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Alex: The Life of a Child


Alex: The Life of a Child by Frank Deford

Pub: 1983

A father’s story of his daughter’s life as she suffered the debilitating effects of cystic fibrosis.

This is one of those real-life, heartbreaking stories that I have a hard time reviewing. There comes a point where you feel cruel if you nitpick the prose or pacing or other literary elements when the poor guy’s pouring his heart out over his dead child.

This is definitely one of those ‘trigger’-warning books. If you have a hard time dealing with reading about a child’s suffering and death, skip this one.

If you would, however, like to read about a sweet (and somewhat precocious) child as remembered by her doting father… If you’d like some information about what it’s like to have a child with a fatal illness… If you want to know more about cystic fibrosis and how it effects a person and his/her loved ones, by all means, pick up this book. It’s tough to get through, emotionally, but holds some really important truths about mortality, hope, and the tough realities of being a parent.


Empty Mansions


NEW this week…

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

3 of 5 stars

Spanning three generations, from the gold rush to present-day, this biography tells the story of the Clark fortune, and W.A. Clark’s youngest daughter, Huguette, the eccentric woman that left a trail of empty mansions across the US during her last decades.

[T]he story of the Clarks is like a classic folk tale — except told in reverse, with the bags full of gold arriving at the beginning, the handsome prince feeling, and the king’s daughter locking herself away in the tower.

Having done some genealogy work of my own, I loved how this story told decades worth of American history through the lens of one particular family.  Following W.A. Clark out west with the gold rush, then down to southern California, out to found the city of Las Vegas, and then reading about his daughter growing up in the Roaring ’20s, living through wars and the Great Depression, and all the way up until the present day.    I found the historical content fascinating.

The final years of Huguette’s life, spent in a hospital, and the ensuing legal battle for her wealth, were, admittedly, not really my kind of story.  Although I’m sure the authors went through a lot of trouble to research and document this part of her life and the time after her passing, I simply have little interest in legal battles.

Empty Mansions


Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Pub: Sept 10, 2013

3 of 5 stars

Spanning three generations, from the gold rush to present-day, this biography tells the story of the Clark fortune, and W.A. Clark’s youngest daughter, Huguette, the eccentric woman that left a trail of empty mansions across the US during her last decades.

Full review coming in September!

Overall: A great, sweeping history of America based around the experiences of one particularly influential family.

The Day the Voices Stopped


The Day the Voices Stopped: A Memoir of Madness and Hope by Ken Steele

Pub: 2001

3 of 5 stars

The story of Ken Steele, who from the ages of fourteen to forty-six battled persistent, vicious voices in his head and struggled with finding help for his schizophrenia.

[T]he voices were always waiting in the dark, prepared to take advantage of any opportunity, any slight break in my confidence, when they would take over and aim me toward self-destruction.

This memoir was incredibly intense, the kind of story that you don’t easily forget.  Ken Steele’s daily struggles for over three decades brought him down to such depths — alcoholism, prostitution, a seemingly never-ending series of psychiatric wards rife with abuse, even rape.  His ‘voices’ are absolutely terrifying, the kind of demonic things horror stories are filled with; that alone made this a difficult book to read.

The information that he shares here, though, gives such a clear picture of the struggles people with schizophrenia face that it would be nearly impossible to not feel sympathy for Ken Steele and others who suffer the same illness.  He presents a strong cry for mental illness awareness, and the humane treatment of mentally ill patients.  The final section picks apart mental health legislature over the last decades, showing the pros and cons of different bills.

Overall:  A painfully honest, uncensored look at one man’s struggle with schizophrenia.  Not pretty, but an important message regardless.

The Romantic Egoists

Romantic Egoists

The Romantic Egoists: A Pictorial Autobiography from the Scrapbooks and Albums of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by Scottie Fitzgerald

Pub: 2003

3.5 of 5 stars

A scrapbook of photographs, newspaper clippings, and stories from the Fitzgerald family, as compiled by their daughter, Scottie.

First, I’ve come to see my parents through my own pair of spectacles rather than through the eyes of others; and second, I’ve paid a tribute to them which was long overdue.

I’ve long had an interest in the Fitzgeralds, and the idea of reading their personal scrapbook intrigued me, especially since another of my interests is genealogy.  I enjoy looking at old photos, registers, and records, so this book held special appeal.

