Dr. Pat’s Recommended Reading: “Almost Alcoholic”

Does my loved one drink too much? A new book by well-credentialed writers (Robert Doyle, M.D., of Harvard Medical School, and clinical psychologist Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D.) examines that vexing territory, the land between “normal” drinking and true alcoholism. —Ed.  

I have seen many patients over the years who complain of fatigue, sleep disturbance, mood disorder with volatility, cognitive “fuzziness,” and lowered libido at midlife. Some of these women would like the convenient label “hormonal problems” (I am a gynecologist) when, in fact, my three-hour consultation reveals that their symptoms could be caused by something else.

In an unconscious way, many women in their 40s begin to use alcohol in increasing amounts. They tell me they don’t really drink: “I just have wine.” Or, when they are questioned initially, a common response to “How much do you drink?” is, “I only drink socially.” My response to that answer has always been, “What is your social group?” After some time, patients often report that they “enjoy” a glass of wine when they begin preparing dinner, have another with their partner at dinner, and often a third after the children are in bed.

These women can rightly say that they don’t become intoxicated from three glasses of wine over this three-hour weeknight ritual. The weekend nights often involve a cocktail before dinner and two glasses of wine in the company of friends. And this drinking behavior may have gone on for years. These women do have disrupted sleep, more fatigue, more irritability, and less interest in sex. And it isn’t hormonal.

When a patient’s complaints can be confused with symptoms experienced by women in the menopausal transition, primary care doctors like gynecologists, GPs, or internists should always take a quiet, nonjudgmental history. This takes time, and patients are not always pleased with the questions that must be asked. But the doctor needs to persist until he or she gathers enough information to ask whether alcohol use could be a factor in the symptoms the patient wants to eradicate.

When does a person slide from “drinker” to “alcoholic”? That worrisome question is at the heart of Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Drinking a Problem?, a new book by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, and Robert Doyle, M.D., of Harvard Medical School. The book is part of an excellent series, “The Almost Effect,” written by Harvard Medical School faculty and other experts and published by Hazelden Publishing/Harvard Health Publications. These books offer guidance on “common behavioral and physical problems falling in the spectrum between normal health and full blown medical conditions.”

Almost Alcoholic provides a new way of thinking about the large number of people who have a variety of drinking problems that don’t meet the criteria for alcoholism, or even alcohol abuse. I recommend it to all primary care medical professionals and to anyone who may be concerned about personal drinking and its impact on their lives or the behavior of someone they know.

The book’s new terminology for the difference between the true alcoholic and those who lie “below the water line in terms of their drinking” should have an enormous effect on the conversation about drinking. Till now, drinking behavior has been construed as a strictly black-and-white issue: alcoholism, with its set definitions, or not-alcoholism. Alcohol abuse and dependence has been defined as a disease by the American Medical Association only since 1956. Even now, alcoholism is often regarded as a shameful character flaw, not as a disease that can be recognized and treated.

Signs of the “Almost Alcoholic”

The five key signs of the “almost alcoholic” are listed in the book and discussed. Here are two of them: (1) continuing to drink in spite of some negative consequences (bad mood, volatility, poorer performance at work, or disruption of close relationships); and (2) the emotional reasons that “almost alcoholics” have for drinking—social anxiety, boredom, control of negative emotions like anger, anxiety, grief, sadness, or “to unwind.” And these drinkers continue to drink even if their behavior causes suffering or embarrassment for themselves or loved ones.

Patients often tell me that when they were children and a parent had a “drinking problem,” they could not bring friends home from school or for sleepovers because they could not predict the “emotional temperature of the home” in advance of a friend’s visit. Parents’ destructive behavior from alcohol use may never be seen by outsiders at church, at work, or in simple social settings—but can cause suffering in childhood and emotional hurdles that last a lifetime.

Almost Alcoholic provides easy-to-understand questions that substance abuse specialists use. The easy scoring system allows readers to find where their drinking behavior places them on the continuum of no alcohol/moderate drinking/almost alcoholic to alcohol abuse and dependence. Those who are “almost alcoholics” have been drinking too much for long enough to have entered a state where drinking “dulls the senses and sedates the drinker.” This prevents introspection and affects the way they see the world and their place in it.

The author makes it clear that taking a total break from alcohol for some period of time is necessary for the patient to have the cognitive and emotional clarity to answer, “Who am I? Who would I like to be?” as an essential part of recovery and emotional healing.

The chapter on emotional and spiritual evaluation after a sustained period of abstinence will be very useful for any reader, covering topics as diverse as “What is my purpose in life?” to “After I am gone, what would I like those closest to me to think and say about me”?

The common-sense guidelines to changing drinking behaviors in Almost Alcoholic include avoiding people and places where heavy drinking is likely to occur and instead to focus more on social activities and time spent with people where alcohol is not of significant interest. A chapter on changing habits and behavior is helpful in this area as well.

I strongly recommend this book for its information about our epidemic of alcohol overuse and its accessible guide to understanding the continuum of drinking behavior. Women are at increased risk of health consequences from alcohol use—greater chance of liver damage, cognitive change, and an increase in breast cancer risk, among other problems. Both men and women risk more diabetes, hypertension, cancers, obesity, and harm to important personal and professional relationships due to alcohol overuse.

The good news is that recognition of the problem is the start of healing. Almost Alcoholic can trigger this recognition for a reader with an open mind.


Book Review: Talk Dirty Yiddish

January 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Books

Smut comes wrapped in brown paper. Which explains why the cover of Ilene Schneider’s Talk Dirty Yiddish (Adams Media, $7.95) resembles the kind of mail you don’t want your neighbors to see. A smudged postal stamp warns: “Beyond Drek: The curses, slang, and street lingo you need to know when you speak Yiddish.”

Having grown up in a household where Yiddish was the language of secrets and raucous punch lines not meant for little ears, I grew up wondering what the hell my parents and grandparents were jabbering about.  Sure, I knew the terms that were bantered about on TV sitcoms. Shmooze. Shlepper. Shmata. But I had no idea what my mother was actually saying when she cursed out some poor mumser who had cut her off in traffic or overcharged her at the deli. Now, thanks to Talk Dirty Yiddish, I know. My sweet, docile mother was wishing plagues, cholera, and venereal diseases, no less, on those who had wronged her. And on appropriate occasions, she was telling my sister and me to “gai in drerd arein.” In other words, Go to hell!

