the morally expedient? Will justice come at the expense of the protagonist? Will the wife forgive? Alex Miller is more finely drawn protagonist than many, and I was satisfied with the final choices he made as a lawyer, a son, a husband and a father. The actions he took were valid and truthful.

It is a good book for a casual read. The characters are interesting, the plot is diverting, and the writing style is more than serviceable. My sister and her husband are veteran police and lawyer procedural novel readers. I am at their cottage today, and their shelves are full of Michael Connolly, and David Baldacci. I will leave A Conflict of Interest here for them to read this summer. I appreciate having received this book from the publicists. It brought me out of a non-fiction funk.

Most bloggers whose reviews I read enjoyed it as I did. The following review confronts some of the weaknesses of the book, which I can understand. However, I wouldn’t let this review keep you from enjoying a great escape.

Adam Mitzner’s website:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Give Food a Chance: A New View on Childhood Eating Disorders

By Julie O’Toole

Portland, Perfectly Scientific Press, 2011

294 pages Non-Fiction

If I had a child that had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or some other eating disorder, Give Food a Chance by pediatrician, Julie O’Toole would be my first source of information. It is extremely down-to-earth, comprehensive, and practical. I learned so much.

At the outset, I must say that I had no practical experience with anorexia nervosa, but I have had plenty of experience with children who overeat (my own childhood eating patterns) and children whose diet is extremely specific and narrow (a grandson and a nephew). So, I can understand the trauma that parents experience over the eating (or non-eating) patterns of their children.

O’Toole is very direct in saying that anorexia nervosa is a disease of the brain, and it is “neither a lifestyle choice nor a result of poor parenting, it looks organic, it acts organic, it is organic.” Therefore, it must be treated like a disease; it is biological rather than behavioral. She says, “Diseases of the brain are too severe, the brain being the core of who we are; too affecting of family, school, and social functioning for any approach but a holistic one to work.” In other words, parents, the child, and a team of medical practitioners are needed for an afflicted child to heal.

The major misconception of eating disorders O’Toole dispels is that somehow the disorder is the parent’s fault or that the child is being willful. She affirms strongly that parents seek medical intervention for all sorts of diseases in their children, and anorexia nervosa needs medical intervention as well. Psychological intervention is needed, of course, but the first acknowledgement must be that the child is sick. Parents do not let a child determine whether they receive medical treatment if they have a high fever; parents must not let their child determine whether they will receive medical treatment if they develop an eating disorder.

O’Toole runs the Kartini Clinic in Oregon, which specializes in the treatment of children with eating disorders. In a step-by-step fashion, she outlines their clinic’s methods—diagnosis, food plans, inpatient and outpatient treatment. The book discusses individual cases and individual families, because O’Toole emphasizes that treatment must involve the entire family in order for the child to heal. Eating disorders run in families, and an afflicted parent can influence the entire scheme of treatment.

Throughout the book O’Toole throws in lists of “Clinical Pearls” which summarize the chapters. Because I knew virtually nothing about the subject, I thought the plan for treatment outlined by O’Toole seemed logical and intuitively right. Reviewers have noted that although some of her thinking may be at odds with conventional wisdom, her body of work provides irrefutable results.

I would think Give Food a Chance should be required reading for pediatricians who are on the front line of diagnosis. I plan to give this book to a mother of my acquaintance whose 10-year-old daughter has been diagnosed and is being treated for anorexia. As Dr. O’Toole suggests, this mother needs to be her daughter’s strongest ally.

I received Give Food a Chance through the publicist. It is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

 Website for the Katini Clinic:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Did I Do Wrong? What to do when you don't know why the friendship is over.

by Liz Pryor
New York, Free Press, 2006
192 pages   Non-Fiction

Liz Pryor is the advice guru on ABCs Good Morning America. She wrote What Did I Do Wrong? several years ago in response to discussions she had been having with women over failed friendships. It is an anecdotal account utilizing conversations with women who have either been dumped by a friend, or women who have done the dumping. The major gift of the book is to let women know that they are not alone in the experience. Pryor does not offer advice, but does have some suggestions; mostly suggestions made by other women involved in the endings of friendships.

