Thursday, March 26, 2009

Book 28 of 52: A Duke of Her Own

Ladies and gentleman, we have a bodice ripper!

Well, not quite. If you look at the cover, you see an undone dress of a very frilly matter, and indeed, Eloisa James' A Duke of Her Own(pub. date July 28) is a historical romance, but this isn't your grandmother's romance. It involves a woman who would fit in modern day times (without the classic manners of course).

Eleanor Lindel does not have a husband. Given that she's in her early 20s in 1784, she's frightfully close to being called a spinster. She still holds a candle for her teenage love, who was forced to marry another woman to whom he was betrothed at birth (and they actually had sex -- scandal!) She has announced that she will marry no one under the stature of a Duke. Sounds haughty" Sure is. But it was her way of sending a message to said teenage love, who happens to be a duke.

In strides the Duke of Villiers. He's a rake in every sense of the word, from his dark brooding looks to his six illegitimate children, who he is finding and bringing under his own roof. He needs a mother for them, and he's a duke. And the story rolls from there.

I've never read a historical romance outside of sneaking peaks at other books (I remember going through a bunch at the library when I was a teenager and putting them back -- not a fan). But this was a really enjoyable book to read. James is actually Dr. Mary Bly, a Shakespeare scholar at Fordham University. I interviewed her yesterday for another article I'm writing about the romance novel industry, and I could see the skill she puts into the writing. It's a very tight narrative, funny and even weaves Shakespeare and Lord Byron works into the story without hitting you over the head with academics.

James/Bly has a great back story. You can read about it when my article comes out in May, or click here. I remember reading about here in 2005 when she shared with the public that she was a Shakespeare professor. See, all that random knowledge rolling around my brain CAN be handy!

When searching for a cover image of James/Bly's book, I came across an older book with the same title:



YIKES on the cover (the abs! the fuchsia!) though the pub date on THIS version of that title is 2006. I like the James/Bly cover better.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Book 27 of 52: Comfortably Numb

I've taken an antidepressant exactly once. I damaged the nerves in my shoulder, and my doctor prescribed something to literally calm my nerves. While the medication was for the nerves in my shoulder, he told me that the drug was also given as an antidepressant and I might feel different the next day -- either hung over or a little bit fuzzy.

The next morning, I woke up and indeed felt fuzzy. I walked to my car to see that someone was literally parked on my bumper. My reaction? A shrug.

Now, I'm not as temperamentally anymore as I was as a teenager, but someone parking ON MY BUMPER? That'd be sure to get my back up, but in the fuzzy state, I just didn't care. It bothered me the entire day, and I never took the medicine again.

Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nationby Charles Barber is about the place selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (i.e. Prozac, Paxil) has taken in American society -- to the point that 230 million antidepressant prescriptions are written every year.

The best word to describe this book is angry. Barber is angry at Big Pharma, angry at doctors who will write a script as a knee jerk reaction to someone saying he or she is depressed, doctors who take Big Pharma money and gifts and promotions. But while angry, it's still interesting and informative, whether you agree with Barber or not, though I imagine if you don't agree -- and fiercely don't agree -- reading the book will be a different experience than it was for someone like me, who didn't really have an opinion going into things.

I like books that take one topic and open it up and make it accessible to non-specialists. Barber does that here though with a heavy does of editorializing that might turn people off. Still, if you've wanted to know more about the antidepressant industry, give it a read.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Book 26 of 52: Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception

Back to the romances! Yes, folks, I'm back on the romance bent, at least for a little while -- and, yes, it's for an assignment (Yahtzee! I love my job!) Up for this round: Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deceptionby Lois Winston. The gist: Emma Wadsworth is a widow -- a widow not really in mourning. She'd been married to a lout for 16 years, and when she found him dead after a party (a party she wasn't invited to), she didn't really mourn the loss. He'd gotten her pregnant young, married her, and used her social status (she's apparently on the level of Grace Kelly) to make even more money -- and make her miserable.

Enter Logan Crawford (GREAT NAME!) He's a billionaire businessman (I'm not making that up -- I highlighted "billionaire businessman" in the book) with loose morals and business deals that need to be done in Philadelphia, which happens to be where Wadsworth lives.

