Two Different Realities: On “Wish You Were Here” by Jodi Picoult

I hesitated to read this book for a while, because I wasn’t sure if I could handle a work of fiction concerning the pandemic. But, the author convinced me via Twitter to go ahead and give it a shot, and I haven’t regretted it.
We begin with Diana, a 29-year-old art dealer with the auction house Sotheby’s in New York, and her boyfriend, a resident at New York Presbyterian Hospital, as they debate going to the Galapagos Islands. She then goes on a trip herself, meeting people and having experiences even as her chosen locale, Isabela Island, is shut down to residents and tourists alike. In particular, she encounters a kind family who takes her in after her would-be hotel is shuttered, and forms tight relationships with a teen-aged girl and her father, both of whom speak English, and the kid’s grandma, who does not.
The descriptions are so vivid and clearly well-researched that, as with many things during this pandemic period, I feel like I am traveling vicariously. Even as she has these experiences, she learns from her boyfriend Finn what it is like as Covid ravages New York City and causes his job to become immeasurably harder. She also initially struggles in trying to fit in with this family, feeling at first a desire to return that is thwarted by the continued closure, she was due to return after two weeks but of course things went on beyond that point. This slowly shifts as she bonds with the teen-ager, Beatriz, in ways that Beatriz’s father is not able to achieve.
I found the story, and especially it’s first half, to be beautiful and heart-lightening as I still struggle with the real toll that Covid is taking on society. But, and no spoilers, I was shook by how things ultimately unfolded. It’s awesome though, and a fantastic piece of writing that lets one feel the devastation of loss.
In this story, Picoult is exploring the nature of Covid’s effects (in my opinion something like a warzone in that those who are most directly effected feel its punch acutely while the rest of us go on as normal,) and the nature of reality itself. Weighty subjects, but they are handled with just enough humor and ultimate truth to keep the reader from becoming too bogged down. Having read many of her novels, this is in my opinion the best. As I write this I do not know the ending, which is good as I know her endings are often unnerving in some way and can cause the story to linger in your head long after the last page. If you only take in one pandemic-related story, I would recommend this one.

