Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

This novel is not just about reincarnation, though strictly speaking it is, but is a fascinating treatment of what happens to us after we die, and what happens before we are born.

Single Mom Janie is trying to figure out what's wrong with her son Noah.  He's terrified of water (so getting him to bathe is a battle).  He has nightmares so vivid and scary that even she is frightened.  He talks about things that someone his age does not normally know.  And he asks to go home to his other Mother.  When his preschool orders him to get a psychiatric evaluation, his Mom is at her wit's end.  One of the evaluating psychiatrists thinks he may be schizophrenic and need medicating.  But when she meets Jerome Anderson, who has spent his life looking for an explanation concerning children who remembered past lives, they find themselves caught up in another explanation entirely.  

This book explores the lengths we will go to for our children, the regret that we have at the end of our lives, the hope we have in the beginning...and everything in between.  Interspersed with actual cases from the practice of real life psychiatrists, it makes for a captivating and thought provoking read.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Reluctant Midwife by Patricia Harman

It's the Great Depression in rural West Virginia.  Men are out of work and women struggle to feed hungry children.  Nurse Becky Meyers moves to Hope River, WV along with her former employer, Dr. Isaac Blum, who is in a catatonic state apparently caused by the sudden death of his wife.  Not only does Dr. Blum need assistance with just the basics of daily living, but the local midwife, Patience Murphy, who is her good friend, needs assistance with  delivering babies, a task that Nurse Meyers finds terrifying--hence the "reluctant" part of the title.  Nurse Meyers also obtains a part time job as the nurse at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp and slowly starts to cope with the challenges of rural survival.  Difficult pregnancies, mining accidents, and a raging forest fire keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.  As Dr. Blum's condition starts to gradually improve, we start to get a glimpse into the tragedy that led him to his catatonic state and the complicated relationship between him and Becky Meyers is brought to the forefront of the story.  This is a moving story about the power of optimism and love to triumph over circumstances.  The history is well researched giving an accurate portrayal of race relations, mistrust of government programs, the state of medicine at the time, and the rejection of outsiders.  And the writing is solid and authentic with good characterization.  An overall good read.    

Monday, July 4, 2016

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

As a young girl, Beryl Markham arrived in Kenya from Britain with her parents who were seeking a new life.  For her Mother, the dream  quickly faded and she returned home,  but Beryl and her father stayed and made a life for themselves in the hard scrabble country along with the Kipsigis tribe who shared their estate.  Her mother's abandonment made an impact on her that is certainly hard to calculate.  Her unconventional upbringing turned her into a fierce young woman with a love of all things wild...but even wild children have to grow up, and this fictionalized account  of her life and loves is a gripping page turner.  It presents her as a flawed human being (which we all are) who sometimes makes smart decisions and sometimes pretty stupid ones...but it is written very well and is really an exquisite story of a woman who wasn't afraid to push the boundaries of what was expected at the time in her search to find her way in the world.  And though she managed to accomplish a lot  in her life, her personal character wasn't always a shining example.

This quote tells you much about Beryl's attitude to life:  "We're all of us afraid of many things, but if you  make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren't your own person at all--are you? The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy."

The descriptions  of Africa are what made the book for me, and she certainly managed  to  capture the adventurous spirit that  was Beryl Markham.  A remarkable  read.

Dimestore by Lee Smith

Lee Smith has wanted to be a writer ever since she can remember.  She started telling stories as soon as she could talk, and made them up as well.  Her father was fond of saying that she would climb a tree to tell a lie rather than stand on the ground to tell the truth.  Dimestore is a love letter to the people and places that made a writer out of a small  town southern girl.  

