“Did You Ever Have a Family” Explores Forgiveness, Love, and Grief

Literary agent and author Bill Clegg is no stranger to the best-seller list, whether from the agent’s side or the writer’s. His own success as an author came several years ago with the publication of his two memoirs, which dealt with addiction and his subsequent recovery. Now, he’s returned with his outstanding fiction debut, the beautiful and poignant Did You Ever Have a Family.

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Long-listed for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, Clegg’s novel explores what we mean when we use the word “family” and how we come to understand and love and forgive one another even during times of unspeakable tragedy. The book opens with just such an event, a devastating house fire that kills four people, and the rest of it unspools around the resulting grief and mystery.

The story’s told through several different characters and their points of view, with each chapter in the book reflecting one character’s outlook. The overall picture builds slowly, the details fleshed out little by little. The effect keeps you hanging on, trying to piece together exactly what happened the night of the fire and who was responsible.

Central to the book is June Reid, who lost her daughter and her future son-in-law, as well as her ex-husband and her boyfriend, in the fire at her home the night before her daughter’s wedding was to take place. In her pain and her desire to get out of the small Connecticut town where this awful event happened, June drives west towards the Washington coast. She’s understandably numb and in shock, reliving her life in daydreams, questioning decisions made long ago, trying to understand the path that led to where she currently is, all alone in the world. We can feel her regret and her broken heart.

In addition to June, we also meet other characters trying to process the tragedy and trying to explain the inexplicable. June’s boyfriend’s mother figures prominently here, as do two innkeepers in coastal Washington state, in the tiny town where June eventually ends up. There’s Dale, the father of June’s would-be son-in-law, and Silas, a teenager who’d been working for June’s boyfriend. The dead, in a sense, come back to the life here, their lives and stories told by those who love and miss them, the empty spots they left made whole through memories. The characters’ crisscrossing backstories are captivating, underscoring how connected we all really are.

This book’s bittersweet, filled with such emotion and such life, in the face of tremendous pain. It will stick with you long after you’re finished.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/11/bookbiz-a-breathtaking-debut-novel-that-doesnt-disappoint/)

“In Paradise” Presents Hard Questions About Humanity & the Holocaust

Writer and conservationist Peter Matthiessen’s last book, In Paradise, was published just a few days after his death in April 2014. He was known for writing both fiction and nonfiction, and for being the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both. However, Matthiessen himself believed that he was primarily a fiction writer at heart, so it’s fitting that his final work was a novel.

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And what a novel it is. Many of his earlier books explored themes around the environment and how human civilization has changed it throughout time. He also traveled extensively and his books served to highlight different cultures and ecosystems across the globe.

Here, however, he brings his pointed gaze squarely onto us, asking hard questions about the nature of good and evil and about the human condition. He does this in In Paradise by writing about the Holocaust.

Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and starting in 1996, he attended three meditation retreats at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This experience would undoubtedly go on to inspire the fictional account of a similar retreat in In Paradise.

The main character here is the “Polish-born American poet and scholar,” Dr. Clements Olin. He is at the retreat, he tells the others, not to participate formally in the silent meditations, but instead, for research purposes. This is the first time Olin has ever visited the country of his birth. As the book unfolds, so does Olin’s personal history, which is more tightly bound to the Holocaust than he initially lets on.

Alongside him on the retreat is a diverse group of about 140 people, including Catholic nuns and a priest, a few young Germans, some elderly survivors of the Holocaust, Jewish rabbis, and several spiritual seekers. They are thrust together in meditation while sitting on, for example, the train platform where SS doctors sorted prisoners into those who would be put to work and those who would be put to death immediately. They sleep in the barracks that the Nazi officers used and eat in their cafeteria.

Emotions run high. Even in this most solemn of places, in the cold dark dampness of December, flashes of human frailty pop up, as the retreat members find themselves arguing and attacking one another personally, with some doubting others’ motivations for coming. They debate, too, about whether another Holocaust could happen, whether we have learned anything at all.

