Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Translator

Title:  The Translator
Author:  Nina Schuyler
Publication Information:  First Pegasus Books. 2013. 306 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on seeing a description on GoodReads.

Favorite Quote:  "I don't think any human being fits neatly into one of your damn labels. It's a simple way of viewing the world. And you are the worse for it because what doesn't fit the label is blocked out."

Hanne Schubert has an affinity for languages. She works as a freelance translator. Her current project is the translation of the most important work of a well known Japanese author. She is completely immersed in the project, feeling as if she knows the characters as people and understands the author's intent. It is with this confidence that she translates the work.

Soon after completing the project, she is in an accident and suffers a head injury with the rare effect of loss of her native language. They only language she is able to speak and understand is Japanese. Attempting to deal with this, she travels to Japan for a conference. There, she is surprised that the author of the work she translated is angry and accusing her of sabotaging the English translation.

Trying to understand, she seeks out Moto, the actor on whom the main character in the book is based. She develops a relationship and comes to question and change some of the beliefs by which she lives her life.

Along the way, the reader learns that Haane is divorced with two children - a son and a daughter. In addition, the reader learns that she is estranged from her daughter. The history of that relationship is slowly revealed as Hanne learns more about herself in her time with Moto.

My biggest concern with this book is that I had to get more than half way through the book until I got what the story is truly about. Before that, it seems to be pieces going in different directions. Is it about the injury? Is it about Haane's work? Is it about her new relationship with Moto? Is it about her history and her children? The different aspects take a long time form a whole. It eventually comes together, but far too late in the book for me.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Truth in Advertising

Title:  Truth in Advertising
Author:  John Kenney
Publication Information:  Touchstone, Simon & Schuster. 2013. 308 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:  "I do think we get second chances, fifth chances, eighteenth chances. Every day we get a fresh change to live the way we want. We get a chance to do one amazing thing, once scary thing, one difficult thing, one beautiful thing. We get a chance to make a difference."

Finbar "Fin" Dolan is a middle aged man approaching forty, working at a Madison Avenue agency, and living alone. He is somewhat successful in his career. He has recently cancelled his wedding but holding on to the paid for honeymoon tickets, hoping somehow to use them for a vacation. He is somewhat getting involved with his co-worker. He is somewhat estranged from his family.

He is pulled out of his "somewhat" life when he has to cancel his Christmas vacation to finish a campaign for a client who makes diapers and when he learned his father is dying. The book proceeds along these two lines. One is an entertaining look inside the advertising world. The other is a sad story of dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics and coming to terms with family and the past in order to move forward.

The book is somewhat entertaining and somewhat sad. The dichotomy of the story for me continues throughout the book. I would have preferred it to be one or the other rather than trying to be both. I suppose the idea of truth - facing it, telling it, and believing it - is the central idea that ties both story lines together. For me, the two story lines are too distant for that to be completely successful.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Title:  Wonder
Author:  R. J. Palacio
Publication Information:  Borzoi Book, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House Children's Books, Random House Children's Books, Random House, Inc. 2012. 315 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on all the wonderful reviews for the book and because sometimes I just want to know what is out there for my children to read. The book came as a hardcover edition from the local elementary school.

Favorite Quote:  "It's like people you see sometimes, and you can't imagine what it would be like to be that person .... Only I know that I'm that person to other people, maybe every single person in that auditorium. To me, though, I'm just me. An ordinary kid."

August "Auggie" Pullman is an little boy in the fifth grade. He loves video games and Star Wars just like so many other boys. However, he has been home schooled until this point because he was born with facial deformities and has required extensive medical intervention. His physical appearance has caused him to be excluded and shunned in so many situations that he spent part of his childhood wearing an astronaut helmet. His favorite holiday is Halloween because he can hide behind a mask and for a short while feel like any other child - a short while when appearance does not affect how people look at him and react to him.

In fifth grade, Auggie joins a mainstream school. This is the story of what happens in that fifth grade year. It is Auggie's story, but what pleasantly surprised me, it is so much more than that.  The first section of the book is Auggie's story. Then come sections from the perspective of those surrounding Auggie. His sister Via who loves her brother but has her owns struggles and challenges as she starts a new high school. Summer who becomes Auggie's first friend at school. Jack, another fifth grader who friends Auggie. Miranda who is Via's best friend and who has been a big part of Auggie's life. Justin who is Via's new friend. Throughout, the reader comes back to August and his story.

