Friday, May 31, 2013

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is my second foray into the New York of Edith Wharton, where convention rules the lives of upper class men and women, including our hero, Newland Archer. Archer is a young attorney and  member of a well-respected family, who has recently become engaged to May Welland, a lovely young woman from an equally upstanding background. Newland, fancying himself a man whose intellectual interests put him above the rest of his set, believes that he can draw May out of the naivete expected of women of their class and interest her in the life of the mind. He rather quickly loses interest in this pursuit (disguising his loss of interest as recognition that she is not capable of change) when he falls for May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen has fled her Polish husband, who was abusive to her in an unspecified manner.

While Newland at first helps Ellen because she is May's cousin and he does not want their family to be embarrassed, he soon has a more amorous interest in the countess. Although their love is mutual, Ellen does not want to hurt Ellen, whom Newland proceeds to marry. Ellen spends two years trying to avoid him, while he makes various excuses to seek her out and press his suit (we might regard him as a stalker today). Meanwhile, the family, having convinced Ellen not to divorce her husband, is trying to convince her to return to her husband. She eventually returns to Europe, but vows never to reunite with the count. In an epilogue set nearly 30 years later, we learn what happened to Newland and May, with Wharton seeming to give Newland a boost by showing how he (unlike May) had adapted with the times and became "a good citizen"; the book ends with one final opportunity for Newland to see Ellen.

Ironically, The Age of Innocence is neither as tragic nor as entertaining as House of Mirth, which I loved. From the beginning, Newland seems as hypocritical as the New York society that is his milieu; while Ellen might evoke greater sympathy, the reader rarely sees her except in conversation with Newland, so she is not a fully realized character a la Lily Bart. While there are constant ups and downs and a genuine tragedy in the House of Mirth, little actually happens in The Age of Innocence. When Newland suddenly has the thought that May could die and leave him free to find happiness with Ellen, I thought perhaps he was going to take nefarious action, but, alas, such was not the case.

I listened to an audio version of The Age of Innocence, and the narrator (Mary Sarah) did not enhance the book. She read extremely fast and in a rather flat tone (perhaps I should have suspected that the version selling for $.95 might not be the finest reading).

The Age of Innocence was the first book written by a woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, and part of me thinks that might be because Wharton seemed to be indicting women and their "innocence" as the perpetrators of the hypocrisy and strict (yet pointless) convention that ruled New York. If you haven't read any Wharton and want to give her a try, I recommend House of Mirth as a much better starting point.

Favorite passages:
He perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him, but as he paid the hansom and followed his wife's long train inside the house, he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage. After that, I suppose, we shall pretty nearly have finished rubbing off each other's angles, he reflected. But the worst of it was that May's pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.

(This passage has the virtue of demonstrating what I like about Wharton's prose, and the vice of manifesting who seems always to be blamed in The Age of Innocence--women!)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Blunt

In the mid-1980s, AIDS was a new disease, frightening in its deadliness and regarded by many as shameful. That is the milieu in which Carol Rifka Blunt has set Tell the Wolves I'm Home. Fourteen-year-old June's beloved uncle Finn, a well-known artist is dying of AIDS, but not until he dies does June learn he had a lover (a "special friend") named Toby, whom the rest of her family regards as Finn's murderer. As Toby reaches out to June, she finds comfort in his friendship. Her accountant parents are wrapped up in tax season, her sister Greta (once her best friend) now seems to hate her, and she has no friends at school, perhaps not surprising since she likes to go into the woods behind the school and pretend to be a medieval heroine. Thus, although she first fights against the friendship, Toby fills a hole in her life. Meanwhile, Greta is falling apart, and their parents are oblivious. The family seems headed for a crisis--and indeed they arrive there in time for a series of blow-ups at the end of the book. Thwarted dreams, jealousy, loneliness, and the convenience of blaming for one's own questionable decisions  are among the themes Blunt explores via the Elbus family's story.