Now that all the Yiddish speakers in my family are gone, I find Schneider’s book to be an informative, entertaining and at times hilarious guide to the “dead” language that has seeped into our modern culture. Anyone who owns a television knows what a shmuck is, although they might not be able to identify the part of the male anatomy that it describes. In a chapter on body language, Talk Dirty Yiddish bares all. (If you don’t know your dorten from your bristen, this book is for you). While Saturday Night Live has made fahrklempt a household word, Schneider delivers the fine points between fahrmished, fahrmutshet and fahrpatshket. Which, quite frankly, is enough to make me fahrblonget.  My favorite section is the one on curses, which displays the more colorful, imaginative aspects of Yiddish. Why tell people to merely drop dead when you can implore them to be transformed into a chandelier—hang by day and burn by night?

Although it contains adult language, this isn’t the kind of book to hide under your mattress. It belongs in plain sight, on a coffee table or maybe in the guest bathroom, where your friends will be intrigued to discover what their parents were really saying. In addition to chapters dedicated to curses, sex, and insults, Schneider devotes a section to words that have crossed over into everyday English, as well as to terms relating to the strongest of all Jewish desires: food. You may know what a shmear is, but how about forshpeis or geshmakt? Originally published in 2008, Talk Dirty Yiddish is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Who would write such a dirty book? A rabbi, of course. Ilene Schneider (left) was one of the first six women rabbis in the United States to be ordained in 1976. She currently serves as Coordinator of Jewish Hospice Services at Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, NJ.  Schneider is also the author of Chanukah Guilt, the first in a series of humorous mysteries about the misadventures of Aviva Cohen, a female rabbi living in Jersey. Such chutzpah. The mysteries are worth a look, and so is Schneider’s blog, named after her wisecracking rabbi-sleuth.

(VIDEO) Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic: Still Crazy After All These Years

December 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Books, Humor, Movies

The girl in the metal bikini has grown up, gone crazy and written a book about it. Fisher has actually written several books about her unusual life. Shockaholic (Simon & Schuster, $22), her latest, is the best one yet. It‘s an “anecdotal memoir,” in which the author riffs on a variety of topics. Being famous. Her charismatic father. Her extravagant, flatulent stepfather. The real Michael Jackson. Electroshock therapy. And of course, that metal bikini.

I first became aware of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars. I loved her feisty, competent, wise-cracking, getting-the-job-done persona. I loved her even more in the third film, when she seemed just as miserable about wearing that stupid metallic bathing suit as she was about being chained to Jabba the Hutt.

Fisher’s first transparently autobiographical novel was called Postcards From The Edge. All her books could be called the same thing. Fisher is crazy and is totally upfront about it. Many people try to keep their mental problems a secret, or at least downplay them. Fisher leads with hers, and I love her for it.

Fisher doesn’t hide the fact that she’s bipolar and depressive. Instead, she shares everything with us. What being crazy is like, what the consequences of her particular form of crazy have been, and what she’s done about it. She describes how and why she finally turned to electroshock therapy. Then she  fills us in on how it works and what it feels like: “You light up the dark and gloomy skies behind your forehead.”

Reading Shockaholic is like having lunch with a brilliant, self-absorbed, wise-cracking friend who talks nonstop about herself—but she’s so funny and her life is so fascinating that you hang on every word. This is a woman who enjoyed an intimate birthday party with Michael Jackson (who got her to do the  “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi” hologram speech for his kids), was pushed fully clothed into a swimming pool by Liz Taylor (after which they became the best of friends), did mountains of coke with her famous father, and who once put a boorish Ted Kennedy in his place by singing him a Broadway show tune in a crowded restaurant. (Read this book and you’ll learn what a sexist schmuck this elder statesman could be.)

Fisher writes about her famous family and friends with sympathy and insight. She’s harder on herself, especially when she writes about how her addictions undermined her ability to be a good parent. “I am not a stupid person,” she writes. “I’m a fairly intelligent person who does stupid things. Incredibly stupid things. I can’t defend it. I can explain it until the end of time, but that still doesn’t make it in any way excusable, especially when you factor in the impact it had on my daughter (along with anyone else in my bonkers life who gave a shit about me).”

Fisher devotes many pages to her fraught relationship with her own impossible father. Reading about the evolution of their relationship makes Shockaholic rather more moving than Fisher’s previous books. She never drops the schtick (it’s so hard-wired that she probably cracks jokes in her sleep), but the real pain (and the hard-won love and acceptance she is finally able to get to) comes through.

Carrie Fisher is a born entertainer. “I never went into show business,” she writes. “It surrounded me from my first breath.” Shockaholicwill entertain you. It may also teach you something about coping with addiction and mental problems. And you’ll learn exactly what show tune to respond with, the next time some jerk tries to put you down with a tasteless, offensive remark while at dinner in a fancy restaurant.

Book Review: The Small Change Diet (VIDEO)

March 10, 2011 by  
Filed under Books, Healthy Eating

If you’re working on eating healthier, you need practical advice and encouragement. In her book, The Small Change Diet: Ten Steps to a Thinner, Healthier You (Gallery Books, $15), WVFC contributor and registered dietician Keri Gans provides both. Each chapter focuses on manageable changes organized around a theme: making a healthy eating schedule, for instance, or brightening your plate with fruits and vegetables, choosing healthier beverages, and so on. Along the way, she turns each healthy change into a set of manageable steps and offers specific suggestions: Make sure you plan snacks that have protein or healthy fat and fiber to keep you satisfied. Make time for breakfast, even if it’s on the go. Start dinner with a salad.

Each chapter includes a breakdown of the obstacles or excuses that might crop up. Gans compiles a list of protests culled from years of listening to her patients, and rebuts each one with sympathy and humor. The call-and-response of this section is so thorough, and her tone so upbeat and confiding, that it feels as though she’s having a conversation with you as you read. If you protest against the taste of whole wheat cereal or pasta, she says, try gradually mixing white and whole wheat. If you’re lactose intolerant, use lactose-free dairy products to reap their nutritional benefits.

Throughout the book, Gans keeps her solutions manageable by grounding them in real life and presenting options to accommodate both personal taste and healthier choices. It’s not about giving up what you love entirely, she points out, but about finding ways to enjoy smaller portions, less frequently, and modifying your choices to be as healthy as possible. She’s thought of just about everything, from business trips, busy days, and holidays to sympathy for cravings and moments of overindulgence.