Lee has established herself as a preeminent voice of the south through her fiction over the last 45 years.  This book is about her enchanting childhood in the small coal mining town of Grundy, Virginia where her father owned a Ben Franklin Dimestore and ran it for many years.  Her thoughts and reminiscences around place, memory, and writing are charming and heart-felt. Told with honest, humor, and sensitivity, it is a moving portrait of her heritage and a tasty slice of southern culture.  A fast and enjoyable read. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

"Life and death lived inside each other.  That's what occurred to me.  Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains." -- Peter Heller, The Dog Stars

I like post apocalyptic books, and this is one that appeared on my radar recently.  It's written in a slightly different style,  but drew me in nonetheless and propelled me  along in my reading.  The story line is this:  Hig survives a flue pandemic that kills his wife and pretty much everyone he knows.   He lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog Jasper and a mercurial gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.  When a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna,  it ignites a hope deep inside of him  that a better life exists outside of his tightly controlled perimeter.   He risks everything, flying past the point of no return to follow it, only to  find something that is both better and worse.

I loved the descriptions of the landscape, the play of opposites between Hig and Bangley, and the love Hig had for his dog Jasper.  A very compelling read--beautifully done.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman was a reckless young woman when she delivered suitcases of drug money.  Years later her past finally catches up with her, and she becomes inmate #11187-424 at the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.  She learned to navigate that world, which was in stark contrast to the well-healed Smith College world of white privilege she came from, and this book is the result of that experience.  There is also a successful Netflix program based on the book (which I have not seen as yet).  I must admit  when I started reading this book,  I realized that by comparison I had led a very sheltered life, as it would  not even occur to me  to do some of the things she talks about so casually.  But it is funny, and written well enough.  There are a few instances in the book when I thought she did some  pretty stupid things to be a fairly smart woman,  but I suppose that charge could be made against  many of us.  I think  I just might  watch the Netflix series now and see what I think.  From what I read, it is very well received.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

I enjoy Joshilyn Jackson's writing style, finding it smart funny, and always enjoyable.  This quirky, unconventional, yet inspiring story about love, faith, and redemption is another compelling read.  I found myself rooting for single mom Shandi Pierce, who is trying to juggle college, raising a son on her own, and trying to keep the peace between long divorced parents who are always at war with one another.  When she is caught in the middle of a holdup in a gas station and falls for a man named William who steps between the armed robber and her son, shielding him from harm, things start to get interesting and heat up quickly.  Yet Shandi discovers that William has some baggage of his own involving a tragic accident that shattered his universe.   How this plays out is astutely handled by Jackson.  I especially loved the justaposition of opposing viewpoints by Shandi who believes in destiny and William who believes destiny is about choice.  The story also has two sets of man/woman best friends, which is an interesting topic in and of itself.  The unexpected truths are uncovered slowly and perfectly as what we think we know about these characters gets turned inside out.  And isn't that just like life itself?  

Monday, March 21, 2016

Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis

I wanted to read this book, because she chose to walk alone 10,000 miles (on foot), covering 6 countries, wearing out 8 pairs of hiking boots in the process, drinking 3,000 cups of tea, during a journey that lasted 1,000 days and nights.  I thought a trip like that surely had to teach you something.  Though there were interesting moments in the book, it wasn't quite what I expected it to be.  Miss Marquis is Swiss and some of her thoughts and actions seemed a little different to me.  Though I understood her love of wilderness and solitude, she seemed almost too disengaged when she was dealing with real people along the way, and her description of some of the things that happened to her are pretty sketchy.  You don't really get a feel for what happened in any detail or any real sense about how she truly felt about it.  The disjointed structure of the book was a bit distracting and disappointing, though what she did was an amazing accomplishment.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

This is the first book I've read by this author, though she has written five.  Based on the strength of this one, I would definitely pick up one of her others.  It is a story about friendship, love, and second chances--all things the world needs more of, so it should have wide appeal.  An experienced psychologist, Maggie (who usually manages to maintain emotional distance from her patients), treats a young Indian woman, Lakshmi (who has tried to kill herself).  Seeing that Lakshmi is cut off from her family in India (so she is lonely and isolated), and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store, Maggie's professional detachment evaporates and she crosses the professional line and tries to help her.   As Maggie and Lakshmi's relationship deepens, and personal and professional lines are blurred even more, long-buried secrets come to light that force them to confront painful choices in their own lives.  The viewpoints of these two very different women are written very well and wisdom and compassion shine through.    