After reading a review of Tell the Wolves when it was first published, I tried to read it but just couldn't get past the first few pages. Then Novel Conversations chose it, and I again had difficulty getting going. While the situation and characters should be interesting, the plot moves very slowly and the writing is generally bland, dominated by simple sentences (subject-verb-object) and too many sentences beginning with indefinite pronouns. Given the subject matter, this book could have put the reader through an emotional wringer, but, sadly, I found myself unmoved.

Favorite passage:
Sometimes it feels good to take the long way home.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg

Richard Middlestein, a pharmacist in the northwestern Chicago suburbs, leaves his morbidly obese wife Edie as she is in the midst of a health crisis. Their children Benny and Robin are horrified at their father's heartlessness and sick with worry about their mother's health. Meanwhile, Benny's wife Rachelle becomes obsessed with Edie's eating, following her around throughout the day to see how much she is consuming and responding by feeding Benny and their children, Josh and Emily, only vegetables for dinner.

Clearly, this is a novel about family dysfunction and troubled eating. While the premise--middle-aged husband leaves wife when she becomes fat and ill--would suggest that most readers (perhaps especially female readers) would empathize with Edie, she is a hard character to care about. Despite the fact that chapters told from Edie's perspective are headed with her weight (e.g., "Edie, 62 Pounds" or "Edie, 332 Pounds"), we get very little insight into why food became her obsession, her place to hide. I found myself most interested in the character of Benny, who is trying to negotiate the space between his parents, dealing with his irrational sister and wife, and facing the teen years with a daughter who at 12 is already in full rebellion mode. Oh, yes, and going bald. While hardly perfect (he smokes a joint every night after the kids go to bed), he feels real and relatable.

Attenberg uses shifting narrators, including most of the members of the family (grandson Josh never gets a chapter) and even a first-person plural chapter from four couples who were friends of the Middlesteins from synagogue. Although I often like books with multiple narrators because they provide different perspectives on the same events, I felt Attenberg's use of the technique kept the reader from understanding any of the characters in depth. As a reader to whom character is important, I was actually taken aback by Attenberg's portrayal of the women in the story. Yes, women can be abrasive, irrational, and damaged in a variety of ways, often quite interesting and instructive ways. But all of the adult women in this book are presented in a negative and stereotyped way that verged on offensive.

Attenberg also used a fairly unusual "flash forward" technique, suddenly telling the reader in the midst of a chapter set in the present that, for example, Richard would keep his last pharmacy open until he died, even though he had no customers. Although she manages to give us a bit of welcome hope with respect to Emily's future life, in general the glimpses into the future add little.

Obviously, I did not like this book much and would not recommend it as either an entertaining read or a meaningful exploration of dysfunctional families and problematic relationships with food. I found it to be neither.

Favorite passage
He didn't get her, he knew that much. He didn't know why he needed to get her anyway. His father had never gotten him. Why did people need to be gotten so much?   [Richard reflecting on his relationship with his daughter]

His daughter's newfound adolescent moodiness, those dark, twisted, frustrated glances she shot him whenever he opened his mouth, as if an Oh, my God, Dad were just hovering in the air between them, waiting to be splattered up against him, a condescending pie in the face. [Benny reflecting on his relationship with his daughter]

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Edge of the Earth, by Christina Schwarz

I read and enjoyed two of Christina Schwarz's earlier novels, Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity, two engrossing books so different it was hard to believe the same person wrote them.  It's also hard to believe the same person wrote The Edge of the Earth, but for an entirely new reason--it's just not very interesting. The protagonist is a young woman (an hour after finishing the book, I can't remember her name--oh, yes, Trudy) from a solidly middle class Midwestern family circa 1900. She meets the cousin of her intended and falls in love; this cousin, Oskar Swann, has big ideas, but never quite brings any of them to fruition. To escape from the embarrassment they caused both families, the young marrieds escape to a remote area on the California coast, where Oskar finds work as an assistant lighthouse keeper. The first part of the book, reminiscent of San Miguel (which I also wasn't crazy about), focuses on Trudy's adjustment to marriage, Oskar's ups and downs, and life in a setting with none of the niceties she is accustomed to and only one other family to provide company.  Midway through the book, the plot takes a turn involving a mysterious "mermaid," who is actually a Native America woman who lives in a cave on the shore. Oskar decides to make his name as an anthropologist by studying the woman, with rather disastrous results.