In Paradise asks some difficult questions about the limits of empathy and compassion, and the nature of evil and humanity. It’s a thought-provoking, intensely worthwhile book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/09/book-biz-hard-questions-about-humanity-set-against-the-holocaust/)

Mary Karr’s Mastery on Display in “The Art of Memoir”

Everyone has a story to tell. For some among us, the hope of connecting our own personal story to the larger human narrative drives us to write and share what happened. But even if you, instead, just prefer to read others’ true-life stories, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir proves to be a thoughtful investigation into the popular literary form.

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Based on thirty years of her own research into and teaching of memoir, and written in Karr’s signature gritty, funny east Texas voice, The Art of Memoir works as both an instruction guide for the willing writer and an exploration into the best memoirs for the hungry reader.

Karr begins the book with, “No one elected me the boss of memoir.” While technically true, she still must be credited in large part with the explosion of the genre’s popularity.

Published twenty years ago, her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, was a revelation. Without a hint of pity or sentimentality, she shared the harrowing tales of her dysfunctional and, at times, violent upbringing in an east Texas oil town, her artistic, alcoholic mother and tough-guy father springing alive from the pages. With love and lots of laughs amidst the pain, it was an honest look at a not-perfect childhood from someone who survived it. She followed that up with Cherry, about her rebellious teen years, and in 2009, with Lit, about her own struggles with alcoholism and eventual conversion to Catholicism. When it comes to memoir, Karr knows what she’s talking about.

She explores all the facets of writing memoir that a budding author should master: developing a voice, choosing details, describing those details effectively to create a living, breathing world in the mind of the reader, and perhaps most vitally, how to handle questions of truth and memory.

Every memoir is by nature subjective and not an objective history of the facts, but that can certainly be tricky territory when it comes to writing about your own past or your family’s past. She touches, too, on the way memory itself works. It’s not a faithful recording of every part of an experience. It’s shaped by the emotions of the event and can be influenced by what others remember and share about what happened. Her advice is to write about the most vivid memories and never, ever make stuff up.

She includes commentary, as well, on many of her own favorite memoirs, and a reading list at the end. Whether you’re a hopeful memoirist or someone who enjoys reading them (or both), there’s much to love and learn from here.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/01/109574/)

“Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart” Offers Tips for a Meaningful Life

For many of us, the start of a new year brings the desire to engage in a little self-reflection, to change for the better, and to be the person we all believe we can be when we look deep down inside. Whether we’re vowing to finally get control of our eating and exercise habits or to make our family and friends a bigger priority in the year ahead, anything seems possible at the outset of a fresh new 12-month period.

Yet, as I’m sure just about all of us can attest, things can so quickly revert back to our old ways and practices of years gone by. Creating lasting and effective change isn’t easy, no matter what the calendar says. Psychology and the role of ingrained habits in our lives loom perhaps larger than we’d like to admit.

Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston’s Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now, would be helpful for nearly everyone in one way or another just about any time of the year. But read now, in the glow of hoped-for new approaches to life in the coming year, it’s an honest look at the challenges we all face.

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Livingston’s book combines his many hours as a professional listening to people’s troubles with his own very human heartaches to create 168 pages of straight talk with a compassionate bend. His life, like everyone’s, has not been without struggle. For instance, he served in Vietnam where he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, but became disenchanted with America’s goals there. He discovered as an adult that he was adopted. And in one 13-month period, his oldest son and his youngest son both died, leaving him with unimaginable grief.

Livingston writes about the many common problems he sees people having in their relationships with their spouses, their children, and their parents. He also addresses, for example, the ways in which some of us abdicate responsibility for ourselves and our actions, either by blaming traumas from long ago or by believing that fate is somehow against us.

Reading his book feels a bit like listening to an opinionated, well-educated friend as he passes along wisdom he’s gathered. His comments never feel like platitudes. He doesn’t offer or tolerate excuses. Further, when he uses experiences from his own life to illustrate his points, you can trust that he’s being just as hard on himself as on you. If you’re hoping to truly change in 2016, this book offers lots to think about.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/01/bookbiz-a-seasoned-therapists-advice-for-a-meaningful-life/)

“M Train” a Meditation on Life, Loss, Love

Patti Smith is a woman of many talents. She’s an accomplished performer, visual artist, and photographer, as well as a punk-rock icon and poet. With the publication of her exceptional memoir Just Kids in 2010, she added National Book Award winner to the list.