This is very much a plan for omnivores, as it hinges on incorporating servings of lean meat and dairy. Tofu and soy get their due, as does the idea of going meatless once a week.

You might struggle with some of the changes more than others, or may already be doing one or two of the changes she suggests. You may be more inclined to work on the change chapters out of order, because you already eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, for instance, but struggle to incorporate whole grains or lean meat into your eating plan. After laying out each small change, Gans concludes the chapter with a check-in, with specific, practical questions: Do you eat fish at least twice a week? Do you eat enough during the day, and keep busy enough into the evenings, to vanquish late night cravings? These focused questions keep your progress on target as you work on making new healthy habits a regular part of your life.

If you do decide to do the chapters out of their presented sequence, make sure to work through Chapter 1 completely before doing any of the others. That first chapter lays the groundwork of basic habits that will help make the rest of the plan work: keeping an honest food diary to track what you’re eating and drinking, for instance, planning a schedule of meals and snacks to keep you well-fueled, and getting enough sleep.

Although the book is packed with healthy substitutions and some food preparation ideas, it would be great to see more of the recipes that can help Gans’s small changes stick. Her Healthy Hummus, for example, is terrifically easy to whip up, and a great way to get more of the fresh vegetables that are a cornerstone of the eating plan. I am curious to try the Best Breaded Chicken, which makes clever use of ground flax seed to give the breading an extra nutritional punch.

Maybe Gans’s next project should be a cookbook of healthy and nutritious recipes. In between her contributions to Women’s Voices For Change, of course.


Book Review: Fannie Flagg’s “I Still Dream About You”

November 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Books, Humor

The women of Red Mountain Realty are a close-knit group, weathering the challenges of late midlife, not to mention a sagging real estate market. Maggie Fortenberry was a beauty queen in her youth. Lately, she’s been wondering whether being crowned Miss Alabama was the high point of her life. Never married, she’s feeling lonely and questioning what good posture, dancing, and knowing all the ways to fold a napkin really got her.

Brenda is miserably struggling with her weight (and breaking her diet by sneaking ice cream), and plotting to run for mayor of Birmingham. Ethel, the office manager who watches the news so she’ll know what to complain about, wears purple head to toe, even dyeing her hair to match. Babs Bingington is a conniving rival real estate agent, plotting to put the ladies of Red Mountain out of business.

In this ensemble cast, only Babs, who seems like some kind of demented evil Barbie doll, feels like a cipher. Hazel Whisenknott, the woman who founded the agency, could almost be a caricature. At 3 foot 4, she was a woman of boundless energy, drive and heart. She had enough faith in Maggie, Brenda, and Ethel to bring them together to start the agency, and each woman still values Hazel as a source of quiet support and strength.

Hazel’s parts of the story are told in flashbacks and in fond memories, as Maggie, Brenda and Ethel continue to mourn her death five years later. Even though some of Hazel’s acts of kindness verge on the improbably miraculous (a chocolate Easter egg stuffed with much-needed money, for instance), most of her feats relied on sheer persistence and force of personality. After Babs floods one of Maggie’s show houses to sabotage it, for instance, Hazel works the phones, calling in favors to erase the damage in record time.

The city of Birmingham emerges as a character in its own right. The cadences of Flagg’s descriptions and the rhythms of her characters’ banter immerse the novel in a sense of the South.

As the story moves through each of the characters’ perspectives, the women of Red Mountain emerge, fleshed out with nuance, humor, and grace. Yes, they each have some private struggle, and sad moments of doubt and introspection. But even in these darker moments, there are odd and eccentric touches of whimsy: Ethel’s purple hair and caustic jibes at Babs, Brenda stuffing a forbidden pint of ice cream in her purse, where it melts over everything. As you read, you’ll find yourself smiling unexpectedly, or laughing right in the middle of a wistful sigh.

Call it quintessential Southern writing if you like, this balance between pathos and humor. Tempering life’s sorrows with a cast of funny, eccentric characters is something Fannie Flagg does exceptionally well. In fact, I Still Dream About You (Random House, $26) has a lot in common with Flagg’s most famous novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Both of them set characters against life’s ordinary sorrows, armed with exuberance and eccentricities that will make readers laugh out loud. Both novels, so atmospherically Southern, have a timeless quality. Even though I Still Dream About You deals so much with the 21st-century real estate market, the characters of the women read as deeply ladylike, with a timeless grace. To be sure, some of the odd touches of plot and character ask for a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief. But the characters are so likable and honestly blended that you’ll find yourself forgiving even the more outlandishly magical plot twists.

Book Review: “Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC”

October 4, 2010 by  
Filed under Books

Much has been written about the courage and tenacity of the male ministers, activists, and young turks of the Civil Rights movement: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, and others. About the role of women we know less.

Now, six women who were active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) have rectified this omission by compiling their own testimonies and those of their colleagues in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (University of Illinois Press, $34.95). Each of the fifty-two narratives acknowledges the centrality of women’s experience in the struggle for human rights in the southern United States in the late 20th century. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, these compelling, at times harrowing personal stories recast the history of the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of women who lived it day by day.

Formed in 1960 by students—many of them from black southern colleges—who had participated in lunch counter sit-ins, SNCC was in the forefront of desegregation and voter registration efforts. Theirs was a nearly impossible task, and the dangers they faced daily defy comprehension. Some of the accounts read more like dispatches from Srebrenica or Abu Ghraib than from southwest Georgia and Alabama. As the editors note in their introduction, “We took on the role of dismantling an ingrained system of social and political repression that was then almost a century old, and fought to replace it with a more just and egalitarian society.”

The pursuit of social justice meant the real possibility of mob violence, bodily injury, and the near-constant fear that those threats inspired. Women who chose this work often deferred their education and defied their families. Prathia Hall, the daughter of a Baptist minister from Philadelphia, was a recent college graduate when she joined the movement. She wrote plaintively about her commitment: “We had been warned in orientation sessions not to go into the field unless we were prepared to die.”  Hall’s faith was tested in southwest Georgia, one of the most notorious and resistant sites of movement activity. Although she was shot and wounded by sniper fire, she continued her work in the movement. Her assailants were never identified or charged. Hall died before Hands was published.