Schwarz uses a story within a story conceit (Trudy leaves an account of her life to Jane, one of the children of the other family at the lighthouse) that seems to have no point except perhaps to give a twist at the end of the book more impact. Unfortunately, the twist was neither surprising nor meaningful.

Many novels have already examined marriage and the constricted life choices of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Schwarz adds little to that conversation. There may also be novels exploring issues involved in ethnographic studies of indigenous people; although I have not read any, I can imagine such a novel could be both interesting and intellectually stimulating. Schwarz's novel is neither.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Recently, I have described several books as having interesting premises that the author fell short in developing. Life After Life (second novel I've read with that title in the past month) also has an intriguing premise, but the manner in which Kate Atkinson builds upon that premise keeps the reader engaged through 500 pages (or 15+ hours of the audio version, which I listened to). 

What is that premise? Ursula Todd, the protagonist, is stillborn--but then she is born again and again and again, each time making decisions (or having others make decisions) that send her life in a slightly or hugely different direction. While Ursula feels somewhat plagued by a sense of deja vu (stronger in some lives than others) and her parents send her to a therapist because of her odd jumbling of time, that sense of deja vu is often what protects her in a subsequent life. She and Teddy die from the influenza when their maid Bridget and her boyfriend bring back the virus from an Armistice Day spent celebrating in London; in subsequent lives, she takes ever more extreme action to prevent Bridget from going to London. 

As we work through Ursula's many lives, we get to know not only Ursula but her middle-class English parents, the somewhat distant Sylvie and lovable Hugh; her sister Pammy; her three brothers, the obnoxious Morris, everybody's favorite Teddy, and baby Jimmy; her madcap aunt Izzy; various lovers and friends; one husband and one college-boy rapist; numerous co-workers in a variety of professions; and even Eva Braun and Hitler. The first section of the book deals with lives in which Ursula does not survive childhood (roughly  1910 to 1920). The second section allows her to reach adulthood, though few of these longer lives approach any kind of happiness, in part because the bombing of London during World War II plays a significant role in much of this section of the book. While I've seen several reader-reviews of the book that complained that too many British authors are writing about women's roles during the war, I found this material interesting and many of the descriptions of events during the bombing (and Ursula's deaths) gasp-inducing.  The third section was a bit problematic, shifting perspectives; revisiting a life in which Ursula, drawing on her remembered history, realizes that killing Hitler would save the world a great deal of grief, and shoots the Fuhrer  (this event was actually described very early in the book, but I had managed to forget it by the time I heard it for the second time); and ending with an unusually positive "surprise" followed by a  chapter from a minor character's perspective that I could not understand the significance of. 

The hyper-logical side of my brain wished about half way through the book that I had started constructing a chart that showed the length of each life, how she died, and what changes set her on a path different from her previous life. The less-logical side of my brain reminded me to just let the story flow, thinking not about specifics but about the ideas: Do we live multiple times? Is deja vu a memory of previous lives? Can small decisions truly change the course of our lives--or even of history? How much do seemingly insignificant moments shape who we are and what happens to us? 

The book was not perfect: the segment in which, after having a breakdown, Ursula makes a conscious decision to kills Hitler, did not seem to "fit" to me, and the ending was disconcerting. Overall, however, I found Life After Life compelling and would highly recommend it. 

Favorite passages:
Sylvie was surprised by the rabid patriotism of the women on the platform. Surely war should make pacifists of all women. 

Ursula found it easier than she had expected to lock this occurrence away. After all, hadn't Sylvie herself said that the definition of an indiscretion was that you didn't speak of it afterwards? Ursula imagined a cupboard in her mind, a corner one, in simple pitch pine. Howie and the back stairs were put on a high shelf and the key was firmly turned in the lock. 

