Review: “124 NICU Days: A Preemie Tale Of Love, Loss, And Healing” By Ryan Rhodes

For those of y’all who follow my blog regularly, I don’t always post reviews of books I received from authors or publishers. While I don’t offer to review anything that I wouldn’t want to purchase or read in the first place, it’s not my sole source of reading material. Occasionally I do get to work through a book that is of interest to me, something I purchased from Amazon the old-fashioned way.

Such is this wonderful memoir, written loosely in journal format. Ryan Rhodes and his wife (does he ever give her name? I only remember her being referred to as “my wife”) have a long struggle in front of them when their twins are taken by C-section at only 23 weeks gestation. Thus begins a long journey in NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), which sees the death of their infant son Finn at only three days old as well as the challenges facing Finn’s surviving womb-mate, Zoey.

Rhodes, who happens to be a freelance writer, handles the story in a very loose, informal, relaxed manner. As I noted, it’s in journal format, so there are times it’s very detailed and other times it’s more sleep deprivation-induced stream of consciousness. But through it all, Rhodes remains honest about himself, his wife, what’s going on with Zoey, and even their struggles to keep life with their toddler Aiden as normal as possible.

Zoey’s 124 days in NICU are, as expected, up and down. Each day is spent wondering what else could possibly go wrong, while celebrating the most minute advances. Rhodes does an outstanding job of giving the details as they occur, when he remembers or is able to write, while putting a humorous spin on much of his observations. At the core, though, is a very honest and heartfelt look at life in NICU from a father’s perspective, which is unfortunately all too uncommon.

As the father of a son (now twenty) who spent a couple weeks in NICU, so much of this book was very familiar. The emotions, the struggles, the setbacks, the celebrations, it all touched an emotional nerve. And because of that, I know it’s true and from the heart. Kudos, Mr. Rhodes.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “The Mythical Bill” By Jody McAuliffe

University Of Iowa Press was kind enough to provide me with a copy of this eGalley through NetGalley for the purposes of reading and review it. Although it was provided at no cost to me, I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

In this book, the author tells the story of her father, William “Bill” McAuliffe, and his battle with mental illness. While it seems to begin with torticollis, a disease which involves involuntary contraction of neck muscles, causing the head to be held at an unusual angle, the author digs pretty heavily into who her father was both before and after World War II, where he served in the Pacific Theater.

Along the way, we are exposed to a heart-breaking history of a man who slowly declined in health, both physically and mentally, before dying unexpectedly on the psychiatric ward of a hospital in the seventies. The author pulls no punches in her analysis of her father, herself and her immediate family. Her narrative is broken up by diary entries from Bill himself as well as memories from her mother, brothers, and other family members.

Ms. McAuliffe makes many literary and film parallels between those works and her and her father’s lives. She even notes her penchant for being involved in theater productions with a male protagonist or character with demons not unlike her father’s.

And so the book proceeds, with the author delving deeper and deeper into her research on her father, his past, and even herself and who she is. Is she destined to be like her father? Or will she be her own person?

This book is very introspective and informational, and as such I learned much about torticollis and Bill’s battle with it. It’s also very open and honest in all regards. In that, I think the author succeeded marvelously.

My only issue with the book is that at times it seemed too disjointed. While it’s not a long book (about 160 pages), it took me longer to get through than a typical book of that size would. It just didn’t flow as I would have liked it to. Otherwise, I think it’s a very heartfelt story by the author.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Wrestling With The Devil” By Tonya Russo Hamilton & Antonio Russo

Through NetGalley, I was provided a copy of this book by Gemelli Press for the purposes of reading and review it. While it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to provide a positive review.

This book was done in a very relaxed narrative style with Hamilton telling the story of her father in his voice. I am a fan of that method, as it doesn’t feel as stilted as some memoirs or biographies.

Born in Italy to an Italian father and a mother with dual American and Italian citizenship, Russo was sent to America when he was ten to live family. Since he was born to a mother with American citizenship, his parents wanted him to establish his permanent American citizenship, and at the time he had to live in the United States for five years prior to his eighteenth birthday.

The trials Russo experiences during the trip to America by boat are enough to make you want to throttle the “family friend” who was supposed to look out for him, but essentially ignored Russo for the duration of the trip. For the first few months in America, Russo is bounced from family to family as each is encumbered with feeding, housing and clothing an extra mouth in post-World War II New York. Eventually, Russo ends up in Portland, Oregon, with an uncle, where he lives for several years.

A few years later, Russo’s father, mother, brother and sister join him, and the family is reunited in Portland. However, Russo has already on a rough road.

Knowing very little English when he arrived in America, Russo starts behind in his schoolwork and is behind throughout his school years. As a consequence, Russo ends up being a teen who’s not afraid to use his fists to solve a problem.

Being very athletic and having tried many sports, Russo eventually gets involved with wrestling in high school, and a new passion and outlet is found for him. Whenever times are hard and Russo is battling emotional or mental demons, complete exhaustion on the mats is his escape. Not only that, but he develops an aptitude for the sport, competing very well at the high school level.