NaNo Novel Excerpt: Moving To College

So there is technically no rule against resurrecting last year’s NaNoWriMo novel and just adding to it, right? I’d ultimately gotten to Chapter 9 and the thing was looking pretty good, but I just couldn’t decide how to proceed. I’m going to let you read the first chapter, but here’s a brief synnopsis of what it’s about so far.
Two blind brothers, both with Norrie Disease (explained in Chapter 1). One opts for college while the other works at the local Ability One Facility for the blind. College boy must contend with a long-distance relationship, and girlfriend gets a lil’ too tight with brother. Written from a first-person perspective, those three main characters each get their own chapters. And here is Tony, college boy.ONE
Tony the Tiger, really? That’s the best she could come up with?” I thought as I stood in the crowded dorm lobby. I wondered what kind of response I would get from the ladies when I got here, but didn’t anticipate the first seeing me as something of a five-year-old. Really though, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised.
I reached out and pressed the elevator call button again, unnecessarily, because it was something to do with my nervous hands. The fact that I could hear the machine rattling in its shaft as it made its way down didn’t necessarily inspire confidence, but I didn’t have the desire to trek up seven floors of stairs either. So, I waited.
Yup, it was my first day as a college student, and I was already enjoying all of the pluses and minuses of being in this new and exciting environment. There were girls everywhere! I knew I needed to just talk though and not flirt, since my heart was about 120 miles away. I loved her, but did wonder if we would survive the distance and all, but when I proposed we take some time apart she cried so hard that I couldn’t bring myself to end it. Shayna is everything to me, though.
The cage or death trap or whatever you wanna call it finally arrived, and an older couple with their arriving resident squeezed by with emptied carts to go down for another load.
“Hey man,” the guy said as they moved by, “nice to meet ya. We can chat soon as I get this last stuff out of our truck, I’m looking to get to know somebody as quick as I can.”
“Ok,” I replied “I’m cool with that.” What can I say, I’m easygoing. My laid-back personality has always helped me when it comes to meeting others and surviving pretty much anywhere I find myself.
Let me explain some things about myself first, just because my crazy story will make more sense then. I am and have always been totally blind, due to a rare at least it is said to be rare, condition called Norrie Disease. Along with this loss of sight, my hearing is slowly getting worse too. That for me is the harder thing to deal with. What all of this means of course is that things are more interesting for me when it comes to finding my way in life, both in a literal and a figurative sense.
So I spent a few hours with an orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor so that I might learn a little about this gargantuan campus. First challenge? Try to remember how to get to my room. I knew to exit the elevator and get out of the alcove, hang a right and trail the railing that lined the common area on the floor below, then go through the door straight ahead to enter my wing. From there, my room was the second on the left. I opened the door, slid inside, and flopped down on the little twin bed they give us that also makes me feel like a big kid. But hey, I was just happy to have a single, as I’d heard enough horror stories about life with a roommate, and I’ve never particularly enjoyed spending the night with people I don’t know, let alone an entire year.
Sleep took me on that Saturday afternoon, and I didn’t re-awaken until my cell phone nearly launched me from the bed as it vibrated in my pocket.
“Hello” I said groggily as I tried to remember where I was or even the time of day. “Mom? Everything alright?”
“Yes,” she said through tears I could hear in her voice. “I am just so proud of you and what you’re achieving that my heart is full. I remember dreams of going to college myself, and will probably always regret that they never came true. But that’s not why I’m calling. Get your behind down here and help me bring in the groceries me and your daddy got to stock your fridge.”
“Ok,” I said as a laugh escaped my lips “just as soon as I figure out how to get back out of here.”
I met my parents in the entry foyer and took a couple bags from their hands to make my way back up to the room. “So why are you already crawling into bed and not out there at the cookout,” my ever-so-nosy dad asked.
“What? There’s a cookout?” I replied. “I’m probably not out there because nobody told me it was going on.”
“Well kinda hard for them to do that if you’re sleepin’ like a lil’ baby,” my mom retorted.
“Ok ok, point taken,” I replied. “I’ll go check it out soon as we put this stuff up. What y’all get me anyway?”
“Oh just the four food groups,” my dad said “soda, chips, bologna, and pizza.”
“Sounds good to me, I replied chuckling. “But how am I gonna make the pizza?”
“We’ll take you downstairs and show you how the dorm ovens work. Already asked and had them marked up so you can use them” mom told me. “Now if only these thug kids don’t take them off. Also set up the washer and dryers for you, because we ain’t gonna be doing your clothes either. You’re quite capable of doing that stuff yourself.”
“Oh I know,” I replied, inwardly sighing as mom was starting to wind up in her familiar way when it came to matters of my pending independence and how important it was that I be able to function around and in the household, and yadda yadda yadda. Not saying I didn’t agree, just that it was covered territory, and she had already done plenty to prepare me. But hey, I guess it was better than what I heard from most parents about their kids with disabilities, which was an almost aggressive need to overprotect.