"All those names, Teddy said," gazing at the cenotaph. "All those lives. And then again now. I think there is something wrong with the human race. It undermines everything one would like to believe in, don't you think? "


Thursday, May 16, 2013

In the Body of the World: A Memoir, by Eve Ensler

One might think that Eve Ensler, best known as the author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, a campaign to end violence against women, would be acutely attuned to her own body. Yet her memoir reveals that, until she was diagnosed with cancer, she was completely detached from not only her physical self, but much of her life experience, including sexual and physical abuse by her father (and her subsequent attraction to abusive men) . But learning that she had advanced uterine cancer and going through the grueling treatment for this disease--and she does not spare the reader the details of her surgery, her post-surgical infection, chemotherapy, and other aspects of recovery--pushed her to more fully inhabit her life.

During her illness, Ensler also began to make connections between her life and the larger world. She sees her cancer as, at least in part, related to the trauma she experienced--not only in childhood, but also in her life as an activist against violence. Recent travels to Congo, where women lined up to tell her their mind-boggling stories of being gang raped, forced to watch their husbands and children murdered, and subjected to other assaults too hideous to describe, had had an especially enervating effect on Ensler. Her denial of her cancer symptoms she likens to denial of global warming, the pus flowing from her horrible abdominal abscess to the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the BP Deep Horizon incident.

Cancer also made Ensler aware of her own emotions in a way she had not previously allowed herself to feel before. Reconnecting with her sister and experiencing the care of a network of wonderful friends and family members prompted her to reevaluate what it means to be loved. This section of the book is quite moving, so I quote it at some length here: "I was always reaching for love, but it turns out love doesn't involve reaching. I was always dreaming of the big love, the ultimate love, the love that would sweep me off my feet or 'break open the hard shell of my lesser self' (Daisaku Ikeda). The love that would bring on my surrender. The love that would inspire me to give everything. As I lay there, it occurred to me that while I had been dreaming of this big love, this ultimate love, I had, without realizing it, been giving and receiving love for most of my life. As with the trees that were right in front of me, I had been unable to value what sustained me, fed me, and gave me pleasure. And, as with the trees, I was so busy waiting for and imagining and reaching and dreaming and preparing for this huge big love that I had totally missed the beauty and perfection of the soft-boiled eggs and Bolivian quinoa [dishes her friends cooked her when she was sick]."

Ensler's prose is by turns gracefully moving and frankly stomach-churning. While I sometimes find her connections between her life and "outside" events a stretch, I am still in awe of her ability to make metaphor of experience (for me, this is the mark of a serious memoirist, as opposed to someone self-centered enough to find themselves terribly interesting). And I feel elevated from having read of her struggle, a fitting emotional response to a book that ends "Be transparent as wind, be as possible and relentless and dangerous, be what moves things forward without needing to leave a mark, be part of this collection of molecules that begins somewhere unknown and can't help but keep rising. Rising.Rising. Rising."

Favorite passages:
We have been taught for so long to expect our doctors to be distant and untouchable. The distance implies a certain training, a certain professionalism. They won't get lost in the mess of your bloody body or get drawn into your neurotic obsessing. We have been trained to believe this bifurcation of heart and head is necessary, something that will protect us, that embedded in this detachment is some magical shield that will keep us from the void. I know now that the opposite is true.

Hysteria--a word to make women feel insane for knowing what they know.

There are many things that mean the same thing as stupid: unwise, thoughtless, ill-advised, rash, reckless, injudicious. None of them feel bad really. None of them hurt like stupid hurts.. . . Stupid is a word that gets into you, into your blood and your being. It gets into your cells. It is a violent word, a catastrophic word, a stigma, a scarlet letter S. . .

There will be joy here. Joy--happiness, delight, pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, elation, thrill, exultation, rapture. . . . You will touch this joy and you will suddenly know it is what you were looking for your whole life, but you were afraid to even acknowledge the absence because the hunger for it was so encompassing.

The only salvation is kindness. The only way out is care.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, by Jessica Soffer

Lorca is a teenager who has been suspended from her Manhattan high school after another girl finds her cutting herself in the bathroom. Her self-centered mother, a well-known chef, threatens to send her to boarding school in the next term, but Lorca hopes to change her mother's mind by recreating the best dish her mother ever ate--a Middle Eastern fish dish, masgouf. She begins her search for the retired proprietors of the restaurant where her mother ate the dish, hoping they will teach her how to make it.

