Alexandra Fuller’s Travel Light, Move Fast

  Release Date:  August 6, 2019 / Travel light but move fast to your local indie bookstore and shop here!

If Alexandra Fuller writes a shopping list, read it; margin notes in her high school biology text, read them; weekly menu plans with beans and franks every Tuesday, read those, too.  Anything you can get your hands on.  Ms. Fuller will always have something original to say – even about the beans and franks.  But, of course, if you are familiar with her brilliant memoirs, you know she is from highly original stock, the peripatetic Fuller family of here and there, Africa, and in her work, she returns to her family again and again without ever losing an iota of freshness or impact.

Of the five children born to Tom and Nicola Fuller, Alexandra and her sister Vanessa are the only two who survived to adulthood – a family of survivors, actually:  tough, hard-working and hard-drinking, creative, intelligent as all get-out, eccentric, frivolous, flawed, forever bereaved, and determined to cope.  And if coping doesn’t work, then cope harder.  At times, over the years, the Fullers were even without a “fixed abode”, but they always managed to rebound, eventually settling on a farm in Zambia raising bananas and fish.

In Travel Light, Move Fast, advice from Tom Fuller appears as chapter headings, and, perhaps, this optimistic dreamer is best summed up in the first one:  “In the Unlikely Event of Money, Buy Two Tickets to Paris”.  Never one to let insecurity get in his way, he would have done just that in such an unlikely event.  In fact, he and his beloved Nicola are on vacation in Budapest when he falls seriously ill and is hospitalized.  Alexandra, now living in Wyoming, flies to Budapest to be with her parents and returns with her mother and her father’s ashes to the farm in Zambia and to a family in the aftermath of another death.  Determined.  Shattered.  Forever bereaved.

As for me, well, I am both besotted with and puzzled by the Fullers.  I have been ever since Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight:  An African Childhood, and I return to them every time the talented Alexandra offers a new opportunity.  If you know Ms. Fuller’s good work, you will be saddened beyond measure by Travel Light, Move Fast.  If you’re new to her books, this latest can be read as a stand-alone, but I’m going to be honest with you, Readers.  While I’m usually not much troubled by jumping in and out of sequence, I’m not sure this book is the best place to make your first acquaintance with this writer and her family.  You see, it is a book of endings.  Personally I’m glad I began at the beginning, but the choice is yours, of course.  The very best advice I can give you is quite simple, really.  Read Ms. Fuller’ books.  All of them.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Press via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and Edelweiss for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action

  Release Date:  September 10, 2019 / Support your local indie bookstore by purchasing a copy here!

Can’t really say why I’ve been avoiding medical memoirs lately, but this one…..well, this one got in my face, in my head and simply wouldn’t be denied.  After losing his mother to a brain tumor while he was an undergrad, David Fajgenbaum committed himself to becoming a doctor.  He wanted to fight back against cancer, however while in medical school, he found himself feeling extremely tired, his lymph nodes were swollen and other symptoms began to develop as well.  Doctors suspected lymphoma or other blood cancer, but this was not a positive diagnosis.  With lightning speed, he became sicker and sicker:  pain, nausea, massive fluid retention, organ failure, ICU, not expected to live, saying good-bye to friends and family.  Then, just as unexpectedly, his condition stabilizes and he’s released from the hospital, only to relapse soon after.  Finally a diagnosis, and it is not lymphoma.  Good news.  Rather, it was HHV-8-negative, idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease, and he had to google that one.  Almost invariably fatal with death occurring from multiple organ failure an average of one year after diagnosis.  So his illness had a name, but little else, and it was certainly not good news.  David was to suffer five near-death experiences from organ failure.

Castleman disease is one of many orphan diseases, orphaned because they are so rare that study and research for a cure does not come with enough bang for the buck.  Maybe one researcher somewhere, maybe not.  Maybe one study, maybe not.  And David’s illness, as an additional complication, is a variation of this hothouse orchid of a disease, not just your “everyday” version.  So, here, readers, is where the story lies.  David – Dr. Fajgenbaum – chasing his cure.  Around bouts of his dreadful illness, he finishes medical school, but rather than going into a residency program afterward, he goes for an MBA.  He’s going to need business as well as medical savvy because, by now, he has learned how research programs work, and time is critically short.  He realizes he’s going to have to find his own cure, probably through off-label use of drugs already FDA-approved for other illnesses.  You will be astounded by this young man’s story and by his insightful look at the state of medical research.  Everybody, thumbs up and a standing O.  Good job all the way around, Dr. Fajgenbaum.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Ballantine Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wholly Unraveled: A Memoir

How does a child make any sense of a life that can go from the light of day to the dark of night in a heartbeat?  From smooth waters to dangerous rapids that you never see coming?  Each step could be the one that takes you from a safe place into terror and pain.  Keele Burgin’s young life was one of  glaring contrasts and terrifying uncertainties.  Life on high alert.  Wealth and luxury (a lavishly restored Victorian home on the ocean, horses, station wagons and Cadillacs), a severely abusive, all powerful father, a vacant, submissive mother, a stultifying, fundamentalist version of Catholicism.  (Amazed me.  Didn’t know that existed.)