In Just Kids (which I liked so much I read it twice within a year) Smith chronicles her life from her blue-collar upbringing in New Jersey through her discovery of her love of music and poetry and art to her eventual move in the 1960s/early 1970s to New York City. There she lived for a time in the Chelsea Hotel surrounded by many of the same musicians, artists, and writers she worshiped. It’s a book that is imbued with a specific time and a specific place, so filled with perfect descriptions of life then that you feel as though you, too, were hanging out at the Chelsea, chatting up Bob Dylan at the bar.

Her newly released follow-up to it, M Train, feels different but somehow similar, permeated instead with Smith’s attachment to her memories and the things and people she’s admired and loved and lost. It’s not a straightforward “this happened and then that happened” memoir. It reads instead as a beautiful look into Smith’s own mind, into her ruminations about the past and her obsessions with certain books, authors, and even TV shows.

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We tag along with her as she travels in the past and in the present; a trip to Japan, a trip to French Guiana, a trip to Berlin, a trip to Mexico, among others. We’re beside her as she visits the graves of Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, and Arthur Rimbaud, marking these moments with quiet gratitude and respect. We see her Manhattan apartment, filled with photos and talismans from her life, as well as her books and her cats. We sip coffee along with her each morning, notebook and pen in hand, at the small café across from her apartment. We discover, as she does, the beauty of Rockaway Beach, and the unexpected folly of purchasing a falling-down house mere weeks before Hurricane Sandy would strike. (The house, remarkably, was still standing after, though many around it were not.) We feel her pain, years later, after first her husband died and then her brother not long after.

At age 68, it feels like Smith’s taking stock, in a sense, holding on to memories through photos and objects, trying to regain what’s been lost and hold on to what hasn’t been (yet). I think that’s something we can all relate to and Smith gives us her beautiful words to savor as we melt into that melancholy.

“The War of Art” Can Help Bring About a Breakthrough

Maybe it’s an idea for a start-up that you keep talking yourself out of. Or a new line of business for your company that you believe would improve your fortunes tremendously, but would be something of a risk to pursue. Or it could be finally sticking with an exercise routine — no matter how painful it is at first — to ensure that you’re around to enjoy time with your family for years to come. Or perhaps you loved painting or writing when you were younger and you’d like to try it again but you keep quieting the part of you that bubbles up these ideas.

I bet most of us have something like this inside; some unanswered call that we think about when we’re trying to fall asleep at night, some nagging little voice that knows you could do more if only you were braver.

When you finally reach a point where the voice is shouting and you realize you only have so much time here to do the things you’d like to do, read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. The subtitle for this slim little book (just 165 pages) is “Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles.” If you’re willing to take a hard look at yourself and be honest, this book can help you do just that.

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Pressfield is the author of lots of fiction and a few works of nonfiction (like this one). Perhaps the book of his you’re most likely to have heard of is The Legend of Bagger Vance, which became a movie. However, he’d been at it for years before he was actually paid for his writing and before anything was published, simply because he believed in doing the work. He had to do it. And if there’s something you feel called to do, too, no matter how big or how small, The War of Art can be just the kick you need.

Pressfield, a former Marine, comes across as your own private drill sergeant, calling you on all your excuses as to why you can’t do the thing you most want to do. Pressfield dubs the enemy capital-R “Resistance.” It shows up everywhere.

In his words, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” The more important to your life the thing you want to do is, the more Resistance you’ll feel. This book breaks down how to recognize it and battle it. When you’re ready to fight, read this first.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/07/bookbiz-a-book-for-cultivating-your-inner-courage/)

An Uneasy Exploration of Modern American Medicine in “Doctored”

The state of medicine in America today leaves something to be desired, whether you’re a patient or a physician. In his eye-opening second book, Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist and heart failure specialist, details the way things stand, explains how we got here, and describes what it means to be a doctor in today’s medical landscape.