After graduation, because his grades were average at best and college was not an option, Russo begins working in a local meat market, eventually earning journeyman status. Along the way, Russo’s younger brother Pete competes exceptionally well in high school wrestling, earning a scholarship at Arizona State University.

Once in college, Pete begins working on his coach, encouraging him to give Russo a chance at a scholarship. The coach invites Russo to campus, where he makes the team.

Will Russo do well in college since he struggled in high school? How will he do in competition? Is there anything waiting for him when his wrestling career is over? I guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

I really enjoyed this story since I love reading stories about people facing challenges and trying to overcome them. While I’m not a big wrestling fan, the author does a good job of not getting too heavy in terminology and details of specific matches, but provides at least enough to tell the story effectively. Plus, as I noted earlier, the relaxed narrative tone makes this an easy, smooth read.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Dummy: A Memoir” By David Patten

This book was provided to me via NetGalley by Joslyn Press for the purposes of reading and reviewing it. Even though it was provided at no cost, I am under no obligation to give the book a positive review.

Since I finished this book, I’ve been stewing on what to write about, how to approach this review. I’m not sure where to start or what to say, and that’s a good thing.

Let’s start with why I read this book. As the parent of a special needs adult, I was very interested in a memoir written by a special needs adult, hoping to get a sense of how they struggled, thrived and even failed. I also have friends and martial arts students in the autism spectrum, so I was hoping I would be able to get something out of it for their benefit.

What I got from this book was so much more. First, let me question those reviewers who’ve bashed the book for being poorly written or not really telling much until the end about how he survived and what he learned. Let’s not forget the book was written by an adult who is unable to read and write beyond a very remedial level. This is not a well-written literary biographical tome. This is a memoir, and the easy language and tone is reflected throughout, as if David is simply telling us his story in his own words. As for the lessons, if you pay attention, you learn them as he progresses through his life. He doesn’t have to tell you explicitly; it’s right there in front of you.

That said, I loved loved loved this book. I regret that I have but five stars to give for this book.

David Patten was born with autism, likely Asperger’s Syndrome due to his high functioning ability, and dyslexia. Early in his infancy and into his childhood, sensory input and processing is very painful for him. His mother tries to prevent him from withdrawing into himself and tuning out the world by forcing him to engage and deal with everything around him, literally becoming his round-the-clock provider in the process. Along the way, David learns to disassociate the feelings and input from what’s going on around him.

David’s older brother Emerson despises him for taking away his mother, as Emerson was left with a part-time caregiver to help him out. This leads to years of conflict where each of them tries to literally kill each other (Emerson by smothering, David with a screwdriver thrown at Emerson’s head).

Not surprisingly, David struggles in school. Since he was born in 1954, the educational system at the time had no idea what to do with him. They knew very little of autism or learning disabilities, so they categorized him as slow, difficult, absent-minded, and all other labels. As he struggles in school, he drifts away from the mainstream students, eventually finding his way as a drug user. Later he finds success as a dealer, which serves as a source of both income and conflict for several years.

Along the way, he finds Donna, strung out on speed and protecting a water fountain, the victim of a practical joke. As David always found himself protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves, he stands up for her, and thus begins an on-and-off relationship that lasts for years. They are symbiotically tied together, each needing the other in what were ultimately unhealthy ways, but they still held together.

A suicide attempt gone wrong, using Valium and liquid mercury as the vehicle, eventually causes David’s mother to begin pushing him away. While loving her son, she can only handle so much pain and suffering. The sudden death of David’s father and the strain it puts on the family only serves to heighten the stress and pressures of day-to-day life for David, his remaining sibling at home, and his mother.

Throw in some time in the group home of Jacqui Schiff, famous and infamous for her reparenting work, being responsible for the care of and authority over a bunch of schizophrenic residents. This goes bad in horrible ways, and once again, David is on the go, Donna at his side.

And so goes the book, David and Donna on again, off again. David struggles with his own spirituality and existence throughout the book, always seeking understanding for who he is and why he’s in existence.

Technological advances lead to a great career for David, even with his inability to read and write, but even those advances eventually become a double-edged sword.

How does David survive day-to-day without being able to read and write? Does he maintain a career? Does he ever find love and happiness? Does he ever reconcile with his mom and older brother?

I saw a review saying this book read more like a movie script. In many ways, it’s true. Just when you think the story will settle into a routine, here comes another plot twist. When you consider it’s all true, and not a fictional action-adventure flick, it’s all the more amazing.

What I took most from this book was that over and over and over again, David simply did what he needed to do to survive. He learned to fight and protect himself. He learned to read the slightest alterations in body language, tone, etc., to know when someone was going to go over the edge. That combination even serves him well when some drug users try to throw him over the railing of a tenth story landing at school. David tries to find love and what it means, but ultimately ends up taking care of himself first. No matter what struggle he encounters, he finds a way to overcome it. Even the suicide attempt led to a better understanding of what it took to survive and how the attempt affected those around him.