This book was a perfect segue after reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, to piece together the parts of the novel that were based in fact and how it all fit together to form a picture of Scott and Zelda’s life as a whole.  I particularly loved the color images of Zelda’s artwork; The Nativity was by far my favorite:

Nativity Zelda Fitzgerald

I did not, however, read every word of this book.  It includes numerous, lengthy portions of the Fitzgeralds’ writing, as well as literary reviews, newspaper clippings, letters, and financial records that — while presenting a complete picture of the couple — it would be rather tedious to read every one.  I liked the introduction by Scottie Fitzgerald, and was somewhat disappointed that more of her own insights, memories, and thoughts weren’t included in the book as well — hers would be a unique perspective.

Attention, Fitzgerald fanatics!  This September, I’ll be featuring the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby in particular, as my selection for the Classics Retold project.  Bloggers, sign up for your own featured classic on the Classics Retold tab.

The Spark


NEW this week…

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett

4 of 5 stars

The memoir of a mother whose drive to nurture and support her autistic son in his own interests reveals his mathematical genius.

That night, I had the distinct feeling — which has never been very far away since — that Jake was going to use his amazing brain to make a significant contribution to the world.

In the meantime, though, I had to get him into kindergarten.

With my background in education, I’ve read quite a few books on kids with special needs or academic gifts.  Regardless, I loved reading Jake’s story, as told through the eyes of his mother.

Jake’s story is one that so many people need to hear.  With the prevalence of autism today, it’s great to be reminded that these kids can do amazing things.  Even if all kids don’t end up being prodigies like Jake, taking the time and effort to focus on a child’s strengths is a good lesson for all parents (and teachers).  Jake’s story was incredible, very touching, and a great reminder for parents everywhere to hug their kids, to make quality time for playing with them, and to not let a diagnosis (whether it’s autism or something else entirely) be an excuse for giving up on your child.

The downfalls of this book were all minor.  A personal pet peeve of mine was when the author switched back and forth between referring to her husband as “Mike” and “Michael” — at first, it confused me; then it just irritated me.

Another minor thing that bugged me was the focus on the family’s financial situation — with somewhat over-the-top spending in the first half, then a constant concern in the second half.  I feel weird even questioning the sharp contrast, because really, their personal finances are no one’s business but their own, yet it was a part of the book, so, it’s hard to ignore.

Overall:  An awesome story about an amazing kid and his never-give-up, never-surrender family.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald


NEW this week…

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

4 of 5 stars

A novel chronicling the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiery, passionate wife, Zelda, as she searches for identity and struggles with the highs and lows of her marriage and life.

I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we’re ruined, who thinks Scott’s beyond washed-up and I’m about as sharp these days as a sack of wet mice, Look closer.

Look closer and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true.  We have never been what we seemed.

I’ve been a fan of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s work for many years, so when I heard of this novel based on the Fitzgerald’s life together from Zelda’s perspective, I was incredibly intrigued.

Zelda’s personality shines through in the voice of this novel, from the spoiled Southern belle looking for adventure, to the famous flapper who reveled in fine living, and finally to the frustrated and disillusioned woman she eventually became.  This book delves right into the Fitzgerald’s reckless lives with intense emotion and feeling, yet also with incredible attention to detail that show that this is a well-researched piece of fiction.

Sadly, since real life isn’t all “happily ever after”s, there are parts — especially near the end — that are downright depressing, that really make the reader feel the debilitating hopelessness and pain that Zelda experienced daily.  Scott, even from days after their wedding, seemed overly controlling and critical of her; he was certainly not portrayed in a particularly positive light, which may bother some readers.

Overall:  A heartbreaking tale of a marriage gone wrong and a search for identity, written with the prose of a Fitzgerald novel.

Favorite Fitzgerald Books:
The Great Gatsby The Curious Case of Benjami... The Beautiful and Damned This Side of Paradise

Man vs Cat

Man vs Cat Man vs Cat by David M Brown

3 of 5 stars

One man chronicles the life of his six cats as they plot against him.

Omniscient, omnipotent, military leader, tactical and strategic genius, conqueror… oh, and I like whacking toys on the end of pieces of string.

