Gail Caldwell is one tough woman. Having survived polio as a baby in Texas (she didn't walk until she was two and a half.) she rallied and had a sports-free childhood at a time when girls weren't expected to be athletic anyway. She went on to raise serious hell in the sixties and settled down later to an impressive career in journalism in Boston.
Along the way she put aside the drinking that was jeopardizing her life. She learned to row on Massachusetts' Charles River. And through it all, she had a series of cats and dogs that she loved probably more than the men she took up with and parted from. Having reconciled to the idea she'd never be a wife or mother, she suffered a series of losses over six years in her fifties--her closest woman friend to cancer (the topic of a previous memoir I haven't read), then her parents' deaths one after another, and finally, her beloved Samoyed sled dog, Clementine. It nearly did her in.
It makes sense that aging will be difficult for the generation that never trusted anyone over 30, and Caldwell is part of that generation. At her lowest point, she takes a leap by adopting a new Samoyed, and shortly afterwards, she confronts pain in her polio-damaged leg that makes it difficult to keep up with her growing pup. A fortunate visit to a doctor who figures out that one of her hips is in need of replacement turns the tide against all this loss.
As a storyteller, Caldwell is more distanced than her fellow Texan memoirist Mary Karr. She tells of very intense struggles at safe remove. And yet I admired the way she slogs along, slaying one dragon at a time. If there's a hero in this book, it's her mother who patiently helped the toddler Gail perform hours of daily physical therapy prescribed to keep her weak leg from atrophy and later gave up alcohol in sympathy with her daughter's abstinence.
Near the end, Caldwell makes the point that being a single, childless woman actually opened her to deeper reliance upon and a richer relationship with friends. Whatever the literary attractions of self-pity, she forgoes them.
This was a well written book but the story didn't captivate me. If you're a single older adult who lovves animals, this would be perfect, but I'm pretty much the opposite. I don't typically have trouble relating to people whose lives aren't like mine, but this book didn't give me anything to hang on to.
The story is basically about her love of dogs and her total hip replacement, but it was more about the former than the latter. I'm pretty much completely disinterested in puppy breeding and raising, and I would say that you should pass on this one if the subject doesn't interest you.
I would have loved to learn more about her life but she glosses over the things I would find more interesting - like relationships with people. She talks about people in her life some, but not with depth (it's either observational, like so and so was there for me, or related to the dogs, such as so and so took care of my dog when I needed them most).
The issue with her hip being missed because of her history with polio is fascinating, but that wasn't enough to fill the book. If it had been a magazine article about that it would have been perfect.
Dog lovers everywhere, this one's for you.
This small book details the author's physical and emotional struggles with a leg damaged in girlhood by polio and the challenges she faced when the leg was healed by surgery. Caldwell, the retired chief book reviewer for the Boston Globe, certainly did not let her disability interfere with establishing a successful literary career, a rich life with many friends (though, as she often repeats, without a husband) and even as an athlete.
However, as she turned 60, she faced the losses of her mother, her best friend, and her beloved dog, Clementine, a Samoyed. Simultaneously, the leg affected by polio started to cause intense pain and instability, leading her to fall several times. At first, her primary care physician misdiagnoses the pain as sciatic nerve problems and prescribes physical therapy that further exacerbates the pain. Caldwell uses her journalistic skills to find the real problem and its solution, an advanced type of hip replacement that not only relieves the pain but lengthens her leg. When she heals from the surgery, she will no longer limp.
Interspersed with details about her pain are tales about her acquisition of a new Samoyed (interesting choice of dog for Cambridge, MA) and her closely knit neighborhood, and how the dog and neighbors help her through.