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

Brandon Stanton took photographs on the streets of New York over a five year period.  After he took the snapshot he would interview the people involved.  He did this more than ten thousand times.  The brief story connected to each photo enhances each shot and you get an intimate glance into the lives of the people in the photos lending them an unflinching rawness and honesty that makes them jump off the page.   As I finished reading each story, a line the narrator said at the end of a police drama TV series called The Naked City (which aired from 1958-1963) came to mind:  "There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them."  Each of these photos/stories represents the gamut of human emotion layering happy upon sad and silly upon mad.  This book is an experience to be savored a little at a time.  But, be prepared for a bumpy ride--which really, when you think about it, is a perfect illustration of existence.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Yann Martel wrote the Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize and sold more than 12 million copies around the world.  It was also made into a movie that was subsequently nominated for 11 Academy Awards.  The question has been asked, can he emerge from the shadow of Life of Pi? I suppose my answer to that question would be that he is much too good a writer to ever be pigeonholed between the covers of one book--as spectacular as that book may be.  What makes his books so enjoyable to me, is the beauty of his wonderful descriptive prose.  It never disappoints.  Life of Pi was a wonderful book.  Beatrice & Virgil just destroyed me with its powerfully descriptive emotions.  And even though this book is a bit different (with its three seemingly unrelated stories that intersect finally in the end), it is the power of the language that he uses to examine grief, mourning, and awful loss, even using large doses of humor (admittedly dark sometimes), that ultimately prevails. 

In the first story of the book, set In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomas discovers an old journal.  It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that, if he can find it, would redefine history.  Traveling in one of Europe's earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure.  The second story occurs thirty-five years later, when a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomas's quest.  The last story occurs fifty years on, when a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife.  But he arrives with an unusual companion, a chimpanzee.  And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion.

In these stories Martel deals with religion, faith, saints, the ethics of primate research, and learning to live in the moment, with perceptive observations and thoughtful discourse, and always, always the beautiful language.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman's Recovery and the Shelter Dogs who Loved her back to Life by Shannon Kopp

This memoir about a woman's struggle with bulimia and the shelter animals who she credits with saving her life is definitely a testament to the power of the human/canine relationship.  As someone who has always loved and owned dogs, this was its overwhelming appeal to me.  I must admit that bulimia is an eating disorder that I don't have any direct experience with and didn't know very much about prior to reading this book.  I don't know if I still understand it completely or not.  It is hard for me to wrap my mind around such extreme behavior, though the author did a pretty good job describing her own thoughts, experiences, and motivations. 

For eight years Ms. Kopp battled the disease with its endless cycle of bingeing and purging.  It was only when at 24 she got a job working at the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA and was involved in caring for shelter dogs that she found the inspiration to heal and the courage to forgive herself.  Through the pages of her book we get to know a few of the extraordinary homeless animals who impacted her life and led to her recovery--Sweet Pea, Big Girl, Abby, Stewie and others.  It is the story of the spiritual healing these animals bring to her life that is the heart and soul of her book.  Animals can teach us to savor and live in the moment, and reclaim our joy. 

This book would be a good read for animal lovers and anyone who has endured struggles and prevailed. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South by Rick Bragg

From the New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner comes this collection of essays on life in the south.  Keenly observed and well written with his usual dose of humor Bragg writes about home, place, and the spirit that encompasses his native Alabama as well as Cajun country and the Gulf Coast.  These stories were collected from a decade of his writing about the region that he loves and understands probably better than us all.  His unique gift for storytelling is brought home in a powerful way by the sensitivity and depth of his prose.
One of the many passages that spoke to me:  "...I hope I will never have a life that is not surrounded by books, by books that are bound in paper and cloth and glue, such perishable things for ideas that have lasted thousands of years, or just since the most recent Harry Potter.  I hope I am always walled in by the very weight and breadth and clumsy, inefficient, antiquated bulk of them, hope that I spend my last days on this Earth, arranging and rearranging them on thrones of good, honest pine, oak, and mahogany, because they just feel good in my hands, because I just like to look at their covers, and dream of the promise of the great stories inside."
I love Rick's books.  I Love the man.  Here's your chance to discover one of the great southern writers.

