Thursday, April 26, 2012

Vacation Time

Dear friends and readers,

Thell and I are finally going to take a break and go on a little vacation. . .a road trip to see two of his kids and one sweet little granddaughter. Look for lots of blog postings when we get back on May 6. Audio books are packed for the ride. Catch you later.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ninety Days

 Bill Clegg
New York, Little Brown, 2011
191 pages     Memoir

Addiction and recovery is in the words of Bill Clegg “…a slow narrowing of a life until the loneliness causes enough agony to instigate change.” This is the story of one man’s finding his way out of the loneliness and into a changed life.

I am totally overwhelmed by this intimate look at one man’s struggle to get clean. One does not have to read Clegg’s previous memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, to pick up Ninety Days, read it and then pass it on to a friend or relative who is struggling. Someone said about Clegg’s first book “it turns out there is room on the shelf for one more addiction memoir…” I would say the same about Ninety Days. I couldn’t put it down.

Bill Clegg is a literary agent, a recovering addict, and an outstanding author. His is not a unique story; it is a story told over and over in recovery rooms around the country. What is unique about Clegg’s story is that it is not self-serving or self-pitying, as are many such memoirs, and that is what makes it all the more powerful. What he does in his writing is get into the mind of an addictive personality in ways that those of us in a non-addictive world can begin to understand addiction. He writes; “That craving, once it begins, is almost impossible to reverse. What my addict mind imagines, my addict body chases. It’s like Bruce Banner as he’s turning into the Incredible Hulk. Once his muscles begin to strain against his clothes and his skin goes green, he has no choice but to let the monster spring from him and unleash its inevitable damage.” 

He speaks to the power of the 12-step program, which has shown that ninety days has been proven to the turning point for addicts. If they can make it for ninety days, they are on the way to sobriety. At the meetings, participants announce the number of days they have been sober. Every time Clegg or one of his friends says “One day” your heart just sinks, because you know that they have relapsed. One of the most touching aspects of the book is the way in which recovering people look out for each other and care so deeply for each other’s recovery. One day after Clegg nearly succumbs to his craving, he is pulled in off the street by a recovering friend. He says, “I look around from sober face to sober face and wonder again how these people found their way. How will I. . .I’m in the room but not of it. Present but not part of. Saved, for a little while, but not sober. Not really.”

When Clegg flounders near the end of the ninety days, I found myself silently screaming, “No Wait! Think of how far you’ve come!” so completely had I become engrossed in his journey. Clegg helped me realize that for an addict, the journey is always just beginning, and an addict is always an addict and always one drink or one hit away from having to raise their hand at a meeting and say “One Day!”

It is also a book filled with hope that makes every day a new day; every day a do-over day. It is also filled with grace—the kind of grace that allows forgiveness, and help without condemnation, both for the person in recovery as well as those who surround him. He says:  “And I think that's the big revelation. It was, for me, going into the rooms of recovery, that my experience was so much like every other person's, and I had just been so convinced that nobody could possibly understand."

I received this book from the publicist. I am grateful for this look into Bill Clegg’s life.  You can find an interview with Bill Clegg on NPR’s Talk of the Nation:
An excellent review in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son

By Anne Lamott (with Sam Lamott)
New York, Riverhead Books, 2012
271 pages     Spiritual Memoir

It is a bit hard to know what Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott is really about—baby Jax Lamott, a first grandchild, or about grandma Anne. Methinks, it is mostly about grandma. But that’s OK because in her reveries about life, her son, his girlfriend, and her beloved grandson, Jax, we get more than a glimpse into the life of an extremely creative thinker and writer. We see a woman who views life through the lens of her faith. It is totally refreshing.

