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October 09, 2008

Book Review: Belly of the Whale

Books by and about cancer patients and survivors abound, and I have read my fair share in the last year and a half. Most of these types of books that I have read have been biographies or autobiographies. And that makes sense, because I wouldn’t imagine that the market for fictional accounts of cancer patients is a very big one.

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail asking me if I would consider reading just such a book and posting a review on my blog. I’ve received these kinds of requests before and have always enjoyed reading and reviewing them, as well as getting the free books. When I opened this particular e-mail, though, I hesitated to accept right away.

The e-mail contained a description of the book I was being asked to read, and summarized the fictional account of a terrifying day in the life of a breast cancer patient. I didn’t think I really wanted to read anything like that and I had misgivings about whether or not an author could truly capture the experience and feelings of someone in the middle of breast cancer treatments. The one thing that convinced me that this book might be worth reading was the fact that it was written by a breast cancer survivor, Linda Merlino. So I said yes.

Belly of the Whale is told from the first person point of view of Hudson Catalina, a young mother and wife who is in the middle of breast cancer treatments. The story is basically a day in her life, complete with her family leaving for work and school in the morning followed by her trip to a chemotherapy treatment. On this particular day, a snow storm hits the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts and essentially shuts it down. Catalina returns home after her chemo treatment and then decides to drive in the snow storm to a small, local grocery store. While she is there, the store is robbed and she finds herself held hostage with other employees by the mentally unstable and frightening burglar.

Merlino’s writing captures much about the experience of cancer. She describes the main character’s feelings of hopelessness and anger in the face of her diagnosis. She talks about the difficulty of constantly having to reassure everyone else in your life when you are the one who is sick. She writes about a chemotherapy treatment as only someone who has been there can. She also depicts Catalina’s understandable fear in the face of the events that take place in the grocery store. The story manages to convey the myriad emotions of a breast cancer patient as well as the sense of terror a hostage in a dangerous situation might feel. In addition, the characters are realistic and finely drawn. Merlino has a talent for bringing her characters to life in a way that makes many of them seem like your neighbor down the street.

I felt that the first half of the book was slow in places and that it was filled with more detail about Catalina’s day than was necessary to develop her character. I also found myself frequently frustrated with the negativity of her attitude. Merlino never tells us the stage of Catalina’s cancer, nor does she give the reader a prognosis other than Catalina’s own self-prognosis of imminent death. While a breast cancer diagnosis is terrifying and the treatment is emotionally and physically exhausting, in so many cases it is also beatable. We have the technology and tools to take it down in most cases, so it was difficult for me to accept the depths of Catalina’s misery in the face of her diagnosis and treatments. If I knew someone going through cancer treatments who acted out the way that she does, I would feel obligated to reprimand her and scold her back into reality.

While I am impressed with Merlino’s writing and storytelling ability, I have to admit that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone going through cancer treatments. I think it would be difficult to read about Catalina’s reaction to her cancer when you are struggling to stay positive about your own situation. If you have waged and won your own battle with cancer, however, or if you know someone who has, you may just find something of your own struggle in the pages of Belly of the Whale.

January 03, 2008

Book Review: The Middle Place

A couple of weeks ago I received a review copy of another book, The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan. (The first link will take you to the book on Amazon.com, the second link to Corrigan’s website and a gorgeous picture of her and one of her daughters.) The book will be published in just a couple of days on January 8, 2008, and this is one that you might want to pre-order. I will be recommending it enthusiastically to all breast cancer patients who are mothers, to the people who love them, and to all women my age who have a parent dealing with cancer or another illness.

I haven’t mentioned it here before, but my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the beginning of last year. He’s doing well now, but the diagnosis gave us all a scare. My cancer diagnosis came just a few short months later and I remember thinking a lot about my roles as a daughter and a mother dealing with cancer…both my own and that of a parent. When the publicist sent me an e-mail describing this book, it sent a little wave of recognition right through me and I couldn’t wait to read it. Kelly Corrigan is the mother of young children and was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 30s. Shortly after that, her father was diagnosed with cancer. Her book is about her experience in straddling what she calls “the middle place—that sliver of time when childhood and parenthood overlap.”

That introduction does not do the book justice, however. Corrigan is a very talented writer who finds the words to describe in detail what it is like to be a mother with cancer and to be a daughter whose beloved parent has cancer. She describes her own heartbreaking and yet hopeful experience, but she is also describing the emotions of all of us who have lived through one or both of these experiences, and she does it in a way that is humorous and poignant and lyrical and compelling.

I loved reading this book from the very first page. I found myself wanting to call Corrigan and invite her on a coffee date because she knows exactly what I have experienced in the last few months. As I read, I marked pages and underlined passages to come back to because there are moments when it is as if she is in my head, pulling the words right out. At times I felt as if I was in the middle of a Southern Baptist congregation, saying, “Yes! Sing it, sister!” as she struck some particularly perfect chord.

