Monday, September 03, 2007

Inside My Heart: Choosing to Live with Purpose and Passion by Robin McGraw

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson, 2006
  • Price: $24.99
  • ISBN-10: 078521836X

There are times that I enjoy reading a book, and I read it quickly, and still, I cannot give it top marks. Inside My Heart by Robin McGraw, perhaps better known as wife to Dr. Phil, is one of those books. It is an easy read, one chapter leading into another, as we grow warm with empathy and curious about the life of this woman, arguably successful via her marriage more than for any particular accomplishment of her own. I've come to respect her husband's work (and I didn't initially, feeling he was riding on Oprah's coattails and reducing psychiatry to sound bites, yet after watching some of his shows and reading his columns in O Magazine, realized this man has pretty sound judgment about the quirks of human nature), and so, rather vicariously, became interested in what his wife had to say...

Robin has nothing new to say that we haven't already read in other women's inspirational and empowerment type of books. Nor am I clear on why a religious-based publisher like Nelson would have chosen to market her book in Christian circles and bookstores; there is very little mention in it about Robin's spiritual beliefs or influences on her life. And yet, I must admit, by the end of the book, I'd grown sympathetic to this woman, could imagine enjoying a personal friendship with someone like her, and give her my nod of respect for the life decisions she has made, and for her courageous value system. Ah yes, values. Something of which we are so achingly devoid in modern society. Robin makes sense of having them again. She writes about her approach to being a woman, a wife, a mother, a businesswoman, all based on well-defined and usually very traditional values. Husband Phil comes out pretty shiny and admirable, too, subscribing to the same values, as any good husband and father would and should. Even if we already know these values, we certainly can use reminders such as this. They work.

Nothing literary about this writing, reading more like a protracted magazine article than a soul-baring deep-diving personal expose. And the pull quotes are rather annoying every few pages, serving no purpose that I can see other than getting in the way of a smooth flow. But you know? I liked it. It's a nice book, with nice things to say, and perhaps it is time to fly the flag for the value of niceness again. I dare say we all secretly long for it.

The Beautiful Miscellaneous by Dominic Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 329 pages
  • Publisher: Atria, 2007
  • Price: $24.00
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743271233

I've had my eye on the rising literary star of Dominic Smith since he debuted with The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre in 2006, and when his new novel appeared on the bookshelf, I didn't walk to the bookstore... I ran. The star shines still.

The Beautiful Miscellaneous is the story of a boy whose father is a physicist, a genius of science, forever frustrated with his sharp but not quite genius son. Can a car accident and a coma make a father happy? Well, in this case, it gives him hope of having that prodigy child he's wanted all along. When young Nathan comes out of his coma, he finds his brain injury has actually caused a condition called synesthesia, the ability to perceive words with several senses at once, not only hearing them, but also tasting and seeing them in varied colors. Alongside this interesting linguistic ability, Nathan has also developed a prodigious memory. Newly hopeful, his father sends him to the Brook-Mills Institute for Talent Development, where he meets a collection of off-the-wall young characters, each with their own area of talent or skill.

A sense of tension weaves throughout the story, as Nathan is caught between his desire to be accepted as he is, a mostly average kid, and wanting to please his father, surely the smartest man he's ever known. Yet technical intelligence is one thing, and an emotional and social intelligence quite another. A scene of father taking his son for a "special treat" on his birthday, ending in a trip to an accelerator, perhaps heaven for a physicist, but a sore disappointment for a kid who can't help daydreaming about the normalcy of an amusement park is almost unbearable in its disconnect between these two. Such are father-son relationships, too often, a balance between expectations and acceptance, the wish to impress, the falling short, and the final moment of truth, when one learns to love another human being in all their varied quirks and skill sets and idiosyncrasies, a blend of light and shadow, strengths and weaknesses.

An example of Smith's rich writing and storytelling appears in the developing not-quite relationship between Nathan and Teresa, another resident of the school for the oddly talented. Not quite a love story, it is more the hormonal rush of two adolescents who perhaps find a wary, somewhat bored acceptance in each other they cannot find in the world of the "normals" outside. Neither is mature enough for love, but their hormones drive them to explore the cautious boundaries of first lust, careful to never show each other the vulnerability that leads to a more mature intimacy until much later in the book, when Teresa asks older Nathan, "Do you ever still think about kissing me?"

Writes Smith: "I sat close to her on the floor, our knees touching. She took my hand and placed it on the top of her stomach; my wrist brushed her bra support, a plastic rib that later I would tell Toby was the 'the edge of the known world.' For a moment I was lost, dislocated. Oddly I thought about my father and Whit, about men. Why had no one mentioned this? Surely they had experienced this one moment of confined bliss, been forced into a submissive silence--sinners now in church. Whit spinning in space, my father peering into an electron microscope the way an astronomer stares at distant planets and hydrous stars, men continuing their lives but surely living for this unbridled moment... a genius or prodigy in love or lust laid himself bare, like a castle in ruins."

From such ruins rise new and wonderful connections, the intimacy of two persons baring skin and souls as much of a miracle, or more, than a physicist exploding electrons. The mind stretches often in the most daily human activities. When the ruins are the walls that keep two apart, their dust is the nutrient on which new relationships are built. Smith's mastery in capturing such miracles is what gives his writing, too, color, taste, and a scent for more such great stories to come.

~ Zinta Aistars, managing editor of The Smoking Poet literary ezine