Wednesday, May 27, 2015

When Kids Call the Shots

by Sean Grover
American Management Association  2015
214 pages    Nonfiction
The Shortlist

I received my copy of When Kids Call The Shots from the publicist and opened the package in front of my "burned out" daughter. The four-year-old was being bossy, and the 2-year-old was running amok. My daughter took one look at the title and said, "Boy, that book couldn't have come at a better time!"

Sean Grover is a psychotherapist and an expert in group therapy work with parents and children. When Kids Call the Shots looks at the symptoms that cause children to bully their parents, and offers concrete solutions to the problems. More than giving advice on how to stop children from being in control, he has parents look at the reasons why the bullying is occurring. Bullying of parents can be caused by defiance, manipulation, and anxiety on the part of children, and the reasons why parents allow this to happen can be because of guilt, anxiety and a need to fix everything. In other words, parents' vulnerabilities may be what are causing the problems. 

Scattered throughout the book are examples and anecdotes that almost every parent can relate to. The most valuable chapter discusses the parents' tool box to start remedying the situation. He suggests that parents must stick to their vision, take responsibility for their own behavior, and manage their own feelings. Also, he recommends getting therapy for yourself and/or your child if it is needed.

Grover's narrative and the accompanying examples are very empowering and motivating. Ultimately, his approach is one of compassion. Although he asks the parents to look inward to search for the causes of the difficulties, he is never critical or accusatory about parenting styles. His job in this book is to offer hope to stressed-out parents. The end result will be more relaxed parenting and less stressed-out children.

Interestingly, the book is published by the American Management Association. So, parenting is, in part, a management issue. By the way, tomorrow the book goes to my daughter. The kids are still little; behavior is just being molded. Reading When Kids Call the Shots can make a huge difference for parents.

 The review in Publisher's Weekly.
Sean Grover has an excellent parenting website. You can find it here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Art of Racing in the Rain

by Garth Stein
Harper    2008
321 pages     Fiction

"There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose."

"We are afforded our physical existence so we can learn about ourselves."

Named after a famous race car driver, Enzo is the philosopher and dog narrator in The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein Denny the father in the novel is a race car driver, the husband of Eve and the father of Zoe. Enzo was Denny's dog before Eve entered his life, and  Enzo is more than a little pissed that Eve took some of Denny's affection, but after Zoe appears, Enzo resolves his issues and becomes the family protector. 

Enzo loves television, car racing, and old movies. He has a list of favorite actors and favorite movies. He is terribly frustrated that he can't talk, but he is learning all he can so that in his next life, he can come back as a human. To his credit, however, early on, he realizes that dogs are much smarter and more intuitive than humans—dogs just can't talk, so they have to figure out clever ways to communicate with the adults in their lives.

The first part of the book is quite funny; Enzo has an acerbic sense of humor. and his observations are truly right on point. He understands a great deal about car racing, and he applies those insights to life as well as racing. This is a very vulnerable family, and as tragedy befalls them, Enzo becomes increasingly concerned about what he can do to help them. He remains faithful and helpful until things finally settle down, and he can die knowing that he has done his best for the family. 

There are many aspects of the book that dog owners will relate to because it is very affirming of the place of dogs in the family. Frankly, however, I felt manipulated by a dog that is too understanding and empathetic and is too forgiving of his master. As much as I liked the character of Denny, I didn't like how he handled the family tragedy. Although the narrator kept telling us how assertive Denny was, he looked too easily manipulated for me.

One reviewer says, "Denny's passivity in the first half of the novel sets up a chain of events from which Denny spends the second half of the extricating himself, all the while affirming his love for his family. But the reader isn't fooled."

 I was babysitting my grand dog Trixie while I was finishing up The Art of Racing in the Rain  As I reached the satisfying conclusion, tears were rolling down my face. Trixie, who had been sitting on the couch with me, climbed into my lap and licked my hand. I looked at her searchingly; did she understand me as well as Enzo, the dog, understood his family?  Trixie is an old dog, but frankly, I don't think that she quite gets it! 

(Oh, and did I mention that for Memorial Day weekend, the other grandparents got the children, and I got the dog?}

This is an older book, and many of my readers will have read it. If you haven't, it is worth an afternoon, particularly if you are a dog lover. It will be interesting to see how the discussion goes at book club this month.

The review in the Houston Chronicle.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Eeny Meeny

by M.J. Arlidge

Penguin     2015
432 pages    Thriller

Remember folks! May is mystery month. 