One of the book’s co-editors, Judy Richardson—currently a documentary film producer in Cambridge, Massachusetts—left Swarthmore College in the second half of freshman year in 1963 to go south to work for freedom in Cambridge, Maryland, then Atlanta, and later in Mississippi during Freedom Summer 1964. Richardson is a tiny, enthusiastic, and determined woman, who, when asked what she most valued about her movement experience, cited “working as a team and consensus decision making,” valuable lessons she continues to use in her work. Only recently has Richardson understood the emotional cost of her activism for her mother, who never acknowledged her own fear or being afraid for her daughter. She did not she ask her to come home–something Richardson considers a gift, a tremendous act of restraint on her mother’s part.

Richardson’s closest friends were made in the movement, and they remain friends to this day. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of SNCC, and Richardson was there with her colleagues to mark the occasion. The anniversary conference was held this past April at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, site of the organization’s founding. Attorney General Eric Holder, Harry Belafonte, actor Danny Glover, singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, (a founder of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock and a former Freedom Singer who contributed to this collection), were among the approximately 1,000 people who assembled for speeches, workshops, and remembrances.

Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch, who participated in the conference, noted that “history will one day [recognize] the Civil Rights movement…and SNCC people as the young shock troops, playing the same role as the Founding Fathers did. They confronted systems of hierarchy and oppression, and set into motion a new politics of equal citizenship that benefited everybody.”

Another Hands co-editor, Dorothy M. (Dottie) Zellner, joined the movement in 1960 after finishing at Queens College. A self-described daughter of leftists who at seventeen read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for pleasure, Zellner was inspired by the activism of the Greensboro student sit-ins.  She went to Miami to challenge segregation in its restaurants, and for her efforts was arrested and placed in a segregated jail.

“I get weepy when I think about this,” Zellner says. Like Richardson, she believes strongly in the community that arose from the movement. For her, the Civil Rights movement was “average women doing heroic things. I don’t think they sprang full-blown from the head of Zeus,” she says, adding that heroes rarely think they are heroic. Zellner, who has been an activist and writer all her life, has worked as publications manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights and at the City University of New York School of Law as director of institutional advancement and publications. She lectures frequently about her work in the Civil Rights movement.

Zellner’s hope is that the stories collected in this volume will inspire others to activism. She notes that just as she grew up hearing stories of people who challenged power and braved the consequences, others may be called to action as well.  She has no doubt that her colleagues in the movement share her continued sense of commitment. “No one,” she says firmly, “would not not do it again.”

These are remarkable true stories from women who at the time were young, old, educated and not, rural and urban, black, white, and Latina, whose collective actions made a real difference. This autumn through spring 2011, the women of Hands on the Freedom Plow will be making book-related appearances around the country, from Brooklyn, New York to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Check the publisher’s website for the current schedule.

Book Review: “Let’s Take The Long Way Home”

September 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Books

How can a writer manage a book about the death of her best friend and a friendship that revolved around dogs, the shared history of recovery from alcoholism, and a deep mutual affinity for reclusive living, and yet have the volume avoid the pitfalls of maudlin sentimentality, false uplift, and simplistic pet literature?  How can such an ultimately grief-stricken book about two such particular people seem universal?

Only reading Let’s Take The Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (Random House) will reveal the answer to that question.

Gail Caldwell won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism in 2001. She was the Chief Book Reviewer for The Boston Globe at that time, and she clearly knows her way around the reporter’s desk as well. But though the crafting of this book is what gives it relevance and page-turning impetus, it’s the heart of the author—a big, broken Texas heart—that causes it to pulse in the hand of the reader.

This is a small book, so to tell any of it is to give large chunks of it away. Know only that Caroline Knapp, Caldwell’s dear friend and soulmate, the etching tool of her very authenticity, it seems—was an erudite, shy, determined, graceful author who wrote a blockbuster book entitled Drinking: A Love Story. In addition to portraying an upper-class upbringing, it detailed the writer’s journey into anorexia and commonplace alcoholic behaviors, as well as her singular courage in facing their meaning in her life. It thrust fame upon Knapp, if only briefly, and one gets the sense that her bond with Caldwell began in balance to that fame—balance being absolutely essential for Knapp, a devoted sculler who rowed miles and miles in perfect form each morning on the Charles River.

Ah yes, a river does run through this book. A river of devotion to the natural landscape’s role in a city, of the ways in which devotion to dogs is a two-way proposition, of the way that growing older can give women a sensible view of their relationship to men. A complicated river, as all interesting rivers must be, one that changes not one whit for the rower upon it while offering experiences those on the shore can never imagine.

Caroline Knapp died in 2002 at the age of 42. We know this at the book’s opening, yet Gail Caldwell—nine years older than Knapp and more than a decade into sobriety when they meet—brings her back with every paragraph.  If not to life, then to the mystery of what lies beyond.

Fiction Writing 101 tells us that we must care about at least one of the characters in a book. Let’s Take The Long Way Home is the graduate course in nonfiction, where we care about every single character—human and not, met and unmet. Most importantly, we care deeply about the four central characters—two wounded women and their two strong dogs—walking through lovely landscapes and managing on rough waters to a final point that offers no solace, but a mystery whose beauty Caldwell manages to limn, despite the grief she portrays with a bravery seldom encountered and a truth-telling that can only leave us wiser.

Book Review: Lloyd Boston’s “The Style Checklist”

September 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Books, Fashion

With The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials For You (Atria Books, $22.99), Lloyd Boston’s timing couldn’t have been better. In this back-to-classics fashion season, the idea is to build a lasting wardrobe based on the perfect essentials—exactly the message of this extremely readable, practical guide.

A fashion industry veteran, Lloyd Boston is a top TV style expert, television host, and author of three previous style books.  He’s also developed smartphone apps (for both iPhone and Android) to help you choose.

Boston’s approachable, entertaining tone makes this latest book, like his others, a delight to read. In categories ranging from work and travel to weekend and evening, he outlines exactly which pieces belong in a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe. In fact, for the practical-minded, this would be a great guide to bring along on shopping expeditions.

Even for the experienced fashionista, The Style Checklist serves as a reminder of the many ways to update a wardrobe without losing sight of what Boston calls our “closet classics,” the “icons of universal style.” Whether a trench, a black patent pump, or a sequined tank, each item in the book is examined in terms of functionality and versatility, all in an engaging fashion. For example, Boston describes the black turtleneck as “the Henry Clay of a fashionable wardrobe, the great compromiser, if you will.”