She quotes one woman who was dumped by two women who she thought to be her friends. “Women can be vicious. . . Vicious, as in vicious. Some of the worst betrayal in my life has come from the women I’ve known. It must be the way it takes you so off-guard. See, men have been betraying women for centuries. Literature, movies, television, all have warned us to expect betrayal from men, but not so much from women. When a girlfriend betrays you, it’s a shock.”

Pryor tells story after story of betrayal and abandonment. Many of the stories come from the woman who was dumped or abandoned. Many of the “unendings,” as Pryor calls them, come when one friend decides she just doesn’t want to be friends any more, or because she “wants to move on,” or because the friendship just isn’t a good fit any more.

When my daughter was about twelve, her best friend of five years told her they couldn’t be friends anymore because they had “nothing in common.” Rachel said to me, “That’s ridiculous Mom. We have everything in common.” I responded that this was just a momentary blip in their friendship, and of course, I was right. They remained fast friends through high school, and although their lives have taken different roads, they connect frequently. Last week when Rachel was in labor, her friend in Chicago was in constant contact with her. Are they as close as they were as teenagers? Of course not. Do they love and respect each other? Of course they do.

My step-daughter had a very important friendship break apart over religion. Her friend thought that Felicia wasn’t following her religion closely enough and told Felicia that she couldn’t be her friend any more. Felicia says that her hurt was so deep it felt like her friend had died, and she went through all the stages of grief. She has not spoken to her former friend in over a year, and she grieves every time she allows herself to think about it.

When I asked my daughter-in-law if she had an experience to relate, she told one that could have been a story right out of Pryor’s book. It was a story of unreturned phone calls, snubbing, and then a few vicious words on a Facebook posting. She did remind me that the reason why her best friend has remained her best friend since childhood is because they have no expectations for each other. They each have three children and extremely busy careers. If one doesn’t call the other for several weeks—or even months—the other friend understands. It is a friendship of great depth, understanding and a history that transcends pettiness, time, and place.

Here are some questions I have about the kind of friendships that end in other ways than by people moving away from each other or drifting apart because of time and circumstances:

• Can you call a friendship you want out of a “truly close” friendship?

• In a friendship you want out of, are you feeling smothered by your friend?

• Is this a friendship that comes from your children’s friends, or a sports team, or the gym, or some other casual meet-up?

• Do you have more in common than just proximity?

My major concern about What Did I Do Wrong? is that Pryor offers no real advice for either how to dump a friend gracefully or how to accept the end of a friendship gracefully. She does offer some suggestions including letter writing and confrontation, but nothing that a woman could really latch onto. One reviewer suggests: “While the book may be reassuring for a person currently hurting from the end of a friendship, it offers little in the way of real answers as to why friendships end, nor any sort of emphasis into the value of self-inquiry to address why a friendship may have ended. I would have liked to have seen a chapter devoted specifically to the subject of WHY which I felt could have provided readers with wisdom going forward in their relationships.” The book remained superficial, although interesting. I had to question the depth of the relationships and why they were so easy to walk away from in the first place.

I wanted to see a chapter devoted to what makes a good friendship. Also a chapter could have been devoted to good endings to friendships. Sometimes it is OK for friendships to end. Perhaps Pryor has another book in mind which can address these issues. Certainly issues of social media, such as Facebook and email, should emerge in this discussion. I am surprised there was nothing about Facebook and social media in the paperback edition. It is so easy to maintain long distance and long time relationships with social media. It helps keep friendships intact. It can also cause devastating “defriendings” and rude and hurtful comments.

What Did I Do Wrong was an interesting book for me to read because I had a hard time personally relating to it, although I must say that the book probably rings true for a lot of people. My daughter says, “Mom, you’re just not that kind of person.” And what is intriguing about that fact is that my step-son had just told me that one of my strengths as a reader and reviewer was my ability to personally connect with the books I review. This one left me a bit baffled. I had to rely on my children to fill in the blanks for me.

What Did I Do Wrong was published in hard cover several years ago, and has just been released in paperback, most likely to capitalize on Liz Pryor’s new popularity as an advice columnist and television personality. I received this book from the publisher, and it is part of a book blog tour today. Wonder what others are saying?

Liz Pryor’s website:, which, by the way, looks really interesting.

