Monday, March 28, 2011

You Are The Guru

Today I finished the memoir Are You My Guru? by Wendy Shanker.  This book was at times both hysterical and heartbreaking.  The author has just completed writing her first book about a dramatic weight loss and accepting her body.  She is also working as a produced at The Oxygen channel when she starts having serious health problems and discovers she has an autoimmune disease called Wegener's Granulamatosis.  Basically, when you have an autoimmune disease your body cells have decided to rage a war on an organ or organs within your own body.  This is what happens in this case.  Wegener's affects the ears, sinuses, throat, and lungs.  She is immediately placed on steroids and later chemo drugs taken both orally and intravenously.

Then essentially all hell breaks loose.  She not only is fatigued, sick to her stomach, experiences headache, and then weight gain occurs due to the steroids she takes.  This gal tries all forms of potential cures.  She does the traditional with medications and lab tests; she tries a detox program, ayurvedic retreats, meditation, acupuncture, and thoughout this process keeps up with the happenings of Madonna because she is a major fan.  She becomes frustrated because by itself none of the potential cures is working.  And she even tries submitting prayers to a Rebbe (Jewish messiah) at midnight by tossing her prayer paper into his gravesite.  Finally, her liver starts to give out and she realizes that she has to be her own guru.  It's not about necessarily finding a cure for chronic disease; it's about appreciating the days you feel well and doing what you think best to take of yourself on the horrible days.  It's about finding a happy medium.  Also, she discovers that there is no one guru (medically or spiritually) that can heal her.  She knows her body best and she chooses what to take from traditional Western medicine and Eastern medicine to help define a new normal or a new frame of health for herself.

I was engaged with this book from the beginning as I also have an autoimmune disorder and know what it is like to deal with beaucoup doctors and many who feel they are medical gods.  No matter what the statistics say or the success of various medications, each person is different.  What works to keep my autoimmune disease in check will not necessarily work for someone my age across the United States who has the very same chronic illness.  The point is no one wins, least of all you if you just throw up your hands and cry.  You are the expert on your body and how you feel; you take that knowledge and the specialists' knowledge and work together to find a peaceful state of living and coping with chronic illness.

Obviously, I highly recommend this memoir especially for people coping with rare chronic illnesses and anyone also trying to navigate the minefield that is currently the U.S. healthcare system.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Update and Review

First, I received a reply from a literary agent that was a "pass" on my manuscript, but it
was because she no longer represented the memoir genre.  She did say she felt that my
manuscript and memoir would eventually find the right agent; just keep pressing the "send" key.  

I finished reading the memoir Confessions Of A Counterfeit Farm Girl by Susan McCorkindale which I have to say was a real scream.  It's about a woman and her family who move from New Jersey to rural Virginia to live on a farm.  Only this lady used to be an editor at a major magazine and was drawing a six figure salary.  Her husband is the one who has the hankering to move south and live off the land.  She gives up the city life and the big salary to live in a renovated farm house on 500 acres of land.  

Susan gets a rude awakening the first month when she and her family have to live with her brother-in-law and his wife until renovations are complete on the farm house.  This proves taxing because it drags on and on; plus, her sons are having a field day doing their own kind
of renovations to their uncle's house including using the dining room curtains to build tents.  Basically, Susan chronicles how much she feels like a fish out of water.  Upon her first social meeting with women of the Virginia area, she discovers that to "ride" is not to ride a subway, but ride a horse which all children in this rural area seem to do as a rite of passage.  She further misses her Starbucks on the corner and her ability to walk and go shopping.  The closest store she has is a Tractor Supply which her husband loves; however, she would rather not be caught dead in a pair of bib overalls.  

At first I was a bit annoyed with this memoir probably because I have lived in the south all my life and run across many northern folk who move here and then complain about life in the south and what they miss about the north.  As my grandfather used to say, Interstate 85 runs both ways, we'll be more than happy for you to pack your bags and head right back up 85 North.  Susan does write about her experiences in a humorous manner; I laughed out loud quite a few times as she discovers the joys of life on a farm.  By the end of the memoir, I think Susan discovers she can do rural life and actually just might a tad enjoy it.  There are numerous numerical references in each chapter to additional information written in microscopic print at the bottom of each page.  This proves distracting to me as a reader, and it is not actually necessary to read those notations to enjoy the memoir.  I look forward to Mrs. McCorkindale's next book and hope she at least finds it in her heart to try a Lilly Pulitzer or two in May and maybe even attend a horse race or two; southern life does have its treasures too.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Headache And A Half

