School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School – Edward Humes, 2003

Whitney High School, in Cerritos, California, is a magnet public school whose students get higher SAT scores, pass more AP exams, and get into more elite colleges than most private school students. Families move to Cerritos from countries halfway across the world in order to give their children a crack at this educational opportunity. Humes spent a year at Whitney High, and the result of his immersion is this compulsively readable book.

Whitney students are bright, but that’s not enough. They work incredibly hard and crazily long hours, fueled by caffeine and sometimes speed, to live up to the expectations of their parents and their teachers. (How has this pressure become so socially acceptable?) Whitney teachers are caring and skilled, but many of them feel overwhelmed by the needs of students and the demands of administration. Despite the pressures and problems, though, almost all of them love to learn and love to teach, and what they achieve is remarkable. Competing feelings of excitement and frustration swept through me as I read. Humes introduces us to many memorable characters, from the gifted artist whose parents won’t hear of her studying anything but science, to the administrator who has the task of juggling funding and demanding parents along with running the school.

An interesting thread the book explores is the role of technology in education. There’s a great moment when Neil Bush (George W.’s brother, head of a company that makes education software), visits the school and argues that the educational system is broken because it’s too hard and has to be made more fun.

No one really wants to study calculus, [Bush] says triumphantly, calling it a prime example of being “forced to study something a kid thinks terribly useless and obscure.”

“I like calculus,” Kosha answeres, looking him in the eye. “It instills critical thinking…It’s definitely a challenge, but it forces you to think in critical ways.”

The Whitney students who meet with Bush think that high expectations help students master difficult material and learn to enjoy it more than dressing it up (which inevitably waters down the content–the software Bush is peddling ends up being useless for the classes who try it because it covers so little that it bores the students).

School of Dreams reminded me of my high school years in the French educational system, where there are 4 tracks: A (literature), B (business), C (hard sciences), and D (applied sciences). A ridiculous self-reinforcing tradition has come into existence, which ranks the four by perceived intellectual ability. All the “smart kids” are funneled into C whether or not that’s their love, next-smartest go to D, then B, with A taking the rest. Many of the Whitney students are similarly pushed by their parents into the hard sciences–if you “can” do calculus, you’re supposed to go that way because it’s the “hardest.” But how many kids who don’t grasp the concepts immediately are shunted out of math before they get a chance, because little was expected of them? One of the most heart-warming stories that plays out over the school year is the project assigned in Rod Zilkowski’s honors physics class. Mr. Z decides to devote a quarter to one project: a rocket built from a film canister and powered by Alka-Seltzer.

Mr. Z goes on to explain that as they work on this project for the quarter, there will be no homework and no tests. There will only be weekly updates on their progress, in which they will teach him about their findings, then answer his questions about their experiments.

The students work in groups, and quickly it becomes apparent that the “best” students, Group 5, are slacking off without the structure of tests and papers. Mr. Z cajoles and prods them, but for them the project ends ignominiously–they’re not even up to presenting their work to the professional engineers who are coming in to evaluate the projects. It’s Group 4, three girls who’d been struggling in the class and whom Mr. Z had worried about, who take the lead, and it’s a triumphant moment when their canister rocket hits the target they specify, three times in a row.

This is a great read and a great ride: exciting, involving, thought-provoking, scary, and exhilarating by turn.

The Jane Austen Book Club – Karen Joy Fowler, 2004

Fowler has come a long, long way since winning a science fiction short story contest in 1985 (one I also entered!)–making the leap from genre fiction to New York Times bestseller is incredibly rare. This isn’t a ground-breaking novel, but it’s enormously satisfying in many ways (and must have led to a huge Austen revival, if I’m any kind of example, because I went on to read all 6 novels for the first time). We meet six characters, five women and one man, and learn something about each of them as their informal book club reads through all of Austen. Fowler begins by telling us: “Each of us has a private Austen,” and part of the fun comes from seeing the books through different lenses. Like Austen, Fowler has a sharp eye for human foibles and a dry way of pointing them out.

“I think we should all be women,” Bernadette suggested next. “The dynamic changes with men. They pontificate rather than communicate. They talk more than their share.”

Jocelyn opened her mouth.

“No one can get a word in,” Bernadette warned her. “Women are too tentative to interrupt, no matter how long someone has gone on.”

Jocelyn cleared her throat.