Here is her website at ABC:

Friday, May 20, 2011

No review today

No book review today. New granddaughter instead. Far more interesting.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Long Drive Home

By Will Allison

New York, Free Press, 2011

182 pages Fiction

Long Drive Home is a skillfully drawn novel which can, and probably should, be read in one sitting. It moves at a tragically rapid pace, and if one would draw it out over too long a time span, reality would set in, and the emotional impact would be lessened. As I slammed the book shut, I was mad—almost as mad as the protagonist Glen was when the whole disastrous affair began. I was filled with so many conflicting emotions; it took me about 24 hours to sort them all out.

This is the story of an unfortunate automobile accident triggered by road rage. Glen, a home-based accountant, has three experiences with road rage one autumn day after he picks up his six-year old daughter, Sara at school. The third incident results in a high school boy being killed as his car flips into the yard across the street from Glen and Sara’s home. Glen had impulsively swerved into the oncoming car, expressing his rage over the way the boy was careening down the street. This caused the boy to lose control and crash. Glen knows he has caused the accident, but in the ensuing interrogation by the police investigating the accident, he alters the facts in such a way that he doesn’t appear to be implicated.

It is at this point that Glen’s life begins to unravel. His guilt is overwhelming; his wife knows he is lying; and his daughter is grieving. Sara focuses her grief on the tree the boy hit, and Glen focuses his grief on the life lost and an earlier incident (the second experience of the afternoon) that may have precipitated his rage. His wife, Liz, focuses on the potential of a lawsuit and decides that the couple should separate for a time as a way of protecting their family assets. A skillful detective won’t let the case go as “an unfortunate accident” and presses to try to find out what Sara knows. As Glen’s life careens out of control, he makes some unfortunate decisions that affect the course of his life and the stability of his family. Glen remarks: “Lives weren’t figures in a ledger, and what was done was done. There were just consequences, how you felt, and what you did about it.”

The themes of guilt, shame, and consequences play out very well in this novel. Guilt is a motivating force in many people’s lives, and Allison does a remarkable job weaving those threads of Glen’s actions with the classical definition of guilt. No matter what he does, he cannot free himself of his guilt and shame, and in the end, he is defeated by it.

On Saturday evening, I went to hear the author Jonathan Franzen at the Dogwood Festival in Dowagiac Michigan. One of the themes of his talk was the ways in which he has dealt with feelings of guilt and shame in his career as a writer and as a husband. I have also noticed how concepts of guilt creep into my thinking from time to time. Franzen and I are from the Midwest and Allison has spent a great deal of time in the Midwest. Do Midwesterners think about guilt more than people from other parts of the country? Perhaps it is part of the Protestant ethic that permeates the Midwest. I could identify with those undertones in Long Drive Home, and perhaps that is what made me angry as I finished the book. Why must it always be about guilt?

There are two plot aspects that I found troubling. One is the spareness of the plot. (Is spareness, a word?) Too much of the back story seems to be missing. As an example, I could not understand why the wife, Liz, would even consider the possibility of separation and divorce, unless Glen had lied to her in the past, or Glen had exhibited a lot of anger management issues in the past. And the reader has no understanding of that. Was she just waiting for an opportunity to leave him? Also, I could not understand why Glen felt compelled to lie about his swerve that caused the accident. Obviously the boy had been drinking and was talking on his phone (these are both explained). Glen’s swerve could have been construed as a way to slow the boy down as he careened through the neighborhood.

The second plot aspect that I didn’t understand is why Glen stalked the man who caused the second road rage experience of the afternoon. It felt out of character for Glen—reckless and obsessive. Had his guilt made him crazy? Had he behaved that way in the past? Much of his decision making was an attempt to protect his daughter, but his actions seemed to belie that aspect of his character.

The third thing that bothered me is that the cover of the book seemed inauthentic. The girl leaning up against the tree seems to be too old to be 6-year-old Sara. As I was reading other pre-publication reviews of the book, I noticed that someone mentioned having seen the cover on a book for children called Mockingbird (its paperback edition), which was a National Book Award winner. The same cover on two books? Why would the publisher do that? It doesn’t appear to me to be fair to either of the authors.