An example of her ability to capture the details of any given moment comes when she describes her inadvertent discovery of a lump in her breast, in many ways very much like my own inadvertent discovery. She was doing something else, just going along in the middle of her normal routine, when her hand brushed against her breast. It is a split second…such a tiny little moment in time and you can hardly wrap your mind around what your hand seems to telling it. Corrigan says, “I touch it once, pressing it lightly with the open palm of my hand, and then, after a flash of shock passes through me, I force my full attention to bathing the girls.” That sentence alone captures so much of what it is to go through this as a mother with children at home. You can’t stop and investigate, and you certainly can’t show your utter fear and terror. You can’t deal with it at that precise moment because you have to finish bath time and get everyone dressed and ready for bed and make sure teeth are brushed and stories are read and then there are children to be tucked in. Your kids need you…you are their mother. You are supposed to be strong and to know what to do and to be able to protect them from the bad things in the world. There is no room and no time for lumps.

Kelly Corrigan has quite a story to tell and she does it so well that I think this book would be a comfort to other mothers going through the same thing. She evokes a mother’s all-encompassing love of her children and how painful and poignant that love can feel when you find out you have cancer. At the same time, she describes how difficult it is to come to terms with a parent’s illness and how you can be a grown-up mom and a little girl all in the very same moment, switching roles almost from one breath to the next.

I give this book two thumbs up and five stars. It would make a wonderful New Year’s gift for a mother who has been diagnosed with cancer, whether that is yourself or someone you know. I wouldn’t limit my recommendation to cancer patients/survivors, though; it is so well-written and deals with so many universal emotions that I think any mother would enjoy it. I hope that we will hear more from Corrigan very soon.

December 21, 2007

Book Review: Dangerous Admissions

Another publisher recently contacted me to ask whether I was interested in receiving a review copy of yet another new book. Never one to pass up a free book, I said yes. I don’t know exactly how they keep finding me, but I love this added benefit of blogging.

Dangerous Admissions: Secrets of a Closet Sleuth is billed as a “romantic suspense” novel. The author, Jane O’Connor, writes the bestselling children’s Fancy Nancy series. Since my little girl is all grown up and on to more adult reading now, I was not familiar with the Fancy Nancy books. Coincidentally, however, about a week after I received Dangerous Admissions I noticed one listed in the book order form that Matthew brought home from school. After reading O’Connor’s adult fiction, I am curious about her children’s books and would like to take a look at one of those, as well.

Dangerous Admissions takes place at a Manhattan prep school and opens with the shocking murder of the school’s college admissions counselor. The main character, 43 year old Rannie Bookman, has recently been fired from her job as a copyeditor at Simon and Schuster and is working part-time at the prep school when the murder takes place. She is immensely likeable, mostly because she seems much like your next door neighbor. It isn’t long until the endearingly neurotic mother of two with a fine-tuned attention to detail begins to look for possible clues to the murder. She has good reason to want to solve the mystery when her son, a senior at the prep school, becomes a prime suspect. There are plenty of suspects to choose from among O’Connor’s cast of characters who are multi-dimensional and believable (the teenagers certainly seemed authentic to me!) and help to carry the action along.

The prep school setting gives the reader a glimpse into that exclusive world, much as The Nanny Diaries did for Manhattan high society. It makes a perfect setting for a murder mystery when you factor in the storied competition for Ivy League undergrad spots that we have all heard about. As details about the victim’s puzzling relationships begin to emerge, the cast of potential suspects grows longer and Rannie’s search for the killer becomes increasingly complex.

O’Connor’s adult fiction debut is smart and funny and suspenseful. She is a talented writer and she does a masterful job of weaving together the various plot twists, turns, and a few red herrings as the story unfolds. While it won’t soon be added to any lists of great literature, Dangerous Admissions is a well-written, engaging mystery that keeps the reader turning the pages right up until the end. I recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining and enjoyable mystery novel.

November 05, 2007

Crazy Sexy Cancer...Crazy Sexy Motherhood

I heard about Kris Carr’s book and documentary about her battle with a rare, incurable cancer (epithelioid hemangioendothelioma--yeah, I don't know how to pronounce it, either) a couple of months ago. I mentioned her in this post, and have since read her book, seen her movie, and last week I watched her on Oprah. Her story is amazing and fascinating, and she is truly inspirational in many ways. She was diagnosed at a very young age and has spent the last four years fighting for her life. She has explored medical procedures, diets, spirituality, and new age healing in her quest to live. Her message is positive and attractive—take control of cancer, don’t let it control you.

Because she was so young when she was diagnosed, she has had to deal with things that many older cancer patients don’t have to deal with, such as questions about whether she will ever get married or have children. One thing I have learned about dealing with a serious illness is how significant a patient’s age is in how they deal with the diagnosis. Each stage of our lives brings a completely different perspective to such a diagnosis.