“Besides, men don’t do book clubs,” Bernadette said. “They see reading as a solitary pleasure. When they read at all.”

Jocelyn closed her mouth.

Grigg, the one man who’s invited to join the club, is to my mind the most likeable character (and Fowler’s stand-in for a nice, if partisan, set-piece where people dismissive of science fiction are shown up as boorish, ignorant louts). Some of the six remain more opaque than others, but there’s a pleasing resolution to each story and a properly Austenish matchup at the end.

We get a lot of enjoyable supporting material–information about Austen and her contemporaries, interpolated insights on some of the characters, a summary of the Austen novels and critical opinions of them–and most delightfully, at the end, questions for the reader posed by the characters, some about Austen and some about the novel itself.

I think I need to re-read this book now that I’ve actually read the Austen novels, and see what I missed the first time around. One of my favorite things about reading is correspondences and connections between books, and the way that one leads to others. Unlike the coat-tail riders who write sequels to classic novels, or steal another author’s characters to spice up their own languishing careers with a marketing hook, Fowler has found a way to create a novel that’s entirely hers, while legitimately enriching it with ties to a common literary experience.

Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town – Chris Bohjalian, 2003

Bohjalian, best-known as a novelist, has also spent more than a decade chronicling life in Lincoln, Vermont, a town of 975 inhabitants. This book collects dozens of his newspaper columns, dealing with country house joys and problems, changes good and bad, being a dad and a husband, spirituality, the seasons, and much more. He’s a good writer, and often the stories he tells are funny or touching, but there’s sometimes that journalistic lunge for a pat phrase or too-cute anecdote. It’s a kind of self-consciousness I associate with Andy Rooney-style musings.

The most gripping piece is the last one, which is the only fiction in the book, about a dad unreasonably worrying as he waits for his young daughter outside a Disney World ladies’ room. Bohjalian says he included it because it captures how he felt in a similar situation, but it’s interesting to me that only this fictional piece feels truly immediate and keenly observed. Is it that in fiction, he’s inhabiting his characters, and in the bulk of these essays he’s seeing them from the outside (even when he is one of them)? A good novelist isn’t necessarily a good essayist, and vice versa. But I don’t want to sound too negative–it’s a very enjoyable book, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

The Fat Fallacy: Applying the French Diet to the American Lifestyle – Will Clower, 2001

Although Clower doesn’t have as much hard data supporting his arguments as Walter Willett in Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, this is a very convincing book. Basically he says that Americans are fat and unhealthy because they eat fake food, eat too fast, and don’t enjoy their food as part of a social context.

I spent a lot of time in France growing up (two 15-month periods plus summers from age 7 to age 16), so I can verify some of what he says. But there are French people who wrestle with their weight, although far, far fewer than in the U.S.; there are plenty of French people who have health conditions traceable to their diet; there are lots of French alcoholics. Nonetheless, most French people eat a high-fat diet, drink plenty of wine, and yet are thin and healthy. And it’s not a low-carb thing, because they eat plenty of white bread and enjoy pastries.

Clower has got to be on the right track. One of the most convincing features (it’s also enjoyable, and scary!) is the “faux-food quiz” after each chapter. Given the ingredients and a hint, can you guess what the “food” is? What’s really scary is how similar many of the ingredient lists are! I’ve become more aware of the prevalence and dangers of processed foods over the past few years (one of the prompts was Eric Schlosser’s “Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good” in The Atlantic (later integrated into Fast Food Nation)), but reading The Fat Fallacy brought it to a head. My blood pressure rises when I see another food product marketed as “healthy” in some way, when it’s full of different formulations of the same crap. As Clower says, why would you eat any of that when real food is so yummy? He proves it, too, with an assortment of mouth-watering recipes.

Clower gives some concrete recommendations for how to eat which make a lot of sense. Slow down. Don’t heap your plate. Make meals enjoyable in both taste and atmosphere. He successfully communicates how weird it seems to the French for Americans to think stuffing themselves till they can’t move is a way to celebrate anything.

One of the very interesting points he makes is that many French diet/food experts distinguish between dairy fat and animal fat. (Good news for me & Jonathan, since we’re lacto-ovo vegetarians and love cheese above all things.) I’ve occasionally bought a pint of Stonyfield Farm full-fat yogurt to fill out breakfast, based on Clower’s recommendation, and it does indeed seem to stave off mid-morning hunger pains.