How do they meet? He bumps into her in a bookstore, spilling coffee all over her. He immediately buys her a new coffee, whisks her away to brunch and then dinner. Of course, he instantaneously loses the loose morals and falls in love with Mrs. Wadsworth -- but not without complications soon following, including a bimbo with a vengeance, a dirty DA and a paparazzi photog with money (and cocaine) on his mind.

It has many elements of the contemporary romance novel as outlined by the fine folks at www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com. If I was writing this from my office and had a copy of their book handy, I'd break it down for you, but I'm writing from my second favorite "office" (my mother's kitchen table) and hope this run down is enough for you.

Pure escape book. Pure escape -- especially after the round of depressing books I read for previous assignments. Winston makes it so easy to tell who's good and who's bad in the book, which is perfect when you want to get away in your reading. I had fun with this one, too, because the book includes Philadelphia and Cape May, two of my favorite places, and even though the actual names were changed, I could figure out what some sites were.

I started laughing at the description of "Le Papillion" and chef/owner "Georges." They could only be based on Le Bec Fin and its chef/owner Georges Perrier.

Why laugh? I was actually at Le Bec Fin last week and could have written that scene myself. My wonderful date for the Red Ball took me to the bar of Le Bec Fin for a drink before gala. While there, we met Perrier himself when he came over to introduce myself and kiss my hand not once, but twice. To see something similar in a book I'm reading for work made it more fun -- here's a picture from the actual event:



So if you like suspense with your romance (and a happy ending), you might want to give this one a go. Want to know more? Here's the book's trailer!

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Book 25 of 52: Hell of Mercy

What an odd, interesting little book. A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul by Todd Farrington is a meandering look at the author's relationship with depression, which he calls "the dark night." For most of his life, Farrington was not medicated, and not through stubbornness. He suffered through a time when most anti-depressants were shiny and new, and not exactly proven, and long term effects were not surely known. She he suffered on, staggered through somehow and looked for answers in a lot of places.

Those places, mostly religoius, wrap around the story. If you don't like religious overtones, or expect your narratives to be told on a straight and fast steady line, A Hell of Mercy is not going to be your kind of book. But if you like the tangents, and have an interest in depression, it might be worth a read. And it's short, so it won't gobble up your life time wise.

I'm writing this review (and one for a newspaper as well) while listening to Colin Hay's Going Somewhere. I don't listen to it that often, but this book reminded me of it because I think of it as a depressing album. A lot of the songs are downers, and I listened to it a lot at dark points in my life. I never got to Farrington's state, but two years ago when I went through my awful breakup -- and then that fall, when I'd finished my book and didn't know what to do with myself (and finally felt the full impact of my grandfather's death and that impact), I was in pretty bad shape. I'd lie on the floor and listen to "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin" because that's what I was doing. I felt paralyzed by fear, grief and anger and was waiting, as Hay says, for my real life to begin.

It's odd listening to it when there's so much joy in my life. I wish I could go back to my two-year younger self, touch her on the shoulder and let her know everything really would turn around like people said, and that I would stitch my heart back up and move on to find joy and love with someone so much better for me. I wonder if I would have listened.

Probably not. First, I would have thought myself nuts for seeing a 28 year old version of myself, like I was caught in some weird Back to the Future II moment. Second, I was stuck on that office floor, and anchored down to the point that I thought things would never change. That spring and fall -- the bookends for writing my book -- were some of the worst time periods of my life. If I was stuck in that spot permanently, I don't know what I would have done.

Farrington writes about what I can only guess that experience was life, and how he clawed his way out. In that sense, it's a positive book. But the getting to the end -- it's daunting.

Here's the "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin" -- it's words only but worth the listen:



I'd first heard the song on Scrubs -- different meaning and feel, but still: a powerful song:

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Slew of Reviews

Things have been hopping over at the St. Pete Times -- well, at least as far as my reviews are concerned! Here's reviews of Winter Girls (book 24 of 52); Normal at Any Cost (book 23 of 52); and Your Big Fat Boyfriend (book 22 of 52).

Someone said to me that these reviews must be easy to write. My answer? Not necessarily. I have to cram a lot of information into a tight space, which can be difficult, especially when reviewing a book like Wintergirls. They take about the same amount of time to write (I still have to read the book all the way through). But I'm not complaining -- no sir. And for the section they're in -- a health/fitness magazine type -- they work. Nifty idea on their part.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Book 24 of 52: Wintergirls

I knew that one of my sorority sisters had a problem. She was rail thin, always drank too much on party nights, and never ate anything. But how could I point to her and say "something's wrong?" Maybe she really did have a high metabolism.

