Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Anatomy of a Miracle

Title:  Anatomy of a Miracle
Author:  Jonathan Miles
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0553447580 / 978-0553447583

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On the afternoon of August 23, 2014, Tanya Harris, wheeled her younger brother, Cameron, to the Biz-E-Bee store on the corner of Reconfort Avenue and Division Street in Biloxi, Mississippi."

Favorite Quote:  "Dressing up a fact doesn't change it, or benefit it in any way. It just obscures it."

Cameron Harris is a disabled army veteran. He is a paraplegic as a result of service injuries. He lives in his hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi and is cared for by his sister Tanya. Life is quiet and one note; the highlight of the days is their walks to the local convenience store run by Vietnamese immigrants. Some days, that is the only activity of the day. However, one day while outside the store, Cameron gets out of his chair and walks. A paraplegic walks. A misdiagnosis? A scientific anomaly? A miracle? All of a sudden, this quiet town and Cameron himself are the center of world news.

I have read history brought to life as fiction. This book is unique in that it presents fiction as a researched nonfictional piece of writing down to fictitious acknowledgements at the end for the help provided by the fictional characters in the book. In the day and age of "fake news" claims being bandied around, this book is in essence exactly that. It is fiction presented as news down to its nonfiction-like subtitle - "The *True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, A Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace." The  "*" by the true includes the following explanation:  "a novel." Creative or dangerous in today's environment? I leave you to decide.

The choice of the main character's name - Cameron Harris - is an interesting one. Search the name, and you find ties to fake news. The real Mr. Harris's claim to fame is a purposefully done fake news story in the middle of last US presidential election. He coupled the story with a photograph found by an Internet search; he published it on a website he created for a fake publication titled the Christian Times Newspaper. The story was shared with millions of people. He claimed his motive was to make money. I don't know the author's reasoning for the name choice, but the exact name and the fake news approach of this book seem an interesting thought to ponder.

Getting past that, the issues this book gets into are about what you expect with miracle in the title. Where do science and faith go hand in hand? Where do they conflict? If you are not a believer in miracles, how do you reconcile your ideas to events that cannot be scientifically explained? If you are a believer in miracles, do they have to be deserved? Can a person's actions make them worthy or unworthy of a miracle?

The book proceeds on two levels. One is Cameron's personal story with flashbacks and a big secret; he has to reconcile and understand his own recovery and his own conflicted beliefs. The other, of course, is a social commentary of the viral nature of Cameron's story. A physician wants to find the cause of the recovery. A reality TV producer wants to cash in on a feel good story. The convenience store owner sees the "miracle" outside his store as a way to solve his financial problems. The hurt and the ill, needing and wanting to believe in miracles, flock to Cameron. Social media provides a forum for people around the world to proclaim or condemn the miracle. Even the Vatican finds itself involved in trying to document and prove a miracle.

The journalistic approach means that the book delves into each facet as a news story might. Part of the issue with the journalistic style of writing is that the book provides a journalistic back story to everything. There are a lot of details - about each character and about each situation - in the book. Not all of them are relevant to the plot; they support the journalism like approach. Unfortunately, this also means that the story gets bogged down in these details. This book is a slow read but does leave me with a lot to think about.


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Monday, July 16, 2018

Feast Days

Title:  Feast Days
Author:  Ian MacKenzie
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0316440167 / 978-0316440165

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My husband worked for a bank in São Paula, a city that reminded you of what American used to think the future would look like - gleaming and decrepit at once."

Favorite Quote:  "Luck - the part of your life you don't control. Or:  you make your own luck. I can see both sides of that one."

Feast Days to me reads as a book trying to be philosophical, literary, poetic, etc. It is trying too hard, and the story seems to get lost in the trying. For this reason, even as a rather short book, it seems to last a long time.

Emma is a young wife who follows her husband as his career takes him to São Paulo, Brazil. The book, however, is not as much about Brazil as Emma and her life. It presents as a series of vignettes - sometimes just isolated thoughts - of different points in Emma's life. Sadly, she does not think much of her own life, and she does not think much of herself. In a book, that can sometimes set up a sympathetic character because as a reader, you seem something deeper in the character that you root for; unfortunately, in this case, Emma's ambivalence comes through and becomes my reaction to the character. In the story, I cannot find the depth of character that might lead me to cheer for Emma and that might convince me that she is incorrect in her analysis of herself. I don't see enough to have the need for the story to convince Emma to see the value in herself.

Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener introduced me to to the term "trailing-spouse syndrome". Apparently, this phrase is the name given to the experience of a spouse who follows his/her partner to another city or another country because of a job. It is typically used in the context of an individual working in an expatriate assignment. While Annie, the main character in Strangers in Budapest, would not see herself as trailing-spouse but rather a partner, the term fits Emma to a T. Emma's husband does not share his work with her, and their marriage appears more of a coming to terms than a partnership. Emma does not seems to have many prospects of her own although that is not a result of the relocation of São Paulo but seems to be Emma's definition of herself.