This book has worried me all day. It was an intriguing but vaguely unsatisfying book. One the positive note, I frankly don’t know when I have thought so much about a book; had so many conflicting feelings about a book; or gotten so angry over a book. And that is the greatest strength of Long Drive Home. It makes you think, ponder your own actions, and seek out the opinions of others.

This book is part of a blog tour. It came to me from the publisher. I can’t wait to see what others have written.

The book will be available on May 17. Therefore, there aren’t too many reviews to draw upon. I can direct you to the author’s webpage. It is:

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

By Bill Bryson

New York, Broadway Books, 2006

268 pages Memoir

Writer and humorist, Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines Iowa in 1951. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is his homage to his normal, happy, Midwestern childhood. He mentions that according to the Gallop Poll, 1957 was the happiest year in American history. How they decided that, I have no way of knowing, but for Bryson and about “one hundred and eleven” of his closest friends, it was the best of times.

More than just a memoir, the book is filled with the historical trivia of the 1950s, the advent of “labor saving devices,” Jello, TV and TV dinners, erector sets and Lincoln Logs, Saturday matinees, vending machines, and amusement parks. Superman, Roy Rogers, Zorro, Sky King, and I Love Lucy. He also talks of rockets, Sputnik, the Communist threat, and bomb shelters. He tells of visiting downtown cafeterias, the tea room at Younkers Department Store and the girlie show at the State Fair. This is the stuff of a happy childhood, of running free and wild, of being “bored to death,” of being in a loving family, and of being part of the largest group of children ever in the history of the United States. In many ways, I felt I was reliving my own childhood as I visited Bryson’s Midwest childhood; so very much of it was the same.

My favorite story concerns the time he hit his head on a stone wall while playing football. With a head wound gushing blood, he runs home to find his father fondly looking at the bikini-clad woman from next door hanging clothes on the line. Startled out of his reverie by the gushing blood, his father calls the family doctor, aptly named Dr. Alzheimer. Dr. Alzheimer really doesn’t want to come over; he’s busy watching Ben Hogan play golf on television. He asks, “Tell me, is the little fellow still breathing?” “I think so,” my father replied. I nodded helpfully." Dr. Alzheimer’s advice is to nudge “the little fellow” every once in a while so that he wouldn't pass out.

Bryson says, “I knew more things in the first 10 years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since.... I knew the cool feel of linoleum on bare skin and what everything smelled like at floor level. I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.”

The New York Times Reviewer says: “As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris. He’s not above sublime lowbrow fat and feces jokes, but at his best he spools out operatically funny vignettes of sustained absurdity that nevertheless remain grounded in universal experience.”

This is a book for everyone who grew up in the 1950s (and I would have to include myself and my siblings), or for anyone whose parents grew up in the 1950s, or for anyone who wants to have a good laugh. It is filled with gut-busting moments, because Bryson knows just how far to push the story until it verges on the absurd, and then he lets go of a whopper and settles back down. In the meantime, the reader finds herself laughing hysterically with tears streaming down her face.

My son posted a picture of his 10-year-old daughter on Facebook yesterday. My granddaughter is sitting in the car with a carefree smile on her face. He labeled the picture “Cecilia…just another happy day in kid land!” That is exactly how I felt reading this book. The Thunderbolt Kid—just another happy day in kid land. I can’t wait to share this book at book club next week. My bet is that everyone will have wonderful stories of childhood to tell.

Bill Bryson’s new book is called At Home: A Short History of Private Life. A couple of years ago, my husband and I read A Short History of Nearly Everything, which we just loved.

A review in the New York Times:

Bill Bryson’s Website:

An interview with Bryson about The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Carrots 'N' Cake: Healthy Living One Carrot and Cupcake at a Time

by Tina Haupert
New York, Sterling Epicure, 2011
208 pages    Non-Fiction

Carrots N’ Cake was a good book to read in Kalamazoo this week because the city is sponsoring its first ever marathon, and the race is going right by our house. My nephew is running in the race; he and his wife came from Colorado to visit my sister for Mother’s Day and also for the race. We will be having a viewing party on our front steps with muffins, fresh fruit, and granola for our guests.