Each of the characters introduced are part of Auggie's life and are changed by their relationship with him. Each of them also faces their own struggles with growing up, feeling different, and feeling left out. As such, this story becomes so much broader because we all have experienced those feelings at times. While a reader (especially the target audience of children) may not directly relate to Auggie's situation, they may see themselves in one of the other characters.

I love discovering books that I enjoy as an adult and that I can share with my children. Even more, I love discovering books that can spark a conversation about life and life lessons with my children. A wonderful book!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel

Title:  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena:  A Novel
Author:  Anthony Marra
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2013. 400 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because the cover and title looked intriguing.

Favorite Quote:  "There are maps to show you how to get to the place where you want to be but no maps that show you how to get to the time when you want to be."

A medical dictionary defines life as "a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."

According to the author, this definition led to the title for this book. A six pointed definition of life leads to a six perspective story of the Chechan Wars. As such, it is not as much a story of war but of the choices people make to survive. As one character says, "War is unnatural ... It causes people to act unnaturally."

Haava is the young girl who is born into the war and who has seen her mother die, her father taken away, and her home destroyed because of the war. Akhmed is the neighbor and friend who attempts to save Haava. Sonja is the doctor who leaves her life in London to return to Chechnya to look for her sister and now runs a hospital. Natasha is Sonja's sister, who was left behind when Sonja left for London and who is now missing. Ramzan is a young man from Haava's village who has turned on his friends and neighbors and is now an informant. Khassan is Ramzan's father caught between the love for his son and his dislike of the path his son has chosen.

It took me a while to get into this book perhaps because the main story occurs over five days but the book weaves back and forth over a decade to provide the back story and perhaps because Chechnya is not a part of the world that I know. As such, the book took longer to engage me. However, once it did, I could not stop reading.

The weaving timeline becomes like lines connecting the dots of a constellation. Each revelation makes another part of the story clear, and gradually, an entire connected image emerges. The final picture is filled with sadness and horror of war but also ultimately with survival and love. A beautiful debut novel.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Survival Lessons

Title:  Survival Lessons
Author:  Alice Hoffman
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Workman Publishing. 2013. 83 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 hardcover edition.

Favorite Quote:  "We all experience trauma and we all take a very personal path to healing on our own terms. But we're also alike in what we need most. Love really is the answer."

Survival Lessons, in the author's own words, is "what I would have most wanted to hear when I was newly diagnosed, when I lost the people I loved, when I was deeply disappointed in myself and the turns my life had taken." This slim volume is a list of lessons learned during the author's journey from being diagnosed with cancer to being a survivor.

Those lessons include:  Choose your heroes.  Choose to enjoy yourself. Choose your friends. Choose whose advice you take. ... Choose to be yourself. Choose to  share. Choose love. ...

For each lesson, Alice Hoffman describes what she means in a few pages. These lessons are not new. These lessons are not just for living through a life threatening illness but rather for the process of life itself. These lessons are not a set of directions but rather reminders on how to approach life.

For me, the most important lesson of all is that every single lesson begins with the word "choose." No matter what our circumstances, our thoughts and our approach is our choice.

The book has no table of contents. It can be read in its entirety in less than an hour. Each section can be read individually in a few minutes. The sepia colored paper and the monotone blue illustration lend to a feeling of calm throughout the book. Nothing really new, but sometimes new isn't necessary. A nice reminder to share with anyone going through a trying time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Runaway Wife

Title:  The Runaway Wife
Author:  Rowan Coleman
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2012. 410 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 advance uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "You are a remarkable woman and you deserve all the happiness, contentment, and love in the world."

As the book begins, Rose Pritchard and her seven year old daughter Maddie arrive at a B&B in Millthwaite in England's Lake District. The reader gets glimpses that Rose is escaping from a bad marriage - the details emerge throughout the book.

Rose is also searching for someone from her past - someone she met once but whom she feels might be her future. What she finds is another, unexpected aspect of her past. All the pieces come together along with a myriad of local characters to fill out Rose's story.

