Monday, August 29, 2016

The Memory Stones

Title:  The Memory Stones
Author:  Caroline Brothers
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury USA. 2016. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1632860163 / 978-1632860163

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

Opening Sentence:  "A young woman running through an airport, heels clattering like marbles dropped on a floor."

Favorite Quote:  "... all these things you've told me about your family, about your known and unknown parents ... it's okay ... it's just your story. it's just what happened to you ... you will still be you in the end ... Whoever your are ... Whoever you turn out to be." [Note: This quote and all those presented here are with capitalization as presented in the book.]

This book leaves quite an emotional impact!

As a parent, I cannot imagine the thought of a child that disappears, with no conclusion or resolution as to what happened. I cannot imagine being left with the imaginings of the worst that could happen and the kernel of hope that refuses to let go. No parent, no person, should ever have to suffer in that way. As the book states, "the opposite of life is not death, i realise; it is disappearance. it scorns us with its impunity. it incarcerates us in its no-man's-land of silence. it denies us the ability to act."

Now, envision the flip side. You are a child, well loved, secure, and confident of who you are and from where you come. Now,  imagine that at some point in your life, you discover that your entire life may be based on a lie. Your parents may not be who you thought. Your very definition of your identify may not be what you have always known it to. What then? Where do you go from there?

This is the story The Memory Stones takes on. The emotional impact is all the greater for the story is set in history of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The end note to the book provides the following history. "Between March 1976 and December 1983, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo estimate that approximately 500 children were born in clandestine detention centres or taken from their families and appropriated by members of the security forces and friends of the Junta. Most were subject to false adoptions and brought up with falsified identities. at the time of the writing, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo had recovered 119 of them, some in other latin american countries. another 380 or so remain missing to this day."

This book is the fictional story of one particular family and one child from 1976 to 1999. Osvaldo and Yolanda Ferrero are parents to two daughters - Julieta, married and living in the United States and Graciela, young, beautiful, idealistic, and in love. In Argentina, the Process of National Reorganization otherwise known as the Dirty War, terrorizes the country through its state supported terrorism by the military government. Because of his political associations, Osvaldo is forced to flee to Paris. The hope is that either he will return or Yolanda and Graciela will follow. Then, one day, Graciela disappears without a trace. So begins a parent's endless agony and unrelenting search.

The book then weaves past and present together as life moves forward despite the horrible unknown of the fate of a child and as life constantly and hopefully looks back for clues and an answer. A rare glimpse shows the terrifying reality of Graciela's fate. The book incorporates the perspective of the child, as she grows and matures only to discover the truth of her life. Primarily, the book tells the story from Osvaldo's perspective. We see his guilt in thinking that perhaps his politics lead to his daughter's disappearance. We see his anguish at only being able to watch from afar as he lives the life of a refugee while Yolanda continues on in Argentina. We see the trials of life as a refugee, when home can no longer be home and a new place to belong is yet to be found. We see his strength in living his life even as sorrow threatens to drown him. We see his constant, unfailing hope, the hope that embeds in a kernel of information. "There was a child that lived."

Caroline Brother's writing transports the reader to the places she describes, from Buenos Aires to Paris to Mexico City and to Greece. More than that, the writing transmits to the readers the emotions of the characters and puts the reader into the middle of the story. A memorable book.


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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Patient H. M.

Title:  Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
Author:  Luke Dittrich
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 464 pages.
ISBN:  0812992733 / 978-0812992731

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

Opening Sentence:  "The laboratory at night, the lights down low."

Favorite Quote:  "Maybe the human brain is an object beyond the reach of metaphor, for the simple reason that it is the only object capable of creating metaphors to describe itself. There really is nothing else like it. The human brain creates the human mind, and then the human mind tries to underhand the human brain, however long it takes and whatever the cost."

First, the actual history. Henry Gustav Molaison (1926-2008) was a young man who suffered from debilitating epileptic seizures due to a childhood bicycle accident. As part of his treatment, surgeon William Beecher Scoville performed psychosurgery, specifically a lobotomy, on Henry when Henry was 27 years old. Dr. Scoville attributed the epilepsy to significant portions of Henry's brain and proceeded to surgically remove them. The surgery did alleviate the seizures; however, it had  other catastrophic effects, leaving Henry an amnesiac. Henry could function, but was unable to retain new information beyond a short period of time. In this way, Henry Gustav Mollison become Patient H.M. For the decades he lived after his surgery and even after his death, he has been perhaps one of the most studied patients in neuroscience. His brain has been the subject of battles for ownership and an online brain atlas, and continues to provide scientists information on the study of memory.

Second, the author. Luke Dittrich is a journalist and editor, but he also has a very personal connection to this story. He is the grandson of William Beecher Scoville, the surgeon who operated on Henry Molaison. His grandmother, William Scoville's wife, also suffered from mental illness and was also a lobotomy patient. No clear lines are drawn, but connect the dots to see the underlying implications of this book.

Now, the book itself. The objective of this book is unclear. Is it about Patient HM as the title would suggest? Is it about William Scoville as the subtitle of "memory, madness, and family secrets" would suggest? Is it a broader survey of the scientific study of memory as the case studies presented in the book would suggest? Is it the author's struggle to understand his own family history as the inclusion of personal commentary would suggest? The book attempts to do all of those, and, as a result, completes addresses none of them.

The book is classified as nonfiction, but the line between nonfiction and fiction seems unclear in the book. The book is not just a documentation of history. It is a personal story with a dark tone and an agenda. The author's interviews, particularly the one with MIT professor Suzanne Corkin, include commentary that clearly conveys the author's feelings towards the interviewee and towards what is being said. The content of Dr. Corkin's interview has already been called into question by MIT and by Dr. Corkin's colleagues. Dr. Corkin unfortunately, passed away earlier this year; so, her views cannot be known. The veracity of the statements in the book remains a question.

Even in the rest of the book, it is difficult to separate the facts from the connections introduced to create a story. The book has no footnotes, end notes, bibliography, or anything of that sort to support the history or science presented in the book. The acknowledgements section of the book states that the book was a work in progress for six years. It acknowledges the contribution of interviewees, archivists, and librarians. It seems odd that such notes are not included, particularly in a book about history and science.

I still find Patient H.M.'s history and Dr. Scoville's career fascinating. Perhaps, I will have to look for a more clearly told and more definitively annotated version that focuses only on that history.


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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Dollhouse

Title:  The Dollhouse
Author:  Fiona Davis
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1101984996 / 978-1101984994

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'd forgotten the onions."

Favorite Quote:  "Courage is easy ... When you want to get out of a situation fast, you get courage."

The Dollhouse is the name given by gentlemen to the Barbizon Hotel in the 1950s. The building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1927 and has served many purposes in its history. For most of its history, the building served as a hostel / hotel / dormitory / rooming house for young women who came to New York City to seek fame, fortune, a career, or whatever their dream for the future was. In the 1980s, the building became more of a regular hotel allowing male guests. Two decades later, the building was renovated into condominiums. Throughout, certain women remained as residents because of grandfathering rules and rent control.

This book is the story of two young women - Rose in 2016 and Darby in 1952 - both residents of the Barbizon. Rose is a journalist who moves into the building based on a relationship with the owner of one condominium. Darby is a young woman who comes to the city following the death of her father; she comes looking to go to school and be a Katie Gibbs girl - a secretary. She is one of the residents still in the building in 2016.

Rose meets Darby in the elevator one day. Rose is intrigued by Darby's history and the history of the building. She takes on that story as a human interest journalism story. Circumstances pull Rose into Darby's life and her home. In alternating chapters, the book tells both Rose's story and Darby's history. Both are stories of young women seeking to build careers and lives. Both have elements of a love story. Darby's story is by far the more dramatic one, and Rose's story becomes about bringing Darby's story to a conclusion.

The alternating chapters highlight the similarities and the contrasts between the two time periods in terms of culture, the role of women, and the changing city itself. Darby's story is about the beautiful girls who want to be models and find husbands and the plain girls who train to be secretaries. It is about the jazz clubs and the music scene of the city. It is also about the seedier underside of the big city and about what people will do to achieve their version of success. Rose's story is about dot com start ups, internet journalism, open relationships, and caring for aging parents. Rose's story is also primarily about bringing a resolution to Darby's. Rose's "research" methods are somewhat unethical, making that aspect of the story not quite believable, considering her statements about serious journalism. The lack of any repercussions for her actions stretch that believability factor even further.

Overall, the book is a quick and easy read. The book has the history with added touches of romance, mystery, and even a bit of foodie interest. I really enjoy learning about the history of the Barbizon. The story, however, feels predictable with an ending that is too neatly tied up. The book is an entertaining summer but not one that will stay with me.


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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Valley of the Moon

Title:  Valley of the Moon
Author:  Melanie Gideon
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2016. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0345539281 / 978-0345539281

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

Opening Sentence:  "The smell of buttered toast was a time machine."

Favorite Quote:  "Time is a construct, one we all  inherently begin to abide by the moment we are born. Yes, we will live our days hanging from its invisible scaffolding. Morning. Noon. Night. Weeks. Months. Years. Time civilizes us. It brings order to chaos. Without it, there isn't any gravity, and no longer pinned to the world, we float away."

Chick lit meets science fiction in the Valley of the Moon. In 1906, Joseph and his wife Martha have built a community in California named Greengage. The community could be called a commune or an attempt at a utopia, with its base in shared labor, shared resources, and communal living. In 1975, Lux is a single parent, struggling to make ends meet. Somehow, their two worlds meet.

The facts of this story remind of an old story called Brigadoon. Both center upon a town that becomes visible and accessible only at certain times. Individuals from two time periods meet, and relationships begin. In this case, Lux stumbles upon Greengage, a community that finds itself encased in a fog that is toxic should a Greengage resident enter it. Lux, however, can travel through the fog with no harm. Time in 1906 Greengage and 1975 California seems to move at different speeds.

Lux finds herself drawn back to Greengage again and agin. In her time, she is struggling with single parenthood, economic hardship, and family conflicts. In 1906, she finds a sense of community and a place to belong. She seems to be able to have the best of both worlds. She can spend time in Greengage and return to find only a short period elapsed in her present life.

Of course, things are never as simple as them seem. Complications ensue, both in 1975 and in 1906. The cycle of Lux's travels between the two times continues. Further complications ensue. And so on. That is pretty much the entire book. The buildup and the climax is predictable and not at all surprising. To some extent, nothing much happens in the book.

This book has many loose ends, the biggest being Joseph's childhood and Lux's teenage years and her relationship with her father. The book begins with a description of the trauma of Joseph's childhood. However, other than the name of his adult home, the book never references that background again. Lux's relationship with her father features throughout the book, but it seems to be a separate story from the main plot; the main plot could still be the same without that entire portion in the story. These are aspects of the book that just seem to be there; nothing much ever comes of them.

The book is told in the alternating voice of Lux and Joseph. The biggest issue for me is the fact that I find neither character particularly sympathetic or even likable. Lux's descriptions of her childhood, her commentary about her father, her lack of professionalism at her job, her use of her friend's generosity, and her choice to escape into another world regardless of repercussions for her or her young son all create the picture of a self-centered, self-indulgent adult. I can appreciate her need for an escape and her desire for a place to belong, but not at the expense of her responsibility to her child. Joseph is the more likable of the two, but his character is static and somewhat flat. As with the plot, he is just there; nothing much is developed about him.

Chick lit meets science fiction is an interesting approach. The Brigadoon myth in a viable premise. Unfortunately, this telling of that story is just not for me.


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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

War & Turpentine

Title:  War & Turpentine
Author:  Stefan Hertmans (Author), David Mckay (Translator)
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1101874023 / 978-1101874028

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

Opening Sentence:  "In my most distant memory of my grandfather, he is on the each at Ostend:  a man of sixty-six in a neat midnight-blue suite, he has dug a shallow pit with his grandson's blue shovel and leveled off the heaped sand around ti so that he and his wife can sit in relative comfort."

Favorite Quote:  "Places are not just space, they are also time."

War and Turpentine is a book that is part history, part biography, and part autobiography all compiled together as a novel. Stefan Hertmans' grandfather Urbein Martien (1891-1981) bequeathed to him his journals - hundreds of pages of stories ranging from his childhood, to World War I and beyond. Stefan Hertmans held on to the journals for years as a legacy of his grandfather.  He always intended to read and perhaps compose his grandfather's stories, but life and other projects always intervened. The approach of the centennial of World War I prompted him to finally undertake the task. The result is this book.

The book is published and marketed as a novel for as the author says, "This task confronted me with the painful truth behind any literary work: I first had to recover from the authentic story, to let it go, before I could rediscover it in my own way." Thus, this book is Urbein Martien's stories written as he reflects on his life mixed with Stefan Hertmans' memories of the stories he heard as a child and the entire compilation stirred through the lens of a writer putting together a literary work.

The book itself comprises of three parts. Part I deals with Urbein Martien's childhood and life up to the War. Part II is the horrific experiences of the War. Part III is life after the War, including love, marriage, children, and the scars that war leaves behind. Running throughout is the role that art, particularly painting, plays in his life. Ultimately, this book is the portrait of a man, an artist by choice and an soldier by necessity. Hence the title for both war and turpentine are formative in this man's life.

The big question I have for that portrait is how much is fact and how much is fiction, and how much has been modified and polished in the translation. Perhaps, it does not matter for this is a work of fiction. Fiction is about the story, characters, and emotions, and this fiction has its pros and cons.

The writing is very descriptive in nature. It conjures vivid images - the poverty in which Urbein Martien grows up, the foundries in which he works and the accidents he witnesses, the battle trenches, and so much more. These descriptions are particularly poignant as Part II narrates experiences in World War I. I see the places and events the author describes.

Unfortunately, I find myself getting lost through the characters, particularly in Part I. The narration in Part I shifts from Urbein Martien to Stefan Hertmans' childhood memories to Stefan Hertmans' adult commentary. Through each are a multitude of characters, making it difficult to remember chronology and relationships.  Part II is narrated solely in the voice of Urbein Martien, making it the strongest part of the book. Part III returns to the multiple narrators. All through the book, because of the descriptive narration of the book, a distance exists between reader and character, making it more difficult to engage with the story. The events of the book are sad throughout for a variety of reasons, but yet that sadness is muted as though viewed through a filter. It is this, not the fact versus fiction, that keeps me from loving this book.


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Monday, August 8, 2016

With Love From the Inside

Title:  With Love From the Inside
Author:  Angela Pisel
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0399176365 / 978-0399176364

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

Opening Sentence:  "The police took "normal" away from me the moment they came rushing into William's hospital room."

Favorite Quote:  "I have not possessions to distribute, no finances to arrange, no funeral to plan, but I will have affairs to put in order. I need to stamp my place in this world even after I no longer belong to it:  I am here! And more important, I need for your to know you matter."

An infant dies. A mother is convicted of Munchhausen by proxy - the idea that one individual makes another sick for the sake of the attention it garners. In this case, it is the worst possible case. A mother is convicted of poisoning her infant son and sentenced to die for her crime. A family is destroyed. A little girl is left floundering and alone.

Fast forward almost two decades. The woman is still on death row, but now the execution date comes closer and closer. The little girl is now a married woman with a life she has created far away from her past. Grace Bradshaw and Sophie Logan. Mother and daughter. Strangers. Mother and daughter.

As the execution date looms, the story moves back and forth between Grace and Sophie. Grace's story is that of life on death row, seemingly an oxymoron, but life does indeed continue on death row. Her story is also the journal she writes for Sophie, whom she has lost and been unable to find despite her search. Sophie's story is that of a husband, a life of comfort, and the struggles of marriage. It is also the story of a little girl whose lost her mother and who then walked away out of self preservation. No one in Sophie's life now knows of the trauma of her childhood or of her mother.

What this book is not about is the ethical discussion surrounding capital punishment; if that is an issue for you, then this may not be the book for you. That conversation is raised in the book, but more as an observation of a situation rather than a discussion. The book can be interpreted as a commentary on the justice system and on the difference between winning a case and finding the truth. However, to me, the global meanings stand aside, and the book is the narrowly focused on the personal story of mother and daughter.

The plot is about Sophie's marital troubles and about Grace's fight for her life. It is the question of whether hope and joy exist in this seemingly hopeless situation. It is the question of guilt versus innocence. It is the possibility of clemency and forgiveness. It is not the plot though but the emotion of this debut novel that has me reading it straight through to the end in one sitting. Mind you, this book is not an easy read. It deals with death, betrayal, and about finding the strength to go on. The emotions grab hold and don't let go until the last page.

The emotions of Sophie's married life are perhaps the least compelling; some of the characters seem one dimensional and the story is one that's been told before. Sophie's struggles to deal with the trauma of her childhood and to face the truth of what may have happened elicit a wish to protect that little girl who watched her infant brother die, her mother get dragged away, and her father spend the rest of his life trying to exonerate his wife. Grace's story is by far the most compelling aspect of this novel. The rawness of life on death row and her love for her daughter comes through the pages, and it is that which keeps me reading from beginning to end in this book.


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Friday, August 5, 2016

How to Party with an Infant

Title:  How to Party with an Infant
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2016. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1501100793 / 978-1501100796

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 twenty-two-month-old toddler was shoved facedown from the top of the slide at Cow Hollow Playground by a there-year-old, non-English-speaking bully."

Favorite Quote:  "So that's what scares me the most ... the choices we make that herd us toward a certain point, making the other points and places fall away. I'm scared of my choices. I'm scared of what I'm capable of doing for my child, I'm afraid I've already taken too many bad turns and she'll look back at the map and say, 'Why didn't you go here? Why did you turn there?' and Why can't we go back?'"

Mele Bart is a mom, a single parent to two-year old daughter Ellie. Ellie is the result of a relationship with a man who already has a fiancée. He goes back to his fiancée, leaving Mele to build a life with Ellie. A need for social interaction brings Mele to the San Francisco Mother's Club, where, after a few unfortunate tries, she finds friends in Annie, Georgia, Barrett, and Henry. They share stories as their children play.

The social demographic of this book is important. Mele is a single parent, financially secure enough through family support to be a stay-at-home parent to Ellie. The people she is surrounded by all seem to have money, some even a lot of money. The book is set in the Bay area, one of the most affluent parts of the United States. This book is not about the very serious struggles of managing job, finances, and parenthood. To some extent, the book is not even about parenthood, because most of the issues and the stories of the book are about adults dealing with adults.

This book is about family stories - trouble with children, trouble with marriage, and trouble with ex'es. In this way, the book hits on some serious undertones about life and the choices and compromises we make along the way.

The book also is about trouble with other parents with whom Mele does not fit in. It is a chance to poke fun at a certain lifestyle and a certain style of parenting from the race to get into the right pre-school to the nannies to the certain "in" toy. This element finds its way into Mele's stories and in the sections in between chapters which include fictitious posts from the fictitious online forum for the San Francisco Mom's Club.

These book is given structure with the introduction of a Mom's Club Cookbook contest. Mele decides to enter by creating a cookbook of foods based on stories. Although the cookbook doesn't really emerge in the story, it becomes the anchor for the story is told through Mele's very honest, way-too-much-information answers to the contest application questions.

Without a spoiler, I will say that I do not care for the ending of the book. It takes the focus away from Mele's story as a parent and turns this story into something different. I would rather have ended with more posts from the Mom's Club forum or with something more in keeping with the main theme of the book.

This book has be me alternately laughing out loud and saying, "Eewww, I did not need to know that." The laugh out loud portions are mostly about the plights of parenting a toddler and about Mele's interactions with certain types of parents. As a parent myself, I find both relatable. The "eewww" factor comes from some of the descriptions of things that should - well - remain private, shall we say; that's just not my brand of humor. For the most part, the laughter wins out, making this a quick, funny read.


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