The city is all agog over the race; there are special bands playing tonight at all the bars, especially at Bell’s Brewery, and last night there was a huge art hop all over the downtown area. We live in a great little city, and it is so fun to see it so alive. Oh, I forgot to say that the Farmer’s Market opened today for the season. The first-of-season asparagus was all sold out by the time I got there at 10.

Tina Haupert lives in a world of food and exercise. Her full time job is to be a food blogger, food critic, spokesperson for a nutrition company, and a restaurant critic. Most of what is included in Carrots 'N' Cake first appeared in her blog, which has the same name as the book. She writes with a breezy, quirky style that is as appealing as her recipes. She deals with the realistic push and pull of keeping a healthy diet without giving in to overindulgence. However, she acknowledges that overindulgence is a part of life, and one shouldn’t get overwhelmed with guilt and recrimination when it happens.

Tina offers tips about how to keep balance, like having a cookie or two on Fridays; she calls it Cookie Friday. She discusses how to pace yourself at a salad bar. She calls it her three-quarters rule, which I found quite useful. When making a salad at a salad bar, make three-quarters of your salad leafy greens and raw veggies, and allow only one quarter for the fun stuff, healthy fats like nuts, olives, and avocado. She discusses fast food and dining out. And much like her blog, her book includes a lot of recipes.

There are a lot of breakfast recipes; many of them look delicious. She uses lots of oatmeal, zucchini, and chickpeas in her recipes. There is even a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies that has a quarter cup of chickpeas in it. One that I liked is for zucchini and chickpea salad. One thing I particularly liked about her recipes is that each recipe is small; in other words, it doesn’t make too much. If there is anything I can’t stand it’s a refrigerator clogged with leftovers. One of the last recipes in the book is an oatmeal raisin bar that everyone in my family just loved.

This is a helpful book and a fun read. I received it from the publisher, and I can recommend it. It would be an excellent gift for someone beginning a fitness program or someone trying to find some new, fit recipes. I will give it to my nephew when he is here for the race tomorrow.

Here is Tina Haupert’s blog:

Here is a review in the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

An interesting article by Brunonia Barry: The Mess in the Middle

Here is an interesting article by author, Brunonia Barry about the writing process, and the kind of problems authors face as they create their characters and move their plot along.

I reviewed her new book The Map of True Places, here:

The Mess in the Middle

By Brunonia Barry,

Author of The Map of True Places

One year into a two-year book deadline, I have reached page 165 in my manuscript. So far, my characters have obediently done everything I've asked of them, but today something changed. This morning, they couldn't seem to take a step without tripping over their feet. So they decided to stand still. I couldn't make them go forward, and I couldn't make them go back. When I asked what the problem was, they told me they were confused.

I'd be panicked about this situation except that I've been here before. Twice. And even more if you count the screenplays I wrote when I lived in LA or the books I've written for ‘tweens. While I don't like it, I have come to expect that there are times when characters just won't move.

For me, this always happens in the same place, maybe not always on page 165 but some place close to it. It's always in the middle of the book. "What was it you wanted me to do?" seems to be the question my characters ask, and when I tell them, they become skeptical. Since I trust characters over plot every time, I tend to listen when a character tells me "I wouldn't do that kind of thing." And the middle of the book is always where they seem to doubt their motivation.

There's a name for this. It's called the mess in the middle. It's an expression I first heard when I was enrolled in one of Robert McKee's screenwriting workshops. I was writing a comedy called Sluts, a sort of West Coast Sex in the City with an edge, when my characters refused the adventures I was trying to send them on and threatened to infect me with a case of writer's block if I persisted in giving them directions. They were angry with me, and who could blame them? As a relatively new writer, I was lost and confused.

Confusion, in itself, doesn't bother me. I honor it as part of the writing process, a byproduct of communing with the muse. It is a frequent ailment, but not a serious one. Unfortunately, the mess in the middle is a different illness. If left unchecked, it can be fatal. I'm willing to wager that this midpoint is where most writers abandon their projects. I know it has been true for me. I have several unfinished manuscripts sitting in drawers, including that screenplay. One day, knowing what I know now, I may open the drawer and dust off those stories. Meanwhile, I'll tell you exactly what the mess in the middle is, and what you can do about it.