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In Jauhar’s first book, Intern, he explored his own journey into medicine and those first tough years in residency, when sleeplessness and overwork were common. This book takes a mid-life look at both his development as a doctor and the evolution of American medicine.

Over the last five decades, the practice of medicine here in the U.S. has changed considerably. Jauhar’s historical explanation of how we went from private fee-for-service practice, where doctors charged patients what they could afford, to our earliest instances of health insurance, to the introduction of Medicare in 1965 was fascinating. Medicare reimbursements changed medicine in unanticipated ways, and health management organizations (HMOs) were introduced in the early 1970s to (in theory) help keep costs under control.

As the system has developed from there, a confluence of factors has made it difficult for the doctor of today to really know you and have a relationship with you. First, there are the unintended consequences of the reimbursement system. And second, doctors understandably fear being sued for malpractice and must shoulder the necessary cost of expensive malpractice insurance.

What this creates, then, is a situation where doctors need to see as many patients as possible, and will be more inclined to order tests and procedures to both cover their own liability in case of a misdiagnosis and to be paid for those tests via reimbursement. In the early years of Medicare, many doctors’ salaries soared, but that trend has reversed for most physicians, thanks to reimbursement cuts and increased costs of practice. Another wrinkle here is that doctors’ salaries are linked to how much revenue they generate for the hospital, which can create misaligned incentives between good patient care and billing. For Jauhar, a hospital employee, this link isn’t as direct as it would be were he in private practice, but it’s still a consideration.

This book is an uneasy inside look at the many challenges doctors today must contend with. I’d recommend it for anyone thinking about going to medical school, as well as anyone interested in why our system is as it is currently. Jauhar is a smart, compassionate, and worthy guide.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/10/louann-lofton-a-complicated-look-at-modern-american-medicine/)

Follow One Skeptic’s Path to Meditation in “10% Happier”

Television journalist Dan Harris was reading news headlines and stories for Good Morning America one June morning in 2004 when something scary happened to him: he had a panic attack on live national TV. Millions of people watched him stumble through his words and they then saw him end the segment early and awkwardly.

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Harris was not new to the world of television or being on camera. He’d been working for ABC News for over just four years at that point, writing, producing, and taping segments for shows like the Peter Jennings-anchored World News Tonight. He had reporting experience in war zones, including Iraq, the West Bank, Gaza, and Afghanistan, where he dodged gunfire in the mountains near Tora Bora. He was competitive and driven to succeed in the cutthroat field of TV news.

Operating near exhaustion for years, not acknowledging trauma that developed from his war-zone work, and dabbling in illegal drugs here and there to mask his feelings, a crash of some sort seemed inevitable. The fact that it happened during a live national broadcast was, to put it lightly, a wake-up call for Harris. He had to figure this out or his beloved chosen career would undoubtedly be finished.

He began seeing a psychiatrist, and around the same time, started covering the religion beat for ABC, at the request of Jennings himself. He was not the spiritual type, but would find a solution to his problems in an unexpected place when he interviewed author Eckhart Tolle, which led to Deepak Chopra, which would eventually lead to Dr. Mark Epstein. He, in turn, would lead to Harris exploring Buddhist meditation. And it is meditation that would be the answer for Harris, allowing him to (paraphrasing the book’s subtitle): “tame the voice in his head, reduce stress without losing his edge, and find self-help that actually works.”

Harris is certainly not alone in adopting meditation. His book recounts the scientific evidence for meditation’s many psychological and even physical benefits. As well, several large companies, including General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Target, and Aetna now offer guided meditations or meditation rooms for their employees to de-stress during their workday. Meditation, it’s safe to say, is having a bit of a moment, but for good reason.

