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July's best books

Donna Chavez is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association's Booklist. She is also a freelance writer and a writing coach who has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Tim...

Last Lecture lives on

We're getting into the dog days of summer and I don't know about you but I think it's a good time for a laugh. Some quiet introspection won't hurt either, before we have to think about heading into fall. Most of this month's picks are hits and one is a miss, offered as a warning not to waste your time or money.

Last Lecture lives on

"The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow, nonfiction, 4.5/5

Although Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and 40-something father of three small children, is dying of pancreatic cancer his book couldn't be further from the tear-jerking, Lifetime-channel, woe-is-me tale I was expecting.

Editor's note: When Donna Chavez wrote this look at July books, Pausch had not passed away. We at SheKnows miss him dearly.

Prophetic

"The Last Lecture" is instead a polemic on all the good fortune he's enjoyed in his life with a bonus lesson (far from a boring "lecture") on how certain attitudes and frames of mind can shape our own lives to achieve luckier, happier outcomes. While I'm sure his parents are not the only ones in the world who raised happy, well-adjusted children, Pausch seems able to recognize them for their positive attributes rather than the times they may have sent him to his room without supper or made him share his GI Joes with a cousin.

He fought hard to get into the graduate school of his choice and didn't give up just because they declined his application initially. Pausch's website, thelastlecture.com, offers an excerpt.

I'm sure once you read it you'll want to read more. It is that good.

"When You Are Engulfed in Flames" by David Sedaris, nonfiction, audio, narrated by the author, 5/5:

I can't help it. I go back and re-listen to essays from Sedaris's books all the time. This one will be no exception. Thus the 5/5 rating.

Last Lecture lives on

Sedaris sharp prose

Sedaris' books are chockablock with his observations on life's little dilemmas, some we all can relate to, such as, what to do if a sneeze jettisons your cough drop into the lap of the (sleeping) person sitting next to you in an airplane?; and some that seem exclusive to Sedaris, such as adopting a spider, naming her April, then transporting her from the French countryside to be by his side in Paris.

All his books are great, but this one shows us more of his humanity and vulnerability than previous ones. He is flawed, just like the rest of us, but his take on how he functions, flaws and all, in a world that seems frustratingly geared toward perfect people (like when he visited a French doctor and ended up sitting in a crowded waiting room wearing only his underpants) endears him to my heart. If you can, listen to the audio version. I'm sure the print edition is really good but for me half the delight comes from David's deadpan delivery and his timing, both are impeccable.

"Dear American Airlines" by Jonathon Miles, fiction, 4.5/5:

Some books don't go anywhere. Benjamin Ford, stuck at O'Hare Airport for 24 hours when his flight is inexplicably delayed, is also going nowhere. But when he decides to bide some of that time by penning a letter to American Airlines demanding the refund of the $392.68 fare from New York to LA he takes us on a wonderful journey from rage to resignation to release. Mid-lifer Bennie is a poet and literature translator who, given the reason for this trip, to attend his estranged daughter's wedding, is in a reflective mood.

Once he spills the bile aimed at the airline he begins to evoke images of his life growing up in New Orleans as the almost-illegitimate son of a bipolar southern belle and a Polish refugee, his marriages and his life choices. Some open old wounds and are painful to learn about such as his parents' miserable marriage, his own alcoholism, his mother's descent into dementia and his efforts to cope with it all. Some of his memories are cleansing. He begins to see that everything in his life is not his own fault.

But through it all, it's his observations on his fellow strandees, on spending the night sitting in one of those gawd-awful airport chairs and having to remove his shoes every time he returns from going outside for a smoke that provide comic relief and, surprisingly, give perspective to the angst of Bennie's half-lived life.

Up next...Maria Shriver, the First Lady of California and Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger offers insight

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