After You by Jojo Moyes


This is the sequel to "Me Before You," the well written tear jerker and testament to love published by Moyes in 2013 that sold over five million copies.  If you've not read "Me Before You," you need to read it first and then read this one--not just so you get the history of the characters right, but because it really is such a fantastic read.  In the first book, Louisa Clark takes a job working for wheelchair bound Will Traynor.  Will is acerbic, moody, bossy, and she soon finds herself caring about his happiness more than she expected.  I don't know what I can tell you about this one without spoiling what happens in her previous book, but suffice it to say that after the transformative 6 months she spent with Will Traynor in "Me Before You," she is struggling.  An extraordinary accident forces her to return home to her family and she can't help but feel she is right back where she started.  Like its predecessor it tackles difficult subjects giving you a roller coaster ride that will have you laughing, crying, and rejoicing. 

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. In this novel about hard choices and survival, she is also on trial for her life.

In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she'd found.

The story is told from her point of view, and the motives of others always seem to be suspect.  But since we are never really told the story from any other angle, perhaps we should be leery of Grace's motives as well.  The point of the whole story is that nothing is as it seems.  Alliances form, motives are not always discernible, exposure and deprivation take their toll.  The book grapples with difficult issues.  When, if ever, is it appropriate to commit an evil act to save others? When is inaction as great an evil as violent action? And lastly, how would you behave under similar circumstances?

An interesting read. 

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

In Holt, Colorado, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters.  Her husband died years ago, as did his wife.  In such a small town, they have known each other for decades.  She makes him a very strange proposal.  She wants him to come over to her house some night and sleep with her.  Not for sex, but for talk, comfort.  Both of them are alone, lonely, and heading into old age.  As they lie together in bed, companionably, they talk about their dreams, disappointments, hopes, and compromises.   Their lives are gradually laid bare to each other and they ward off the loneliness that has consumed them both.  Charming, tender, and beautifully written this book about finding love late in life was finished just days before Kent Haruf died.  He knew he was dying (from an incurable lung disease), but he felt well enough to attempt one more project. Normally it took him six years or more to write a novel, but in a rush of creative energy he finished this is just 45 days.  What a lovely legacy this book of gorgeous writing and wisdom has become.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary.  From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life.  Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls.  The only person he can't seem to heal through literature is himself.  This international best seller is a love letter to books, filled with warmth and adventure and sumptuous descriptions of food and literature.  Rich in allusions this beautiful and enchanting book will get you thinking and make you happy.  After all, who can resist floating on a barge through France surrounded by books, wine, love, and great conversation? There are recipes in the back of the book, as well as a section titled "Jean Perdu's Emergency Literary Pharmacy: From Adams to Von Arnim," that is really wonderful.  A completely delightful read.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and may be the first person to die there.  He's stranded, completely alone, and has no way to contact Earth to let them know he's alive.  Drawing on his ingenuity, engineering skills, and just plain determination to survive, he tries to think his way through each calamity, one step at a time.  One thing is sure, he just will not give up.  They made a movie from this book already in which Matt Damon stars.  The movie has been called Apollo 13 meets Cast Away.  One thing I remember thinking as I read the book was how did the author manage to fact check this book (which is full of science and math and facts about Mars)? Does he have friends at NASA or JPL? How can you confirm its accuracy? Apparently that was very important to Weir as well. This confessed space nerd even wrote a computer program to make the science as real as possible.  And you can certainly see how this authenticity added to the edge of your seat feel to the book.  And even I, someone who hates math, can see the importance of it to the survival of our species in this man against the elements story.  This book was a really fun read, well written, fast paced, and leaving you marveling at the resilience of the human spirit.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Here if you Need Me by Kate Braestrup

