Thursday, December 1, 2016

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In 1870, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an elderly widower who is traveling through northern Texas giving live readings to paying audiences who are hungry for news of the world.  Having lived through three wars and fought in two, he enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.  But his world changes when he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan, Johanna, to relatives in Texas.

Johanna's parents and sister had been killed by Kiowa raiders, but she had been spared and raised as one of their own.  After being rescued by the army, she is yet again torn from the only home she knows for a 400-mile journey south through difficult and dangerous terrain with Captain Kidd. Johanna has forgotten the English language, refuses to act civilized, and throws away her shoes.  Yet, as the miles pass, the two begin to trust one another and forge a bond.

When they arrive in Texas, the Captain must hand her over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember and who regard her as an unwanted burden.  He then faces a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate, or become a kidnapper himself.  News of the World is a brilliant work of historical fiction that examines the boundaries of family, honor, trust, and responsibility and is well deserving of its selection as a 2016 National Book Award Finalist.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery is a popular naturalist who in this book explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus.  The octopus is an astonishingly complex, spirited creature, with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old fashioned pen.  It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange.  It can change color and shape.  It can taste with its skin.  Most fascinating of all, they are really quite smart.  They represent the great mystery of the Other.  They seem completely alien, yet their world--the ocean--comprises far more of the Earth (70 percent of its surface area; more than 90 percent of its habitable space) than does land.  Montgomery practices true immersion journalism in pursuit of these wild, solitary animals and chronicles her growing appreciation of this animal by telling us this love story.  The book is funny, entertaining, and touching.  A captivating book on a quite different intelligence.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

I am normally a pretty big Jodi Picoult fan, because her books usually take controversial newsworthy issues  and examine them through the eyes of ordinary people.  She tries to present both sides of an issue and allows readers to feel sympathetic towards characters on opposing sides of a conflict.  However, I must admit this time out, I had a bit of reluctance towards reading her latest effort because it is about race and prejudice, and to be honest I feel about that topic a bit like Morgan Freeman does in the clip below: 

But because it is written by Ms. Picoult, I decide to read it anyway, because I was sure it would be well written despite my trepidation.  And it is, even though I found some of the motivations and actions of a couple of her main characters a little too trite and stereotypical. 
Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years' experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she's been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don't want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy's counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other's trust, and come to see that what they've been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

Despite my earlier qualms about a couple of characters that were almost caricatures, and a mindset that leans a bit towards victimization and playing the blame game, I found it to be an interesting read.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

This book is classed as a technological thriller, though it really blends multiple genres--love story, science fiction, speculative fiction, philosophy, action--you name it.  It is simply written (no flowery prose or long exposition), but if you are willing to immerse yourself in it and suspend disbelief, it will blow your mind.  Once you immerse yourself in this book, you simply have to find out what happens next and you'll stay with it till it's completed...forgetting whatever else you had in mind to accomplish.

Jason Dessen is knocked unconscious by a masked abductor and awakens strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in Hazmat suits, where a man Jason's never met smiles down at him and says, "Welcome back, my friend."  In this world, Jason's life is not the one he knows .  His wife is not his wife.  His son was never born.  He's not an ordinary college physics professor, but a genius who has achieved something remarkable.  Something impossible.

Which life is the real one, and which is the dream? Can he make it back to the family he loves and the life he remembers as real?

The answers to these questions will involve an expansion of your brain cells and a tugging of your heart strings.  It makes you think about life, and family, little things and big things, and the path not taken, as well as the choices we make.  It is like falling down the rabbit hole...but wow...what an enjoyable read.  While reading, I kept thinking this would make a great movie, and voila I just read where it is in production.  People will be talking about this book and seeking out the film.  Jump on the bandwagon now. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

This book is drawn from a real, but little known, part of American history.  The Orphan Train Movement lasted from 1853 to the early 1900s.  More than 120,000 homeless or neglected children (ranging in age from about 6 to 18) with little or no hope of a successful future, were removed from the poverty and debauchery of New York's city streets and sent by train to live and work on farms out west.  They were placed in homes free,  but would serve as an extra pair of hands to help with chores around the farm.  They wouldn't be indentured, in fact older children placed by The Children's Aid Society were to be paid for their labors, but as with all idealistic endeavors such as this, some placements worked out very well where children were able to lead simple normal lives and go on to success, and some children struggled and no doubt wound up in situations where they were exploited.

In this story, a 91 year old woman (who was an orphan train rider) begins a friendship with a troubled teen who is a foster child that has been bounced from one unsuitable home to another.  The story unfolds with Molly (the troubled teen) in present day, with flash backs told by Vivian (the 91 year old) about her experiences from 1929 through World War II.

It is a powerful tale of resilience, upheaval, second chances, and friendship that captures our universal desire to belong, experience family, and be accepted. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

If you have ever loved a dog, chances are you will love this book.  I know I shed lots of eye rain (Lily's name for tears) at the touching and affecting way this story of the unconditional love we have for our dogs is told.  Emotional, and heart-felt, it will pack a wallop when it comes to life lessons as well.