Yesterday I finished the memoir entitled Chocolate & Vicodin:  My Quest For Relief From The Headache That Wouldn't Go Away by Jennette Fulda.  This book chronicled one woman's efforts to rid herself of the headache from hell that started one day and then became an ongoing chronic condition.  She tries everything under the sun to rid herself of the chronic pain and additionally discover the cause of the headache.  This included the usual headache medications, neurology visits and tests, acupuncture, Botox, chiropractic assistance, massage, and finally, she crossed state lines to visit a chronic pain clinic in another state in order to find relief.  Eventually, she does find some relief and at the same time I think she realizes that she may be contributing to her own problem due to staying in a work environment in which there are ongoing rounds of layoffs.  Once she starts to have some relief from the headaches, she is able to freely enjoy her life once again, including, saving six months of living expenses and preparing to open her on company as a web designer.  As a person who readily deals with many areas of the medical and health industry due to my own medical ailments, I could readily sympathize with her frustrations regarding the varying levels of care extended by doctors and the red tape involved with health insurance. 

The other interesting facet to this story is the main character has recently lost over 200 pounds and chronicled her weight loss efforts via a previous memoir.  At several points in the headache memoir, she finds relief in enjoying junk food once again, but then witnesses the repercussions via the increasing numbers on the scale.  Hence, the chocolate and vicodin in the title.  Once she regains some control of the frequency and extent of the chronic pain from the headache, she is able to take back control of her life and once again begin to enjoy exercising and socializing.  I thought this was a very true-to-life and humorous memoir recommended for anyone who has ever suffered from a chronic ailment and had to spend vast amounts of time and money in the U.S. healthcare system. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Intriguing Memoir

I just finished reading the memoir She's Not There:  A Life in Two Genders by Jenny Boylan.  The uniqueness of this memoir is neverending.  It chronicles the life of one person who is born as Jim Boylan, has a revelation in his teens that his male body does not match his female spirit, and then finally by age 40, he completely transitions to become Jenny Boylan.  For the most part I think transgender people have a much toughter experience than this memoir describes.  Jenny gets support from his immediate family (wife & sons), his colleagues at the college where he teaches, his band members, and his mother.  The only scary experiences he really relates is the difficulty telling people, the initial discomfort of his closest friend, and being stalked one evening as Jenny leaves a bar where the band was playing until one in the morning.  Even the stalking part turns out okay in that Jenny is able to get away from the harassing person and then subsequently lose the stalker while driving home.

Most transgender people I've read about experience extreme discomfort in social situations, have been ridiculed and even attacked by others as well as shunned by their immediate family members.  I was expecting this memoir to display more of that kind of experience; however, I felt Jenny Boylan had an extremely reliable support network that most transgender individuals totally lack.  Jenny's sister decides not to have anything to do with him after the transition, but he still has his mom's support.  I've read about people who totally lose any kind of relationship with their parents after this kind of event.  The most surprising portion of the book to me is how well Jim's boys accept the change.  To me, they are the real heroes of the book because they are so accepting of a parent that they have known as both male and female.  Adults could learn a lot just from the openminded nature of the two boys in this unique family.  

I would recommend this memoir, but also I would like to see a memoir that demonstrates the more frequent and harsh realities that most transgender folks experience.  Also, I don't think that families of the transgendered are always as accepting and forthright as Ms. Boylan's appeared to be; I think many families dealing with a transgender family member have serious arguments and struggle before they ever reach the kind of cooperative, supportive roles that they maybe once used to enjoy before transgenderism entered their lives. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Recommended Memoir

I spent my weekend reading the memoir Weekends at Bellevue by Dr. Julie Holland.  This memoir chronicled the nine years that Dr. Holland spent serving as the weekend chief psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital.  The cases that arrived at Bellevue's ER included those people arrested by New York police, persons who were the reason for 911 calls, the homeless population, drug addicts, and patients that just showed up to find some kind of help for themselves.  Dr. Holland and her weekend staff are mainly responsible for evaluating each
patient on the basis of psychiatric type of illness and severity.  Many patients that arrive are unable to participate in a doctor/nurse/patient verbal interview due to the amount of drugs in their system, the overindulgence of alcohol, or the decisive need for restraint due to the combative nature of the patient.  She sees it all.  It did not come as a surprise that any practicing professional under this type of duress would also need cognitive-behavioral therapy themselves. Dr. Holland sees an independent, private psychiatrist in order to process what she is witnessing as well as how she is conducting herself as a doctor.  It honestly made me think about the stress most teachers are under, and how schools could use an in-house psychiatrist not necessarily for the students, but for the teachers.