Meanwhile, Victoria, one of the Iraqi-American owners of that restaurant, has been widowed. With the loss of her husband, Victoria has become obsessed with the daughter she gave up for adoption decades earlier. Her husband Joseph, with whom she ran the restaurant, had wanted the child, but Victoria feared a baby would come between them. Instead, her adamant refusal to keep the baby drove them apart, at least temporarily. Now she is convinced Joseph had met their daughter and she longs to reconnect as well.

Through Lorca's detective work (aided by bookstore employee Blot) and serendipity, Lorca shows up at Victoria's apartment for a cooking class. The two enjoy each other's company, and as they cook a variety of Middle Eastern dishes, they become convinced they are related (Lorca's mother was adopted). Just as they acknowledge their connection, things falls apart, and both must deal with secrets revealed and hard truths about themselves and those they love.

First-time novelist Jessica Sofer deftly explores themes related to love, loss, and the connections that can save us when the people who should love us don't or can't. Lorca and Victoria are fully realized characters. Lorca wins the reader's heart immediately, but we are more ambivalent about Victoria. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand her reasons for to giving up her daughter, we can empathize with her current situation. The other characters in the story are less central but are also well developed; Lorca's mother is as despicable in her own way as Babs in The Chocolate Money--not exactly inspirational reading for the night before Mother's Day. But Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is definitely a more rewarding read.

Favorite passage:
Leaving is the easy part, I wanted to tell her. It's moving on that one gets mired in. It takes years. Decades, actually. It takes tragedy and drama and the most painful part: the haunting feeling of what's lost when it finally starts hurting less.

It wasn't snowing and though it was dusk and slatelike all around us, the sunlessness pouring into the folds between the hungry, reaching branches of the trees, there was lightness in the sky behind the buildings that caught our attention. . . It seemed impossible that the day was on its way somewhere, or had come from somewhere else, unless its intention had always been to show off the sky just as it was then.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

You don't have to be a writer to appreciate this book by the very fine nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder (his The Soul of a New Machine and House are among my all-time favorite nonfiction books) and his editor Richard Todd. Readers will find much that is informative in Kidder and Todd's discussion of how they work together and their explication of some of the challenges faced by nonfiction writers.

They open with a discussion of "Beginnings"--how a writer introduces their work to the reader. The following  is, I think, indicative of their approach (and one of the reasons why Kidder's books are so good): "To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them--by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself."  That, I think, is more important than whether the first sentence is memorable.

They go on to talk about "Narratives" (discovering the story, deciding what point of view fits the story, developing the characters, and deciding on how to put the book together structurally). Two chapters deal with special forms of nonfiction, the memoir (helping me understand the contemporary compulsion to write memoirs) and essays. Another chapter is titled "Beyond Accuracy"; in this chapter they examine facts, truth, and the relationship between the two. They also consider the relationship between writer and subject and the role of the writer's philosophy in shaping his/her work. Of course, a book on writing would not be complete without attention to "The Problem of Style."

Entitled "Art and Commerce" and "Being Edited and Editing," the final two chapters deal with the process of being published. The latter includes a section by Kidder on "Being Edited" and one by Todd on "Editing," each of which reveals a great deal about their relationship, the way they work together, and their strengths as individuals. One of Todd's observations about Kidder is, I think, the key to what makes Kidder's work so singular: ". . . Kidder had an interest quite unusual for a writer, an interest in virtue. It's an immeasurably harder subject than vice. A bright thread of goodness runs through his subsequent books." Clearly, though, Todd's role in Kidder's books has been considerable, and their relationship and work together can stand as a difficult-to-achieve but possible model for editors and writers, whatever their genre.

I highly recommend this book for writers and readers.

Favorite passages:
Writers are told that they must "grab" or "hook" or "capture" the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader.