Caldwell's prose is certainly engaging. And her story of overcoming not only her physical disability but also her alcoholism, her depression, and finally the challenge of living life without a limp is inspiring. But the book is ostensibly about that final challenge, and the book is primarily about the events leading up to the surgery, not after. Plus, it is also somewhat remote and cool -- even when she writes of passion, we feel dispassion as readers. This could have been a deeply inspiring book, but the reserve of the writer, as well as a certain self satisfaction, holds back the extra level of relation and compassion we might have felt, and, finally, it falls a tad flat.
on July 20, 2014
I really liked Ms. Caldwell's previous book, "Let's Take the Long Way Home." Oddly, I'm nearly the same age, live in Cambridge, walk my dog at Fresh Pond (although I've never encountered Ms. Caldwell and probably wouldn't recognize her if I did), had hip replacement surgery two years ago, and lost my mother just months before my surgery. With all those things in common, I was looking forward to reading this book. Alas, I found it curiously flat and less well-written than the previous one. As to the latter, it seemed almost as if the book were comprised of notes jotted on pieces of paper and then stitched together, without transitions that flowed well. In short, similar to a bunch of book reviews strung together, or excerpts from a diary. She glossed over some major things, like her previous alcoholism - obviously, a big thing, but nowhere was it clear to me how she overcame her addiction (which, fortunately, is one thing that I don't share with her). And despite her brief explanation at the end of the book, I find it hard to believe that after suffering from the consequences of misdiagnosis - actually, pure malpractice - for more than 10 years, she was not angry. Somehow, it made her seem less human and more robotic, which is unfortunately how she came across throughout much of the book, just skimming the surface of emotion except perhaps at the very end, when she describes her mother's death. I really wanted and expected to like this book a lot, but there just wasn't enough "there," there. Nothing was really explored in depth - we hopscotched from her dog, to her surgery, to her neighbors, to her mother... But for the fact that it was so short, I'm not sure I would've finished it, but since it's only 161 pages long, I felt compelled to see how it ended. Better editing would have helped, although I've been noticing that not a lot of editing takes place any more.
Gail Caldwell accomplishes a charming tapestry of challenge and amazing endurance in this memoir that weaves together her experiences of obsession with Samoyed dogs, her relationship with her parents and various friends, and her early childhood polio and its aftermath. Her narrative involves numerous threads that could be dissonant and confusing in this somewhat stream-of-consciousness presentation, but her writing style is so effortless and graceful that there is no confusion. On several occasions she describes the ballet-like grace of her dog Tula, who - as she explains in her last chapter - was named for the dancer Cyd Charisse, whose christened name was Tula Elisse Finklea, and who had also had childhood polio. That same grace is evident in the flow of Caldwell's writing.
I was especially enthralled by the author's detailed description of the process of hip replacement surgery and its aftermath. As it happens, my mother had that same surgery in the mid 1980's, but at that time she was living with my sister in New Mexico and I was only distantly aware of the process. Subsequently, when Lee took up residence with us in Georgia, the rehab had already been accomplished. Although there were limitations, I didn't really understand their scope. It is too bad I hadn't had the benefit of Caldwell's excellent account at that time. This book definitely fits my category of an excellent memoir, well worth reading.
Moving on from her grief at losing her best friend, Caroline Knapp, to cancer at a young age, Gail Caldwell relates her life raising a new dog and at the same time facing an increase in the loss of mobility. Her previous book 'Let's Take The Long Way Home' was a memoir of life with a best friend, facing the cancer diagnosis with that friend and, then, watching her and helping her through her process of death. Enough to take the wind out of anyone's sails. Gail Caldwell, however, is made of tough stuff, she prides herself on her resilience and the ability to see things through.
In the years following her best friend's death, she had three more deaths to grieve, her father, her mother, and her long time companion dog, Clementine. A few months after the death of her beloved dog, Gail found the address of a woman who bred and raised Samoyed dogs. Samoyeds were her kind of dog, big, beautiful balls of white and grey fur. She decided she needed another dog, and she made contact with the woman she knew.
At the same time, Gail relates her life post polio. As a young girl, she came down with what we now know is polio, and she was not able to walk until she was two and a half. Throughout her life she had a slight limp and nothing seemed to help. She was able to overcome any of the disability by staying active and building up her body. It was not until her increased activity with her new pup that she realized her limp was increasing and so was the pain.