He goes on to outline 25 classic, foolproof outfit combinations built around it, from white jeans with red kitten heels to a black satin ball gown skirt with metallic heels (love that look!). And that’s only the beginning. With many of the showcased items, a feature at the bottom of the page called Perfect Partners adds five thumbnail photos of pieces that coordinate with that item, along with the page on which they can be found. This cross-referencing offers terrific insights on how to make fashionable combinations with wardrobe essentials.

Boston also emphasizes the importance of impeccable tailoring. Many people feel that clothes need to fit straight off the rack, but this is a fallacy—very few of us have perfect runway- proportioned bodies. (I for one frequently tailor my clothes because I know it’s the only way I’m going to get the flattering look I want.) As Boston explains, “tailored clothing can look more expensive, trim the figure to appear slimmer, and conceal anxiety areas that chip away at your self confidence on important days.” In terms of fit, he also talks about choosing the correct garment for your body type, as well as offering basic sartorial rules and suggestions. For example, when choosing a jacket or suit, he suggests opting for the single-button style over the two or three button model, because the jacket can then do double duty as a dressier piece in the evening. The book is full of these useful tips. And for all of us who love the “fabulous at every age” stories in popular fashion magazines, The Style Checklist sprinkles in a similar feature as well.

I’ve already read through this book several times and will go back to it again—it’s just that full of great information. If you prefer, you can follow Boston’s suggestions strictly “by the book.” Or you can play with the concepts and mold them to your own style and taste.

And when you’ve assembled enough of the book’s essential pieces and are comfortable with putting them together, you may want to move on to Lloyd Boston’s Before You Put That On: 365 Daily Style Tips For Her, a more advanced—and more fun—tome on how to assemble outfits day by day, season by season. You’ll be happy and confident walking into your closet every day.

Book Review: Tara Parker Pope’s “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage”

Birds do it. Bees do it. We all do it. We’re programmed to spend a good portion of our time looking for and longing for a loving partner. But once the euphoria of early love fades away, what was so simple becomes very, very complicated. Marriage is not for the faint of heart.

In her new book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Dutton, $25.95), Tara Parker-Pope explores spousal dynamics with a keen eye on the facts of human interaction. She presents an easy-to-read compilation of research conducted by well-known experts in the fields of love, sex and wedded bliss. How do we fail our partners? she asks. How can we lift them up? What makes or breaks the bonds of matrimony?

Not surprisingly, she finds that sex and wealth are key players; the happiest couples have frequent sex and few money worries. But most partnerships are solidified by a series of gestures and attitudes that, over time, evolve into either distancing and contempt or intimacy and contentment. Parker-Pope says it’s the way we fight, not conflict itself, that shapes our feelings towards one another. And each partner’s rendition of the “how we met” story is a deeper tale than we might imagine, especially when the storyteller’s altered perspective reveals the true state of the marriage.

Social scientists have studied all aspects of marriage: attraction, commitment, parenting, power struggles, gender wars, division of household labor, and health impact, among others. Parker-Pope presents their scientific data in her familiar, comfortable prose. Some of the information is repetitive; some of it you may have heard before. But much of it will surprise you. For example, she discovers that the notion that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is a myth, with current studies indicating that marriage is stronger now than it has been in years. Another interesting fact: couples who argue often have more stable relationships than those who don’t. And same-sex couples, who tend to have similar conflict styles, fight more fairly, and with less hostility, than opposite-sex couples.

Many chapters include quizzes to guide husbands and wives in assessing their own relationships, breaking the information flow into easily digestible chunks and giving the book a more magazine-like feel. The final chapter, “The Science of a Good Marriage: A Prescription for Marital Health,” presents clear lessons about what it takes to reinvigorate a union that’s gone stale.

Parker-Pope doesn’t play psychologist.  Her analysis doesn’t include theories about why we choose our spouses beyond physical attraction, or why we are so often infuriated by those we love. There’s no plan for staving off the good intentions of interfering in-laws, and no instructions about how to keep passion in the bedroom.

What she has done is produce a research-based explorer’s guide to the often mysterious world of marriage—a valuable resource for those of us who want our partnerships to be long, steady, and true.

Book Review: Dog House: A Love Story by Carol Prisant

June 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Books

Ajax is one lucky dog.

The aging greyhound is the reigning prince in a long line (ten, to be exact) of canines that “people” Dog House: A Love Story, Carol Prisant’s just-released tale of love, loss, and a 42-year marriage. As the barometric pressure changed with the approach of a spring thunderstorm, soulful Ajax, rescued from the dog-racing track, quavered on his elegant ecru bed in the corner of Carol’s New York bachelorette apartment. Its Ionic columns, creamy hues and marble-smooth surfaces demonstrate a grand departure from the azure and claret period wallpapers and deeply-polished mahogany furniture found in the Gothic Victorian house she renovated and shared for so many years with her husband, Millard.

Carol’s memoir is a laugh-out-loud treat for those who know dogs and their antics. Many of their names alone tip the reader that a merry time awaits: Cosi Fan Tutte, Jimmy Cagney, and Juno, her favorite – a lurcher. Her story is also an engaging read for those with even a passing interest in interior design or what it takes to make a house a haven. She is, after all, a former antiques dealer and author of the Antiques Roadshow books (Workman) and Good Better Best (Penguin Putnam), and American editor for the British magazine World of Interiors.

“The funny thing is, I didn’t start writing until I was 51 years old,” Carol says in her soft voice, which her furred and four-legged mates must adore, and would give television’s “Dog Whisperer” a run for his money. “I had studied creative writing in college, but like a lot of women my age, husband and son were my focus. When you are raising children, you get no grades like you used to in school. When you get paid for what you do, you get an ‘A,’ and you feel valued.” She admits that “I was scared out of my mind when I did my first interview [for World of Interiors],” an assignment she solicited with a “blind” letter.

Since then, Carol has written hundreds of articles for top design magazines. But she never enjoyed any project as much as Dog House, inspired by the 1936 book All the Dogs of My Life, by author Elizabeth von Arnim, who also wrote Enchanted April. “I was never so thrilled every morning to get up and get to the computer. I couldn’t wait.  I was going to write only about all the good stuff; all about the dogs. I hate confessionals.”