Days in this beautiful Southern city, especially in mid August, are just about as hot as it gets. And nights? Well they aren’t much better. The sticky factor gets ramped up by 10 though. This made no difference to all the wild college students strutting around the yard while loud music thumped in our heads.
I took my plate of food, which someone helped me gather, and made my way to an empty spot on the wall just in front of the building. I was kind of hoping one of the ladies would find me there, even though I knew that didn’t need to happen, darn you Shayna. But instead, the dude who spoke to me at the elevator finally caught up to me and sat down, putting a cold drink of some kind against my leg.
“Hey man,” he said, brought you a Sprite. If that don’t work, just let me know.”
“Oh nah, that’s good. I appreciate it,” I replied.
“Cool. What’s your name, man. I’m Nick.”
“Tony, nice to meet you,” I said popping my hand out for a shake… where it hung awkwardly in midair until Nick finally got the idea.
“Oh sorry,” he said chuckling and briefly grasping my hand. “I wasn’t sure what to do.”
“You weren’t sure whether to shake my hand?” I asked, a smile on my face.
“Well… I mean… uh…,” he stammered.
“It’s all good man, I’m joking. I get it, nothin’ to worry about. But, I’m cool. You can call me whatever you want: blind guy, weirdo, whatever. Don’t be afraid of offending me.”
“Ok, that works. Puts me a little more at ease, man. So, what are you planning to study here?” He asked as he crunched into something.
“I have no idea, really. Probably Psych, because isn’t that what most people do if they can’t come up with anything original? I can learn how to mess with my girl’s head even more than I already do.”
“Wait, you have a girlfriend?” He said. I could hear the incredulity creeping into his voice with the question, as if the thought had not and would not have occurred to him.
“Yup, back home. She’s taking a year off after graduating, or so she says, so we’re gonna try the distance thing. That wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I do love her. Just need her here.”
“I understand,” he said. “I think I couldn’t do that personally, especially not as a college freshman swimming in a sea of smart and really attractive women. But to each his own.”
After this disclosure, we just sat for about five minutes chowing down on some good grilled food while the DJ took us “back in time” with some songs as old as my momma. I’ve always enjoyed that stuff more than what they put out nowadays, if I were to admit to it. Guess it’s because that’s all I heard around the house.
“Hey man, it was nice to meet you,” Nick said. “Can I put my number in your cell, so you can call if you need anything?”
“Oh yeah,” I said as I tried to wipe mustard off of my hands so I could fish in my pocket for the iPhone. “I’d appreciate that.”
Finally Monday, the big First Day Of Class, arrive. And predictably, I got lost. The dorm lobby was teeming with other students talking over each other and clacking by in heels, sandals, and every other imaginable footwear. I followed them outside, down the long ramp to ground level, and hung the right I was to take to head to my building
“Sir, can I help you,” a woman said as she whisked alongside me bringing an overpowering perfume mist along. “No, I got it,” I returned, “but thanks.” Pride? What pride. Well ok it was kind of that, but I also wanted the adventure of seeing if I could actually make it without requiring assistance.
And I contend that I would have, if it weren’t for the gaggle of girls standing at the breezeway exit, from which point the sidewalk opens up in all four directions and a grassy shoreline is nowhere to be seen. By the time I managed to break loose of the surging mass of bodies, I wasn’t sure if I’d gone left, right, or managed somehow to stay center.
After fifteen minutes of puttering around in a general circle and assuring myself that this would be my last day at this gargantuan university, I whipped out the phone and hit Nick up.
“Ok man, stay put” he said. “Just so happens I’m getting out of my first class. I can find you there and get you back on track, no biggy.”
Red-faced and already deflated, I walked into the lecture hall about 10 minutes late, but I don’t think anyone even noticed. I grabbed a seat on the back row so as not to careen through all those who were already seated, though I new this was a bad idea with my bad hearing. Mom kept saying I had to get hearing aids, butt really who wants to wear that in college, especially when you’re already blind? Anyway, I pulled out the laptop, located the PowerPoint for this class and settled in.
“..The point of history” the professor’s voice droned, “is to discover WHO YOU ARE!” With this last unexpected intonation, I heard audible gasps from those around me. Someone dropped a writing product, pencil or pen, and I think someone else practically fell out of their chair. “I did that to snap you all out of your stupor,” the instructor said with a chuckle. “Now listen to me, this class is meant to represent all of the people and groups of people that exist in the US. And it just so happens that the US has individuals from all over the world. So while this is technically called US History 1, it is in fact a world history. From colonies and enslavement to a powerful, thriving modern economy, all of the pieces have come together in varying ways for each one of us to create who we are”. I gotta admit, this guy kinda had my attention. This would probably be my favorite class.