I'm sure you've heard that old story about the mountain. You are climbing a tree lined mountain trail in an effort to see the view from the top. You've been walking for quite a while. About halfway up, you realize that you don't have any idea where you are. You can no longer see the bottom of the mountain, and you cannot yet see the top. You begin to panic. If it were up to you, you'd just quit, but you can't. You're halfway up the side of a mountain for God's sake.

So what do you do? If you've prepared for the hike, you've been smart enough to bring a map. Though it's an exercise in blind faith, you have no choice but to follow it.

In writing, my map is my step outline. Though I write free form for quite a while when I'm starting a project, I am not a pantser. I believe very strongly in outlines. Once I've captured the voice of the characters and know them well enough to ask that first what if question that propels them forward, it is time to create a step outline.

My outline is simple enough. It contains only the major steps of the story. Sometimes it's a sentence or paragraph, sometimes a list of bullet points. I spend more time on it that any other aspect of my writing, because it's the only tool that allows me to see the big picture. It particularly helps with pacing and with the progression of character changes. If I follow it, I seldom get into trouble.

The problem is, sometimes I don't follow it. I am moving along so fast, and the story is going so well, that I just keep writing. This is exactly what I discovered this morning when I went back to look at my outline. A few days ago, I was writing so furiously that I skipped a step, and, as a result, my characters missed an important turn. If they had reached the impasse immediately, I might have spotted my omission. Unfortunately, the dead end hadn't come until the following chapter, several turns later.

If I hadn't taken the time to create my map, I might never have found my mistake. The manuscript might have ended up in that drawer with my screenplay. Luckily, with my step outline and just a bit of work, I was able to get my characters back on track. They are now happily moving forward.

How are your story maps constructed? Do you outline? Have you experienced the mess in the middle?

As originally published on "Writer Unboxed"

© 2011 Brunonia Barry, author of The Map of True Places

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Working It Out: A Journey of Love, Loss, and Hope

By Abby Rike

New York, Faith Words, 2011

274 pages Spiritual

Working It Out is a spiritual memoir of a young speech and drama teacher from Texas who in one shattering moment lost her husband, 5-year-old daughter and newborn son in a horrific automobile accident. Through will, determination, and the grace of God, Abby Rike survived her overpowering grief. She was accepted on the Biggest Loser TV show, season 8, (2009) lost 100 pounds, and gained the emotional strength to redefine herself.

The memoir begins with the moment when Abby Rike’s family was torn away from her. It then moves back to the point at which she met her husband. It discusses in detail their brief marriage, the birth of their son and the adoption of Abby’s young daughter by her new husband. This was an exceptional marriage; the Rikes’ were both teachers and ran the forensics program at the same high school. They were as well loved by their students as they were by their families. When her family died and Abby was left alone, she tried several ways to resurrect herself, including moving to another state and another school district, and then taking on the challenge of The Biggest Loser.

As painful as this book is to read, Abby Rike’s resilience shines through. From the very onset of the tragedy, through the grace of God, she was able to find her way through the maze of grief and despair and emerge a wholly new person. She says: “It wasn’t that I just lost them in the here and now; I lost everything that they were going to be. Part of my grieving process was accepting the realities of the situation—no making them more or less than what they were, but being accurate in the scope of things. That is what my life was. This is what it is now.” Through letters, Facebook postings, and journal entries, she reminds the reader that sometimes life isn’t fair; that tragedy happens, but there are moments of brilliance and utter clarity that can serve to help us not just survive but thrive.

She is quick to note that making these momentous changes in her life do not free her from the grief that occasionally consumes her. She writes: “That doesn’t mean that everything is wonderful or that life is easy. I still have to choose every day to continue on, and I still have bad days. My family is still gone, and it is still a struggle. The Biggest Loser did not wave a magic fairy wand and declare that I live happily ever after. This is a battle I’ll fight forever, but it’s a battle I know how to win.”

Yesterday, my husband and I heard a speech by William Cope Moyers about his years of addiction and loss and his struggle to stay sober for the past 17 years. He talked about the fact that a new chance did not solve all the old problems, and that he struggles every day to keep his equilibrium. Every new challenge makes him have to readjust and readapt.