Then, one night when my roomates and I were getting ready to go out, she came over. Her pants were so baggy they were falling down, so another roommate offered to lend her a belt.

"Oh, I'd never fit in your belts. You're so much skinner than I am," she said. She probably weighed 95 pounds. My roommate weighed about 120.

What do you do? Could we force her to eat, force her to stare in the mirror and say "do you see how small you are?" My roommate tried, but it didn't work.

Wintergirls(pub date March 19) by Laurie Halse Anderson, shows why. It's a novel about Lia, an anorexic high school senior, whose best friend, Cassie, dies. Cassie was bulhemic, and the two supported each other on the quest to stay thin, and as Lia tries to move forward, is haunted by Cassie.

The book, which is written for young adults, is told from Lia's point of view, and her narrative is striking, shocking and sad. It shows how she explains herself out of eating, and how she got to the point where where 99 pounds at 5 feet 5 inches tall is far too heavy. (Don't believe that such an attitude can exist? Google "pro anorexia.")

I finished this book at about midnight last night, and dreamed about it. It's that powerful, and a must read, even if it's disturbing. Is it too much for young girls? I don't think so. I read worse in high school on a sheer disturbing level. It's marked "young adult" but not written in any sort of juvenile way, so adults won't feel out of place. I don't know if it will change someone's mind or help them on the road to recovery out of an eating disorder, but it might be a small step -- like the small steps Lia takes before she hits rock bottom.

Another recommendation: Caroline Knapp, whose books I recommended a lot, wrote a powerful book about her struggle with annorexia and women's relatinoship with body issue -- it's called Appetites: Why Women Want. Knapp uses her story and her journalism skills to write a researched picture of peril, one I know though never close to Lia or even Knapp's level. I had my boughts with issues in college and beyond, and when Lia talks about the power she finds in overcoming hunger, I knew what she (or Halse Anderson) meant. For a brief time in college, I lived on coffee, and a few years ago when trying to thin myself pretty for all the wrong reasons, I almost blacked out while running. And even though I see now how wrong that was, I still have pangs.

Take this morning, for example: I'm in week 7 of a 10 week training cycle for a race, and this morning called for an interval run, which I hate (seven sets of half mile sprints thrown into a 5.5 mile mix). I rocked that workout. I'm running faster and stronger than I ever had. After I wiped down the treadmill (I was covered in sweat), I went to stretch out and think about my run and the upcoming race but was sucked back into a dark hole because a rail thin teenage beauty who works out in her sports bra and booty shorts walked by. "It's not fair," I wanted to say. "I work so hard but will never be like you."

Is that look of protruding bones and hollow skin prettier than my muscular frame made strong by hundreds of miles pounded out over the last three years? If you ask me now, as I sit at home and write this, no. But I saw control in her at that moment, like I'd failed. I thought of the black tie I'm going to this weekend where I'll wear a shimmery gold dress and wonder if I'd look big compared to these stick thin girls. I pushed that thought from my head as I cooled down (if I was that thin, I wouldn't have this rack, I told myself, which made me laugh out loud), but it was still there, even if for a brief moment.

So while I've never been in Lia's spot, I can see how some girls start down that path and sink down -- that's why Wintergirls is such an important read.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Book 23 of 52: Normal at Any Cost

When I was in grade school, my doctor predicted that I'd grow to be 5'8" tall. I hit the 95th percentile in both height and weight. My father is 5'10" and my mother 5'8", so the prediction seemed accurate to everyone involved -- and he thought maybe I'd grow a little taller.

Not the case. I'm just under 5'6" tall, which is fine. I mean, really -- it's an average height. But for a long time, I was bitter because I never got those extra two inches. If I was a few inches taller, I'd be a better sports player, I thought. I certainly would have been a better first baseman. Heck, I might have even made varsity my freshman year.

What if someone had told my parents there was a way to press me toward 5'8" as my final height? What would they have said? I'm going to guess "no way," knowing my parents, but I'm not sure others would have been so or are so quick to say no, especially if a few thousand dollars to get those two issues were not an issue, and the FDA gave such treatments for "short statured" children a stamp of approval without saying what exactly made someone "short."

Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry's Quest to Manipulate Height(pub. date March 19) by Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove looks into the issues surrounding "treating" children for height, whether it was trying to suppress girl's height by pumping them full of estrogen to stunt growth, or injecting children with human growth hormone (hGH) harvested from cadaver pituitary glands.

Yes, both of these things were done, to sometimes disastrous results. The tall girls were pushed early into puberty, and many developed fertility problems and increased cancer risk. Some patients injected with the pituitary growth hormone developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a human form of mad cow that is lethal -- all for a few inches of height.

Petituary hGH is no longer available (thank God), but synthetic hGH is, and injected to children who are short if parents want it and can pay for it. Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry's Quest to Manipulate Height is harsh on such issues, especially treating children who do not show a hormone deficiency, because the long term effects of such treatments are not known, and not always proved to push up height. Indications of increase cancer rates are a primary concern, but for an extra two inches, some parents are willing to try.

The authors are anti-big pharma and present those companies as wanting to benefit from what isn't really a medical condition (instead of, say, developing drugs for crippling diseases or even offering free drugs to people who can't afford it) and using a treatment for those with a real medical issue (e.g. low hGH levels) and spreading it to as many people as possible, even if they aren't sick. The cover is rather ominous looking, too -- black and white with bold dashes of red. This is not a happy book.

Is it really so bad being short that it's worth this kind of risk? Or injected children with expensive shots for years without a guarantee that it'll work? I don't know, and I can't say because I've never been short. I've dated shorter men, and never considered their height an issue (yes, I wore heels when out with them, and they never seemed to mind). I've gotten my ass kicked by soccer players shorter than me, and was hurt so badly by a short girl's kick to the shin that I was sidelined for the rest of my senior year. My brother played soccer with Vinny, a short but amazing soccer player. I heard whispers along the sidelines that his parents were going to do something to try to spur on his growth. Why, I thought? He was so good as it was, and he seemed like a well adjusted kid with lots of friends. Did they think a few extra inches would make a difference in his soccer ability? Fifteen years later, does that even matter? I can't imagine anyone from that team became a soccer superstar.

I imagine that being short can affect self image, but so can a lot of other things, especially pre and during puberty. I had such severe eczema as a teenager that I had to wrap my hands in ace bandages to hide it -- I even had to go to the emergency room once to get things under control. I was horrified by the appearance of my skin, and, yes, it was rough, especially when I had to go to the dermatologist every two weeks to have warts on my hands frozen with liquid nitrogen (open skin from eczema lead to frequent infection). But with the help of my parents and a general well adjusted upbringing, I got over it. My brother got over his acne, my friend got over her crooked teeth, and we all soldiered on. I still remember the time when my dad said, "well, Jenny, you'll never be a hand model," and I laughed.

But this book isn't just about height. It's about playing medical God. Anytime someone start messing with a child's development or a reason other than disease -- and the FDA says it's OK -- I worry. The authors ask the natural question as to whether this going to extend the womb. If you can play with a child's height, what's to stop from selecting embryos with a propensity for tallness from the get go?

So even though this book is a case study of one issue -- height -- it raises important issues about medicine, what it can do, what it can't do, and how far we're willing to go to test the limits. In the cases of those estrogen dosed girls (a treatment that STILL happens today though far less frequently) and pituitary gland hGH children, doctors tried something to disastrous results. Will the same happen with children and synthetic hGH? It's yet to be seen -- and no one knows for sure, which is scary.

But then there's this: I recently met up with another runner from Dailymile.com, and I described myself as the "short blond in a black tank top." He almost didn't find me because he was looking for a short woman, and at 5'6" plus three inch heels, I can see why he was confused. Yet I said I was short. But would it have been worth injecting me with an unproven substance to make me taller, even if I was projected to be 5 feet tall? I don't even drink diet soda or use artificial sweeteners because it's not natural. So injected hGH isn't exactly on my list of priorities.

Expect a lot of controversies from this one, and a lot of rebuttals from big pharma. Should be an interesting one to track.

In other news, my review of book 21 of 52 ran in Saturday's St. Petersburg Times. Check it out here!

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