While the content of this book is great, the writing isn’t stellar and the book design is a little amateurish (a little Chancery font is PLENTY, in my opinion). Moreover, he doesn’t mention that the Mediterranean diet has all the strengths of the French diet but is even healthier, as Willett shows in Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. But Clower is so straightforward, so enthusiastic, and so refreshingly willing to mock the stupidities of our brain-dead national diet, that I’d strongly recommend reading this as a complement to Willett. (Fast Food Nation is great in a different way, of course, but it’s so damn depressing!)

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About – Mil Millington, 2002.

A few years ago (it may have been due to the wonderful NTK Now) I stumbled across the Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About website and spent at least a few hours there, laughing at the hysterical essays and enthralled by the story about the Mail on Sunday stealing Millington’s stuff. So when I heard that TMGAIHAA was being turned into a book, my ears perked up. Not just a book of essays–a novel. Hmmmm….that didn’t sound good, but I saw some positive reviews and I ordered it for the library. And it’s fantastic! It’s got the comedy of the website wrapped around a great plot–it holds together brilliantly, and in that way reminds me of Big Trouble, Dave Barry’s first novel (which was astonishingly good, way better than anyone could have expected).

Clearly the basics are the same as the (suppposed) non-fiction Millington writes for the website; Mil has become Pel, his German girlfriend Margret has become Ursula but preserved her insanely quarrelsome nature, they have two kids, and a lot of the humor revolves around Mil/Pel’s bemused reactions to the nuts surrounding him. But he also steps up to the level of satire, particularly about workplace issues and academics (Pel works in a university library’s computer center, although alas there wasn’t enough library detail for me). One of the highlights is when Pel has to lead an all-day retreat for dozens of co-workers, having completely forgotten about it until that morning.

[officious manager Bernard]: “…because we’re going on it today. Now.”

“Oh shit.”

“You do have it all organized, don’t you? I have asked a couple of times before and you’ve said…”

“No, it’s all sorted.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, what’s the…Oh, I see–the ‘Oh shit’ thing. Internet slang; it means ‘Oh, shit.'” Unable to repeat the words with anything but the same inflection of sagging hopelessness, I did add two thumbs-up signs as I said it this time. “You know, like ‘Let’s go.'” I did the thumbs-up signs again. Bernard nodded. I could see he wanted to find this convincing, he really wanted to. “Oh shit,” I said with thumbs one more time.

“I’ve never heard that before,” said Bernard.

“It’s a recent thing.”

The job problems and trouble he gets into with Ursula are just as nail-biting as the main plot, which involves a boss who’s disappeared (Pel has to take over his position, which is where the retreat assignment came from), Chinese gangsters, illegal construction, and missing money. Well-written, well-paced, brilliant dialogue, and laughs on every page–this is an amazing first novel.

The Saddest Little Robot – Brian Gage, 2003.

I ordered this book for the library based on an email my brother forwarded (I guess Gage is a friend-of-a-friend) and on the description of the goal of this imprint (Red Rattle Books): “a series aimed to satisfy the need for socially aware, nondidactic, sophisticated children’s literature that’s in line with the ideals of a new generation of parents.” I had my doubts about the possibility of reaching that goal, but was willing to give them a chance. Well…my doubts were well-founded. Good children’s books are HARD to write (which is why it’s so annoying to see the parade of lousy picture books by celebrities taking market share from the folks who are good at it!); writing with a stated moral goal without being didactic is also hard; and avoiding didacticism when writing for children is difficult to begin with. So it’s not surprising that Gage’s reach exceeds his grasp. It’s not a terrible book by any means, but it’s mediocre, and the ugly illustrations don’t help.

The main character is Snoot, a Drudgebot working in Dome City. (Already it’s hard to get past the names.) Snoot is different from the other Drudgebots–he’s funny-looking and too curious, so he gets a hard time from everyone. Drudgebots are the bottom rung, under Guardbots and Halobots, all under the guidance of Father Screen, who leads the chorus of “Happy Robots Produce Happy Fruit!” There’s a tribute to Karel Capek in RUR, the role model, most-productive robot. Robots are supposed to be delighted with their jobs, refrain from asking questions, and never leave the dome. Outside the scary Gremborgs lie in wait and there’s no lifegiving light. It’s a retread of We, 1984, Brave New World, and the whole dystopic genre. Guess what? Snoot leaves the dome! And guess what? What Father Screen has been saying about the Gremborgs isn’t true!