The deepest pleasure of a piece of writing may lie in a graceful narrative turn, an intuition about human behavior that finds exact expression, the spirit of generosity that lies behind the work. A good word for these things, when they occur, is "art." . . .In happy moments one realizes that the best work is done when one's eye is simply on the work, not on its consequences, or on oneself. . . . these things that carry us beyond utility, that lie outside economic logic, are what make civilization worth inhabiting, and that their absence--which is frequent--can make the world a dispiriting place.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

News from Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh

News from Heaven is a collection of short stories set in the coal-mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. The setting for an earlier novel by Jennifer Haigh (which I have not read), Bakerton is largely populated by Polish, Italian, and Irish families. The town boomed during the world wars, but then began to decay as the mines closed in the latter half of the 20th century.

Many stories in the book revolve around the two conflicting desires experienced by the young people of Bakerton--the desire to escape and the desire for connection (i.e., to stay). Unfortunately, Haigh seems to suggest that no matter which route you choose. Sandy escapes to Las Vegas and then California-but he never manages to pull himself together to make a decent living. Ray escapes and becomes a successful oilman in Texas, but he is estranged from his sons and feels responsible for his brother's death. Despite being raped as a girl and the death of her childhood friend in the war, Viola stays, becoming a teacher, seeing her students struggle (one of her favorite students is beaten by homophobes) and then go off to war. Star quarterback Mitch Stanek escapes to Florida State University, but drops out after one semester--he managed to graduate from high school without reading. He does well as a union miner, but his life begins to fall apart when the mines close.

The stories are well-written, and individually some of them are quite moving. Taken together, though, the stories become depressing.  And, I must admit, they activate one of my prejudices. Having grown up on farms near small towns in the Midwest, I resent depictions of small towns as miserable, constricted places. Is there no joy in small towns?  Embarrassingly, my resentment doesn't extend to such depictions of Southern towns (see my recent review of The Next Time You See Me). I need to work on that!

Favorite passage:
She greeted all presents this way--you shouldn't have--no matter how worthy the occasion or how trifling the gift. It was a habit born of embarrassment. No gift--even one she'd always wished for--was worth drawing attention to herself.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Chocolate Money, by Ashley Prentice Norton

There have been some hideous mothers in literature, and Tabitha "Babs" Ballentyne, chocolate heiress and mother of Bettina, emerges near the top of that heap. The first part of the book takes place when Bettina, the narrator, is 11.  Babs subjects Bettina to continual verbal abuse; poses nude with an equally unclothed  Bettina on her lap for their annual Christmas card; shares a creepy level of information about her sex life; slaps Bettina (as she bleeds from a head wound that will require 15 stitches to close) when she falls down the stairs while dressed in high heels and performing an inappropriate dance routine to entertain guests at one of Babs' high-concept parties; forces Bettina to walk  into the church during the funeral of Babs' married lover and place a bouquet of white roses on his casket. . . . you get the picture. Desperate for someone to love and approve of her, Bettina gets what affection she can from the family's cook and her mother's lover Mac, who unfortunately dies in a car crash.

In the second part of the book, Bettina is a high school sophomore shipped off to boarding school. There, she falls into a sadomasochistic relationship with an "outsider" boy. When she discovers that her housemate's boyfriend "Cape" is Mac's son, she pursues him as well. Her sexual exploits produce disastrous results. In the last section of the book, Bettina is an adult, working at a literary magazine and trying to build a meaningful life for herself.

I listened to the audio version of the book, narrated by Tavia Gilbert, who gives Babs a voice well suited to her personality. In the second section of the book, she provides a disturbing twist by making the maturing Bettina's voice sound a bit  like her mother's.  With her disastrous sexual acting out and her new Babsesque voice, we cannot help wondering if she is destined to become as despicable as her mother.

This book is definitely not for everyone, with its explicit sex scenes in which Bettina is often being debased and its equally disturbing depiction of an abusive parent. As I was listening to it, I often thought that Babs was such an awful person that she was not believable and I wondered if the author was trying to be funny--but to me there was nothing comic about a child being subjected to this kind of parenting. When I read that the author's life has a number of similarities to Bettina's, I found myself cringing. Yet I kept listening to the book because I cared what happened to Bettina.