That said, readers do learn that her mother-in-law told her son not to marry Carol because “she had bad teeth,” and that she had a thorny two-year business relationship with her beloved only son, Barden. For a passionate gardener, her life has not always been a bed of roses. About half way through writing this book, she says,  “I realized in not so many pages I was going to have to deal with Millard’s death. For weeks I had to drag myself out of bed but knew I had to get through. It was not a cathartic experience. It ended up being a terse section of the book which I tried to write dispassionately.” And with a truth and bravery that is compelling and remarkable on the page.

What did her dogs teach her about marriage? “That otherwise undemonstrative husbands can go all gaga over a dog – which is a good thing for both their health and the health of the marriage,” she says. As for canine kisses, “when husbands say, ‘Don’t,’ do.”

Certainly, Ajax will attest to the value of love and affection. Before being adopted by Carol, he didn’t even know how to wag his tail.

Book Review: Gail Sheehy’s Passages in Caregiving

Caregiving has undoubtedly become a cultural phenomenon. With 65 million caregivers in the U.S. and an aging population expected to double in size by 2030, caring for a loved one is no longer the silent passage socially assigned to a minority of women. As seniors live into their 80s and 90s and the pool of healthcare service providers shrinks, the vast majority of us will be faced with the task of caring for a loved one.

Who better to illuminate us on this major life passage than Gail Sheehy, renowned author of best sellers including Passages and Menopause: The Silent Passage? Her new book, Passages in Caregiving, is an inspirational guide on this journey. Sheehy breaks it wide open and brilliantly sheds light on an experience that many of us anticipate as daunting, unpredictable, and stressful. Whether family caregivers are shocked into the role with “The Call” or are simply preparing for the inevitable future, they’ll find Sheehy’s book to be a valuable guide through what she calls “significant changes in the condition of our loved one that demand new coping strategies.”

Unlike childhood development with its universal developmental milestones, the aging process is incredibly diverse and unique to each individual. As co-founder of a website for caregivers, I’ve often contemplated how challenging it is to address such a wide range of needs and health issues among the elderly or chronically ill and their caregivers. Yet difficult as it may seem, Sheehy guides us through this massive landscape—a symbolic labyrinth—and defines eight critical turning points in the caregiving journey. As a caregiver for my late grandmother and father-in-law, I easily recognized each of these stages but hadn’t realized their universality. The eight turnings, Sheehy says, help caregivers “identify universal patterns in the chaos and give the journey a form that makes sense.”

Sheehy is an expert on the subject, having been for 17 years a caregiver for her husband, Clay Felker—the legendary editor and founder of New York magazine—who suffered a long battle with throat cancer. In Passages in Caregiving, Sheehy reveals each step of her personal journey, recounting how her husband underwent successful treatment, only for the two of them to be blindsided by “recurrence,” which she calls “the cruelest word in the English language.” Her story is poignantly interwoven into the book, along with stories and strategies of 30 other families and individuals, including “Today Show” host Meredith Vieira and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

For the silent caregivers out there, Sheehy does groundbreaking work in defining specific categories of caregiving—another way of showing how universal these all-too-isolating roles really are. She identifies five typical caregiver profiles, incorporating them into the stories that illustrate the different turnings.

Unlike many books that focus on the negative experiences of caregiving, with lessons learned from tragedies or mistakes, Sheehy makes a point of empowering caregivers and helping us see this journey as a potentially transformative experience. Each chapter is full of helpful lessons, advice, and a wealth of information resources. Sheehy focuses on success stories and strategies that have actually worked for families and individuals, and points out that the book is “aimed to help caregivers take charge.”

Those success stories include the Colberts, a family of seven siblings in Philadelphia, and how they came together to build a “circle of care” for their 84-year-old mother, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. Another family, the Heaths, found a way to work together through crucial family meetings led by a neutral facilitator, and the guidance of a geriatrician who helped them create a “life management plan.” Other stories emphasize the importance of connecting with fellow caregivers and caring for one’s own wellbeing.

For me personally, the hardest sections to read were the last two turnings: The “In-Between Stage” and “The Long Goodbye.” Sheehy shares intimate details of her feelings through the arduous and painful stages of her husband’s last years as he suffered through chronic infections and hospitalizations. She enlightens us on the complications of our healthcare system while helping us deal with the phase between ‘no cure’ and death. She describes the challenges of Medicare not paying for home care, the system’s lack of support for palliative care, and the six-month deadline in hospice care.

If there’s anything missing from the book in terms of financial aspects of care, it’s a full discussion about long-term care insurance and the sense of denial most families experience on this topic. Long-term care insurance can cover a significant portion of expenses for an assisted living facility or home care that are not covered by Medicare.

Sheehy ends with a hopeful chapter about the future of aging in “Who Will Take Care of Us?” I was thrilled to learn about “The Village Movement,” an innovative concept that Sheehy calls “Sustainable Aging.” The idea is that these communities enter into a pact to support one other when in need, which empowers adults to remain in their own homes to the end of their lives.

While the act of caregiving is not new, the sheer number of baby boomers becoming caregivers is an unprecedented phenomenon. In that sense, the world of caregiving is a new frontier. As she has done before, Sheehy breaks new ground by revealing the once-isolated world of caregiving, equipping caregivers with information to better address their loved one’s needs as well as their own. The question, as Sheehy states, “is not if you will be called to act as a family caregiver . . . but how you will respond.”

Look Sunday for the second installment of Susan Delson’s interview with Sheehy, which explores far more deeply how this journey has affected the author and her family.

Book Review: Dominique Browning’s Slow Love

May 25, 2010 by  
Filed under Books

Don’t miss WVFC’s exclusive two-part interview with author Dominique Browning this Thursday and Friday, May 27 and 28.– Ed.

In November of 2007, Dominique Browning was the powerful editor-in-chief of Condé Nast’s House & Garden. And then, suddenly, she wasn’t. The magazine, relaunched in 1995 under Browning’s direction, succumbed to hard times and disappeared, propelling Browning and her colleagues out of work and into the breadlines of the publishing industry.  She became, at first, an expert at crumb gathering, lunching with still-employed and generous friends and filling sleepless nights in the company of muffin-baking internet sisters at allrecipes.com—temporary substitutes for the framework of office frenzy and a balm for loneliness. Many muffins (and pounds) later, she was in the depths of despair. Where does one go and what does one do when there is nowhere to go and nothing to do?