The Dome is on an asteroid, we were told at the very beginning, so it can’t have an atmosphere; yet Snoot not only meets two fireflies, Tik and Tak (deeply annoying characters who speak in rhyme), but also a wise old caterpillar who lives in an apple tree. And you’ll never guess what happens to the caterpillar at the end of the book!

Twelve Cows and We’re In Clover – George Rehm, 1951.

In 1947, former journalist and diplomat Rehm bought a dairy farm in Susquehanna County (this is another book I’m reading because of its local interest), with the goal of making a decent living and a pleasant life. He’d spent 30 years in Europe and valued a “civilized” lifestyle, and becoming a farmer seemed like the best way to continue that. It’s amazing to think that from the beginning of agriculture until when this book was written, a span of how many thousands upon thousands of years, farming was the default occupation for anyone who had access to land; but from the 1950s on, it became less and less so. Today even families who have farmed for generations are unable to make a living that way; almost all the farmers I know have day jobs. Agribusiness has taken over in the United States, and the small farm is practically dead. There are successful organic farms and diversified market gardens, but they’re run by very smart, experienced, and hard-working people. Rehm bought his farm, High Meadows, when an average person, with no agricultural background, could work reasonable hours and generate enough cash income to live on–just barely. Within a few years, that was no longer possible (the sequel, Requiem for Twelve Cows, is about the end of High Meadows as a dairy farm).

Twelve Cows is a weird mixture of how-to manual, collection of reflective essays, autobiography, and fish-out-of-water comedy. We get pages of calculations on how many cows, yielding how many pounds of milk, are required to break even, followed by stories of specific bovine personalities and detailed descriptions of mouth-watering breakfasts and dinners (if this were published today, it would certainly include recipes!) Rehm gives a vivid account of his Sisyphean struggles with water in the winter. Poor drainage near the barn creates a river of ice that gradually engulfs the entrance and has to be chipped away every morning, and the pipes bringing drinking water to the cows freeze up and need to be blowtorched. I identified the most with this section, as I’ve dealt with both those situations under the same arctic conditions he was experiencing.

When we first moved to Susquehanna County, it seemed like every guy we saw had a moustache. Not so in Rehm’s time:

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I’m a farmer.”

“What? No farmer ever had a moustache like yours,” he barked back.

My moustache is a fair-sized growth and the ends turn up slightly, contrary to the local fashion for the few moustaches encountered…

“Change that to ‘No moustache ever had a farmer like me,'” I answered, “and I’ll agree.”

Financial Karma: Real Life Strategies to Help You Control & Save More of Your Money – Robert S. Laura, 2004.

This is avowedly aimed at people for whom Suze Orman and Charles Schwab are too heavy going–for people who are just starting out with financial self-help and need a workbook they can digest in a weekend. On those terms, it’s a very useful book.

Laura recognizes that one of the biggest stumbling blocks in typical personal finance books is estimating expenses and creating a budget. It’s time-consuming, usually inaccurate, and becomes a source of discouragement when the inevitable unexpected expenses creep in. I’ve read a ton of financial self-help books and that has always been a problem for me. To this day I’ve never had a budget that really worked, and the only way I’ve found to get a real handle on our expenses is to use software to track them and analyze them after the fact. (Now that we’ve been using Quicken for 14 years, we’ve got a lot of data–and STILL patterns can be difficult to discern, because of those “unexpected” differences.) So Laura’s approach is very refreshing. He tells us to focus on the financial decisions we make and to start changing the direction of our “financial karma” by trying to line up our expenditures with our values and goals.

Laura assigns one big, time-consuming exercise related to expenses, but instead of an estimate of amounts, it’s a worksheet to identify which are basic needs versus lifestyle choices, which match values or goals, and which are in excess. The other exercises and examples in the book are pleasingly brief and simple.

There are some great concepts here. For example, this is one of those obvious-once-you-think-about-it insights that I don’t remember hearing anywhere else: “Just as you buy a house, a car, or groceries, you must also buy financial security.” And he distills an interesting idea from a life-insurance salesperson’s talk, The Common Denominator of Success: the habits of financially successful people did not come naturally to them, and they don’t like doing those things any more than regular people do! That’s a very liberating thought.