In the book Working It Out, Abby Rike shares with us the way she has survived and thrived. She doesn’t preach, but through example, shows us the grace of God working in her life. When my young husband died, someone told me that even though her husband had died twenty years before, she could still summon up that grief and would inexplicably find herself in tears. Well, it has been 25 years for me, and the other day, I gave my engagement ring to my daughter’s boyfriend so that he could propose to my daughter. I was swept back to that grief, and spent an hour or two grieving for what wasn’t and what could have been.

The beauty of Abby Rike’s book is that she understands the road that lies before her won’t be easy, but with determination and the grace of God, the worst is behind her.

I received this book as an advanced readers copy. It becomes available today, May 4. I recommend it.

Abby Rike now works as a motivational speaker. You can find her website here:

Because the book is just out today, there are few reviews available. One can be found here:

The Biggest Loser Season 8:

An interview with Abby Rike:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Map of True Places

by Brunonia Barry
New York, Harper, 2011
403 pages     Fiction

Salem Massachusetts is the setting for Brunonia Barry’s novel, The Map of True Places, which has recently been released in paperback. When you hear the name Salem, you immediately think of witches, Nathanial Hawthorne, the House of the Seven Gables, and Salem Harbor. All of these play a part in the atmospheric and psychological drama that unfolds in The Map of True Places.

Zee (short for Hepzibah) Finch has been totally overburdened by life: her mother Maureen committed suicide when Zee was a young teenager; her father has dementia and Parkinson’s disease; he has broken off with his partner, Melville; and one of Zee’s counseling patients has just committed suicide. She is supposed to be planning her wedding and is not at all sure she wants to go through with it. She runs away home to Salem to visit her dad, called Finch, and his partner, discovers they have broken up, and Finch is in very bad physical and mental shape. So, on top of everything else, she decides to take a leave of absence from her counseling practice and concentrate on helping her father.

It is obvious that Salem is a place near and dear to author Barry’s heart, because the characters that populate the community populate the book, and the sights and sounds of Salem are important to the plot and the character development. Consequently there is a great sense of place in the novel. The setting is very real and makes to book come to life. Since I had only been to Salem once and very briefly, the book made me want to return and get a feel for what I had missed in the first place.

The character development is also good. I felt very sympathetic towards Zee, the young psychologist, who is so lost, even when she has to be so determined in the care of her father. She is suffering greatly, but she is by nature a care giver—first of her mother, then of her clients, now for her father. She has not been able to find her own way in life. Her “map of true places” as the title would indicate. Her friend and colleague says: “I’m asking you to consider what you want for a change. You have a pattern of doing what is expected of you, what other people want you to do…you go along and go along, but then you begin to act out.” Many of us can identify with the kind of thinking that allows a woman to do what is expected of us. Many of us are searching for our own “map of true places.”

And then there is the past—Zee’s past as well as the past of Salem. The past keeps intruding into the present, for Zee as well as for her father. An expert in Hawthorne, Finch sometimes forgets that he is not Hawthorne and that he only lives next door to the House of the Seven Gables. Even the house that Zee was raised in becomes a plot device. One reviewer suggested this as an important part of the book. “Where she (Barry) does succeed is in the tension she creates between the normal moments of everyday life and the uncanny intrusions of the past into it. Her characters move through their days performing their duties and taking care of their responsibilities, only to be waylaid by unconscious desires and memories.”

There is something too convenient in the conclusion of the book. A couple of times I even wrote OMG in the margins.  I had trouble convincing myself that the plot devices were warranted and authentic. The reviewer in the Washington Post had many of the same thoughts. She said: “The novel, though serious in intent at the beginning, shows signs of carelessness and repetition as it unfolds. But The Map of True Places is admirable in many ways. It's a brave and sympathetic idea to use terminal illness as a plot device and spend time outlining what happens in a home where someone is gravely ill. The meditations on American history, assisted suicide, reincarnation and celestial navigation are informative and even endearing. But is this book serious or not? Does everybody in the novel have to be mistakenly named for somebody else? Does the secret revealed at the end make any real difference to the story?”

The Map of True Places is a good beach read. You can sigh when it is finished, and then move on to the next book. Barry is the author of another novel set in Salem, The Lace Reader.

I was sent the book by the publisher’s agent.

The review in the Washington Post:

The review in the Columbus Dispatch:

Brunonia Barry’s website and blog:

The book's website: