Sunday, August 26, 2012

Clean Break

By David Klein
New York, Broadway Books, 2012
376 Pages     Fiction

Clean Break by David Klein begins with this premise: Can you make a clean break from your dark past and begin anew? It is the story of Celeste Vanek, a wife and mother of a 10-year-old son, Spencer. As the book begins, she is in the process of separating from her husband Adam, who is in rehab for a gambling addiction. The primary reason for her separation, however, is not as much the gambling as the violent streak that Adam has begun to exhibit. Celeste fears for herself and her son. Klein says that the question he asked himself as he was writing Clean Break was “What measures can you take to get someone you once loved to leave you alone?” 

Intersecting with the major plot line is one involving Jake, the CEO of the company where Adam works and Sara a New York City police officer. While their relationship is tangential to the main plot, Jake takes center stage when he tries to stop a violent encounter between Celeste and Adam. His intervention provides the primary plot twist to the story and makes the reader ask the question, “What would you do?”

Clean Break ends with more questions than it answers and with a moral dilemma that has no clear cut solution. Because the reader empathizes with Celeste and her need to protect herself and her child, we are haunted by the decisions she makes in the end. The tone of the conclusion of the book is positive, yet there is an undercurrent that lets us feel that there will never be a “clean break,” and that there is going to be a lot more to the story.

There was a recent murder case in Kalamazoo where a man confessed to his wife that he had killed two people, one before he met her and one while he was married to her. Because of her need to protect herself and her children, she admitted that knowledge to no one. It wasn’t until her 10-year-old daughter ran to a neighbor to say that her father had hit her mother that the police were called and the entire story came to light. This was a couple who were known to members of our family; the wife was a social worker in the community and the husband was a karate master. As I was reading about Celeste and Adam, I couldn’t help thinking about the Kalamazoo family.

Adam’s gambling addiction is skillfully presented; Celeste’s dilemma is quite understandable. The book was well written and the plot moved along nicely. Several moral dilemmas are explored, and I really appreciated that nothing was neatly tied up. Although the book ended on a hopeful note, I am not sure that the right choices were being made and that the hopeful signs might be short-lived. 

I puzzled over the cover of Clean Break for quite a while. The meaning of the snow and ice don’t become clear until the reader is three quarters of the way through the book. Pondering about that became part of the tension as well.

The other novel I read recently that presented a profound moral dilemma was Defending Jacob by William Landay. 

The reviews for Clean Break were favorable on GoodReads:
David Klein’s website:

Friday, August 24, 2012

An interesting article about Maria Semple

 Maria Semple is the author of Where'd You Go Bernadette, the very funny novel I read last week. The article appeared in Shelf Awareness today, August 24, 2012.

Book Brahmin: Maria Semple

Maria Semple's plan of becoming a novelist or a teacher was derailed when she sold a movie script to 20th Century Fox just after graduation from Barnard. The movie didn't get made, but she moved to Los Angeles. Semple got into TV with a job on Beverly Hills, 90210. Thus began a 15-year career in television, writing for Ellen, Mad About You, Arrested Development and others. Semple's debut novel, This One Is Minewas published by Little, Brown in December 2008. She moved, with her boyfriend and daughter, to Seattle, where her new novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Little, Brown, August 14, 2012), begins. Semple teaches writing, studies poetry and tries, with mixed results, to stay off the Internet.
On your nightstand now:
The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels, Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner and Driving Home by Jonathan Raban.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
Your top five authors:
Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, James Salter, Edward St. Aubyn and Barbara Trapido.
Book you've faked reading:
Moby Dick.
Book you're an evangelist for:
When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I don't think I've ever bought a book for its cover. Weird.
Book that changed your life:
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Favorite line from a book:
"Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children's heart break. Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him." --from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Vitamin D Cure

(Revised Edition)
By James E. Dowd, MD and Diane Stafford
Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons, 2012
288 pages    Nonfiction
The Shortlist

No one can escape all the aches and pains of aging, but we should all do as much as we can to make aging a healthier experience. Recently my husband was told that his vitamin D levels were low. So, he doubled the dosage of Vitamin D he had been taking. After I read The Vitamin D Cure, I did the same. Time will tell. (Actually today was my first day.)