2020 In Books

This past year saw a record-breaking 62 books read by me. While much of this was due to my normal reading material, a fair portion had to do with my joining Reedsy Discovery to write book reviews back in July. Just to give you a sense of which books were my favorites, I will name one per month and label that. I will also label all of the Reedsy titles I have reviewed with the letter R. As always, if you’d like to know more about a book, just let me know.

F The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo (1/1-1/19)
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett (1/14-2/15)
Sleeping With Strangers, Eric Jerome Dickey (1/18-3/3)
Here We Are, Aarti Shahani (1/19-2/1)
F Gretchen, Shannon Kirk (2/1-2/9)
Into the Raging Sea, Rachel Slade (2/9-2/20)
Scorched Grounds, Debbie Herbert (2/15-3/12)
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (2/20-2/29)
Red At The Bone, Jacqueline Woodson (2/21-2/28)
One Way, S. J. Morgan (2/29-3/11)
F Children of Virtue and Vengeance, Tomi Adeyemi (3/11-3/25)
Skyjack, K.J. Howe (3/13-4/4)
The Perfect Wife, JP Delaney (3/25-4/1)
Labyrinth of Ice, Buddy Levy (4/1-4/21)
F The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel (4/2-4/14)
Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman (4/4-4/22)
The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter (4/15-4/27)
Playboy Pilot, Penelope Ward & Vi Keeland (4/22-4/30)
Three Ways to Disappear, Katy Yocum (4/28-5/7)
Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett Krosoczka (4/30-5/2)
Big Lies in a Small Town, Diane Chamberlain (5/3-5/14)
F Ghosts of Harvard, Francesca Serritella (5/5-5/22)
This Is Chance, Jon Mooallem (5/9-5/20)
Hell Divers, Nicholas Sansbury Smith (5/20-5/26)
Time Is The Longest Distance, Janet Clare (5/23-6/3)
A Song For You, Robyn Crawford (5/26-6/7)
Mudbound, Hillary Jordan (6/3-6/16)
F More Myself, Alicia Keys (6/6-6/16)
Open Book, Jessica Simpson (6/16-6/28)
A Burning, Megha Majumdar (6/28-7/4)
Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (7/3-7/22)
F The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, Candace Fleming (7/7-7/16)
R The Redeemer’s Vow, Marcus Miller (7/13-7/18)
Sunset Beach, Mary Kay Andrews (7/18-7/31)
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins (7/22-8/25)
R Lost One Standing, Hector Hill (7/27-8/14)
The Sandman, Neil Gaiman (7/31-8/31)
I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying, Bassey Ikpi (8/1-8/13)
F The Last Day, Andrew Hunter Murray (8/15-8/30)
R Killing Ground, Phil Bowie (8/20-8/27)
Salvaged, Madeleine Roux (8/26-9/15)
Dead Last, Amanda Lamb (8/30-9/7)
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi (9/7-10/2)
R Surviving Crazy, Frank Crimi (9/8-9/26)
The Jetsetters, Amanda Eyre Ward (9/12-10/9)
The Confession Club, Elizabeth Berg (9/15-9/26)
Koraalen, Heather Murata (9/23-10/7)
F A Tender Thing, Emily Neuberger (9/26-10/9)
Compartment No. 6, Rosa Liksom (10/9-10/24)
F A Long Petal of The Sea, Isabela Allende (10/10-10/31)
Stuck, Chris Grabenstein (10/12-10/20)
R Apex, Tyler Michael (10/20-10/29)
When Stars Are Scattered, Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed (10/22-11/1)
The Answer Is, Alex Trebek (10/26-11/3)
R Beyond The Goodnight Trail, Roy V Gaston 10/31-11/17)
Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo (11/3-11/17)
The Book of Two Ways, Jodi Picoult (11/18-12/11)
F Tightwads On The Loose, Wendy Hinman (11/18-11/30)
Light from Other Stars, Erika Swyler (11/30-12/13)
R Something Found, Troy Aaron Ratliff (12/1-12/21)
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern (12/13-12/31)
F Thick As Thieves, Sandra Brown (12/13-12/31)

NaNoWriMo 2: On The Very Real Challenges of Writing a Book

So, my NaNoWriMo novel is well underway. But… I decided pretty quickly that there was no real way I’d get to 50000 words by the end of the month. I’ve got too many other things going on: still reviewing books on Reedsy Discovery (just got my first requested review which is exciting) and of course I still have the day job (not much going on there but I’m showing up every day at least). On the requested review, it’s on a book that is set in 1860s Texas, a type of Western but not like you think. While that’s not my usual fare, I am actually enjoying it. I will post a link to the review on my Review page once it goes live in the beginning of December.

Anyhow back to my NaNo book, I’m now aiming to average 500 words per day, which would put me at that magic 50,000 by February 8. I’m maintaining it with 4,000 committed to digital paper so far. As the story grinds on though, I’m starting to feel that imposter syndrome creeping in. It’s just hard to keep one’s confidence, especially as I’ve not written a book before. I really want this to happen though, so hopefully that determination alone will fuel me.

Here’s what I think the story will be about so far. First, it’s told from three perspectives: Antonio (Tony) Carter, an 18-year-old student at an as-et-unnamed university in an unnamed city. I’m not sure if I will name it, as I’m aware that could present some issues in itself. I know though that naming also gives things more personality, greater character. Perhaps that’ll be a thing to decide with my editors before I drop the bestselling, great American novel that will propel me to fame and fortune. Well ok I’m dreaming, but dreams drive us right?

The second main character, I suppose one might argues the antagonist, is Daniel (Danny) James Carter. He’s two years older than Tony and still living at home, working at the kind of facility that I do. Oh, and both of these characters have Norrie Disease, my disorder. I might be the first to feature such characters. He’s a budding rap star, and has a little issue with Tony’s going onto college and what he might do with that. I want two opposite characters to demonstrate not only the variability in life itself, but also that which exists in our disorder. It’s kind of fun writing very different individuals, but hard too.

The third main character, whom I’m going to start today, is Shayna. I think she will be the one around whom the conflict centered. Tony’s girlfriend, older by 2 years so Danny’s age, and still living in their hometown where Danny stays. And not surprisingly perhaps, she and Danny end up having some sort of fling which upsets Tony. I haven’t worked out exactly how we’re going to get there, but maybe I’ll let the characters tell me. Each of them tells their bit from a first-person point of view, because well that’s easier to write. It also lets the reader get all the way into their head. We shall see if I can pull this thing off!

In Koraalen, Heather Murata Explores Human-Environment Links

(NOTE: The author provided me with a copy of this book to review, but all opinions expressed herein are mine).

Some people commune with nature, and others communicate with it. In her novel “Koraalen: Planetary Symbiosis, Heather Murata constructs a character who revels in doing both.

Nerissa, an up-and-coming star in environmental activism especially as it pertains to saving coral reefs, is asked on her first assignment for the Koraalen Marine Biology Guild to assess what may be causing an illness among this fragile animal. She happens to have a unique ability to “talk to” the coral telepathically, thereby gaining a fuller understanding of their experiences and sensations. Even so, she and her partner Shan find it difficult to get to the root of the problem, as they tackle obstacles that lead them off-planet to consort with others in search of solutions.

Murata has constructed a futuristic “universe” called the United Interstellar Economic Cooperative that most closely mirrors something like the European Union or United Nations. Only this grouping is made up of planets that have been colonized thousands of years after humanity has basically rendered “old Earth” unlivable. A primary goal of the UIEC and its member guilds is to ensure that the same does not happen in these new worlds.

This might sound like heavy science fiction, but in general it is not. The author aims instead to show readers how small changes in our behavior and a willingness to at least attempt to find a way to live in balance with the environment can lead to desirable outcomes. On Koraalen, for example, many residents live in sustainable platform cities just off of the continents and islands, leading to less urban development on land. Nearly all transportation is by air, whether through flitters, which I assume are a sort of flying car; air taxis, or air buses, which resemble long haul commercial airplanes. But everything is powered by means other than fossil fuels.

While there is considerable emphasis on environmental infrastructure and how best to handle it, with some jargon that only true insiders would fully understand, Murata spices things up with the sweet and powerful love that develops between Nerissa and Shan as they power through testing and experimentation. They first encounter each other as he, Shan, monitors Nerissa during a traditional Luau, and the sparks keep flying from there, growing stronger as adversity mounts. In fact, much of the story occurs against a backdrop of primarily Hawaiian-type culture, with lush descriptions of waterfalls, ocean scenery, pineapple fields, and other tantalizing tropical tidbits.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the work people do in trying to diagnose and save coral reefs here on this planet, work that I know is vital and not very easy. The characters though present the overall optimistic view that if we make the effort, the coral can do the rest and that healing and regeneration are still possible. And if, after reading this, you want a good nonfiction perspective on the plight of coral, check out Ocean Country, by Liz Cunningham. I read that one last year and found it informative. The bottom line, and I would venture to say that both authors would agree with this assertion, is that we must continue to work to save the Earth, even in the face of natural and man-made disaster.

Local Reporter Writes Interesting Novel

Given that today is Labor Day, one that many (though I’m aware not all) of us have off, I thought it would be fun to highlight a book that examines another career: that of news reporting. Few other professions result in us feeling that we “know” a person more than that of one who covers events big and small and brings them into our living rooms via TV and internet-connected screens.

So as it happened, I came across a book by Amanda Lamb, a crime reporter for WRAL News. The story, called Dead Last, follows Maddie Arnette, who had also been a crime reporter but moved into features reporting where she profiles silly animal stories after her husband’s death.

As it opens, Maddie just happens to see a woman collapse onto the ground while running the Oak City Marathon. I should note that the story takes place in the North Carolina Triangle, though the towns are given fictional names. Anyone from this area will enjoy pondering which real towns most closely fit the descriptions given.

Maddie’s story becomes a lot more complicated as she entangles herself with the woman, Suzanne, after visiting her in the hospital. It turns out that Suzanne is afraid for her life as she fears her husband, who is a well-liked doctor but may also have a dark side, is attempting to kill her. Maddie feels that she should not become involved, especially as serious questions arise about the veracity of Suzanne’s story, but her own background with domestic violence (she lost a mother to it) compels er to at least assist Suzanne in discerning the truth.

I liked many elements in this story, but my favorite parts involved what life was like as a news reporter. Maddie makes one statement that floored me, as it hit so specifically close to home. I’m paraphrasing here, as finding the exact quote in the audiobook (narrated by the author as it were) would be difficult: Sometimes I feel like being a reporter is like being an assembly line worker, packing sticks into a box and throwing them onto a conveyor belt. Well anyone who has followed this blog knows that this is exactly what I do, box sticks and throw them onto a belt. So that thought made me chuckle.

I also laughed at the references to 70’s-era detective shows that we see in her inside cop friend, and as previously noted at the names given to the book’s towns. For example, Oak city? Well Raleigh, our state capital, is also known as the city of oaks.

These moments of levity aside, the book tackles serious topics in a way that really makes one think. How do we decide whom and when to believe as potentially dangerous situations unfold. How do we define friendship, and what happens when we feel we and our profession might be used in ways we don’t want.

Lamb has written nine books, mostly about true crime, but this is her first novel. She says, as the subtitle “A Maddie Arnette Novel” indicates, that this will be part of a series with the second book in editing and the third already underway. So we can look forward to more of this deeply introspective and powerful character. The entire story is told from her first-person point of view, lending a depth to it that might not have come otherwise. I would recommend checking it out, and especially Lamb’s audio narration as she of course knows how and why Maddie responds in certain ways. I mean how many other news reporters do you know who have written novels too?
RELATED: Job Days No. 7: Work in the Time of Covid

Three Books: On Whitney Houston, Jessica Simpson, and Alicia Keys

The desire to sing and make music is among humanity’s most important qualities. Whether you can or can’t “sing,” (and who makes that call anyway) you probably at least find yourself tapping your toes in the shower and either silently mumbling or belting out a favorite tune.

With favorite tunes in mind and locating three memoirs about them, I decided that the next installment in my “Three Books” series would be on life as a musician as seen through their, or a friend’s, eyes. My chosen titles are as follows:

A Song For You, My Life With Whitney Houston, by Robyn Crawford
Open Book, by Jessica Simpson
More Myself: A Journey, by Alicia Keys.

Each of these stories shed a slightly varied but surprisingly similar light on what life is like as someone who becomes famous for her voice and must do battle with external and internal forces.

Book Summaries

Whitney Houston

In Whitney’s case, as told by her long-time friend Robyn Crawford, she primarily struggled with drug addiction and an almost unhealthy desire to be liked by men. First though, as many probably know, she was rumored to have a deeper relationship with Crawford because of their hanging and living together. Crawford actually wrote this book in large part to dispel the theories and share the truth, which is that they did have a brief romantic partnership but Whitney ended it in light of her budding career.

As the story unfolds, we see how close Crawford still remained to “Nippy,” as she and many others called Houston at the time. I think the reason for this nickname is given, but am unable to recall what it is. Anyhow, as Whitney rises in popularity, she continues to eschew the drugs she and her friend have shared for many years. But the lure is always too strong, and eventually Crawford points out her concerns to Whitney’s family, whom she makes it clear are not particularly high on her like list. Sadly, most of us know how Whitney’s story ends, but reading the twists and turns that get us there is informative and unsettling.

Jessica Simpson

Jessica Simpson’s story is still unfolding of course, but as told in her memoir the biggest challenge she seems to have faced is finding the right man. I had no idea that Nick Lashay, the lead singer of 98 Degrees, was so nasty to her leading up to their parting. Granting that there are multiple sides to every story, the unrest this and other failed relationships caused is surprising. We see her initially cover the resulting feelings by having a child, but soon have to fight back from alcoholism.