A beautifully written account of a woman's journey through grief to connect with her faith and to ultimately find happiness.  In the wake of her husband's death she pursues his dream of becoming a minister, and ultimately finds her calling as a chaplain to search-and-rescue workers.  A deeply moving and uplifting story of finding God through helping others and of the small miracles that happen every day when a heart is grateful and love is practiced faithfully.  Very tender hearted and funny, you don't have to share her faith to be moved by her writing and the struggles she overcomes.  A touching and affecting read.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

In this continuation of the story she began in Doc, Mary Doria Russell presents her richly detailed and meticulously researched presentation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and the beginning of the mythology that surrounds it to this day.  Her characterization of these men and the times they lived in within her narrative is so rich that you feel like you are right in the middle of all the action.

It is a story of a divided nation, vicious politics, and a partisan media that rivals that of today.  America in 1881 is shown in all its gritty splendor and you can't tell the good guys and the bad guys from the color of the hat they wear.  To me, the character that really shines in this book (as well as the first book in this series "Doc") is Doc Holliday.  He is such a complex person with so many different sides to his personality and so many diverse talents that I find him quite fascinating.  And the dynamics at work within the Earp brothers and the women who loved them are so interesting as a backdrop for this historical event that we think we know so much about already.

And then there is Wyatt Earp.  A good man who is caught right in the middle of a great tragedy and yet still tries to remain a hero.  When I was growing up I loved watching the TV program, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O'Brien.  I can still sing the theme song..."the west it was lawless but one man was flawless..." 

Luminous and elegant; a compulsively good read.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This book is full of unreliable narrators and not necessarily likable characters.  It is well written and the plot moves along fast enough so that the suspense is maintained, and yet it was ultimately a bit disappointing.  I can't really put my finger on just why, other than the fact that there weren't any characters in it that I could really relate to.  I think if there had been at least one or two it would have made for a better read.  If I was using a 5 star rating, I think I would give this one about a 3.5--interesting and worth reading, just not top of the line (but then again I am a tough reviewer, rarely giving a book 5 stars).

Synopsis:  Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning.  Every day she passes a stretch of cozy suburban homes.  Each day the train stops at a signal that allows her to watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck.   She starts to feel like she knows them, and even assigns them names in her head.  She sees their life as perfect, not unlike hers until just recently.  And then she sees something that shocks her.  As the train moves on from the stop, everything has changed and she is unable to keep it to herself.  She tells the police what she knows and becomes entwined in what happens next, as well as the lives of everyone involved.  Now she is wondering if she has done more harm than good.

So, pick it up and read it and see what you think.   

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

This is an emotionally riveting book; an epic tale, brilliantly written and deeply affecting.  Weaving together the threads of numerous storylines into a beautiful tapestry of history and landscape, love, betrayal, and forgiveness, and brimming with wisdom about the human condition.

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa.  Orphaned by their mother's death in childbirth and their father's disappearance they come of age in Ethiopia which is on the brink of revolution.  Their passion for the same woman  will tear them apart and force Marion to flee his homeland and take refuge as an intern in an overcrowded New York City hospital.  Then the past catches up to him, nearly destroying him. 

The title "Cutting for Stone" refers to a line from the Hippocratic Oath that stems from a time when kidney and bladder stones were epidemic (and deadly).  There were some surgeons who could cut for stone, but then they'd wipe their blades on their pants and head off to the next village.  It was extremely dangerous (because of infections).  The phrase implies, "Leave that for people who know what they're doing."

Loss is a theme that runs strongly through the book.  The language used is beautiful.  An imaginative and luminous masterpiece.
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