Eeny Meeny is the first of a series of thrillers by M. J. Arlidge involving Detective Inspector Helen Grace in Southampton UK. Before the end of the year, the other three, Liar, Liar, The Doll's House and Pop Goes the Weasel, will be released in the United States. 

Nobody does police procedural thrillers better than the English—with the possible exception of the Swedish. And Eeny Meeny is very representative of that genre. The characters are complex and well developed. The plot is fast and furious. It is all very visual and visceral. It is also not for the squeamish! Arlidge has had a career as a television writer, and there are some very visual aspects of the writing, as well as breaks that are similar to scene breaks. 

The quick synopsis of the book is this: "Two hostages. One bullet. One lives. One dies." Eeny, meeny, miny, moe!  The plot develops quickly. A young couple goes missing. After several days, the young woman reappears, disheveled, starving and dehydrated. The young man is dead. A few days later, two business men disappear. A pattern of serial killing is revealed. As Detective Inspector Helen Grace chases the serial killer with a very perverse agenda, she slowly comes to realize that these crimes are not disconnected; they are all about her. Once she comprehends that, she is able to solve the crimes. 

One of the clever portions of the writing are long passages written in italics. We don't know who these passages are about, except that they are passages written by a very damaged individual. Is it the killer? Is it DI Grace? We aren't sure until we are nearly at the end—which, by the way, we have read at lightning speed. I was reading it on my Kindle, and I couldn't flip the screen fast enough. The sign of a good read! However one reviewer was not so kind. He says: "there were at least two occasions on which I wanted to hurl the book at the wall as the plot takes turns so utterly preposterous that they defied credibility and almost undermined the whole enterprise." Probably a good thing I  was reading too fast to notice the preposterous plot turns because hurling the Kindle might have been disastrous.

I was curious about the title, Eeny Meeny, but I soon realized that the title is perfect, because that is exactly the game the killer is playing—and it's not anything like the choosing game we used to play when we were kids! 

Speaking of police procedurals, have you watched Broadchurch, the BBC series? Season 1 (8 episodes) is on Netflix and Season 2 (8 episodes) is on Amazon. It is incredibly good. The pathos is palpable; a young boy has been murdered in a small resort village by the sea. The entire community is affected horribly. This is a series that is perfect for binge watching. When I told my sister about it, she stayed up practically all night watching season 1. 

Well, anyway. Look for Eeny Meeny which is published in the US next week. 

Ben Hunt has a very good mystery novel blog. I was glad to find it. His review of Eeny Meeny. He says that the series has potential, and that the next book, Pop Goes the Weasel, is meeting the potential.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Losing Faith

by Adam Mitzner
Gallery Books     2015
357 pages     Fiction

Losing Faith is the story of deceit and its consequences. Aaron Littman is the CEO of a huge New York law firm, eminently respected as a litigator. A Russian mobster and terrorist offers him a $100,000 retainer to represent him in a case coming before Judge Faith Nichols. When Littman rejects the offer, Garkof, the terrorist, threatens to blackmail both him and the judge, because of the brief affair that Littman and Nichols had during the course of a previous trial. Shortly after Judge Nichols refuses bail for Garkof on the first day of the trial, she is murdered in Central Park and Littman is arrested for the murder. That, in a nutshell, is the setup.

Several times during the ensuing court case, Littman protests his innocence to his family and to his coworkers, including Sam Rosenthal, the founder of the law firm and his mentor. Every time he expresses his innocence, he is reminded of the clients who look at him beseechingly, "I didn't do it. You have to believe me."  

Losing Faith is the third legal thriller that I have read by Adam Mitzner. Not only are Mitzner's thrillers fun to read, but the reader also learns a lot about the way courtrooms operate and the way that lawyers think. This time, we are looking at the law from the viewpoint of the accused, a criminal lawyer, and we share his anxieties about the way the case is being presented by his law partner, Rosenthal. Although he knows how to behave in the courtroom and how to answer the questions, Littman suffers from the same apprehension and confusion that any defendant in his situation would feel. "I didn't do it. You have to believe me."

One of the questions that I asked myself as I read the book was "Do I like Littman?" I ask this often in my reading. Recently I stopped reading Hausfrau because I couldn't stand the protagonist. Mitzner says that when creating his protagonists, he wants them to cause the reader to think about their own lives in a new way. 