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys, one of my two wives many years ago, (an old Live Journal post, remember that?) seems to have had the most uneventful life of almost any celebrity I’ve read about. I don’t suppose she ever got into drugs or alcohol, at least not as written, and she had relatively few problems with men. Her story thus largely focused on the lack of a strong relationship with her father, which saddened her deeply, and feelings about women’s image in the media. On the latter point, the book begins with a dis turning portrait that drives home the real issues that arise when we insist too heavily on some societal standard of female beauty rather than letting everyone express herself however she wishes. Her story overall is the most placid of the three, but inspires and makes one think.
All three authors narrate their own works in audio, with emphasis on different things. Crawford and Keys have the strongest voices, while Simpson makes the reader feel he is sitting in an armchair listening to her impassioned stories. She even clearly cries during certain segments, and does not bother to mask it. Keys pours her emotions out by actually singing to us portions of the songs she feels most strongly about. She also has various well-known guests, as well as people who represent some important part of her life, introduce many of the book’s chapters. Each of these stories, just as the musicians whom they are profiling, gives us a different slice of the human experience.

Trials and Travels: A Comparison of 3 Recent Reads

Isn’t it funny how, without intending to do so, one can end up selecting three books for simultaneous reading that seem to share the same underlying themes? Well truthfully of late, all of my chosen titles are alike in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. Examples are four straight books that featured persons with diabetes, and five (six?) With some kind of painter character.

Given that, I could randomly pick any grouping I wish and make them work as a collection. But the three I’m going with here are Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain; Ghosts of Harvard, by Francesca Serritella; and Three Ways To Disappear, by Katy Yocom. Each of these stories is driven by the crazy things that can happen as a result of a mother’s love and/or her mistakes, mental illness, and big secrets. The secrets I shall not give away, at least to the best of my ability, because they represent big plot twists and might therefore be considered spoilers. I will, however, do a brief summary of each title and then talk about how they compare and contrast.

Chamberlain

This book caught my interest because it is set in North Carolina, as a quick perusal of this author’s catalog shows is common for her. The past meets the present as Anna Dale, born in the late 20s, is hired to paint a mural for the Edenton NC post office. (This is a real town, to which I’ve never been but I have heard of.) Being from the North, she encounters the kinds of racism and even outsider-ness that one would expect in a small Southern town of the day. She works with an African American named Jesse Williams who then becomes a major artist and makes as his last action a wish to have Morgan Christopher help to restore the Dale painting and to be released from the prison where she is held for supposedly causing a drunk driving accident. We are then bounced back and forth in time over alternating chapters until the story’s apex.

Serritella

Whereas Chamberlain’s book takes place in a lesser-known small-town environment, this story is set at Harvard: a place we’ve all heard of but know little about. The amount of insider information Serritella, who went to that school also, provides through her characters’ observations is fascinating. Cadence (Cady) Archer has chosen to attend this university despite, and maybe in some ways because of, her brother Eric’s having taken his life there in the prior semester after a protracted struggle with schizophrenia. This is similar to Chamberlain’s book, in that Anna was driven to follow her artistic dreams after her mother died, perhaps of suicide, while experiencing bipolar disorder. In Serritella’s story, Cady’s mother has a particularly visceral reaction to her daughter’s choosing to attend Harvard, going as far as to withhold assistance on move-in day and skip out on the drive from Pennsylvania where they live. Of course, mom comes to regret this decision later, and its initial upset probably drives Cady to make many questionable decisions throughout. Then Cady’s life and experiences there takes a strange and rather interesting turn. Let’s just say you’ll quickly understanding the meaning of the title.

Yocom

This is also a story built largely on a mother’s regret for hastily made decisions and the depression, disguised as coldness toward her children, that she feels as a result. Opening in 1970s India, twins Sarah and Marcus, along with their older sister Quinn, who will later become something of a painter and raise twins of her own, live a privileged life of big houses, servants, and the like as their father works as a doctor in a local hospital. A tragedy befalls them and the family, minus the father and Marcus, relocate to the US.

Told alternately through Sarah’s and Quinn’s perspective, we see Quinn and her mother especially struggle with the events that occurred over there and the incomplete information they both have on what actually went down. I like how Yocum shows Sarah and Quinn telling the story as they remember it and in so doing demonstrates the fallibility of memory and ways we can so easily reshape it.

Sarah, on the other hand, has difficulties in establishing her own identity. She is ultimately drawn back to India to work in tiger preservation after a long but dangerous career as a journalist. It takes time, but Quinn eventually accepts Sarah’s choice to relocate and their relationship, maintained through email and expensive calls, is strengthened. After all, this book’s “present” is the year 2000, so the technology is not yet as robust.