It was rough – far more than most could imagine or endure.  But if it was rough, she was tough.  Their housekeeper Shirley called her Little Ox.  She develops a hard shell and becomes a headstrong, hard-eyed child and teen-ager, not particularly likeable, to tell the truth.  She couldn’t let herself hate her parents, so she hated herself and became an even harder, self-damaging adult, unable to maintain a giving relationship.

To be honest, at one point, I gave serious thought to bailing out of this read.  Portions are somewhat erratically written, and there is an inconsistency of voice that bothered me from time to time, but I suspect it was either purposeful – a reflection of her erratic young life and inability to find any voice at all of her own –  or just hard as hell to write.  Or both.  Too ugly, too scary – not anywhere I thought I wanted to be.  (Sometimes I get a little down, you know.)  Stuck it out, though, just a little longer, and was rewarded with a redemptive ending that is filled with hope.  This book?  Tough, but worth it.

Currently available from your local indie bookstore here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

Now just hold your horses, all you obsessed, bloodthirsty, thrill-seeking ladies out there.  This title would have you devouring the pages of the book, ripping at them with fang and claw…..drooling.  ‘Fraid not.  This is sociology, my friends, and, according to the sociological theorizing in Rachel Monroe’s book, it is the ladies who are obsessed with true crime.  Maybe, but it does make interesting reading, and the true stories of four women are cited as examples of cultural archetypes – Detective, Victim, Defender, Killer.

The unlikely Detective is Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy heiress, who, in the Forties, constructed Nutshells, exquisitely detailed miniatures of crime scenes as training tools for law enforcement….how to see and analyze a crime scene.  Arguably, Ms. Lee’s work could be called the beginning of forensic science, introducing a thread that continues throughout the book.  Many of Ms. Lee’s Nutshells still exist and have been exhibited as art.

The Victim is Patti Tate, younger sister of Sharon Tate.  She inherits her mother’s fight for victim’s rights.  The Defender, Lorri Davis, marries incarcerated Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three and works tirelessly for his eventual freedom, one of many women who befriend and, eventually, love imprisoned men, investing them with a bad boy sexiness or a mysterious uniqueness.  The Killer is a very young Lindsay Souvannarath, and her James, internet buddies/imaginary lovers involved online with admirers of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Mostly chatter and bravado, but Lindsay and James actually make plans to shoot up a mall in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he lived.  Unrealistic plans.  Neither had ever fired a gun, and she insisted on wearing heels.

These four women are springboards for broader discussions, a sociological mash-up that tries to cover the waterfront and is only more or less successful.  A Sisyphean task, either in search of a point or adrift in a sea of them, so don’t obsess over it.  Just leave your savage appetites in the basement and nibble thoughtfully on this one.  Here’s the thing.  Without reference, I named Sharon Tate, Damien Echols, the West Memphis Three, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold , and you know who they are.  Don’t you?

Savage Appetites takes aim at bookstores on August 20, or thereabouts.  Pre-order here from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribner via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

The outliers:  biggest, smallest, deadliest, smartest, strongest, oldest, fastest.  A sort of Guinness Book of Records for grown-up nerds, huh?  Same fascination factor, for sure, but with purpose and science to boot.  What can we learn from these extremes of nature?  How did they come to be?  What are the challenges to their survival?  How can they benefit us?

For example, in “Why Almost Everything We Know About Giraffes Is Wrong”, we learn that prevailing theories say giraffes developed their unique bodies and long necks in order to graze from tree tops.  But did they?  They seem to bend down to eat from grasses and shrubs as much, if not more, than in trees.  So why those long necks with those pretty little heads at the top?

And there’s “Why Elephant Cells Are Like Empathetic Zombies”.  Elephants grow so rapidly that cells tend to mutate, and so it seems that elephants would develop cancers at an astounding rate – but they don’t.  In elephants, mutating cells appear to “develop a conscience” and die.  Now wouldn’t it be great if our pre-cancerous cells offed themselves?  Yeah, that’s the ticket, and we’d have elephants to thank, so back off, poachers!

I’ve only sampled Matthew LaPlante’s good book, but I’ll be back, and it’s perfect for enjoying this way if you like.  Of course, for many, it’ll be like potato chips.  Hard to stop with one or two.  Whatever your style, munchies or the full buffet, the line starts here.

Be the biggest, smartest, fastest reader to buy this book from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by BenBella Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

After finishing Silver, Sword, and Stone:  Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story, I felt as if I’d been beaten about the head and ears.  The “brutal calculus” of Latin American history simply clobbered me, left me reeling.  Marie Arana calls her book a mixture of history and reportage, and that approach, I think, is what makes it so readable, but her work is massive in both scholarship and scope:  from the Pre-Columbian to the Perons, conquistadores to Castro, Santiago to Pope Francis I.  Its structure and focus are derived from three major currents, co-equal driving forces of Latin American history, identified in the title as silver, sword and stone.

Silver for wealth:  mineral, agricultural, fossil fuels, and drugs.  Sword for violence:  war, conquest, revolution, terrorism, dictatorships, gangs.  Stone for religion:  the Sun God, ancient sacrifices, Catholicism, missionary zeal, political involvement.  All leading to or resulting in weakened extractive societies and exploitation driven by greed.  For each of the three, Ms. Arana weaves in a humanizing touch, stories of three individuals, living examples of silver, sword and stone in today’s Latin America.  Leonor Gonzales is the wife, now widow, of a sick, impoverished gold miner.  Carlos Buergos, a petty Cuban criminal, fought in Angola and was expelled from Cuba when Castro emptied the prisons of “undesirables”.  Spaniard Xavier Albo, a Jesuit priest from Catalan, has served the Church in Bolivia since he was seventeen and is now in his nineties.

To this day there is a cruelly high economic imbalance between rich and poor in most of Latin America and a pronounced arc toward violence and instability.  Latin American countries and cities are often in the majority on lists of the World’s most dangerous. Exploitation and greed, internal and external, historic and current.  Ms. Arana is both fair and thorough in her examination of these volatile parts of our world, and her timely book is a good balance of scholarship and readability.  Effective and affecting.

Available at booksellers everywhere on August 27, 2019. Shop your local indie bookstore to pre-order.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming

Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kansas, is a perfectly ordinary looking man, living with his wife and two children in a small ranch house, working reliably, going to church and rearing his nice family.  Dennis Rader is a serial killer known as BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) who terrified Wichita for thirty years, taunted the media, and killed eight adults and two children.  Dennis Rader is Kerri Rawson’s father.  Kerri’s innocence and that of her family ended on February 25, 2005, when Dennis Rader was arrested.

The secret life of a loved one.  Unimaginable, isn’t it?  Devastating, emotional ruin…..but Kerri tells her story with fairness for the father she loved while offering no possible explanation for or understanding of the killer she didn’t know existed.  How could she?  How could anyone?  Her father writes from prison, and she writes in return, initially – and then she turns away.  Fits and starts, years of on-again, off-again therapy, a PTSD diagnosis, a loving, insightful husband, supportive family, a growing strength in her faith, and, to some extent, the saving grace of humor, as in the chapter title “PTSD Blows Chunks”.  Ms. Rawson’s story is a difficult one to read.  How difficult must it have been for her to endure and to tell?

Shop your local indie bookstore for this wrenching memoir. Also available at Amazon.com

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Nelson Books / Thomas Nelson via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Wild Boy: A Memoir

Italian writer Paolo Cognetti grew up in the city, but until the age of twenty, spent summers in the Italian Alps, free to roam, a wild boy.  At thirty, Paolo suffers a rough patch and cannot write.  So he reads.  Thoreau’s Walden, Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, and Elisee Reclus, The History of a Mountain, and he decides to return to the Alps hoping to live an essential life and to find that wild boy again.  Renting a refurbished cabin at 6,000 feet above sea level, he spends three seasons there, “…where the last conifer trees gave way to summer pastures.”  Not dangerously isolated as was Chris McCandless of Krakauer’s book, Paolo has a couple neighbors across the way; there are summer cowherds who come and go; and he even gains a dog that didn’t make the cut as a herding dog.  While this book is neither as gripping and gritty as Into The Wild nor as introspective and philosophical as Walden, Cognetti is an excellent writer, and this is a beautiful book.  Did he find what he was looking for?  Did he even know what he was seeking after all?  Do any of us?  Get away for a while with Mr. Cognetti, and find something for yourself in his breathtaking Alps.

Currently scheduled to hit bookstores on July 2, 2019. The Wild Boy can be pre-ordered here from your local indie bookseller or click here to order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Year of No Summer: A Reckoning

I did not finish this, though I feel that, at some point, I might go back.  Certainly I think I’ll be tempted to do so.  Odd and intriguing.  My first thought was stream of consciousness, but…well…maybe.  Freeform history?  Some sort of literary tone poem?  Or something like that.  Say what?  The language is beautiful and poetic, sometimes coalescing into more straightforward prose; and I wanted to read this simply for the words, lovely words; but then that coalescing comes along, taunting me with the possibility of narrative.  I’ll let the author speak for herself, and she ends by saying, “I’m standing here thinking it all fits together, but how or why, I know not.  My hands are too small for God.”  Yes, right there, and Rachel Lebowitz, I admire what you’ve done, and I think it fits together, too.  I want it to.  Maybe I’m just not ready for it.

But you might be and, if so, click here to order from your local indie bookstore or from Amazon

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Biblioasis via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and Edelweiss for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.  Click here to order/pre-order from your local indie bookstore or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.