It’s a hard question for anyone whose life shifts unexpectedly. In Ms. Browning’s case, not only does her professional life cease to exist, but she is left with an empty nest as her sons begin their own lives, she rides a years-long romantic roller coaster with the ambivalent and uncooperative married man who is her lover, and sells the beloved house she can no longer keep. It’s a lot to swallow. And when she finds herself wandering the early morning farmer’s market in pajamas (she does wear a coat) with unbrushed hair—a moment that surely is a low point—she looks around at “people running their morning errands” and understands “I am no longer alone in the world.  I have rejoined the living.”

The strength of Ms. Browning’s memoir, Slow Love, is that it celebrates the process of loss and redemption, warts and all. And her most compelling prose appears as she emerges from wallowing, when she ceases to be “attached to suffering.” Life, she says, “finally, was feeling too precious to waste time crying over self-inflicted sorrow.”

Ms. Browning moves to the small house in Rhode Island purchased several years before and slowly learns to feel grateful for the change. She at last has time to accept the pleasure that comes from observing and participating in the natural rhythm of each day: putting her hands in the soil to coax life from the earth, embracing cooking for one, observing, amazed, the habits of local marine life as she braves the waters in her own kayak. She has “begun to accept the relentless flux that is the condition of my life, of all our lives.  Not young, not old; not betrothed, not alone; thinking back, looking forward; not broken, not quite whole anymore, either. But present.”

And by learning to be present, Ms. Browning is surprised by joy.  She feels, “a slow flush of love for the world—the sheer pleasure of being here, the profound honor of witnessing life.”  She hears the earth whisper and falls gently into grace.

Judith Jones and “The Pleasures of Cooking for One”

February 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Books, Food & Drink

If you saw Julie and Julia—and by now, who hasn’t?—you may remember a short but vivid scene between Julia Child and her cookbook editor. Choosing, discarding, and rearranging words on a bulletin board, the two of them painstakingly arrive at the title for Child’s magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Fast forward some 50 years. Judith Jones, the editor in question, hasn’t lost her knack for artful wording. But this time the cookbook is her own, and its title reflects not only her love of good food but where life has taken her. It’s called The Pleasures of Cooking for One.

“After my husband, Evan, died in 1996, I was not sure that I would ever enjoy preparing a meal for myself and eating it alone,” writes Jones in the book’s introduction. But eventually she did, coming to view cooking a simple, well-made dinner as a way of nourishing herself in body and soul, savoring the life that she and her husband had shared. “When I sit down to a nicely laid table,” she noted in the December 2009 issue of Saveur, “I light the candles, pour myself a glass of wine, and feel that I am honoring the past as I enjoy a good dinner.”

That sense of contentment pervades The Pleasures of Cooking for One, leavened with a practical approach to meal planning. There’s an elegance to Jones’s thrift. In her kitchen, there’s no such thing as a leftover—only delicious food already cooked, waiting to be transformed into another highly anticipated dish, and perhaps another. A chicken broiled with fresh herbs, for instance, makes a second appearance as Chicken Divan, then returns as cold chicken sandwiches or Minced Chicken on Toast, which she praises for its “simple, soothing flavor.” Turn to the chapter on soups and she’ll instruct you on what to do with the carcass and giblets, too.

But instruction as such is mercifully rare, supplanted by a spirit of collaboration and what’s-good-at-the-market improvisation. Jones treats her readers as adults, trusting us to know and care about what’s in our refrigerators, pantries, and on the shelves. She invites us to embellish the recipes as we see fit, observing that “you have only yourself to please. So you can indulge in a sudden whim.” Chapters on “Improvising with Vegetables, Salads, and Sauces,” “The Magic of Eggs—and the Seduction of Cheese,” and “Treats, Sweets, and Special Indulgences” make it clear that in this book, pleasure is an operative principle. With Jones in the kitchen, you may be cooking for one, but you’ve got a wise and generous companion in there with you. Who happens to be a terrific cook.

More Holiday Book Ideas: WVFC Writers and More

December 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

Last week, we offered holiday shopping suggestions for poetry lovers, with all our Poetry Friday authors. But we didn’t want to leave out other books and writers we’ve featured in 2009!

First, just in case you’re still looking for books with Christmas themes, here are a few favorites from WVFC contributing editor Elizabeth Willse, who each year produces a holiday round-up for the Newark Star Ledger and confesses to being “giddy about all things Christmas, from music to tree trimming”:

greeleyHome for Christmas, Andrew M. Greeley, Forge Books, 192 pp., $14.99

Many of Father Andrew Greeley’s novels highlight themes that come to mind at Christmas: kindness, love, family, responsibility and faith. One of the central characters is a soldier deployed to Afghanistan, adding a timely element to this Christmas romance.

Almost everyone in Father Jimmy’s parish knows that Petey Pat and Mariana have been destined for one another since childhood. After a prom-night tragedy, Petey Pat enlists in the military, leaving everything familiar behind.

The many kinds of healing at the core of this novel seem a lot to pack into a tender Christmas romance. Told in brief, choppy scenes, letters, even dialogue that reads like a transcript of a news broadcast, Greeley’s story gets disjointed and in its own way at times. But as the story gains momentum, it gains emotional power.

Greeley confronts the complexity of grief as the two reconnect and face the past. Although he tackles serious themes, banter between Petey and Mariana, and Father Jimmy’s kind humor, add playful warmth.

The young Charles Dickens.

The young Charles Dickens.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, Les Standford, Crown Publishers, 256 pp., $19.95

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a treasure trove of information about Dickens’ past, the evolution of the publishing industry and, of course, the beginning of the modern Christmas celebration. Readers may be surprised to know that the Christmas holiday Bob Cratchit asked Scrooge for was not commonplace in 19th-century England or America, and Christmas cards, gifts and turkey dinners were not prevalent in 1843. For Charles Dickens, who published “A Christmas Carol” himself, marketing the story was quite a gamble, with no indication of the classic it would become or the traditions it would inspire.