I enjoyed Carr’s book and documentary and I think that there is a lot that cancer patients—and indeed, anyone—can get out of her work. Her message is universal in many ways and can be applied to many different situations. I would recommend this book to anyone who is facing a cancer diagnosis or some other serious illness or who knows someone who is. I want to stress that there is a lot I like about Carr, her book, and her website and that I have gotten a lot of great information from her work. The entire time I read the book and watched the documentary, however, I felt like it was directed at someone other than me. Her experience is informed and shaped by her youth in a way that makes it dramatically different from mine in many ways.


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August 24, 2007

Book Review: Slip & Fall

This blog has turned out to be an incredibly efficient and timely means of keeping you all up to date about my diagnosis and treatment. I’m so happy that this technology is available to all of us; it has made this easier in many unexpected ways. Blogging is still a relatively new phenomenon, but the potential powers of this medium are just beginning to be tapped.

I don’t know if it’s because my blog lists me as a law student or because of my recent post about my friend Martha’s new book or perhaps a combination of both, but a couple of weeks ago a publisher contacted me about another recently published book. He offered to send me a review copy of the book and in exchange asked me to write a review of it on my blog. I told him I’d be happy to read it, but that I would only post a review if I liked it.

The author is a lawyer who, like Martha, graduated from Columbia Law School. He has written for several TV shows, including Prison Break, Law and Order and The Sopranos, among others.

I hoped that I would like it, but I wasn’t sure if I would since it’s not the kind of book I normally read. However, I was very pleasantly surprised and in fact I quite enjoyed reading it. So, as promised, here is my review:

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Nick Santora’s new book, Slip & Fall, can best be described as the story you might expect if the producers of The Sopranos asked John Grisham to pen an episode. The plot is a fast-paced page-turner with something for everyone—humor, suspense, violence, love, and action—all wrapped up in a Good Fellas-type legal thriller. The main character, Rob Principe, is immensely likeable, despite the bad decisions he makes. I found myself cheering for him throughout his narration of his harrowing experience of sinking deeper and deeper into the seedy underworld of one of New York’s Mob families as a result of those bad decisions.

Principe is a young down-on-his-luck lawyer who finds himself disillusioned with the practice of personal injury law and struggling to make ends meet in his solo practice in Bensonhurst, New York. Through a series of chance encounters with various Italian friends and family members, he stumbles upon a way to bring lucrative business into the firm. His financial desperation has forced him into a corner, and the only way that he can think of to protect his wife, house and family is to take part in a legal scheme which could have disastrous results for him and the people he loves. A normally honest and honorable guy, Principe suffers from guilt and cold feet when he actually moves forward with the scheme. He tries to extricate himself, but only succeeds in digging himself deeper into the midst of danger. Santora kept this reader on the edge of her seat as I followed Principe through the murky realm of the Mob and New York’s legal system, hoping against hope that he was going to find his way back out of the tangled web he helped to weave.

The characters, plot and dialogue in Slip & Fall feel authentic to me, despite the fact that my knowledge of Italian families and the Mafia comes mainly from movies like The Godfather and Good Fellas. The main characters are well-developed and believable and the dialogue flows smoothly. The plot moves along well and I found myself holding my breath at times as I waited to find out how Principe was going to handle some of the sticky situations in which he finds himself.

While I won’t be recommending this one to my book club for any deep, introspective discussion, I will recommend it enthusiastically to anyone looking for an entertaining, enjoyable, well-written summer beach or vacation read.

July 07, 2007

You Need This Book!

I think it’s long past time for a non-cancer related post! Back in April before all of this cancer stuff started, I promised my friend Martha Kimes that I would send an e-mail about her to many of you. Once I found the lump my promise kind of got pushed to the back burner, so I’m going to try to make it up to her now by posting about her here.

I first met Martha through her blog. She is an excellent writer and a great storyteller and I always enjoyed everything she wrote. Since she is also a lawyer, I asked her to edit my personal statement for me when I was applying to law school. We didn’t really know one another very well and she was familiar with the ins and outs of applying to law school so I thought that she would be able to give me a truly objective opinion of my essay. And she did.

Not long after that, Martha found out that someone wanted to publish a book about her first year law school experience…kind of a OneL meets The Paper Chase, but from a woman’s point of view. And so she wrote it and it was published in May. I bought a copy as soon as it came out and I finally got a chance to read it last week. It’s an excellent book!

If you are thinking about going to law school, if you’re in law school, or if you’ve ever been to law school, you must read this book. If you know someone in law school or if you have ever been curious about the mystery that is law school, you should read this book. If you are just interested in a funny and entertaining read, you should also read this book. Really…Martha has perfectly captured all the nuances of the 1L year with her highly entertaining and humorous words.

Here’s a link to her book, and here’s a link to her blog. Go…read…enjoy!