Sunday, July 22, 2018

Go Ask Fannie

Title:  Go Ask Fannie
Author:  Elisabeth Hyde
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0735218560 / 978-0735218567

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

Opening Sentence:  "If I give her enough rope, she'll hang herself, he thought."

Favorite Quote:  "Was there ever a death that involved no regret? ... more often than not, what he first heard in their moment of grief was the word 'should.'"

The "Fannie" of the title is not a character in the book but rather the culinary expert and cookbook author Fannie Merritt Farmer. For the three Blair siblings, the phrase "Go Ask Fannie" is a memory of their mother. They do not treasure the cookbook to which it refers for the recipes (this is definitely not a foodie book) but for the sometimes cryptic notes that cover most of the margins in the book. Sometimes, their mother wrote notes on the recipes. Sometimes, she wrote reminders.  Sometimes, she wrote ideas for stories.

In real time, this book is the story of a few days as all three siblings - Ruth, George, and Lizzie converge on their childhood home in New Hampshire. Their father Murry Blaire still lives there surrounded by his sunflowers, and a lifetime of memories fill the family home.

Each family member brings their own agenda for the weekend. Ruth is the oldest, the practical attorney who is used to mothering her family. George is an intensive care nurse. Lizzie is the one still trying to find herself.

Over the course of a few days, the conversations and the memories cover the lifetime of this family. As is true of all sibling relationships, there is love and there is baggage. A marriage, a Congressional campaign, a career put on hold, the death of a child, and the loss of a spouse become turning points for this family amidst the myriad details that comprise a life.

The fate of the cookbook itself is almost a side story in the book. It lands Lizzie in legal trouble and prompts some of the conversations about their mother. To me, that plot line is fodder to explain the sibling dynamics and a vehicle to bring forth the secrets of the past. It is not relevant in and of itself.

The heart of this book and the most interesting character in the book is the one least present in the book. The Blaire siblings lost their mother when they were children. Through flashbacks and memories, the reader gets a picture a woman who put aside her aspirations for her husband's career but who tried to create a life of her own in the stolen moments of solitude. The image is one many individuals will relate to.  The current story is about the three siblings as adults beginning to understand the woman and coming to terms with the trauma of their childhood. That image too is one many readers will relate to.

Close to the end of the book, Murray reveals the final piece of her story. It is not shown as a memory but presented as a revelation. He always knew. That revelation and the ending goes in an unexpected direction without a definitive conclusion. It shifts the focus from the siblings and their memories to the actual events of the past and leaves me wondering what actually happened. Perhaps, that is deliberate for it is quite true that sometimes we never find the answer; we simply make our peace.

Overall, the book remains a story of family and relationships that many people will identify with, perfect for a summer beach read.


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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Sugar Money

Title:  Sugar Money
Author:  Jane Harris
Publication Information:  Arcade Publishing. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1628728892 / 978-1628728897
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue."

Favorite Quote:  "What I saw can never be unseen, never forgotten. All my life, over and over again, that same scene repeating in my mind."

Sugar Money is a very literal title. Set on the islands of Grenada and Martinique in the 1700s, this book is about the control of slaves to work the sugar plantations and to control the money in the islands. What I did not realize before reading the book is that the story is based on actual historical facts - a somewhat obscure incident but history nevertheless. The story is graphic and disturbing in the cruelty depicted; the fact that it is based on history makes it so much more so. Be sure to read the afterword in the book for the author presents the actual history; however, only read it after completely reading the story it includes the historical conclusion of the story.

Emile and Lucien are brothers, both slaves. Emile is considerably older than Lucien, who is still an adolescent. They live on the island of Martinique which is controlled by the French. They were brought here from Grenada by the monks who owned them. The English now control Grenada and the slaves left behind. Emile and Lucien are charged by the monks to return to Grenada and essentially steal back the slaves that the monks feel still belong to them. As slaves themselves, Emile and Lucien really have no choice, but they are presented the "incentive" of seeing this as a rescue mission and thinking about possible reunification with people they love.

Lucien, the younger brother, is the narrator of this story. Through his eyes reflects a certain innocence even to the cruel and graphic description of the treatment of slaves. Families are torn apart. A man is nailed by his ear to a wall. A boy is flogged to the point of having almost no flesh left on his back. A man is tarred and bound to attract flies to add to his torment. The descriptions are graphic, horrifying, and most sadly, so frighteningly real.

Yet, the lens of a child maintains a certain distance from the horror and superimposes on the horror a human being's ability to survive. The beginning of the book in fact sounds more like a tale of adventure than of slavery. The reality is that this "rescue" mission is a task ordered upon slaves to hand other slaves from one master to another. The reader clearly has to read between the lines of what this narrator sees and depicts. This is not an adventurous lark but a tale of stark cruelty. It is an odd contrast at times but accentuates the brutality when the descriptions do come.

The challenge I face with the book is the language. Lucien's childhood is scattered between the French, the English, and the Caribbean languages of the slaves. This mixture ranges from quoting Julius Caesar to deliberately challenging the monks with use of the Caribbean creole. This is likely Lucien's reality, but makes the book it challenging to read.

Regardless, the book introduces me to a history I did not know and brings to life yet another aspect of the brutality of slavery. 


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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.


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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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