I love to read and always have. Unfortunately, I have had some difficulty the past few years. I think chemo-brain has made reading a struggle: concentration, memory and the ability to stay awake are all critical skills when reading a book. After my 3rd chemo, my taste had changed from New York Times Notable books to Chick-Lit and YA, after my 5th chemo I could only manage newspaper cartoons and after my 7th chemo I was down to BuzzFeed click bait.
Cancer definitely changed my brain.
I've been feeling a bit more normal and back on track, able to concentrate slightly more than a year ago. I am not back to full-functioning and I suspect I never will be again, after all, I will be on treatment for the rest of my life. But still, it is nice to complete a book again, without my mind wandering, without the sudden inability to remember who the characters are, and the distraction of putting the book down and forgetting where it was and then when finding it, having to start all over because I'd forgotten the plot.
As a world famous blogger, people sometimes ask me to review books. I've been saying no to these offers for a while for the above reasons. Sadly, I have disappointed a few authors and one even a friend, by promising to read their book and review it, and then totally forgetting my offer and that the book existed. Whoosh, just gone from my mind. I certainly don't want to keep that up, I do have integrity. Sometimes you don't realize you can't do something that you used to do until you have had some fails - that's the charm of chemo, my friends. So I decided just to say no to all books.
And, the offers dwindled, and all was well.
Recently, somebody new in the PR world found me and asked me if I wanted to read and review some books. I decided I was feeling better, clearer, and more able to concentrate, so I said yes.
We have to adjust to our disabilities, right? So knowing I am super forgetful, I put the books in a special place before I read them, so I would know where they were - not in my book filled library. I read them in one location so I wouldn't lose them - none of this moving from chair to bed to chaise carrying a book around for me, that's a sure way to loss. And, because I tend to forget the plot immediately after reading it (and sometimes during) I took notes on a piece of paper that I left in the book so when I was done I could review what I thought when I read it.
Finally, I decided to review all three in one blog post so I wouldn't have to remember which one I'd done already.
So I had success this time, and you will see it below.
Mani-Pedi Stat, by Deb Ebenstein.
This is a memoir by a "Jersey Girl" (that must mean something beside somebody who lives in New Jersey, right?) who got Hodgkin's Disease when she was 16. At that tender age, she had to face her mortality, a difficult thing to do at any age, but life-changing as a teenager. She also had the painful treatments we all know too well - the hospitalizations, chemotherapy and radiation. Because of her changing appearance, bald and bloated from steroids - hard on a woman of any age but traumatic for a teenager - she focused on painting her nails as a way of hanging onto normality.
That is the running theme of the book: no matter how bad she looks or what cancer does to her, she can have the normality of a perfect manicure. (Her nails didn't fall out like some of ours do, thank goodness.) She becomes a "cancer citizen" and learns the rules of living with her disease, the lingo, and how to navigate through this medical lifestyle. That is her youth, as it has been my middle years.
As she finishes her treatment and puts cancer behind her and goes off to college, she ends up being a party girl, living a "toxic" lifestyle, an outward manifestation of what she feels cancer and its treatment has done to her. With help, she realizes she is using this lifestyle to hide behind her feelings over her lost childhood. And, as you might imagine, she has a second bout of cancer, this time breast, and comes into her own, dealing with it like a pro while managing a family and life and, of course, polishing her nails to perfection.
While this book is described as laugh-out-loud funny (who thought up that cliche anyway?) it is not. There were amusing parts, and I wouldn't call it a heavy book but it was more on the serious side, I thought, maybe because I have special inside knowledge into what she experienced. There were sections that I did recognize as being very true and that anybody who has experienced cancer will relate to, especially the parts where she gets over the anguish of cancer discovery and learns to live in cancer world, and then has a difficult time transitioning out. I think we all experience that to some degree, no matter the length of our treatment.
It is a highly readable coming of age memoir with cancer as the change that spurs growth. My only nit was I thought the author could have used the nail gimmick a bit more forcefully considering it is the name of the book and part of the cover - it seemed to be strong first and then petered out. But I got an unedited version of the book and perhaps changes were made. I truly liked the metaphor of the polish equating to her sense of normality. I highly recommend this book as a light and real read that describes the cancer experience with truth. I read it in two sittings.
Because she does well and makes it through, I think the book with a few bottles of nail polish might be a good gift for anybody who has been recently diagnosed.
The Art of Adapting by Cassandra Dunn
This family story is told from four different viewpoints: Lana, mother of two whose husband just left her, Matt, her brother who has Asberger's Syndrome, Lana's son Bryan, a teen struggling to find himself, and Lana's daughter Abby, a former honor student who is now struggling with an eating disorder.
Despite the fact that alternates voices, I found it easy to follow and quite an entertaining book. This was another one I read from start to finish. Each character's voice was fresh, their individual story was intriguing and the way the author wove them all together to change them from a family in crisis to a family that learns to lean on each other was masterful. Each person had a tightly woven character that made me want to root for them. Matt with his autism was the most amusing, with his odd ways yet observant and kind personality. The boy, Bryon, with his dream of being a Parkour expert and finding his way with girls was also an excellent character. Abby's eating disorder seemed more muddled to me, and the way her Uncle helped her through it was unique. Is it great art? Maybe not, but it is a good read and a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I would definitely read another book by this author.
While Lana finds a lump and has a cancer scare, it is not integral to the book and completely unrelatable to somebody like me who has end-stage cancer, so I only mention it because I believe that's why it was sent to me for review. It is not a major plot devices and is really only a few sentences in the book. The point is, this family has many secrets that they all learn to share to become a family.
I would recommend this book as a good novel for somebody who wants to take their minds off their day-to-day lives. It's a nice, summer, beachside read, or a nice cozy autumn fireplace read. You can buy it in hardback, or in kindle.
Living Without the One You Cannot Live Without, by Natasha Josefowitz, PhD.
When I was offered this book, I was a bit hesitant. It is poetry, and poetry has never been my genre. Finding out that the woman who wrote it is in her late 80s made me change my mind. I know that she has wisdom about life that many of us do not have, and a perspective that I likely will never get. It is a book about grief and loss; her husband died of cancer and she described her feelings in poetry. So I said I would read it and review it, as I know that grief is part of the cancer experience for far too many of us (and our families).
I'm very glad I left my comfort zone and read this book. I am unable to judge good poetry from bad but I have to say, I really found this book moving. She takes us through the early days of shock at her husband's death, to grief, and finally to acceptance and moving on. Her first poem describes how she feels, lost, not in the center of anybody's world any longer, at the periphery of the lives of others. She goes back in a couple of poems to describe the hospital experience with her husband, the stress of surgery, the realization that hospice is next. Sadly, his death is just a sentence or two but very profound. She works through emotions and finally, acceptance comes, as it must:
"I used to dread
coming home in the evening
to silent, empty rooms
feeling so terribly alone
tonight for the first time
I looked forward to
some quiet time
in my quiet home
after a busy day
sitting down to read my mail
checking my computer
sitting down with a book
without feeling lonely
something has changed"
I highly, highly recommend this book for anybody who is going through the grieving process. I believe it will help somebody feel less alone in their own grief, and also know what will come. Whether they feel angry or sorry for themselves, they will know they aren't alone in those feelings. It also is a very short read, one sitting for me, and the poems, as I have demonstrated above, are very accessible. I believe that she gets to the heart of the feelings of grief.
If you don't know the right words to say to somebody who has suffered a terrible loss, perhaps just a card, a hug, and this book is enough.