Financial Karma has a number of features that would work for beginners in frugality, but are essentially useless for those of us who have been serious about saving money for years. My late friend Valerie and I used to compare notes on all the “500 Money-Saving Tips” books which we’d check out when they came through the library, and we hardly ever found anything helpful because the recommendations involved stopping things we would never dream of doing in the first place. Laura’s example of getting money at the office ATM ($2 charge) to buy an afternoon coffee reminded me of those books. I’ve only used a for-fee ATM a couple of times in my life, in emergencies, and I kicked myself for lack of foresight. If you’re looking for ways to save money, read something by Amy Dacyczyn. Similarly, I’ve been lucky enough never to “get” the difference between cash, checks, and credit cards, a common pitfall which Laura tries to combat. (It’s all money–to me it feels the same to charge a $20 purchase as to fork over a bill. If it feels different to you, getting over that may be helpful to you.) So if you are like me, parts of this book will seem obvious or even silly. But for someone who’s had difficulties realizing where their money goes, it should very helpful.

One of the neatest ideas along those lines is the credit card envelopes included in the book. Since you have to open the envelope to use the card, it’s a great opportunity to catch yourself before you make a financial decision you might regret. One is for your emergency card–you write down the specific conditions under which you’d use it. The other, for a regular expenses card, invites you to list the financial goals you’ve developed with the aid of the book on one side, and has “Is this a basic need or a lifestyle choice?” on the other. Very cool!

I do question Laura’s choice of the word “karma” to describe his concept. My objection is three-fold. First, karma as a religious term is ideologically unappealing to me personally, for reasons I don’t have room to go into here (essentially, I think it’s a blame-the-victim rationalization of the ways life is unfair). Secondly, karma as a popular concept is very vague and can mean whatever you want it to mean; Laura does his best in the second chapter to nail down his own meaning for the purposes of the book, but it’s very easy to lose track of his own particular interpretation. Finally, I’m not sure it’s a word that much of his potential audience will be familiar or comfortable with, yet he assumes that readers have a basic understanding of the term and doesn’t even start with an overview of what it means.

Financial Karma is independently published, and aside from a bunch of spelling/grammatical/punctuation mistakes which I understand will be fixed in future editions, it’s very nicely produced (not always the case with such books). There’s an accompanying website,, which offers customized versions of the credit card envelopes, among other features.

This Never Happened – E. W. Summers, 1998

Word around here is that this is based on a true story. It’s the kind of book people ask for without knowing the author or the title, and as librarians we can only find it through word of mouth, because there is no concrete distinguishing characteristic that would tell anyone there’s a local connection. So after finding it once, forgetting it, then needing to find it again two years later, I figured I should read it myself & see what all the fuss is about.

As a novel, it’s not great but not terrible either—routine psychological suspense, where there’s a sordid family secret that’s revealed bit by bit. As the narrator struggles to remember/reconstruct what happened, you’re driven to keep reading to find out what exactly it was–but to me that feels like fake suspense, because you know it’s going to be something horrible even if you’re not sure exactly what the details will be (the genre is not my cup of tea, personally). The reconstruction comes in chunks as Richard, the narrator, interacts with his sister who’s killed her husband (because in a breakdown she thought he was her dad), the sister’s lawyer, other siblings, and a love interest. It’s well-paced and decently-written, although the dialogue is a little stilted and the procedural parts don’t ring particularly true (the lawyer is a heck of a lot more like a psychologist).

Knowing that it’s supposedly based on real events makes it worse in two ways. First, of course, it’s tragic and upsetting (whether or not the event actually happened—it feels like “recovered memory”). Secondly, I have mixed feelings about the roman-a-clef aspect (which of course is what prompted me to read the book in the first place).

If you know a fictional book has a real-life basis, naturally you’re constantly looking for the details that match up to real places/people/things. Summers’ veneer of disguise is ridiculous: “Pallstead” for Hallstead, “Cranklin Hill” for Franklin Hill. Other match-ups are a little looser: the childhood farm is supposedly in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Maryland, whereas we’re in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania (but the location of the real farm is in the Blue Ridge school district); “Blueberry,” the county seat, must be Montrose (Susquehanna County seat) because of the library’s Blueberry Festival (since I often wear the Newberry the Blueberry costume and am in charge of publicity for the Festival, that gave me a particular thrill!); Waterton is presumably Binghamton. There’s a real Steam Hollow Road, so maybe she didn’t even bother to disguise that. And she refers to the farm’s tiger lilies—they could be clever stand-ins for the daylilies that grow everywhere, but are more likely just wrongly identified.