Anne Lamott was a single mother in her 30s when she wrote Operating Instructions, a journal of her son Sam’s first year. Some Assembly Required is a similar journal of the first year of Grandson Jax. Sam became a father just before his 20th birthday. He is an art student; Amy, his girlfriend, a hairdresser. Anne takes over some of the support for the young family, both monetarily and emotionally. She struggles between the need to control the situation and to let things evolve. “Inwardly I believe that by this grippage, this not letting go, I am holding people safe, although a critic might point out that I am holding them in a death grip.” She also notices that “no one seems to want my always excellent advice.”

Sam has a wonderful albeit unique relationship with his mother, as do most kids raised by a single parent. He shares her independent religious faith but needs her emotional and financial resources as he becomes a man and a parent all at the same time. He shares his insights about parenthood through emails to his mother and interviews with her. Anne’s relationship with Amy, Jax’s mother, is more problematic. When they have a good day together, Lamott muses that their relationship is “like the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, without the unimpeachable characters.” 

I had three insights about children becoming adults when Sam tells his mother that she needed to change her style of blue jeans. It reminded me that I have learned that you know that your child is an adult when: 1) they tell you they are adults; 2) when you see them behaving as adults; and 3) when they start giving you advice. Lamott saw her son becoming an adult when he took responsibility for this tiny little being who was his son.

Lamott’s spiritual insights are superb. I could quote whole pages of her gems of wisdom. I liked this one: “I would say that my deepest spiritual understanding is that God. . .sees my smallest detail, even my flicker, prickly, damaged, jealous, vain self. . .and God still understands exactly what that feels like. Because God has had the experience of being people, through Jesus.” 

The reviewer in the Oregonian has this to say about Lamott’s faith: “A kind of leftist radical born-again Christian, Lamott shares her faith in such a matter-of-fact way that really, I want to kiss her for it.” A more evangelical reviewer says that Christian readers would find “Lamott’s spiritual views problematic. It is her journey and therefore her business, but her universalist tendencies and rapturous accounts of the joys of meditation at a local ashram will raise red flags for many.” Wait! That’s precisely why I like her writing. She is supremely honest about her faith, her confusion, and her spiritual journey. It is very real—not problematic.

This is a book that new grandparents are embracing. I’m not a new grandparent (I have seven plus) but as I read Some Assembly Required, I was remembering my first grandchild, Maxwell, who looked so much like his father that as I gazed at him, I quite forgot that I was the grandmother, and I would catch myself saying, “Maxwell, come to Mama!”  

I had read and blogged about Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith during the first months of my blog. I have to say that I found it more meaningful but no less funny. If you have not read Anne Lamott, her work is worth diving into. Your soul will be better for it—as will your belly laugh!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us

By Larry Rosen
New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
242 pages     Nonfiction

I have a morning routine. I check my cell phone for messages. Then I go to my computer to check out my email (I haven’t yet gotten a smart phone). Then I check Facebook and my usual array of website updates like Google News and Shelf Awareness. I play Words with Friends for a while. Then I settle down for business. Am I addicted? Probably at this point I am only addicted to Words with Friends which I play on my tablet with several random opponents daily. Oh—and I also play against my sister on Facebook. I may only have 6-8 games going at once. Is that an addiction?

Larry Rosen and associates believe that in our overuse of technology, we (and by that I mean a large amount of the population) exhibit symptoms of serious psychological disorders. He says: “The argument that I will make is that overreliance on gadgets and websites has created an enmeshed relationship with technology and that this relationship can cause significant problems in our psyche, what I call an iDisorder.”

He suggests that even though we most likely cannot give up our technology, we can be very aware of the possibilities for emotional dependence, voyeurism, narcissism, etc. that too much of a good thing can breed. It seems likely that people who are overly dependent on technology have experienced these symptoms in other settings, but they are exacerbated through the technology.

For instance, people who post excessively on Facebook may have already exhibited narcissistic tendencies, but Facebook and other social media give them an outlet for the disorder. I have a nephew who quit Facebook abruptly—he decided it was just taking too much time and he was too emotionally involved in it and was experiencing some narcissistic tendencies related to posting good pictures of himself which he changed frequently. His sister, on the other hand, started experiencing strange and debilitating physical symptoms which landed her in the hospital. Her Facebook posts from the hospital gave her a much needed emotional outlet and rallied a huge cadre of friends offering support. 