This book takes on the difficult issue of domestic abuse and about having the courage to get out and rebuild her life. As such, Rose is portrayed as courageous and determined. Yet, that element of the story appears as a undertone to the entire book rather than the main focus.

What rings less true is the fact that she comes to Millthwaite looking for Frasier McLeod - a man she has met once but feels might be the love of her future. She bases her entire search on one meeting and one letter. She find him and more that she did not expect. She finds her estranged father, whom she hasn't seen since her childhood. What follows is a rebuilding of relationships, new relationships, and a new life free from fear and abuse.

This book is a quick read and an easy read. Not bad, not great.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Signature of All Things

Title:  The Signature of All Things
Author:  Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication Information:  Viking Books. 2013. 501 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 advance uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "She knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simply fact. ... This fact was the very mechanism of nature - the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation - and it was the explanation for the entire world."

The Signature of All Things starts with Henry Whittaker, a poor but enterprising young man who makes his living as a thief. He gets caught, but is allowed leeway because of the respect people have for his father. He is put to work, and through his work and some shady dealings becomes a very wealthy man. The bulk of the book is about his daughter Alma.

Alma is an only child living a rather secluded life. She develops an interest in botany, and her specialty becomes, of all things, mosses. Along the way, discoveries come into and change her life. The book has much description of her discovery of and secret use of a text on sexual pleasure and of her work with plants. Along the way, people come in and out of her life. Prudence is adopted in to the family and becomes a sister until a rift drives them apart. Ambrose is the artist who steals her heart but is unable to be a husband to her. Along the way, places come in and out of her life. White Acres with its large indoor botanical gardens is the Whittaker estate in England. Alma also travels the world, some for botanical research and some searching for the people in her life.

I am not even sure where to start with this book. Given the previous writing of Elizabeth Gilbert, I expected a lot more. This book is slow moving and difficult to read - boring with a set of unlikable characters. The most interesting component of the book is probably some of the descriptions of the natural world and plant life. However, if that's what I want to read, I would pick a nonfiction book about the topic. If this had not been a review copy, I would have abandoned the book. However, I did read it and am left wondering .... What was the point?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Four Virtues: Presence, Heart, Wisdom, Creation

Title:  The Four Virtues: Presence, Heart, Wisdom, Creation
Author:  Tobin Hart
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2014. 384 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "This process isn't all sunshine but it does come with integrity and energy, tenderness and insight, hope and healing. Each of our paths is our own, but all journeys require certain powers of body and soul in order for us to make the most of the trip. These universal virtues help us to show up for our deepest life."

The four virtues of the book are presence, heart, wisdom, and creation. Presence is the "opening of consciousness to perceive beauty." Heart is "the opening for a life informed by compassion and passion." Wisdom is "the ability to see beyond what is given into new possibility." Creation is "how we bring ourselves authentically into the world both through our doing and being." In other words, this is book about a philosophy of life - not based on any dogma or rather on certain guiding principles.

The book is very consistently organized. The book is divided into four parts, each focused on one virtue. Each part is further divided into five chapters. The first presents the idea behind the virtue, culling stories and examples from literature, history, science, philosophy, various belief traditions, and individual accounts. The remaining four chapters of each part discuss aspects of developing that virtue. Each chapter has an explanation of the skill, followed by a quiz to assess where you stand right now, and then a list of practices to help develop that skill.

The ideas in this book are not new; however, they are well organized and well presented. The examples are varied and not based on any one ideology. The quizzes are quick and fun and can be insightful. The practices are discrete and concrete. Thus, the book brings structure and intent to what are broad based principles.

I can see keeping this book on my shelf and referring to it periodically when I need to center myself. I can also see giving it to certain friend who enjoy this type of spiritual analysis and reading. A positive new addition to self-help genre.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Title:  The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Author:  Andrew Sean Greer
Publication Information:  HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 2013. 304 pages.

Book Source:  I found this book while browsing the online catalog for my local library.

Favorite Quote:  "They say there are many worlds. All around our own, packed tight as the cells of your heart. Each with its own logic, its own physics, moons, and stars. ... And in those other worlds, the places you love are there, the people you love are there. Perhaps in one of them, all rights are wronged and life is as you wish it. So what if you found the door? And what if you had the key? Because everyone knows this:  That the impossible happens once to each of us."

