Monday, June 29, 2009

The Survivors Club

Which is the safest seat on an airplane? Where is the best place to have a heart attack? Why does religious observance add years to your life? How can birthdays be hazardous to your health?


Each second of the day, someone in America faces a crisis, whether it's a car accident, violent crime, serious illness, or financial trouble. Given the inevitability of adversity, we all wonder: Who beats the odds and who surrenders? Why do some people bound back and others give up? How can I become the kind of person who survives and thrives?

The fascinating, hopeful answers to these questions are found in THE SURVIVORS CLUB. In the tradition of Freakonomics and The Tipping Point, this book reveals the hidden side of survival by combining astonishing true stories, gripping scientific research, and the author's adventures inside the U.S. military's elite survival schools and the government's airplane crash evacuation course.

With THE SURVIVORS CLUB, you can also discover your own Survivor IQ through a powerful Internet-based test called the Survivor Profiler. Developed exclusively for this book, the test analyzes your personality and generates a customized report on your top survivor strengths.

There is no escaping life's inevitable struggles. But THE SURVIVORS CLUB can give you an edge when adversity strikes.

Review. The recent Air France tragedy might lead you to think that you're probably doomed if your airplane encounters a disaster during flight. According to The Survivors Club while there are certain flights like the unfortunate Air France tragedy in which surviving is impossible, 76.6 percent of the most serious crashes are survivable. The key factors are: (1) not to assume its hopeless; (2) take action rather than freeze or wait for instructions; (3) internalize the emergency evacuation directions given at the beginning of the flight; (4) formulate a personal emergency exit action plan; and (5) book the safest seat on the plane -- within five rows of an exit.

Sherwood's writing alternates between compelling stories of people who survived the seemingly impossible along with serving up "secrets" for what to do if disaster strikes. I especially enjoyed reading Sherwood's interview Nando Parrado, a survivor from 1972 Andes Mountains crash. Reading Alive, the story of this famous crash, along with Survivors Club would make for a great Reading Group discussion. The final section of the book is composed of a personal survivors analysis test.

Few books claim that they may save your life. Fewer still actually live up to this claim. The Survivors Club, however, is one tome that does warrant this claim.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Do Over

Robin Hemley's childhood made a wedgie of his memory, leaving him sore and embarrassed for over forty years. He was the most pitiful kindergartner, the least spirited summer camper, and dateless for prom. In fact, there's nary an event from his youth that couldn't use improvement. If only he could do them all over a few decades later, with an adult's wisdom, perspective, and giant-like height...

In the spirit of cult film classics like Billy Madison and Wet Hot American Summer, in DO-OVER! Hemley reencounters paper mache, revisits his childhood home, and finally attends the prom--bringing readers the thrill of recapturing a misspent youth and discovering what's most important: simple pleasures, second chances, and the forgotten joys of recess.

Review: Remember when Mrs. Brown passed out Valentines from the huge Valentine's Day box to all other 3rd graders except you? Or the time when you were to recite a poem from memory to the parents on Back to School night and forgot the words? What if you were to re-do these flubs in your formative years and get them right this time? This is exactly what Robin Hemley did in his new immersion memoir Do Over.

The 48 year old Hemley embarked on his Do Over adventures because "sometimes you need to reevaluate what you think you've left behind forever as a way to find out who you are now . . . ." In short, Hemley was hoping to gain a new way to view some of his past failures. He also wanted to better connect with his daughters from a previous marriage who were or would be navigating thru some of the same rites of passage that he was attempting to re do.

There are apparently rules in attempting Do Overs such as not going back to revisit a failed marriage. In the end, Hemley set out to Do Over: (1) Kindergarten; (2) the School Play The Littlest Angel; (3) Summer Camp; Sixth Grade; (5) Joining a Fraternity; (6) Eighth Grade; (7) The Prom; (8) Standardized Tests; (9) his Childhood Home and (10) being an Exchange Student in Japan. While the results of his abbreviated recreations were sometimes mixed, they were always highly entertaining. Often while reading about Hemley's adventures I was laughing out loud. For example, the following exchange cracked me up:

"Do you ride the bus?" Louis asks.
"Oh. Well, who's picking you up?" Halely asks.
"My wife" I say.
There's a long moment of silence as they take that in and blink at me like cats.
"Oh" say Stefan finally. "I thought you were going to say your dad."

Surprisingly, apart from a few naysayers, most everyone (kids and adults) is supportive of Hemley's quest. As Hemley puts it during his 6th grade escapade: "I know I'm not really a sixth grader, and my classmates know this too. But we forget sometimes, and its good to forget. Sometimes I'm an observer. Sometimes I'm a participant. Sometimes I'm an oddity. But most of the time, I seem to fit in somehow . . ."

Do Over is a highly entertaining and insightful, memoir. I recommend it for an enjoyable read. Meanwhile, I'm off to create my own list.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

Summary: Laurel Gray Hawthorne needs to make things pretty, whether she's helping her mother make sure the literal family skeleton stays in the closet or turning scraps of fabric into nationally acclaimed art quilts. Her estranged sister Thalia, an impoverished Actress with a capital A, is her polar opposite, priding herself on exposing the lurid truth lurking behind middle class niceties. While Laurel's life seems neatly on track--a passionate marriage, a treasured daughter, and a lovely home in suburban Victorianna--everything she holds dear is suddenly thrown into question the night she is visited by the ghost of a her 13-year old neighbor Molly Dufresne. The ghost leads Laurel to the real Molly floating lifelessly in the Hawthorne's backyard pool. Molly's death is inexplicable--an unseemly mystery Laurel knows no one in her whitewashed neighborhood is up to solving. Only her wayward, unpredictable sister is right for the task, but calling in a favor from Thalia is like walking straight into a frying pan protected only by Crisco. Enlisting Thalia's help, Laurel sets out on a life-altering journey that triggers startling revelations about her family's guarded past, the true state of her marriage, and the girl who stopped swimming.

Review: Reading The Girl Who Stopped Swimming was akin to drinking a tall glass of Sweet Ice Tea on the porch of an antebellum mansion. A uniquely Southern experience that is both warm and inviting, but also wholly unfamiliar (at least to this non-Southerner). In the end, however, I wanted to visit a little longer with sisters Laurel and Thalia.

Jackson's prose at times seems like another language. For example, the novel frequently referred to characters entering or exiting the keeping room. While I now know that my house has one too I had never heard this term before reading this novel. Rather than detracting from the novel these unfamiliar terms drew me in deeper in the way that one listens closer to a speaker who whispers rather than shouts.

Jackson's characters were, for the most part, vividly depicted and leaped off the page. This was especially true of the characters Laurel and Thalia whose relationship propels many of the plot points. While Laurel and Thalia love and support each other, they do not understand many of the choices the other as made. As Thalia mutters, "Some days I wonder how you don't drive hard into a wall, just to make it stop."

Another aspect that I enjoyed were the references to the character Cowslip from the novel Watership Down. While I have not read Watership Down, it is now on my reading list thanks to Jackson. If you are in a book group I would recommend reading the two novels together for an interesting discussion.

The only part of the novel that I found less than fulfilling was the ending. I won't give away any spoilers, but I will say that it seemed too tidy of an ending. I would have preferred a more Thalia envisioned ending -- messy, yet, engaging. However, a lot of readers will probably enjoy the ending.

Overall, I highly enjoyed the The Girl Who Stopped Swimming and would recommend it for a thought provoking summer read.