Dr. Dowd makes an argument for increasing the Vitamin D in the ordinary person’s diet, but he makes it truly convincing when he tells about the benefits of Vitamin D in the treatment of high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes and obesity. He offers scientific evidence, a diet plan with recipes, encouragement for exercise, and a lot of common sense about creating a healthier lifestyle. Adding or increasing Vitamin D is only one part of the equation. He suggests that people eat too many grains and cheeses and don’t get enough magnesium or potassium-rich foods.
He estimates that the recommendations he makes in The Vitamin D Cure will lower the risk of arthritis by about 50 percent. And he says that “vitamin D and a healthy diet represent a real Fountain of Youth. The most prevalent health problems of old age are arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, and dementia, and all of these respond favorably to normalization of vitamin D levels and diet.”

 Dr. James Dowd is a specialist in rheumatology and integrative holistic medicine and has a clinic in Brighton Michigan. He has recently revised The Vitamin D Cure. I was sent a review copy from the publicist. I have to say that I did not read the whole book, hence its placement on my shortlist.

Dr. Dowd’s website:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

by Maria Semple
New York, Little, Brown, 2012
330 pages     Fiction

Finally, a book so absorbing that I read it in one sitting! And it is funny besides! One would think that Maria Semple, a former TV comedy writer, would write a lot of witty dialogue, but instead she chose an epistolary style for Where’d You Go, Bernadette, featuring emails, reports, school memos, and letters. As one reviewer says, “. . .these pieces are strung together so wittily that Ms. Semple’s storytelling is always front and center, in sharp focus. You could stop and pay attention to how apt each new format is, how rarely she repeats herself and how imaginatively she unveils every bit of information. But you would have to stop laughing first.”

 The paper trail tells the story of Bernadette, who moved involuntarily from Los Angeles to Seattle so that her husband, Elgin, could take a job with Microsoft. Bernadette hates Seattle, hates the school her daughter Bee attends, hates Microsoft, hates the weather, and hates her life. She has become agoraphobic and it immobilizes her. It is mid-book before we find out that Bernadette is a genius architect with a McArthur Genius grant, which she has never been able to use. Bee, her daughter, loves and understands her mother and is constantly annoyed with her father, who, as a prominent executive, is seldom home.

Bee is a young genius with straight A’s, or as her school assigns them, straight S’s, which means “surpasses excellence.” Her parents promised her that if she got straight S’s, she could have anything she wanted. She wants a trip to Antarctica. Not something that an agoraphobic mother might be looking forward to. 

Bernadette, husband Elgin, and daughter Bee are sympathetic, albeit crazy characters. Elgin has given the fourth most popular TEDtalk ever. (I was really proud of myself for knowing what TEDtalks are.) He also walks around in sock feet and bikes to work. As in many dysfunctional families, Bee is the stable one, keeping the whole household functioning.

As the plot thickens, the humor thickens as well. I laughed out loud several times. Where'd You Go Bernadette is just zany good fun. The secondary cast of characters is delightful. My favorite character is Manjula Kapoor, who is Bernadette’s personal assistant and lives in India. Bernadette pays her $.75 an hour. Manjula does everything for Bernadette, including buying airplane tickets, supplies for Antarctica, and scamming her out of her identity.
Seattle and Microsoft are characters as well. The book spoofs the Microsoft work-ethic and the nouveau riche that it has created. It also sends up the constant layoffs and re-organizations. The weather in Seattle is a running gag as are all the lifestyle choices the characters make. The high point of the novel occurs because of an argument with a neighbor. The hill around Bernadette’s house is cleared of its blackberries brambles and the whole hill collapses in the rain. A mudslide almost destroys the neighbor’s house right in the middle of the school’s recruitment brunch. A Seattle bookseller said in an interview “In a way, Seattle hasn’t had anyone really do anything that makes it look at itself and laugh.”

For all the craziness, the reader comes to care about Bernadette and her family. When the details unfold, the reader desires to find out why Bernadette vanished and why Bee and Elgin have set out to find her. The Seattle Times reviewer, who loved the book, summed up her review thus: “Semple has a big heart, and possesses that rare ability to skewer, dissect and empathize with her targets, all at the same time.”

I received the book from the publicist. So glad I did. NPR mentioned it on their must-read list of books for the summer. I know you will love the book as much as I did.

Where'd You Go Bernadette has been reviewed a great deal. Here are some reviews published this week:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Stillpower: Excellence with ease in sports and life

By Garret Kramer
New York, Atria Books, 2012
195 pages            Nonfiction
The Shortlist

It was always fun for me. I loved baseball so darn much. By the hours I practiced, you’d have to say that I was really working, but it was pretty much tireless fun.” Ted Williams

Stillpower by Garret Kramer teaches coaches and athletes ways in which to harness their inner peace in order to master their sport. Filled with practical advice but also with wisdom about work and joy, Kramer offers a new way to look at sports and sports training. The powerful message of the book is appropriate for all endeavors.