Harris is funny and self-deprecating and about as opposite of “new-age” as a person could be. He’s a perfectly skeptical guide, then, for a book about meditation. “Well, if it works for even him…,” you find yourself thinking. It’s a good read for anyone the least bit curious about this age-old practice.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/08/book-biz-a-tv-journalist-finds-solace-in-an-unlikely-place/)

A Terrifying Look at the Dangers of Texting and Driving in “A Deadly Wandering”

Texting and driving is dangerous and irresponsible. Until I read the exceptionally well-written A Deadly Wandering, though, I had no idea how terrifying it truly is. And I say “terrifying” because after you read it, you’ll quickly start noticing how many people around you are messing around on their phones when their eyes should be on the road and their hands should be on the wheel. Even if you never touch your phone while driving, a whole lot of other folks sharing the road with you are.

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Author Matt Richtel bases his book around a tragic true story out of Utah. In 2006, a 19-year-old college student named Reggie Shaw was driving down a narrow road in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains early one rainy September morning. Headed the opposite way were two actual rocket scientists, on their way into work, commuting via their usual route. Shaw’s SUV drifted into their lane, clipping the small sedan they were traveling in, and a large truck hauling a trailer behind Shaw then t-boned them, killing both men instantly. Shaw was unharmed. He’d been texting just before impact.

Back in 2006, before our world was drenched in smartphones like it is today, the science of how our brains handle actions like talking on the phone while driving and texting while driving was still fairly new and evolving. The law was evolving to catch up to the times, as well, which was a tremendous challenge to the people investigating Shaw’s case.

Richtel does a masterful job of balancing the stories of Shaw and the families of the two men killed, along with the hard work of the investigators working on the case, and the incredible scientists trying to uncover just why we’re so attached to our devices that we’ll literally risk our lives and others’ lives for them. The way the book is structured and paced is just perfect, with short chapters that bounce back and forth between covering Shaw, the families, the scientists, and law enforcement.

The science presented in the book is both memorable and scary. Texting and driving makes you six times more likely to crash. Talking on a cell phone while driving makes you four times more likely – about the same as being legally intoxicated. So, yes, texting and driving is worse than driving drunk. (And talking while driving isn’t actually safe, either.)

This book will change your behavior for the better. Read it and ask those you love to do the same.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/10/book-biz-a-riveting-look-at-the-dangers-of-texting-and-driving/)

In “House of Sand and Fog,” No Clear Moral Choices

Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog is a story of contrasts, of the twists and turns of fate, and of the modern pursuit of the American dream. Compulsively readable, this National Book Award nominee will keep you on edge throughout, as you try to decide, again and again, which character’s right, and which is wrong.

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On the one hand, we have Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force. Forced to flee his home country (and his extravagant lifestyle) after the overthrow of the Shah, the Colonel has moved his wife, his daughter, and his son to the Bay Area of California. Given his background, Colonel Behrani assumed he could find employment easily at one of the aerospace companies there. However, as the book opens, he’s working with a trash detail composed of mostly immigrants, picking up garbage along a busy interstate. At night, he works behind the counter of a convenience store. He’s frustrated, beaten down, and nearly out of money, thanks to the expensive apartment he’s maintained to keep up appearances.

On the other hand, Kathy Nicolo is herself desperate and out of options. A former drug addict and current recovering alcoholic, Kathy’s husband has left her. She clings to the one thing she has left in the world – the house she lives in, which she inherited from her father.

The ownership of that house, and everything it represents, is the central conflict of this book. Kathy is evicted from it, on grounds (which turn out to be false) that she didn’t pay taxes she owed. Colonel Behrani decides to use his last bit of savings to buy it at auction, believing he can then sell it for three times the cost and put his family’s life back on track.

Both believe they are the rightful owners, and reading his point of view on the situation and then hers, it’s impossible not to sympathize with each. You feel as though you’re seeing two cars take off at top speed, heading toward each other on a dark road, knowing there’s no clean and easy outcome.

A third character, a married cop Kathy begins an affair with, tips the balance, and the whole mess careens out of control. I won’t give the ending away, except to say that it’s heartbreaking.

This is a novel about property rights and bureaucratic mistakes, yes, but also about expectations and appearances. It’s beautifully written, taut with tension throughout. Every character is flawed; there is no black and white. Like the fog of its title, it’s a book enveloped by gray.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/03/19/book-biz-this-novel-is-not-for-the-faint-of-heart/)