I’ll admit, I’m not a “cat person.”  In fact, I’ve kind of sworn them off since a brand-new adorable baby kitten pooped on my hand way back in the third grade.  Thus, when I read the synopsis included evil cats plotting against a man, I felt I could probably relate.  This book has some truly hilarious lines, told straight from the cat’s perspectives.  My personal favorite was Charlie, a power-hungry feline bent on taking over the world.

The first part of the book was, however, not quite what I had expected.  It made me seriously doubt the author’s feelings about his cats; he sounded much more like a proud papa recalling his offspring’s silly exploits than a man fearing for his life.  I’m glad, however, that I pushed on to get to the latter parts that I, personally, found much more entertaining.  There were also a number of references that were clearly British-isms that — sad to say — ended up going over my head.

Overall: A cat lover’s book of cat humor that cat haters can enjoy, too

Fans might also enjoy:
A Dog's Purpose Garfield at Large: His Firs... Skippyjon Jones (Skippyjon ...

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them SafeThe Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Be careful all the time: don’t ever let your guard down and get comfortable, even for a moment, because that’s all it takes for them to arrest you.”

This true-life memoir tells the story of Kamila Sidiqi and her sisters, living in Kabul, Afghanistan under Taliban rule. When the regime took over the city and imposed strict rules on the women of the community, including banning them from school and from working outside the home, the girls had to band together and create a new way of life, including creating a dressmaking business out of their home that enabled not only their survival, but that of many women in their community.

The story itself was interesting, one of the survival of a family against all odds, and a brief glimse into the everyday lives of the people in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule. I haven’t read up much on this modern-day setting, so some of it was interesting just to see what things are like in other parts of the world. I do now have a greater awareness of women’s issues in Afghanistan, and since that seems to be the author’s goal in writing this story, I suppose it was successful.

I did, however, keep waiting for something to happen, but aside from a couple minor, anxious encounters with the Taliban, there was no real climax to the story. Perhaps it was due to translation issues, but the dialogue didn’t seem to flow naturally. I also had a hard time connecting to any of the characters. Aside from Kamila herself, I repeatedly confused the names of her sisters and the other women whom she had working for her. I had a hard time getting any sense of the time that was passing; when at one point the narrator mentioned it had been four years since they started their business, I was shocked, since it had made it seem like all of the events prior happened over the course of a few weeks or months. I also though that the introduction was ridiculously long for such a short book, and I didn’t seem at all necessary to the story.

Overall: A short, simple read for those interested in modern-day women’s issues, particularly in the Middle East, but not really my cup of tea.

Fans might also enjoy:

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and SpaceForever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space by John W. Young

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publication date: Sept 16, 2012

I lifted both my fists in the air and made an unrehearsed proclamation: “There you are, our mysterious and unknown Descartes Highlands plains. Apollo 16 is gonna change your image.”

This autobiography is packed full of details about the many ventures of the US space program. It begins with astronaut John Young’s early life and time spent in the Navy as a pilot, then follows him through his participation in the Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle programs. The final sections deal with his position as the Special Assistant for Engineering, Operations, and Safety, and the safety features that he advocated for during that time, as well as his thoughts as to what the future of the space program should look like.

The sections of this book having to do with space missions was fascinating. Young’s firsthand experiences and blunt, straightforward recollections made it feel like I was sitting to a kindly (albeit kind of stubborn) old grandparent or great-uncle as he told me about “back in his day.” This conversational tone and the inclusion of personal anecdotes made for interesting reading, much more so than merely reading a report or transcript of each mission’s events. I felt that, through reading this, I learned a lot about the US space program and the missions involved. It’s been awhile since I’ve read or watched anything about it, so I felt like Young’s memoirs once again opened up this other world of wonder and amazement for me. I was struck by the courage and determination of the astronauts, and — perhaps for the first time — recognized how much of the early space program was a series of guess-and-check and high-risks problem solving exercises. To be an astronaut at the time, one really had to be confident of his ability to find solutions to any problem. Incredible, and inspiring.

Not all sections of the book held my attention quite as well, though. The early section included a lot of military jargon about aircraft that left me feeling a bit overwhelmed, though it was very apparent that at least Young knew what he was talking about. Similarly, the last sections, where Young is cataloging the changes he wanted to see made to improve the safety of the space shuttle didn’t hold my attention very well, either, though I could appreciate their significance. The epilogue also, while somewhat necessary considering the state of the space program today, was a little too political for my liking.

Overall: An amazing insider’s look at a fascinating time in US history

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this book!

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