The main contemplative issue Dr. Holland struggles with is the fact that she only sees her patients for a short amount of time; therefore, she does not have the rewards of witnessing a psychiatric patient's recovery process.  The other struggle for Dr. Holland is the power she has to make the decision of whether a patient is truely emotionally impaired and genuinely needs as well as warrants longer term care within the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital.  There are times when psychiatric ER patients truly push her buttons and she finds herself becoming combative with them or at least not doing as much as she felt she could have to help as opposed to hinder the patient's progress toward a more balanced emotional life.  These are the issues she processes with the help of her own therapist.  She also accounts for the many dedicated souls who work in the psychiatric care business.  These are some of the most gifted and patient people she encounters while at other times, she comes across doctors who want to pull rank with her.  She also has a psych tech who refuses to take notes on patients already in-house at Bellevue, and the tech goes so far as to call their superior or boss and inquire as to whether he has to follow Dr. Holland's orders.  This same psych tech is later terminated, but he obtains another position at a hospital and begins to stalk Dr. Holland via bogus pages while she is on weekend duty.  Talk about scary.

Overall, I loved this memoir for its authentic nature.  Since I once worked as a psych tech it was easy for me to relate to some of the experiences Dr. Holland was describing.   Many of her patients also reminded me of students that I have taught in the past and made me wonder if the behavioral problems I had with them might have been due to psychiatric conditions.  It also gave me a profound respect for ER doctors having to make quick diagnostic decisions based on presenting symptoms and a doctor/patient interview.  She oftentimes does not have background information on the patients that arrive in the Bellevue ER nor is she able to discuss a patient's case with a family member or significant other who knows them well.  This memoir definitely keeps the reader's attention and is quite moving in terms of what Dr. Holland discovers about not only her patients, but herself.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Writing Workshop Process

I have always found my best ideas for books come from the freewriting I do in my daily journal.  I now write weekly about what I am learning concerning the memoir genre and the publishing process for new authors.  Eventually, once I decided to turn a year long journal into a book, I retyped and edited each journal entry which evolved into about a six month process.  Since I know the importance of good leads, I always endeavor to ensure that my first sentence and paragraph grip the reader because if not then what would be the point of them continuing to read the rest of my work?  And I have noticed that most literary agents are looking for that "gotcha" lead in the first few pages because most generally ask for the first five to ten pages when you submit a manuscript.  If you do not grab your reader from the get-go then it becomes difficult to maintain interest and subsequently sell the book.  I like to think that a really incredible memoir has to keep me as a reader engaged all the way through the book without me putting it down and forgetting where I was in the story when I return to the book.  Gifted writers can achieve this formidable feat, but so can authors with tremendously unique and moving experiences.  It does take practice so the more I write and the more I read other works, I gain the ability to tweak my craft and also determine where other works fall short as well as where my own writing needs improvement.

Occasionally I have come across a really great book, but I can't get past the author's use of foul language or levels of violence.  Sorry, I'm not a Stephen King fan.  You will not find me waiting for the next vampire book or movie either.  I think real life is dramatic enough without having to invent chaos, crisis, and calamity.  Additionally, I like to learn from others' experiences and the best methodology to achieve this that I've seen in the writing world is the memoir genre.  People have some tremendously interesting relatives; some have survived when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against them; and many memoir writers have made some tremendously bad decisions with horrific consequences or worse, been the victims of others' bad choices.  It just never fails to surprise me as a reader.

Finally, this week I finished the memoir Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg.  Wow, talk about growing up with a seriously bipolar parent and how that kind of parenting shapes you as both child and adult.  There were moments in the book where I cringed for the author as I was reading about her mother's behavior.   Never let it be said that experience does not shape reality because this book would definitely prove that wrong.  This weekend I will be looking for my next memoir selection as I visit my local Barnes & Noble in an effort to make sure they do not file Chapter 11 as Borders has been forced to do.  In the meantime, enjoy a good book or carve out a period of time for yourself to enjoy a good memoir over the weekend.  I will be.