One of the main messages of Kramer's book is that when you take joy out of the equation, sports becomes drudgery; drills and endless practice aren’t fun, and players lose their passion. He says, “The more we try to control our effort (or our thoughts about effort) the more we tend to get in our own way—and reduce our odds for success…when effort is unbounded, we don’t even think about trying hard.”

I have no experience with sports, except as a mother and grandmother. But I do have experience as a musician and piano teacher. The philosophy of Stillpower works for music as well. I know that as a piano student when I was practicing in “the zone” so to speak, I could go on and on, playing scales, practicing pieces, preparing for recitals. When my mother imposed a time constraint, as in “you have to practice for an hour,” I hated every minute of it. I took that experience to heart when I taught piano lessons and made sure that my students had plenty of “fun stuff” to play—things that taught them the skills but still made them happy. I wanted them to feel the joy of mastery. 

When I was a sports mother, I didn’t know enough to coach my son or yell instructions from the sidelines. I did watch a father on one of my son’s soccer teams who week after week would haul his kid aside during halftime and upbraid him for something he had done in the first half of the game. The kid never played well in the second half; he would get off sides, yellow carded, sidelined. He obviously was trying to control his efforts but to no avail. He had lost the joy of the game.

My granddaughter, Maya, is becoming a good soccer player with her dad as one of the coaches. I was there when she scored her first goal. A look of pure joy crossed her face. When I hugged her after the game, she said, “I did that for you, Grandma.” So far she loves everything about soccer, which she has been playing for about 5 years. I want her to keep that enthusiasm.

I received a copy of Stillpower from the publicist. I would recommend this book because it contains a lot of life skills and good advice. I will be giving my copy to my son to help him as he coaches young girls to play soccer. I also think that this would be a very appropriate book for teenaged athletes. 

Garret Kramer’s website:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


By Alan Brennert
New York, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003
389 p.    Fiction

Moloka’i is a three-tiered novel. First of all, it is the story of Rachel, who as a young girl was sent to the island of Moloka’i in the Hawaiian Islands. She had contracted leprosy, to which apparently the native Hawaiians were particularly susceptible. The leper colony for Hawaii was at Kalaupapa, one of the most remote spots in the Hawaiian Islands. Separated from her family in the most heart-wrenching way, Rachel spends most of the rest of her life at Kalaupapa; she marries there, works there, dies there. 

The second level of Moloka'i is the history of the islands of Hawaii, which begins when the American forces depose the King and Queen in Honolulu and ends just short of statehood. Father Damien began the leper colony in the 1870s, and now the area is a National Historical Park. The story of Rachel at the leper colony forms the background for the history—the death of Father Damien, US government rule, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese internment.

The third level is the story of leprosy from the days that it was a scourge and a death sentence to the time it became a treatable disease brought into remission by modern drugs. The name of the disease was even changed to Hanson’s Disease. Although the symptoms seem to be similar, there is some debate as to whether the leprosy of the Bible is the same as what is called Hanson’s Disease now. It is interesting to see how Rachel’s disease is treated when little is known about the disease and then how it is treated when antibiotics become available. The situation is reminiscent of 30 years ago when AIDS first came on the scene. 

At its core, Moloka'i is a story of societal pressures, of friendship and love, and especially a story of resilience. The nun, Sister Catherine, who becomes Rachel’s closest friend and a substitute for her family, sums up the theme of the book. She says: “I used to wonder, why did God give children leprosy? Now I believe God doesn’t give anyone leprosy. He gives us, if we choose to use it, the spirit to live with leprosy, and with the imminence of death. Because it is in our own mortality that we are most Divine.”

I really didn’t want to read about leprosy—about sores and lost fingers and death—but it was the book club’s choice for August. I did find out a lot and appreciated the lessons the book taught. I particularly appreciated how a community could be built out of nothing but a common disease. It made me want to know more about leprosy and Moloka’i. One reviewer has this to say about Moloka'i: “Brennert's compassion makes Rachel a memorable character, and his smooth storytelling vividly brings early 20th-century Hawaii to life. Leprosy may seem a macabre subject, but Brennert transforms the material into a touching, lovely account of a woman's journey as she rises above the limitations of a devastating illness.”

If I have any complaint about the book, it is that the history lessons are a bit heavy-handed. It is sort of like…”OK. Let me throw in a history lesson about Hawaii now.” When I look at pictures of the island, I see a paradise, and that is the irony of the book. These seriously ill and dying people were exiled on a spot which is now considered to be one of the beautiful spots on earth. 