The ending, when it finally comes, attempts a point by being purposefully vague and trying to give an air of mystery. Unfortunately, it is an anticlimactic ending to a book in which nothing much really happens.

The title Feast Days to me implied images of the vibrant and colorful culture of Brazil. I hoped that at some point, Emma's presence in São Paolo would present an immersive experience in the sights and sounds on the city. Unfortunately, her experiences - to use a word from the book description itself - are "listless" and never really get beyond that. So, the cultural experience for me goes missing in this book because the book gives a vision through a character not really engaged in the culture in which she finds herself. One of my favorite things about fiction set in varied locations is the inspiration it provides for me to research the actual place; sadly, I find no such inspiration in this book. With that, I become unfortunately and completely not the reader for this book.


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Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Flight Attendant

Title:  The Flight Attendant
Author:  Chris Bohjalian
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0385542410 / 978-0385542418

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She was aware first of the scent of the hotel shampoo, a  Middle Easter aroma reminiscent of anise, and then - when she opened her eyes - the way the light from the windows was different from the light in the rooms in the hotel where the crew usually stayed."

Favorite Quote:  "A smart girl is nobody's pushover and nobody's foe. A smart girl is both sword and smile."

Cassandra "Cassie" Bowden is a flight attendant. She is an orphan with a traumatic childhood. She is a party girl. She is promiscuous in her dealings with the men she meets. She is an alcoholic, drinking to the the point of black outs. She is a thief. However, is she a murderer? She doesn't think so, but she is not sure.

A flight from New York to Dubai brings Cassie in contact with Alex Sokolov. A seemingly casual hook-up leads to upending Cassie's life. She wakes up the next morning in Alex's bed in his hotel room. Next to her is Alex, dead with his throat slashed end to end. Cassie remembers her night with Alex up to a point; she has no idea how he ends up dead and how she is alive and still in the room.

So begins this page turner by Chris Bohjalian. I am a fan of Chris Bohjalian's books. I look forward to a new one for a couple of reasons. One because each book that I have read takes on a completely different topic meticulously researched. The ones I have read in recent years dealt with sex trafficking, nuclear disaster, World War II, Armenian genocideherbalists, and parasomnia. The author's note to this book addresses Mr. Bohjalian's knack for taking on unique topics. "I rarely write what I know. But I always do my homework, and I have come to love the research that goes into my books - partly because of what I learn, and also because of the new friends I make." I look forward to what he decides to take on next.

My second reason for picking up his books are that they are page turners. Usually tasks go undone and sleep gets forsaken as the books draw me and keep me avidly reading page by page until the very end.  I have liked the books to varying degrees but always appreciated the thoughtfulness with which the topic is handled. This one is no different.

The flight attendant's plot line reads like an espionage thriller. However, the book is unlike others in the genre because it is character driven more so than plot driven. The reason behind the execution and the players involved are there to provide sufficient background, but this book is very much the story of two women - Cassie and Elena. One is an alcoholic on a path of self destruction; the other is a trained assassin with principles. Not the most original or thouht provoking of setups but nevertheless entertaining.  It's more like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in that regard.

Neither woman makes likable choices, but both are sympathetic characters. The book presents glimpses of the their childhoods, very different in circumstances but very similar in the indelible, traumatic scars that forever change the lives of these two women. It is this character development that keeps me reading. The question for me is not why Alex Sokolov is killed but rather what is to become of these two women.

The ending, when it comes, answers exactly that question. Mind you, the ending is somewhat anticlimactic. The epilogue pushes the boundaries of believability, most markedly skipping over the challenges of dealing with alcoholism. However, until that point, the book is a page turner and an entertaining read. It's not my favorite of his books, but I will continue to look for what Mr. Bohjalian writes next.


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Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Language of Kindness

Title:  The Language of Kindness:  A Nurse's Story
Author:  Christie Watson
Publication Information:  Tim Duggan Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  152476163X / 978-1524761639

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I didn't always want to be a nurse."

Favorite Quote:  "We will meet people on the way:  patients, relatives and staff - people you may recognize already. Because we are all nursed at some point in our lives. We are all nurses."

Let's start with a given. The expertise, knowledge, and skills of nurses are essential to the medical profession. The kindness and gentleness of nurses are an added boon to patients, making a challenging time easier. In my fortunately limited experience as a patient, I have memories of both the caring and on a rare occasion the lack of caring exhibited by nurses. Those interactions remain in my memories long after the medical treatment is over, and the quality of the nursing care makes a huge impact on my memory of the situations.

That is the reason I choose to read this book. Ms. Watson is a retired nurse and an author. In this memoir, she seeks to tell her own journey as a nurse. "It is impossible to describe exactly what I learn, though I know it lies somewhere between science and art. It is all about the smallest details and understanding how they make the biggest difference."

I expect to go on that journey with her and to be moved by the experiences she shares.  I am, to an extent. Two things get in the way of my completely sharing in her journey. Both have to do not with her story itself but rather with how its told. First is the language. Second is the structure of the book.

This book seems written for a particular audience. Perhaps other nurses, but definitely individuals well versed in medical terminology. The book uses a lot of terms and expressions that seem particular to the medical industry. NPS, Obs, Tempa-Dot, A&E and other such terminology abounds through the book. These are not terms I recognize or even terms and acronyms I can easily look up for they mean different things in different environments. For example, in my day job, "A&E" stands for "administrative and executive." It clearly does not mean the same thing here. The profession specific language, aka jargon, gets in the way of understanding in a reader such as myself who is not in the industry.

The structure of the book also seems to indicate its targeted audience. The book is not a sequential, chronological story of her life. It seems more organized by topics and type of experience. The timing of events is not clear even in the specifics; the book seems to jump around pulling incidents from different points in her career. That works if the intent is to present ideas and notes on different facets of nursing. Going in, I expect more a life story with her journey and growth through nursing. That picture fades into the background. From beginning to end, I know that Ms. Watson was a nurse, but I don't follow the arc of her career and the changes in her approach as she learns the "language of kindness." That is the story I am hoping for.

I end this review as I begin. I don't know that I understand her journey as a result of reading this book, but I have an enormous respect for the dedication of nurses who make our difficult times easier.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Bella Figura

Title:  Bella Figura:  How to Live, Love, and Eat the Italian Way
Author:  Kamin Mohammadi
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0385354010 / 978-0385354011

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She walks down the street with a swing in her step and a lift to her head."

Favorite Quote:  "Contentment is probably consumerism's biggest enemy."

Bella Figura is a memoir of a woman's recovery from loss and her redefinition of herself  in a trip to Italy. Kamin Mohammdi is a British author who was born in Iran and left the country during the Iranian Revolution. Her previous work celebrates that heritage and her life in her adopted homeland of Britain. Ten years ago, life brought her to Florence Italy. She now lives and works in the Tuscany region on Italy.

Her work has been appeared in a wide range of publications from the Financial Times to Condé Nast Traveller to Men's Health to the Sunday Times of India. Beyond writing, her work includes running a Tuscan olive grove, producing small batch olive oil, creating and selling olive oil based skin care, teaching yoga, practicing Reiki healing and massage therapy, and hosting workshops and tours based around this book. In other words, she has a fascinating and varied background, one I want to read about.

This book focuses on a period of time when personal heartbreak leads her to Florence, Italy to heal. Mind you, she has the financial resources to do so and a friend with a home to lend her. Through the book, she defines what the idea of bella figura means:

  • "The concept of bella figura is about making every aspect of life as beautiful as it can be, whether in Rome, London, New York, or Vancouver."
  • "But it's more about taking care, of speaking beautiful words, being beautiful to yourself, even in private."
  • "Waiting for a party or a man to make you take care of yourself is bullshit. Make la bella figura and make it for yourself. Is not hard."

The advice is sound. Make life beautiful. Make it beautiful for yourself wherever you are. It is an idea that begins on the inside. You carry it with you. I wholeheartedly agree.

So, an author whose experiences I want to read about and a premise I agree with should set up for a moving reading experience. I expect an intersection between memoir, travelogue, and self-help. It is that to an extent with the added bonus of recipes with each chapter although the recipes are not really an integral part of the book. Near the end is also a "how to" on bella figura; again, that too seems simply added on and not necessary to the story actually told in the book. Beyond that unfortunately, for me, the majority of content of the book goes in an entirely different direction.

The bulk of the book seems to be about her dating adventures in Italy and the differences in the dating culture in Italy. To make matters worse, one of the relationships described is an unhealthy one, but for a long while, it persists. This focus in a book about personal development and finding your own joy in life seems to lead away from the concept of bella figura. I am still fascinated by the author and will likely look for her other work; this one was just not for me.


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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sociable

Title:  Sociable
Author:  Rebecca Harrington
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0385542828 / 978-0385542821

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Facebook:  An article called '15 images of a sloth that will just make you laugh.'"

Favorite Quote:  "It is especially important for women to write about themselves because women's narratives have been silenced over the years, just as their labors have been ignored and their feelings shunted aside. Women weren't allowed to tell stories. So I am proud to be of a generation that gives voice to women and helps to mentor and highlight different women writes as they come along."

Elinor Thomlinson is a twenty something, a few years out of college and armed with a journalism degree. She lives with her boyfriend in a basement apartment with a mattress pad for a bed and not much else besides. Instead of the literary journalism job she envisioned, Elinor is barely making ends meet, working as a nanny.

Then, jobs happen for both Elinor and her boyfriend. he is hired to write political articles and commentary for a "real" website. She is tasked with producing content - short and catch - that will go viral for Journalism.ly, a media project of a celebrity. Think BuzzFeed and top ten lists.

Perhaps, I am not the right audience for this book. I do not see the humor in it. I find myself more inclined to tell Elinor to stop whining, grow up, and be an adult. I suppose the fact that the character elicits a reaction - positive or negative - is a positive indicator for the book. However, this depiction of Elinor does not really change from beginning to end. No growth or emotional maturity leaves Elinor as a shallow character who is more annoying than endearing.

The book casts a wide net in Elinor's life - a lot of story lines that could have developed into more. First and foremost, this book centers on Elinor's breakup with her boyfriend and her inability to get over it. That seems to fuel her competitive approach to her job, her interactions with other, her social life, and pretty much everything else. Unfortunately, if the objective of the book is a satirical look at the millennial generation, this story line does not feed into that. The story of a bad breakup exists in every generation.

In her job, two men competing professionally with each other seek to "mentor" Elinor. Essentially, they don't care about the relationship but rather outdoing each other to please their boss. Elinor allows herself to be caught in the middle. She is shown as lacking the confidence to stand her ground and take charge of her own career. Is there a sexist message here as well? I am not sure, but it does seem like they want to pat her on the head and want her to follow along. Again, the story line just highlights Elinor's immaturity and not in a humorous way. There is a moment or two (as in the quote above) that I think more may be coming, but it does not.

Elinor's friendships, the one with her "best" friend in particular, seem to lack sincerity and emotion. Strong, meaningful friendships exists between women of all ages and generations; these friends build each other up and sustain each other through all that life brings. Most of all, they tell each the truth, whether or not the other wants to hear it. That is the heart of a true friendship. It seems sorely lacking between Elinor and her friends.

Satires can be biting and funny. For me, unfortunately, this book becomes about unlikable characters with situations that are just irritating. Perhaps, I am removed from the millennial generation, but I sincerely hope this book is not indicative of their behavior. One thing is clear; unfortunately, I am not the reader for this book.


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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Balcony

Title:  The Balcony
Author:  Jane Delury
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0316554677 / 978-0316554671

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In June of 1992, I left Boston for France with everything in front of me."

Favorite Quote:  "Yet, I'm sure you know about the meanings one makes when first in love. Coincidences becomes destiny."

The Balcony belongs to the manor house of an estate in a small village outside of Paris, France. In its centuries of existence, the balcony and the house sees numerous families who call the estate a home. Some occupy the manor house itself, and some live in the nearby servants' cottage. The house bears witness to all their lives and to the history that touches these lives through the years.

This book is somewhere between a collection of stories and a novel. I feel that there are connections that exist between the characters and the stories. In fact, I know there are. The descriptions points to "cross-generation connections and troubled legacies." However, I cannot quite capture those relationships, but it is frustrating to expect to be able to. For that, the book contains too many stories and too many characters. After a while, I stop trying, but the feeling of having missed something remains.

Another factor that makes the connections challenging is that the book is not linear. It is not chronological but rather wanders back and forth through history. The book promises a look "over the course of several generations, from the Belle Époque to the present day." The book may be that, but unfortunately not in a way that allows that course of history to be followed. I almost wanted to rearrange the book and the read the book chronologically to see if more of the themes emerged. Realistically, I never vested enough in the book to actually do that.

The book anchors the stories to not a time but a place. The stories all "haunt the same spaces, so that the rose garden, the forest point, and the balcony off the manor's third floor bedroom" are the focal points of the book. Oddly, for a book so centered on a physical space, I walk away without a real sense of what this estate looks like. Through the words, I cannot conjure up an image. The focal point of the estate is at odds with the completely character focus of the stories.

The character focus of the stories is also implied in the synopsis which promises "a fascinating cast of characters ... rich and poor, young and old, powerful and persecuted." Unfortunately, for me, the characters do not become one very important thing. They are not memorable. Not one stands outs. The description promises a narrative that weaves "a gorgeous tapestry of relationships" and "that burrows deep into individual lives." Again, perhaps, it is the lack of chronology, but for me, the tapestry and the depth do not emerge. I am, however, left with an image of darkness and sadness surrounding the house.

The point of description that does hold true is that of "fleeting moments across the frame of the twentieth centuries." I like the premise of history through a home, but I hoped it would convey that feeling of history. Unfortunately, fleeting moments do not allows for connections to form and ultimately, for me, result in an unsatisfying reading experience and leave me knowing that there was something I missed.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.