Of Littman, Mitzner says "I began with a protagonist who had already reached the top — the greatest lawyer of his generation — and I wanted to explore the fleeting nature of such external achievements. Again the opening quote (this one from Coldplay) was what inspired me, as I was fascinated by the idea of a man who 'used to rule the world' and now 'sweeps the streets he used to own.'" What is important about Littman is that he is fully aware of all that he has to lose, and that makes him a readable, albeit not likeable, protagonist.

The reader of Losing Faith spends time thinking about deceit and the reverberations that can be caused by deceit, in business, in the law, and in the family. Littman stumbles when his deceit catches up with him, and he is left unguarded. He hurts the people he most wants to protect, and the decision to deceive colors the rest of his life, and the lives of everyone around him. 

An essay about "likeable" protagonists by Adam Mitzner.
A review of Losing Faith in Mystery Suspense Reviews.
My blog postings about A Conflict of Interest and A Case of Redemption, the other books by Adam Mitzner.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman

by Rabih Alameddine
Grove     2013
291 pages     Literary Fiction

An Unnecessary Woman was given to me for my 72nd birthday by a 72-year-old friend. It is a novel about a 72-year-old woman who loves books inordinately. Aaliya is a stubborn woman, and a woman who has little need for others in her life; she has her books. She lets us know immediately that her age is no problem. "Let's put it this way: I don't hesitate when buying green bananas." Thus, I liked her immediately.

Aaliya lives in Beirut in an apartment that she has lived in since she was married (and divorced) as a teenager. It is a nice big apartment that her family hates her for having, since she lives there alone and they live in cramped spaces with many children. She managed a bookstore for many years, and her apartment is filled with books. She spends her days translating her favorite books into Arabic, beginning a new book every new year. No one ever sees these translations; they remain boxed in the extra bedroom and bathroom and have never been read by anyone. She has slept at night with a rifle beside her ever since the Civil War.

We are permitted entry into Aaliya's mind and musings, although we would never be permitted entry into her apartment. The three women who live on the other floors of the apartment building are never allowed admittance, even though they would love to see inside. She considers them to be the three witches from Macbeth. Ultimately, it is these three women who save Aaliya from her family and from herself.

Through her musings and her digressions we learn the story of her life and the lives of the people around her. Her only true friend, Hannah, continues to haunt her dreams many years after her death. She says, "My body is full of sentences and moments, my heart resplendent with lovely turns of phrases, but neither is able to be touched by another." By knowing her inner thoughts and feelings, we can know her, understand her, and appreciate her in ways that none of the other people in her life can.  

As she walks the streets of her neighborhood—the only place she ever goes—we learn about Beirut, the "Paris of the Middle East." Aaliya has lived in Beirut her whole life. We see the civil wars and other unrest through Aaliya's eyes, and they are sardonic eyes, at best. She finds a way to live through every inconvenience, every disturbance, with a resigned, ironic sigh. We also learn about the place of women in Lebanese society, the need to marry, and the utter tragedy of a woman without a family.

But aah! There are the books, the authors, the references, the quotes. This is the most overwhelming aspect of the narrative. This bibliophile has read everything, and has an opinion and a quote from everything that she has ever read. (I kept wondering how the author, Rabih Almeddine, had read and kept track of so many books, himself.) The gift for, and love of, literature keeps the reader from feeling sorry for this Unnecessary Woman, because her mind is an incredible mass of knowledge, impression, and opinion. She abides by the philosophy of the Portuguese poet, Pessoa: "The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential." Because of her remarkable mind, we take Aaliya seriously. She is a woman of consequence. She rises above tragic caricature to heroine.

And there is humor. A reviewer mentions that Almeddine is in essence a comic writer, and while this is not a book written for humor, there are many funny moments, primarily Aaliya's asides and throw-away observations. The reader chortles through the stream-of-consciousness meanderings and the digressions. These humorous, yet poignant, asides keep the story moving with expectancy. One reviewer says: "An Unnecessary Woman is an utterly unique love poem to the book and to the tenacity of the feminine spirit. And it's a triumph for Alameddine, who has created a book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to the great works whose beauty and power his novel celebrates." 

The "unnecessary woman" Aaliya warmed my heart and stirred my soul. 

An Unnecessary Woman was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014. Another favorite book about Beirut is Day of Honey, a memoir with food, by Anna Ciezadlo.

The LA Times review.
An interview with Alameddine on NPR.
Rabih Alameddine website.