Here is a website that discusses the difference between Biblical leprosy and Hanson’s disease:
This is the National Park Service Kalaupapa website and the history of the Kalaupapa settlement:
Alan Brennert’s website:

Monday, August 13, 2012

Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
New York, Simon and Schuster, 2010
340 pages (with index)     Nonfiction

 Winner-Take-All Politics written by political science professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson is a history of how the United States got in the economic mess it is in right now—the rich having so much, the poor having nothing, and the middle class losing ground at every turn. It is a clear-eyed, non-partisan look at the deregulation, taxes, tax-cuts, political maneuvering, lobbying, and stupidity that allowed this to happen.

The authors say that “Who are those guys?” is the underlying question behind their book. In one sentence, they explain their premise:  The rich got richer and the middle class was abandoned “because of the relentless effectiveness of modern, efficient organizations operating in a much less modern and efficient political system.”

  They begin in the 1970s when the “unexpected liberalism of Nixonland turned into the unexpected conservatism of Carterland.”  Step by step, administration by administration they explain the challenges the country faced and how an increasingly efficient business machine and its lobbyists began to deregulate business in every way possible, from the way in which business exerted its power to the way that congress became increasingly respectful and beholden to business. The absolute epitome of this power was, of course, the Citizens United case that was decided by the Supreme Court in 2010. 

But there is more. Here are some of the things that I learned from this book and I have used these ideas frequently in political discussions since we read Winner Take All Politics:
  • ·         The Republicans have a much more unified message than the Democrats do. The Democrats are all over the place. As Senator Al Franken says: “Their bumper sticker . . . it’s one word: ‘No.’ . . . Our bumper sticker has — it’s just way too many words. And it says, ‘Continued on next bumper ­sticker.’ ”
  • ·         The Republicans co-opted the Christian conservative movement and joined it to the fiscal conservative movement in a very methodical way (some would say, disingenuous way), making the Christian conservatives believe that their social message was the Republican message.
  • ·         Democrats began to lose their clout when the unions began to lose clout. The lower middle class people who once made up the Democratic Party turned increasingly to the Republican Party, mostly because of religion and race. This, of course, was exacerbated by the defection of the Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. And Lyndon Johnson knew that this was going to happen when he signed the Civil Rights legislation. He turned to an aide and said, “We just lost the South.”
  • ·         “The economy has performed notably better under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones.” But the simple consistent message of tax cuts presented by the Republicans makes it appear that they perform better.
The biggest revelation of the book, as far as I was concerned personally, was the concept of the “super majority,” which, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is the need for 60 votes on almost every bill presented to the Senate. Shockingly, the 60 vote or “super majority” rule was never voted on; it just sort of got slid into place. This super majority has caused gridlock for the Senate and the country.

Although the authors present some analysis and final words after their political history lesson, the majority of the education happens within each chapter. My husband and I read with awe the political history of our adult lives and shook our heads in disbelief at all the things we sat on the sidelines and watched happen.

You need to know that we live in a divided household. I am a rabid Minnesota liberal, and my husband an old-school middle-of-the road Republican. Therein is the beauty of the book. Hacker and Pierson spread the blame equally among and between the parties. One reviewer called it... “the clearest explanation yet of the forces that converged over the past three decades or so to undermine the economic well-being of ordinary Americans.” So we both can answer the political question “Are you better off than you were before _____ was elected?” with a resounding NO!

We learned of this book from my Republican husband’s favorite liberal television show, Bill Moyers and Company. Here is the link to the video of that show’s segment on Winner Take All Politics:

A New York Times review of Winner Take All Politics:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sunset over Pentwater: Vacation is over

Dear readers.
Thanks for your patience. I didn’t intend to take so much time off, but:

“Life is what happens to you
While you’re busy making other plans”
John Lennon

First, my step-daughter and husband were burned out of their house and spent several weeks with us. Then the grandchildren descended for their vacations with grandma and grandpa. Then we were at the beach in Pentwater for a family wedding, family reunion, and vacation. Then my dear friend Patricia came to visit. In the midst of it all, my Saudi Arabian tutoring clients needed lots of help with papers, etc.

Now, it is my turn. I am very backed up with books to blog. So, next week, I plan to review a book a day to get caught up. So, look for reviews on a variety of subjects including politics, health, leper colonies, diet, religion, and perhaps a memoir. 

I’m hoping that you had a vacation filled with adventure like I did. Now, all I want is a few quiet moments.