January 29, 2009


Your Pregnancy for the Father-to-Be, 2nd Edition. By Glade B. Curtis, M.D., M.P.H., and Judith Schuler, M.S. Da Capo. $14.95.

Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo Not Included). By Robert Schimmel with Alan Eisenstock. Da Capo. $14.

     These two books are in what the publisher Da Capo calls its “Lifelong Books” series, and that is entirely appropriate. The Curtis/Schuler book is about the start of a new life from the perspective of the baby’s father; the Schimmel memoir is about how close the Comedy Central comedian came to dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and what lessons he learned from the experience – and has subsequently tried to teach. The Curtis/Schuler book is careful, straightforward, and nearly encyclopedic in covering just about every imaginable baby-related topic from a serious perspective. The Schimmel one is personal, profane, often overdone and equally often hilarious. Curtis and Schuler will be helpful to any first-time father and many who already have children. Schimmel will turn off as many people as he turns on – but the ones who like his approach will like it a lot.

     The new edition of Your Pregnancy for the Father-to-Be is an expanded and somewhat refocused version of the first edition, which came out some six years ago. It starts with “The Big Picture,” a set of trimester-by-trimester lists of “The Good Part,” “You May Have to Help Your Partner Deal With” and “Pay Attention To.” There is a glossary of pregnancy-related terms, followed by chapters on lifestyle changes, how couples change as partners during a pregnancy, childbirth preparations, labor, delivery and more. It is the “more” that has largely been updated and expanded – for example, there is lengthier (and welcome) treatment of “The Financial Realities of Parenthood,” to cite one chapter title. Here you will find, for example, a set of 24 questions to ask of your health insurer – any one of which could easily take up a chapter or more in itself. This is a book that fathers-to-be can read as narrative or in little bits. The bits are boxes within the chapters, giving “brownie points” (such as “make your partner feel special whenever you can” and “if your partner exercises during pregnancy, do it together”); debunking what used to be called “old wives’ tales” and are here called “my mother-in-law said” (such as the notion that pregnant women who crave meat are carrying boys – there is no scientific relationship between food cravings and a baby’s gender); and discussing certain subjects in additional depth (for instance, whether it is worthwhile financially for a new mother and/or father to return to work). Even within the narrative chapters, the layout makes the authors’ points easy to read and absorb. For example, a brief section on unmarried expectant fathers is laid out with 10 bullet points for the father-to-be to explore with a lawyer, from grandparents’ rights to making medical decisions for the baby. In some ways, fathers-to-be will benefit more from this book than mothers-to-be will from similar books for them, including excellent ones by Curtis and Schuler themselves. The reason is that mothers-to-be are often too busy simply getting through the pregnancy to read this type of book in detail, while fathers-to-be may well be looking for something useful to do. Curtis and Schuler are excellent, no-nonsense guides to one of the greatest of all life-changing events.

     Another life-changing event, and a much less welcome one than pregnancy, is a diagnosis of cancer – which is where Robert Schimmel’s book starts. But Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo Not Included) is as filled with nonsense as Schimmel and Alan Eisenstock can make it. Funny business is Schimmel’s stock in trade – the book is subtitled “How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life,” and Schimmel was doing very well indeed as a 50-year-old stand-up comic when he got his diagnosis in 2000. It was not exactly something he could ignore: the effects of the disease hit him while he was onstage in Las Vegas. Schimmel was then in the midst of a complicated life transition: separated from his wife, Vicki, and living with a woman half his age, Melissa. After the cancer diagnosis, he breaks up with Melissa and moves back in with Vicki, who has offered to nurse him through the treatments – and who has experience in nursing a loved one, since she and Schimmel had lost their son, Derek, to a brain tumor several years earlier. Schimmel’s comedy hero is Lenny Bruce, so it is scarcely surprising that Schimmel’s own comedy is raunchy and highly self-referential – it was that way before the cancer diagnosis (Schimmel had a heart attack in 1998) and is that way throughout his memoir. Still, a lot of what Schimmel says is fairly straightforward: “In twenty-four hours I’ve gone from a sitcom star on Fox to a cancer patient in Phoenix. I’ve switched from trying to begin a life with Melissa to trying to save my life at Mayo. Talk about whiplash. My head’s spinning like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist.” A lot simply reflects what other cancer patients might say: “Dr. [Andrew] Weil talks about the value of taking a cleansing breath, then following that by visualizing something that you really, really want. Which in my case is to live.” But these ordinary moments only set off the bizarre ones that give this book its real flavor: Schimmel talks to a cactus, eats steak at his mother’s urging even though he doesn’t eat red meat (and finds it so good that “it actually rivals my first honeymoon night”), tries crystal therapy, learns to “embrace [his] cancer” because it is his and he does not belong to it, gets stoned on pot (which he smokes for chemotherapy-induced nausea), discusses sex during chemo, and much more. The book bursts with life, and its message of fighting back – coupled with its equally strong message of trying anything when you have nothing to lose – is sure to resonate with families dealing with any type of serious disease, not just cancer. The happily-ever-after ending, in which Schimmel does marry Melissa and they improbably have two children together, seems a complete cliché, but has the advantage of being true. And in that truth, in the hope that it engenders, lies the best thing about this book, which makes so much fun of a diagnosis and a disease that are so terribly unfunny.

No comments:

Post a Comment