It’s enjoyable to look for what can be identified, but ultimately I think it distracts from the narrative. Of course, since most people who read this book have no connection to the area, this isn’t a relevant criticism for most potential readers!

Three Weeks With My Brother, by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks, 2004.

I’ve read one of Sparks’ novels—ehhhh—and listened to part of another on CD while fixing the library copy—strongly disliked it, but that was partly my reaction to Tom Bodett’s reading. (Bodett adopts a slightly higher, simpering voice for the female characters. Do a voice characterization or don’t, fella!) But this is nonfiction and sounded interesting. It is, although with a touch of the blandness I found in his fiction.

Nicholas convinced his brother to come on a package tour which breezed by most of the famous exotic destinations in the world: Mayan and Incan ruins, Easter Island, Ayers Rock, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, the rock cathedrals in Lalibela, Ethiopia (which I hadn’t heard of before—they do sound fascinating), the Hypogeum, and the Northern Lights. As they travel, he intersperses autobiography. (It’s not clear why Micah gets co-author credit, since everything is in Nicholas’ voice; presumably it’s just a nice gift of the royalties). And a very sad story it is—by their mid-thirties, they had already lost both parents and their only sister.

It’s not a particularly remarkable family—difficult father, loveable mother, yada yada—although the young Sparkses often say to each other “our parents are weird,” “our parents are crazy.” But what adolescent doesn’t think that? They were very poor and became very self-reliant (their mother in particular didn’t coddle, and pooh-poohed injuries), and that must somehow be related to the extreme determination of both brothers, but Sparks doesn’t really show us how or why. He tells us that he basically decided to become the best runner in his high school, and then in the state, and he did; then he told Micah how cool it was, and Micah also became a state-ranked runner. (Obviously they must be genetically gifted, but that’s not the only requirement). More strikingly, they both decided to be millionaires before they turned 30. Micah made it with time to spare, and Nicholas got a million-dollar offer for The Notebook two months before his 30th birthday.

The most remarkable feat Sparks describes is his determination to help his son, Ryan, who was diagnosed with autism. He basically worked with Ryan all day every day and trained him willy-nilly to learn language and interact with other people, and it actually worked. But through these amazing stories, there is something I can’t quite put my finger on—a lack of affect, a lack of insight—that prevents me from fully understanding or identifying with Sparks. There are photos interspersed throughout and I found myself staring at the faces of the young Sparkses, who are all impossibly good-looking (Nicholas in particular has adorable dimples, and their smiles all glisten with movie-star teeth), wondering what makes them tick. It’s like looking at a family of Barbie and Ken dolls.

There seems to me to be a lack of affect even on the trip. Sparks talks about how amazing the sights are, yet the two are avowedly bored by guides and museums, and often seem to annoy the tour operators with a lack of respect. An immature attitude comes across, reinforced by this account of one of the daredevil stunts they pulled as teenagers (in a neighborhood lavish with Christmas decorations):

Over the next two hours–thinking we were soooooo funny–we unscrewed every lightbulb and hauled them off. We’d filled six plastic garbage bags with lights, and the houses looked as if they’d been visited by the Grinch. I really and truly can’t explain why we did such things. It’s juvenile and embarassing, but I can’t help but think that if we had a chance to go back in time, we’d end up doing those things again.

Doesn’t that sound like he still thinks it was pretty funny?

Before the trip begins, Nicholas is a workaholic who’s getting depressed and losing touch with his family, and Micah has lost his religious faith (their background is very observant Catholic). Getting away together and reflecting on their family history helps, and when they return, both have found some peace of mind.

People often ask my brother and me how we continued to function–even flourish, by most standards–in the face of so much tragedy in our lives. I can’t answer that question, except to say that neither Micah nor I ever considered the alternative. We’d been raised to survive, to meet challenges, and to chase our dreams.

My parents may have been crazy, but whatever they did, it worked.

So it’s a nice ending, and the trip does sound spectacular—I just felt as though, instead of seeing someone else’s life clearly, as one does in the best memoirs, I was seeing a picture of that life through cloudy glass. And as I recall, that was my impression of the Sparks novel I read too—that it was a good imitation of a novel, but that it didn’t make me feel like the real thing. Maybe it’s just me…