Bottom line is, this is a tremendous story about the human will to survive. Time and time again, David Patten is given every reason to give up, to disappear into the shadows and become another statistic. And yet time and again he finds a way to continue on.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read a powerful story of love and survival at all costs. You won’t regret it.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5) … Only because I can’t give it more

Review: “Keeper Of The Keys” By Nadine Scolla

I was actually led to this book, which was published in 1976, by some research I was doing on Camarillo State Hospital in California. While the time period I’m researching is the middle of the twentieth century, and these events take place in the mid-seventies, I couldn’t pass it up.

Why? Well, first, I worked in healthcare (albeit in the information systems department) for 15 years, so healthcare is very much a part of me. Many loved ones are also involved in healthcare, I love watching shows like “E.R.”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and heck, even “Scrubs”… Well, you get the idea.

Second, since junior high, mental health has always been fascinating to me. Many people who know me would say it’s because it’s like looking in a mirror, but what do they know. I really believe if I hadn’t gotten into computers and martial arts, I would have studied abnormal psychology. It’s all so fascinating.

Finally, I despise folks who take advantage of others, and that’s exactly what this book set out to expose, specifically at Camarillo State Hospital.

During the time frame I’m researching, mental healthcare was nothing like it is today, especially in the understanding of what is and isn’t a mental illness. Not to mention that many physically or developmentally disabled people were put in institutions, where today societal mainstreaming is much more common.

By the time this book was necessary, running mental institutions had become a business. Since the hospital was paid per patient, they would do anything they could to get and keep patients in their care. That, combined with overcrowding and employees with little or no training, led to a snowball effect of patient maltreatment. But who would do anything about it? The people doing the work often times weren’t qualified for the position, but they were paid well, so why rock the boat? Administrators certainly didn’t want to kill the golden goose. Unfortunately, those employees who did care, like Scolla and others she identifies in the book, could be blackballed with negative employee reviews in their records, so they were afraid to make waves for fear it could ruin their careers.

Enter Nadine Scolla, fresh from nursing school, where she was apparently taught very well the right way to treat patients and their families. During nursing school she kept a diary, and naturally she continued to keep it as she excitedly joined her profession of choice at Camarillo State Hospital.

She is shocked early on by what she sees as what passes for patient care: Ignoring patients experiencing seizures. Pulling gold fillings from a new patient’s teeth. Rape and physical abuse of patients. Adjusting or denying medication without doctors’ orders. And the list goes on.

Scolla finally cannot stand by anymore and, knowing that reporting problems to authorities won’t do any good since it will just be glossed over by those in power, takes other steps. She contacts a publisher about the issue, offering her diary as evidence. Therein lies the genesis of this book, the publication of which led to a grand jury investigation of CSH, a reformation of mental institution practices in California and, ultimately, the closing of CSH itself as its patient count declined over the next 15 years.

I really enjoyed this book, in many ways. It might appear that Scolla might have sanitized some of her entries, but I believe that was just her being a professional, a lady, and a woman of faith. But what she outlines in the book is detailed and to the point. It’s a fascinating look into not just this particular mental institution, but the standards of nursing at the time, when all nurses wore white, etc.

I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in the mental healthcare during the seventies, nursing, or just a memoir by a young lady who risked her career by going against the grain.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir Of Food And Longing” By Anya Von Bremzen

I received this book from Crown Publishing via NetGalley for the purposes of reading and reviewing the title. The publication date shown on NetGalley as September 17, 2013, so note this review is on an advanced copy, not the final published work.

First, note this is a memoir, not a cookbook. I was hoping for the latter, but ended up being no less disappointed. The primary reason for that is Bremzen takes us on a tour through her family and Soviet history for the last hundred years or so. The common thread throughout this history is, not surprisingly, food. Lack of food. Excess food. Strange food. Common food. You name it.

Being a history buff, I found the entire book quite fascinating. I’ve never really read much of Soviet history as told by an expatriate, so I thoroughly enjoyed this offering. The book tells of two generations preceding the author up through modern-day times. Covered are her families struggles before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, and even the breakup of the USSR. Bremzen also discussed her and her mother’s struggles after their emigration from Russia, as each struggled in different ways to adapt to American culture. Americans who view our country as the top of the heap will be very interested in the author’s take on supermarkets and other such American cultural icons, as when she first arrives in America, the Land Of Plenty seems entirely too, well, foreign to her.

Bremzen also discusses the end of the Cold War and her family’s ability to travel to and from Russia following the advent of glasnost and perestroĭka. It’s very interesting to see how her views of Russia both alter and remain the same as she is further and further removed from her 1974 immigration to America.

And finally, the last chapter of the book includes one recipe for each decade covered in the book. Bremzen and her mother chose the recipe they believed was most representative of that decade, for inclusion in the book. I was pleased to find the recipes I was most interested in included, so I was definitely a happy camper.

Overall, this is a wonderful telling of life in and out of Russia over the last hundred-plus years. Fans of memoirs, American immigrants and Soviet history in the 20th century will all find this engaging.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)