"Because dogs live in the present.  Because dogs don't hold grudges.  Because dogs let go of all their anger daily, hourly, and never let it fester.  They absolve and forgive with each passing minute. Every turn of a corner is the opportunity for a clean slate.  Every bounce of a ball brings joy and the promise of a fresh chase."

Ted Flask is an aging writer, who is lonely and isolated, except for his aging Dachshund, Lily.  He and Lily share everything.  Rowley's descriptions of the relationship are quite funny and Lily will capture your heart in the telling.  One day, however, he notices a growth (or tumor) on her head that he refers to as the Octopus.  Faced with the prospect of losing her, he digs in to fight--which means dealing with existential questions like, is it the promise of death that inspires life, so that we grab what we can while there is  still time? Or is it the not knowing if today is the day it ends that keeps us going? And if it is the end, how do you breathe? How do you go on?

Intelligently written, with fine observations, and just utterly charming.  A tribute to love and what we sacrifice for those we love...human and animal.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood


This was a very sweet read--a book with a lot of soul.  Beautifully written with warmth and humor, it is a celebration of friendship that spans generations and the healing power of music as well as ultimately, love. 

It is the luminous story of a 104 year old woman, Ona Vitkus, and the sweet, strange young boy scout assigned to help her around the house as part of earning a merit badge.  As their friendship develops, it touches each member of the boy's disintegrating family.  The boy's father is a musician, who has been on the road chasing his dream, gig after gig.  He has been a largely absent father, twice married to the boy's mother, Belle.  Their son happens to be obsessed with Guinness World Records, and believes that Ona Vitkus has a good chance of appearing in the record book for oldest person, as well as possibly oldest licensed driver. 

And this is really all I want to give away of the story.   The joy is in the reading, as the narrative gradually unfolds and secrets are revealed.  It is a story about hearts broken seemingly beyond repair, and yet still capable of being touched by stunning acts of human devotion. 

I loved this book.    

Sunday, September 4, 2016

White Bone by Ridley Pearson

Before I give you  my thoughts on this book, I have to make you aware (as some of you  undoubtedly already will be) of the dire plight of the African elephant.  Poaching of these magnificent animals plays a large part in the plot of this book. 

Quoted directly from the book:  "White Bone is dedicated to the thousands of individuals who have made it their life's  purpose to protect and defend the elephant, rhino and other endangered species on the African continent.  These people earn less than they could elsewhere, they sleep in tents or front seats or not at all.  They battle the harsh conditions of the African environment, and the monetary conditions that create a market for elephant tusk and rhino horn: poverty, corruption and greed.  They often spend more time trying to raise awareness and funds than they do on the ground battling poachers.  They are unnamed, unseen and, in many places, unwanted.  Without them, the African wild elephant and rhino will be gone forever within the next nine years.  An elephant is killed every fifteen minutes."

Now, from an author's note in the back of the book, how you can help.  These are organizations he has had direct contact with and highly recommends:

African Wildlife Foundation
Big Life
The Gorongosa Fund
Northern Rangeland Trust
Wildlife Direct

This book is the fourth in Pearson's Risk Agent series, which as Greg Iles has said has reenergized the international thriller.  It features Rutherford Risk Agents Grace Chu and John Knox.  When John Knox receives a text from his partner Grace warning that she fears her cover has been blown while on assignment, he jumps into action.  Knox has to locate her overseas handlers, convince them  of the danger, and then attempt to retrace the well-hidden steps of a woman who had been investigating how one million euros' worth of AIDS vaccine disappeared, all while eluding angry poachers on a parallel trail.  And corruption isn't just a problem in Kenya, it's a way of life.  Knox faces police, journalists, rangers, and safari companies who have their own symbiotic relationship with the elephants.  Factor in al-Shabaab militants and you can see that Knox finds himself pitted against the most savage and suicidal fighters in the world.  Yet he does just that for a woman who he finally admits to himself has become extremely important to him.  The exotic locale and a plot which could be tomorrow's headlines make this a satisfying thriller.  Richly layered and suspenseful, he manages to leave his fans wanting more.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

This book is far different from "The Red Tent," Diamant's feminist novel of biblical proportions that put her on the best seller list in 1997.  But then it is a totally different kind of book.

This is a historical novel that takes the form of a casually related oral autobiography of the main character, Addie Baum, an 85-year old Jewish woman, to her granddaughter, who asks her how she got to be the woman she is today.

Her story is presented to us in brief dated sections starting in the early 1900's continuing through till 1985.  It is told in a casual, relaxed, and straightforward style with humor and quiet reflection.  The themes of friendship and family are explored in their historical context.  It is not a nostalgic look back, in fact one of the closing sections is titled "Don't let anyone  tell you things aren't better than they used to be."  But it does have emotional resonance and is a nice portrait of one woman's complicated life in twentieth century America.  It is also an enjoyable read about a generation of women trying to find their places in a changing world.

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. 

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