I read the chapter about obsessively checking technology with great interest, because as I mentioned, I was starting to find some obsessive behavior related to keeping up with my technology. I am not an obsessive person by any means, so I am surprised by my own behavior. “Not performing the obsessive rituals can cause great anxiety,” Rosen says. I have found that my behavior changed when I got my tablet. Now, I am not obsessively tied to my desk. I can take my obsession with me! 

On the other hand, I have become acquainted with several students from Saudi Arabia. They are totally linked to their smart phones. It connects them with their friends at home, their language, and their families. I have a feeling that it is extremely comforting to talk to their parents via Skype, or even just to look at postings in their familiar Arabic. I believe this is why Rosen says that we have to figure out how to manage our technology, because it is too valuable to give up. 

The Kirkus reviewer says the book may be “a bit overstated, but a clear warning against becoming someone who brings a smartphone to the dinner table.”  Excuse me. I’ve got to check to see if any of my Words with Friends opponents have played a word!

Here is an interesting article by Larry Rosen:
Larry Rosen’s website:

Monday, April 2, 2012


By Beth Gutcheon
New York, HarperCollins, 2012
278 pages     Fiction

I had just finished reading a novel I could hardly get through when I picked up Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. And before I knew it, I was thoroughly involved. What looks like “Chick Lit” from the cover is a deeply engrossing character study of people that ostensibly would be considered the superficial Upper East Side rich.

Gossip is most definitely a New York story, told by Lovie, a dressmaker to the affluent. Discretion is one of her bywords, and in telling the story of her relationship with two friends from her boarding school days, Dinah and Avis, we are constantly aware of her ability to maintain relationships without the need to tell everything she sees or hears. She is so discrete that it is about half the book before we learn the name of her lover, an older married man. She calls him “my friend.” 

The story begins at a boarding school where Lovie and Dinah are scholarship students, and Avis is an older, wealthy upperclassman. We follow their story through the years with Lovie as the narrator until they are in their 60s and there is a shocking conclusion to the story. The characters are an interesting lot in a dynamic setting. And because the story is told in an “eye-witness” style, the reader is able to keep a measure of detachment from the characters and the action. We almost hover above them. It is a useful literary device, in some ways reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, as one reviewer observed. I was reminded of the way gossip was utilized in the narration of the play, Six Degrees of Separation, in order to let the viewer remain above the fray in that drama.

Gutcheon explores the term “gossip” in many ways. She uses it in its oldest meaning—the godparent—to its current meaning at its best—sharing information about people we care about—and its current meaning at its worst—passing along vicious and ugly lies.  In a posting on her blog, Gutcheon has this to say about gossip: “Gossip, in the good sense and its first sense, is absolutely necessary to society and also just about unavoidable. We can’t each independently keep ourselves apprised of the well-being of all the people we care about; we share and pool information, whether at the baptismal font or on Facebook. Gossip, in its full range of current meanings though, is an interesting subject because it now runs the moral gamut from constructive to malignant. We can easily tell the difference between the kinds of gossip out at the ends of the spectrum, benign and affectionate exchanges of information about absent loved ones on one end, versus malicious, uninformed or exploitive retailing of what doesn’t concern us at the other.” The moral dilemma Lovie faces concerns the way in which she wades through the gossip that she hears in her shop and social milieu. What is she hearing and seeing that should be shared?  

We are reminded that the Upper East Side is a small community where people have lived for years and years and to some degree it has the essence of a village, where information is freely shared and people know everyone. Gossip is an enlightening look at that village and the lives that unfold there.

If you like reading New York stories, you might also be interested in Red Tails in Love, which tells the story of some red-tailed hawks who live in Central Park and the cadre of acquaintances that document their lives (villagers in a huge city).

Beth Gutcheon's website:
An interview with Gutcheon about her writing process: