Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling

Title:  The Cuckoo's Calling
Author:  Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)
Publication Information:  Mulhulland Books. 2013. 464 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book upon learning that it was written by J K Rowling using a pseudonym.

Favorite Quote:  "I'm not in the business of proving negatives."

The Cuckoo's Calling is a mystery - a who-done-it. Cormoran Strike is a down and out private eye. Robin is his new assistant. John Bristow is the client. He is the brother of one of Strike's childhood friend. He is also the brother of the famous young supermodel Lula Landry.

Three months before this story begins, Lula Landry falls to her death from her apartment window. The death is ruled a suicide. John Bristow does not believe it was a suicide and wants Strike to investigate. Stirke needs the fee offered and takes the case on.

What emerges is a story of siblings, adoptive parents, birth parents, and family dynamics. Old family secrets come out. Family history is revisited. Family relationships are called into question.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, I did. It was a quick, easy mystery read. Would I have read this book had it not been by J.K. Rowling? Probably not. It was an enjoyable book, but made remarkable because of who the author is.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Oleander Girl

Title:  Oleander Girl
Author:  Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2012. 289 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on how much I enjoyed other books by the same author.

Favorite Quote:  "Sarojini admits he has a point; girls have to be toughened so they can survive a world that presses harder on women .... But deep in a hidden place inside her .... Sarojini knows she is right too. Being loved a little more than necessary arms a girl in a different way."

The Oleander Girl is Korobi Roy. Her very name stands for the oleander flower - beautiful yet strong. To her knowledge, Korobi was orphaned at birth and raised in a loving home by her maternal grandparents. She knows that there exists some mystery around her parents' death, but she does not know what. The only memento she has of them is a love note found in the book.

As the book begins, she has met and become engaged to Rajat, and is anticipating her future with happiness. Unfortunately, shortly after the engagement, her grandfather dies. His death reveals many family secrets including those surrounding Korobi's parents.

It sets up Korobi on a quest to answer her questions and delve into the past. This brings a trip from India to the United States - a new world and new relationships.

Oleander girl reads like the plot of a Bollywood movie. A beautiful, but not rich orphaned heroine. A handsome, rich young man who sweeps her off her feet. A family revelation that sends one off on a quest. The pull of home and the promises of new love. How will it all end?

This book lacks the depth of other books I have read by the same author. The characters and emotions seem more superficial. Maybe, it is because the plot line resembles a commercial Bollywood movie, which are known more for their showmanship rather than the depth of story. A story that hovers at the surface of relationships and motivations.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Title:  The Spiral Staircase:  My Climb Out of Darkness
Author:  Karen Armstrong
Publication Information:  Anchor Books. 2005. 305 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback edition.

Favorite Quote:  "We should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter."

Karen Armstrong grew up Catholic and joined a convent at age 17 in 1962. She spent 7 years training to be a nun and then made the difficult decision to leave the convent in 1969. The ensuing years brought trials and a whole a new life, ultimately leading to her world-renowned work as a comparative theologian.

This memoir is the story of her decision to leave the convent and what came after. It includes reflections on what brought her to become a nun, her life at the convent, what caused her to leave, her adjustment to life outside the convent, and her long struggle with an unidentified illness (ultimately diagnosed as epilepsy).

The title, The Spiral Staircase, is a reference to a T. S. Eliot sequence of poems that speaks about the journey of spiritual recovery. It speaks about one who has lacked faith but who find his or her way towards God. The spiral is the lack of a clear path, the seeming repetition of choices and mistakes, the seeming lack of movement at times, but at the end of it all, a progress upwards. Karen Armstrong uses the poem and the image of the spiral staircase as symbols of her own journey.

What comes through clearly in the book are many of the negative aspects of convent life that caused Karen Armstrong to leave the convent life and also the turmoil that the decision entailed. The "outside" world was not what she expected. The life she found was not the one she expected. Positive and negative emotions intermingle throughout the book. The confusion and the questions come through ranging from the spiritual ones to the physical ones of her illness.  The struggles sometimes lend the book a sad and negative tone. The reader is ultimately left with the idea that each person must travel his or her own individual path. There are no easy answers.

Prior to reading this book, I did not realize that this is the third memoir that Karen Armstrong has written. The first, Through the Narrow Gate, describes her years in the convent and was originally published in 1982 about twelve years after she left the convent. The second, Beginning the World, talks about her transition out of the convent and was originally published in 1983. According to the author herself, "It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print." This book, The Spiral Staircase was originally published in 2004 and is essentially another look at the the same time period covered in Beginning the World. A do-over, if you will.

In the preface to this book, Karen Armstrong explains why she felt the book Beginning the World needed re-writing. "It was not a truthful account. This was not because the events I recounted did not happen, but because the book did not tell the whole story ... It was an exercise in wish fulfillment, and predictably, the result was quite awful."

I completely understand that our view of the world and our own past changes with time, age, maturity and distance. However, the statement in the introduction to a memoir raises for a question of credibility. If  the books reflect a different outlook at a different point in time, what gives one greater credibility over the other. What makes one "awful" and the other more reflective of the truth other than a change in perspective?

I have enormous respect for Karen Armstrong's knowledge and her work in promoting a world of mutual understanding and respect between different faiths. That is the main reason I wanted to read the memoir. That respect remains unchanged after reading this book, but the inspiration I was hoping to find in her personal story was not there for me.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Daily Joy: 365 Days of Inspiration

Title:  Daily Joy:  365 Days of Inspiration
Author:  National Geographic Society
Publication Information:  National Geographic Society. 2012. 528 pages.

Book Source:  I found and purchased this book while browsing a local bookstore.

Favorite Quote:  All 365 of them!

Daily Joy combines two of my favorite things - National Geographic photography and inspirational quotes. It is a small coffee table book - about 6 inches square and about two inches high. It contains a photograph and a quote for each day of the year. Some days are one page, and some photographs are two pages across.

Each month has a theme:  renewal, love, authenticity, growth, courage, perspective, adventure, freedom, purpose, fulfillment, wisdom, and faith. The quote contributors range from Roald Dahl to the Dalai Lama; from Ella Fitzgerald to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The photographs, of course, are from the photographers who contribute to the National Geographic Society.

I love this book for many reasons. First and foremost, it combines two of my favorite things. Second, the size is a very comfortable - not so small that it's somewhat pointless, not so large that it can't be comfortably held. The feel of the paper is substantial and pleasant to the touch. The book includes an alphabetic list of quote contributors and a list of the photographic credits.

The quality of the photography is awesome as you would expect from the National Geographic Society. The quotes are inspirational. This book sits on my nightstand. Some days, I find myself flipping through and just admiring the beauty of the images. Some days I find my drawing inspiration from the quotes. Usually, I find myself just flipping the book open and enjoying whatever that page presents. I have not been disappointed yet.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

This is How You Lose Her

Title:  This is How You Lose Her
Author:  Junot Diaz
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books, Penguin Group. 2012. 213 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes a start is all we ever get."

Disclaimer:  I very rarely abandon books, especially book club books. However, I could not make my way through this one.

This is How You Lose Her is the story narrated by Yunior, a young man of Dominican heritage, who is finding his way through life looking for love. It is the story of some of the women he loves and loses. It is his story.

It was pretty clear from the first page that this book is not for me. Within the first page were the words a**ho**, f***king, and sh**. Not my kind of language, not my kind of writing style. It did not help that the story being told in those first pages is about a young man cheating on his girlfriend.

However, for a book club selection, I persevere. For me, the book goes from bad to worse. In the next few pages, the narrator refers to his friends calling his girlfriend a b**ch.

Again, for a book club selection, I attempt to persevere. Unfortunately, the language and writing style and tone remain the same. There may have been a story in there. I couldn't get past the writing to see it. The book successfully lost me.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others

Title:  Imperfect Harmony:  Finding Happiness Singing with Others
Author:  Stacy Horn
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books, Workman Publishing. 2013. 284 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback edition.

Favorite Quote:  "If singing in a choir has taught me anything, it's that what may initially seem strange and dissonant can later strike some of the most harmonious chords in your life."

Imperfect Harmony:  Finding Happiness Singing With Others tells a story on many different levels. It is the story of Stacy Horn and the role music plays in her life, through the good times and the bad. It is the story of the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York City where Stacy has been a member for many years. It is the story of significant pieces of choral music such as Verdi's Requiem and Handel's Messiah. It is the story of formal and informal singing groups such as the People's Chorale Union and the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. It is a story of choral music overall and its place in history such as the story of the 9/11 rescue workers singing as they dealt with their efforts.

This book contains a lot of research and a lot of information. It is an insider's look at this artistic endeavor, and it has something for singers and non-singers alike. Did you know that over 32 million adults in the US participate in a chorus? Did you know that people join often join choirs regardless of religious beliefs because of the joy music brings? Did you know that the Metropolitan Museum in New York City hosted its first Christmas concert in 1955? Did you know that German composer Franz Xaver Biebl wrote Ave Maria for a company of firemen competing in a local competition?

The conversational tone of this book makes it easy to read and absorb the information. Stacy Horn's personal story lends to the tone of the book and prevents it from becoming a textbook look at the topic. A fascinating look into a popular pastime.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

Title:  The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Author:  Jan-Philipp Sendker
Publication Information:  Karl Blessing Verlag, Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, Munich, Germany. 2002. 338 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on a recommendation from a friend.

Favorite Quote:  "Love has so many different faces that our imagination is not prepared to see them all ... Because we see only what we already know. We project our own capacities - for good as well as evil - onto the other person. Then we acknowledge as love primarily those things that correspond to our own image thereof. We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes us uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signal. We do not understand the language. We accuse. We assert that the other person does not love us. But perhaps he merely loves us in some idiosyncratic way that we fail to recognize."

The original novel was published in German and became successful in Europe. This is the English translation.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is as story within a story. It is the story of a daughter attempting to understand her father and the life of the man before he became a father. The story travels from New York to Burma.

Julia's father is a well respected lawyer in New York, but one day, he simply disappears, leaving his daughter devastated. The only clue she finds is a love letter written by her father to a woman named Mi Mi in Burma. So, she travels to Burma to solve the mystery and find some closure.

In a small Burmese village, she meets U Ba, a gentlemen who knows her father and who has his story to tell. Thus, the book moves into the story of Tin Win and Mi Mi. Tin Win is the young boy who suffers through many calamities while young. Yet, he finds love and flourishes. Mi Mi is a young woman handicapped by a physical disability but embracing life with joy.

What brings them together and tears them apart and the concept of unconditional love is what this story is all about. What Julia learns about her father, herself, and her world is what brings the story back to the present.

The story of Tin Win and Mi Mi often reads like a fairy tale or a fable. Certain details are not developed and certain questions are not resolved. For example, how is Julia's father able to walk away from his daughter? Why do Tin Win and Mi Mi accept what happens without question? Why does so much time pass with Tin Win not returning? Many questions; yet, the writing and the way in which the story is told surpasses those questions.

My reaction to the book can perhaps be best described in the author's own words. As the book is a story within a story, the author talks about the impact of stories: "Can words sprout wings? Can they glide like butterflies through the air? Can they captivate us, carry us off into another world? Can they open the last secret chambers of our souls?" If you are willing to suspend your disbelief about the unresolved questions, this story does.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Title:  Half the Sky:  Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Author:  Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Publication Information:  Vintage Books, Random House, Inc. 2009. 296 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book on the recommendation of a friend. She was nice enough to lend me her paperback copy.

Favorite Quote:  "So let us be clear about this up front:  We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women's power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way - not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen. This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you'll just open your heart and join in ...  The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete - and whether each of us will be part of the historical movement, or a bystander."

The title of this book, Half The Sky, is from a quote from Mao Tse-Tung. He said, "Women hold up half the sky." It is generally interpreted as a recognition of the power and place of women in our civilization. This book speaks about the oppression of women around the world. It does not address each and every issue of women's lives around the world. It focuses on three particular issues - prostitution and the sex trade; violence against women including rape and honor killings; and mortality in childbirth.

Turn by turn, the book addresses each issues with story upon story of the atrocities around the world. Meena who was kidnapped at age eight and sold in the sex trade. Kalma who was gang raped ten days after giving birth. Prudence who died in childbirth because of an untreated infection. And so many more.

The book also has stories of success - of women who helped themselves and those around them, of individuals who went in from the outside to help, and of organizations that work tirelessly to bring about change. Neth who was rescued from a brothel and found a life beyond. Usha Narayne who stepped forward as a leader in her home in the slums of India. Sakeena Yacoobi who runs the Afghan Institute of Learning. Ann Cotton, a Welsh woman, who founded Campaign for Female Education to help girls in Africa. And so many more.

Within the context of these stories, the book describes broader patterns and concepts. The role of religion to incorrectly justify violence. The change required in cultural paradigms. The impact of supporting grassroots movement versus outside aid.

Finally, the book issues a call of action with specific recommendations of how any person anywhere can be a part of the solution. To support the call to action, the book was made into a PBS movie and now finds its home at the following website:  http://www.halftheskymovement.org.

A book full of information about a critical topic. It is not an easy book to read - with the number of stories, the amount of information, and the seriousness of the topic. I had to gradually make my way through it, but I am glad I did.

Friday, August 2, 2013


Title:  Eloise
Author:  Judy Finnigan
Publication Information:  Redhook Books. 2013. 384 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a galley to be read via Kindle.

Favorite Quote:  "Intuition is a powerful thing, especially when it's linked to love and care."

Eloise, the character for whom this book is named, is dead. As the book begins, we learn that she lost her battle with cancer a year ago. Surviving Eloise are her husband Ted, her two young daughters, her mother, and her best friend Cathy. Cathy struggles with depression and is recovering from a complete breakdown. Surrounding Cathy are her husband Chris and her children - all of whom are concerned about Cathy's mental state.

Add to the story some supernatural elements and a secret from Eloise's past. Eloise begins haunting Cathy from beyond the grave. Cathy feels that there is something Eloise wants her to do to protect her young daughters. The reactions of those around Cathy range from understanding to disbelief and from anger to ongoing concerns about her sanity. Her concern for Eloise begins to harm her own marriage and her children. Her recovery from her breakdown is threatened.

The book started off as a supernatural thriller - a fun page turner. I was willing to suspend disbelief in the subject matter to go along for the ride. The book kept me guessing as to what Eloise wants Cathy to do. Her statement to not trust "him" kept me guessing as to which character it referred. Chris's treatment of Cathy - whether out of concern or not - bothered me. The characters and the story seemed to be developing towards an unexpected ending. All these elements kept me engaged in the book.

Unfortunately, then, the book came to a rather abrupt end and an obvious (to me) denouement - the answers to the questions unfortunately were the obvious one. Issues and relationships were resolved too simply and in some cases, unrealistically. I felt let down at the end of the book, wishing there was something more developed and more thoughtful. Still an enjoyable read but not a great one.