I hope you enjoy any or all of these three semi-related but also rather different reads as much as I do. They all feature such lush landscapes and travel that they make for good consumption as my Stay-At-Home continues.

Hey, Kiddo, by Jarrett Krosoczka

Hey, Kiddo, by Jarrett Krosoczka

I suppose that one might call this a memoir, though it is one of the more unusual memoirs I have ever read. In it, a now-successful artist/author chronicles his difficult journey to this point, with special focus on challenges faced when dealing with his drug-addicted mother and, initially anyway, absent father. He did manage to carve out a fairly decent childhood growing up with his parents and relying on a few friends and relatives to help him get by.

This book is short, but full of things to which most of us can relate in one way or another. I strongly identify with the idea that many of the “characters” needed some kind of therapy, but that it wasn’t widely available or appreciated in those days. This meant that people often found less-than-ideal ways to cope with their struggles, and in my case and others I know have never really conquered some of those childhood difficulties.

For the author, the difficulties were perhaps more profound, and especially in the case of his mother. She keeps trying, but the drugs pull her back, causing what was mostly an irreparable tear in their relationship. And by the time his father decides to re-enter his life… well you’ll see.

I think he spices up the print version with pieces of artwork both taken from those times and created specifically for the book. The audio, which I consumed, is brought to life by voice actors and sound effects. Many of the actors were people he had actually grown up with, some of whom even read difficult parts as themselves. The story is thus funny and poignant all at once, having drawn me well in and causing me to finish in what is a short time for me of two days. But then, the total audio clocks in at less than three hours.

So if you’re looking for something that helps you explore what it is like to be human and the beauty of someone who nurtures instead of tries to snuff out your talent, I would recommend this book. Given what I’ve got going on in my own life of late, this one definitely hit the spot for me.

Book Review: Labyrinth of Ice, by Buddy Levy

In Labyrinth of Ice, Buddy Levy writes about the Greely (1881-1884) Arctic expedition that starts with so much promise, but in the end goes horribly wrong. Commander Greely and his band of mostly military men set out to travel to the “farthest north,”, and while they do make it, the return brings about much peril.

In modern times, it is hard to imagine being so disconnected from civilization that one has to depend on only those around him, but this was of course the case during the Greely expedition. In fact, the only way they could transmit messages between themselves and those that might try to rescue them was by leaving them in cans whenever one of the ships managed to reach a location where it might be retrieved. From there, they had to hope.

The book strikes a very hopeful, excited tone for most of its first half. The men, and they were all men on this trip, enjoy forays into icy waters, play games and celebrate holidays at a fort they have constructed near the coast of Greenland. They have plenty of food and resources to go around, and make judicious use of them. Some wrinkles do appear while they are at base though, most notably rebellions among the leadership.

The real trouble starts once they decide to set off from the fort in the hopes of locating a relief vessel that will sail them back south. Food and tempers are shortened, and, well lives are lost. As in most true disaster stories, the reader gets a sense of the men’s deep despair, and wonders when or if they will be saved.

As the exhibition rolls along, we particularly see a change in Greely’s leadership from a more authoritarian style to one that is more democratic, which has a big positive effect on morale. There are also changes in other characters, for instance an initially discharged lieutenant who shows such great leadership skills in the end, and missed the last ship out when he was to have been sent home, that he is reinstated. In the character portrayals, we experience how many of us might have reacted under such harsh conditions, even as we ponder the wisdom of having placed oneself there.

This is a usual American exploration story, in that it celebrates what some might see as White men’s exploitation of the land and absorption of the locals. The Greenlanders who participate are given what might nowadays be considered offensive nicknames such as “Eskimo Fred,” but in the end they are treated fairly well and become an important part of the overall story. Some of the feelings of exploitation no doubt also arise from the fact that many of these men were of military origin, and relied heavily on their ranks and their desire to establish pride in the USA.

On the whole, Labyrinth is an enthralling story with which the reader, if consuming during this time of Covid, can strongly identify. It actually helps one to ponder how to cope with extreme isolation and the sadness that can result from being out of contact with family and friends for an extended period. Probably the rushed ending, wherein Greely’s other accomplishments are laid out, could have been excluded. But give it a go anyway, and you might come away with a little more appreciation of life’s fragility and why it must be protected.