The time is 1985. Greta Wells's twin brother has just died, and her long-time partner Nathan has just left her. She goes for therapy and agrees to undergo electroconvulsive (a.k.a. electroshock) therapy as a means of helping her overcome her sadness and emerge back into her life. The therapy sends her time-travelling.

We meet Greta in 1985, in 1918, and in 1941. Each time period presents an image of the life Greta lives, the choices she makes, and the joys and sorrows that come along with it. Along with Greta's live, the book describes major themes in the time period - war, disease, loss.

In each life, Greta reaches a point of receiving electroconvulsive therapy. With each procedure, the three Greta's of the three time periods switch places. The story follows the 1985 Greta, but tells of how each influences and changes the lives in the other time periods based on their wants and their regrets.

The description sounds a little confusing, but the story truly is not. For, as Greta thinks, "For is my story so unusual? To wake each morning as if things had gone differently - the dead come back, the lost returned, the beloved in our arms - is it any more magic that the ordinary madness of hope?"

To me, the book addresses the question "if you had your live to live over, what would you do differently?" and the idea that "wherever you go, there you are - your emotions and thoughts go with you no matter how far you travel." Without a spoiler, I will say that I enjoyed the fact that this book did not end up where I expected. The key to this book is to suspend disbelief and just go along for the enjoyable ride. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Breath, Eyes, Memory

Title:  Breath, Eyes, Memory
Author:  Edwidge Danticat
Publication Information:  Vintage Books, Random House Inc. 1994. 234 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "Ou libere? Are you free, my daughter?"

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a book written in discrete sections. In the first section, we meet Sophie Caco, who is born and raised in Haiti. She has lived with her Aunt Atie since she was a baby when her mother left Haiti and went to New York. Sophie loves her aunt like a mother; yet, Aunt Atie is always careful to remind her of her "true" mother. One day, when Sophie is twelve, her mother summons her to New York. This section of the book ends as Sophie adjusts to her life with her mother and learns the devastating secret of her birth.

The second section begins when Sophie is eighteen - a six year gap. We learn of Sophie finding love and of a traumatizing cultural tradition of testing girls for their "purity". The section ends with Sophie's extreme decision and and action to escape.

The third section picks up a year or two later as Sophie returns to Haiti with her own infant daughter. Four generations of women - Sophie, her daughter, her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother - come together in anger, in love, in reconciliation, and in understanding.

The fourth and final section is upon the return of Sophie, her mother, and her daughter to the United States.

The book has the potential to be a very powerful story. The organization into discrete sections that skip time periods prevents its from completely achieving that potential. The movement from section to section pulls the reader away from the emotion, particularly as the first two sections end on such emotional points - the story of Sophie's birth and her actions to escape her past and tradition.

At those points, as a reader, I am not ready to move on. I want to know more and want the emotions and relationships to be further developed. It feels like the book drops a bombshell and then shows the impact only after passage of time. The immediate impact is left unexplored. A sad set of events. Compelling characters. But a story that stops short of being completely engrossing.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

Title:  The Fault in Our Stars
Author:  John Green
Publication Information:  Dutton Books, Penguin Group USA. 2012. 318 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on all the publicity for the book.

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books .... which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection seems like a betrayal."

Hazel is a teenager with terminal cancer. At the Cancer Kids Support Group, she meets another cancer patient Augustus Waters. Beyond that, this is a story about friendship and love where you know that tomorrow may not be. What would you do for someone you love if you knew that this day may be your last day to show them your love? It's not a question most people think about because we don't like to think that our time may be limited.

This book comes at this question from so many different directions. Hazel who knows what her diagnosis and her prognosis is. Hazel's parents who are facing one of the most devastating things a parent could ever face. Augustus who, based on his diagnosis, may have a better prognosis. Isaac whose disease is slowly taking away relationships and pieces of his life. Peter Van Houten, an author Hazel find inspirational, but who fights his own demons. The plot includes a wish, a road trip, some life lessons but nothing really unexpected.

For me, to some extent, the book suffered from its own success. With all the rave reviews and publicity, I had really high expectations. It's not a bad book; for me, it's just not as wonderful as all the rave reviews. It is sad and emotional, but it not not unlike many other books that have been written about people battling terminal illness.