Although Standford reveals himself as more of an academic than a storyteller in somewhat dry prose, his attention to historical detail is sure to fascinate and delight curious readers, and may inspire reading or rereading of the original “A Christmas Carol” or other Dickens works.

handmaidcarpenterThe Handmaid and the Carpenter, Elizabeth Berg, Ballantine Books, 176 pp., $17.95

Best-selling novelist Elizabeth Berg’s lyrical prose draws the reader into the lives of Mary and Joseph, forced to travel far from everything familiar in Nazareth. Berg transforms the familiar Nativity story into a close look at a very human couple, struggling with their faith in each other and in God. Her writing gives a sense of a distant place and time, while keeping the couple’s tangled emotions immediate.

This is a story of faith in many senses. It is not easy for Joseph and Mary to comprehend her pregnancy, with only her own faith and a few muddled dreams as guidance. Joseph wrestles with his religious beliefs, as well as his ability to trust Mary’s word and stay close to her.

Berg’s tale is an intimate view of the love and utterly human flaws in Mary and Joseph’s relationship, and a respectful invitation to the reader to meditate on their place in the larger tradition.

Lakeshore Christmas, Susan Wiggs, Mira Books, 384 pp., $21.95

LakeshoreChristmasImageThrown together to plan Avalon’s annual Christmas pageant, shy librarian Maureen Davenport and former child star–turned–rock musician Eddie Haven have nothing in common. She loves the beauty and hope of the season. He’s helping the pageant as court-ordered community service. As sparks of argument and attraction fly between the mismatched pageant directors, there are few surprises.

Few surprises, but still an engaging Christmas tale, fueled by the warmth and humor of their budding romance, along with the stories of the rest of the community. It would have been nice to see more of the rest of the pageant volunteers, like the wisecracking Veltry brothers, geeky Cecil Byrne and photographer Daisy Bellamy, whose subplot feels particularly unresolved.

What makes Wiggs’ story work so well is the plausible flaws and insecurities of her ensemble cast, particularly the screwball comedy of the central lovers edging warily toward a relationship. Even a touch of outright Christmas magic works to add genuine warmth to the story.

But to fill your gift list with the voices we’ve shared this year on Women’s Voices for Change, you can start with the list below. Click on their name to see their post, and the second to their latest books.

gailcollins3When we caught up with Gail Collins a America-s-Women-400-Years-of-Dolls-Drudges-Helpmates-and-Heriones-MC-BargainBabe-fb-20718575few month ago, she gave all of us lots of reasons to buy her new book, When Everything Changed. But you also might love her previous book, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, which reminds us that women’s resilience has always been the fulcrum of change.

mcnamaraIn times like these, when Alaska is in the kmcover1news for all sorts of reasons, it’s good to know that we can pick up Narrow Road to the Deep North by Katherine McNamara, editor of the long-lost, pioneering Archipelago.

olivekIf it’s awards that most interest your book-loving gift recipients, try Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer winner, Olive Kitteredge,hemingsescover or Annette Gordon-Reed‘s already iconic The Hemingses of Monticello (which also won the National Book Award).

stillbrave_Similar intellectual heft comes from Beverly Guy Sheftall, director of the Women’s Resource and Research Center and professor of women’s studies at Spelman College. We plan on starting with her newest, Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies.

nightnavigationcoverGinnah Howard, who graced us with a two-part interview, is still in the middle of writing her grand trilogy, which we can so far enter only with The New York Times–praised Night Navigation.

savannahcrookedhousesSusan B. Johnson, imscreamingone of our newer columnists, gave us a Christmas memory just this week. But for a better shot at why she was named Georgia Author of the Year, you might want to pick up Savannah’s Little Crooked Houses. If Elizabeth Flock‘s essays were more your style, try her newest novel, But Inside I’m Screaming.

bookofnamesJill Gregory and Karen Tintori bluecottongowntalked to us about how friendship made them co-authors and their first book, The Book of Names, as did Patricia Brown about her Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife’s Memoir.

admissionJean Hanff Korelitz, one of our Still Alice finalfirst Ten Questions at WVFC, talked about reporting and writing the acclaimed Admission, while Lisa Genova, our most recent, let us peek at her journey from neuroscientist to novelist, and that of her novel Still Alice from self-published upstart to center of a national dialogue on Alzheimer’s disease.

Please tell us in comments what books, if any, you’re buying this season, and whether you’re choosing new, used or e-books.

Final Day, Interview with Ginnah Howard

August 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

ginnahNYTLasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in the New York Times Book Review. Now, we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her  for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herself.

We’ve been sharing that conversation over four days. In today’s final installment, Ginnah talks about her mixed feelings about the honor of the Times review of Night Navigation, and her hope that readers will have a more nuanced response.

What was it like for you to see your first published book, Night Navigation, reviewed in The New York Times Book Review?

Since I graduated from college, one of the highlights of the week has been going out on a Sunday morning to get The New York Times, to spend most of that whole day curled up with The Book Review, the news of the Week in Review, Arts & Leisure, the magazine…so it was a special thrill to learn that Night Navigation would be reviewed on July 5. Who would review it? How much space would it be given? Would it appear in the first half of the Review? And, of course the main concern: Would it be basically positive, with no “kisses of death?” “We don’t know,” the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publicity Manager said.

Of course it is a great streak of good fortune to have my first published novel reviewed in the Times, to have it be considered a positive “take” on the book, to have my picture included, to be on page 13. Further, the next week, to have Night Navigation be picked as one of the Editor’s Choice books. Beyond the pleasure that such recognition brings, beyond the fact that this recognition is likely to improve sales and, perhaps, add some energy to the chances that Rope & Bone may more easily find a publisher in the fall, there has been the joy of hearing from writers I’d met in workshops and residencies these last 20 years, but whom I’d lost track of over time [because of] changed addresses and emails.

All of that said, I must add that I was disturbed by the reviewer’s “angle”: that the mother in Night Navigation was as addicted to enabling as the son was to heroin. “Mark’s mother’s drug of choice is the drama her son brings to her life. She can’t resist the urge…to indulge in ‘supermom’ exploits.” That’s a conclusion that a careful reading of the novel would negate.

NAMI-30years2cAs a longtime member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I was moved to voice a protest in the form of a Letter to the Editor which may or may not be published. I wanted to speak up for the many parents in this country who have adult children with the co-occurring disorders of both mental illness and substance abuse, especially where suicide is part of a family’s history. When to let go and when to hold on becomes very complicated under those circumstances. These families need no additional drama in their lives. Readers who’d like to see a full copy of this letter can contact me through my Web site.