She grieved her losses, in her usual way, she kept busy. Gail was very active, an enthusiastic walker and rower. She kept a skull at a Cambridge rowers club, this was one way to keep strong, and the water was always a place where she felt at home. Yet, she felt the absence of a dog, and found the woman who raised Samoyeds,the kind of dog she loved. She found her pup. She and her friends would walk their dogs on the trails and reservoirs surrounding Cambridge. As her pup, Tula, grew, she realized her strength was decreasing and, at the same time the pain in her leg was increasing. She was falling, and the dog was wearing her out. She had to do something. This, is her story of finding the right physicians, obtaining the correct diagnosis, and discovering the best course of treatment.
The author reveals her relationships with the people she loved, and how they have affected her life. She reminds us of her struggle with alcohol, and how AA has assisted her throughout the years. You can't get through the world alone, and Gail called upon her friends for assistance when needed, and they came through in spades. Tula spurred her on, but at the same time, Tula showed Gail her physical limitations, and with the right treatment, surgery, and the long rehabilitation, she found her life again.
I found the first couple of chapters a little slow, but became engrossed thereafter. A short book but filled with a life found anew.
Recommended. prisrob 02-27-14
Gail Caldwell's beautifully written memoir "New Life, No Instructions" is informative, wise and uplifting.
She calls the polio she contracted when she was a couple of months old her "base line." It's the "wall" she pushes against and says everybody has one.
Although she doesn't believe in miracles she says, "I do think you need to be listening when the thunder cracks, because that way you get to be there for the light show that follows."
Over a ten year period she lost her best friend, father, mother, and Clementine, her beloved Samoyed dog. Also the polio she contracted as a baby had begun to reduce her walk to a painful limp and it was getting worse.
Everything changed when a new doctor said she needed a hip replacement and that her leg could be lengthened. Her recovery began when she, for the first time, no longer saw her body in decline and realized she could live pain free.
After surgery and during her brutal rehabilitation Gail was stunned by the outpouring of support and love from her friends and community. They even helped take care of Tula, Gail's new Samoyed puppy. During her recovery Tula sometimes poked her head inside the shower curtain to lick her wounded leg. Also, after a decade of living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gail said she was on a first-name basis with half the people on her city block. She believed her neighbors reached out because she lived alone and because the solitude made her stretch her heart.
Gail began walking without crutches after three months and regained her confidence after six. She marveled how even in pain and in training she could walk faster and better than she had in years.
She said she does not resent her regular doctors failure to find the source of her pain for a decade. She credits her acceptance to her years listening to other people's stories in AA meetings. She says she can't change the tale but in embracing the truth it makes the outcome bearable. She is grateful that her new doctor listened, paid attention, did the right thing and shifted her narrative. She feels blessed by her happy new outcome.
Gail Caldwell is a Pulitzer Prize winner and the New York Times bestselling author of "Let's Take the Long Way Home."
"New Life, No Instructions" is an amazing account of pain, loss and recovery.
on May 21, 2014
Having two metal knees installed at the same time and having just lost my 18 month old Airedale puppy to kidney failure, I consumed this book with a hunger I hadn't recognized until it was satiated. The lessons are powerful and the story sings.
on June 10, 2014
Caldwell writes well and it was an enjoyable read, but it was like a great dish that needs salt so it left me a bit flat. It is well understood that Polio survivors have high tolerance for pain and a huge drive to avoid being viewed as crippled. But, Caldwell's pain threshold was shocking ~ the pain she endured was horrendous and seemed unnecessary at that level. How do I know this? I am polio survivor. Why did she wait so long to get help? What lesson's were learned as she crawled in and out swimming pools? Caldwell's history is rich and she writes well so why there wasn't more depth and emotional insight? All of which would have given the reader a glimpse of what her new life was going to look like.
on August 9, 2014
Having read and enjoyed "Let's Take The Long Way Home", I had hoped for another wonderful Gail Caldwell story. Alas, this was a disappointment! It dragged on and lacked much luster until perhaps the last chapter or two. My hopes were dashed with this
one. Onward to another author and story.