Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Title:  Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End
Author:  Atul Gawande
Publication Information:  Metropolitan Books. 2014. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0805095152 / 978-0805095159

Book Source:  I read this book based on an interest in the topic.

Favorite Quote:  "The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don't want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don't want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can't, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end."

Being Mortal takes on the conversation we so often avoid in our lives. No one wants to think of his or her own mortality, and no one wants to think of the mortality of a loved one. Yet, these conversations must happen before the decision is at hand and before conditions get such that we lose the ability to have the conversation. "This is what it means to have autonomy - you may not control life's circumstances, but getting to be the author of your life means getting to control what you do with them."

Atul Gawande takes on different elements of the issues involved with end of life care - nursing homes, hospice care, the role of medicine, the role of family, and individual choice. The book discusses these topics through the transitions that occurs in a person's life. The book's chapter titles  such as Things Fall Apart, Dependence, Assistance, A Better Life, and Courage convey the focus of the book on the individual patient - not just the facts, procedures, medicines, or institutions.

The central question at each juncture is - What is your (the patient's) goal? What is important to you? Is it to reach a milestone or event? Is it to suffer no pain? Is it to extend life as long as possible? Is it to maintain the ability to pursue a certain passion? What matters to you in the end?

The goals are of course unique to each patient and family. The book focuses on the "how."

It presents the research and the history of end of life care. It talks about the advent of nursing homes and the different approaches that have been tried to make them homes. It talks about the difference between curative and palliative medical measures. It talks about the conflicts that can arise within family members as emotions run high and goals differ. The book presents the pros and cons of laws allowing assisted suicide (laws such as Oregon's Death and Dignity Act that was so recently in the news).

At the same time, it presents the choices in some very personal case studies, including the one for the author and his father. The facts address the logic of the situation, and the case studies incorporate the emotions and ground abstract ideas into real life scenarios. Again and again, the book returns to the concept of choice. Choices exists, but the conversations about those choices must take place.

The author writes with the understanding that comes with a medical background and the compassion that comes from facing these choices within his family. This combination makes the book approachable and readable. It leaves with a hope and a goal for medical care:  "The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one's life - to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. Sickness and old age make the struggle hard enough. The professionals and institutions we turn to should not make it worse. But we have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of them believe their job is not to confine people's choices, in the name of safety, but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life."

I would highly recommend this book to everyone. May these choices be far off for everyone, but at some point, they are coming - whether for yourself or for a family member. Read, learn, and have the tough conversations. I don't think you can ever be prepared, but being informed is a good start.

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

Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Title:  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Author:  Laura Hillenbrand
Publication Information:  Random House. 2010. 473 pages.
ISBN:  1400064163 / 978-1400064168

Book Source:  I read the book based on the publicity for the movie release.

Favorite Quote:  "... the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost:  dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live."

The chronology of Louis Zamperini's life is as follows:

  • 1917 - Born in New York
  • 1919 - Moved to California
  • 1932 - Set the interscholastic record for the mile run
  • 1936 - Qualified for the Olympic games held in Berlin, Germany, where Louis met Hitler
  • 1941 - Enlisted in the army
  • May 1943 - Crashed into the Pacific Ocean
  • Summer 1943 - Survived on a raft in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days
  • 1943 to 1945 - Held, tortured, and abused as a prisoner of war (POW) in Japanese camps
  • 1946 - Married
  • 1949 - Found a religious path that led him to turn his life in a positive direction
  • 1998 - Ran in the Olympic Torch relay in Nagano, Japan, not far from a POW camp
  • July 2014 - Died at the age of 97

This book has three distinct sections - before, during, and after the war. Before the war is the story of a brash young man - a troublemaker at times - who channeled his energy into a passion for running and found himself at the 1936 Olympic games. During the war is the story of sheer will, determination, and hope that helped a man survive the unspeakable horrors that came his way. After the war is the story of a soldier who came home but for whom the war was not over until he found a path out of the need for vengeance.

From the title, I did not expect the book to spend significant time on the periods of time before and after the war. That was unexpected. About a hundred pages focus on his life before the war. It was challenging to get through that section in anticipation of getting to the "World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption." Louis Zamperini is not a particularly likable young man at that time; the strength of his family and the dedication of his brother Phil channel his energy into the productive outlet of running, leading him to become the youngest American to qualify for the Olympic 5,000 meter race.

The most compelling of the sections are the horrors of war - battle, survival, prison, torture, illness, death, starvation, destruction, and more. The author's powerful words create images that, once seen, cannot be forgotten. Yes, images are seen through the words in this book. The experiences are so extreme and the descriptions are so vivid that they place the reader visually and emotionally in the heart of the horror. Once read, it cannot be forgotten. Even if I want to, I will never forget the scenes described in this book - the one perfect day on the ocean, the camps and conditions, the soldiers, and the city of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.

The third part of the book is the heartbreaking reality that the war does not end for soldiers when they return home. Those soldiers fortunate enough to come home bring the horrifying experiences and memories home with them. The inescapable reality of what he lived through came home with Louis Zamperini. Even with the love of his family around him, he floundered, suffering nightmares, the need for vengeance and retribution, the inability to find a path through which to move forward. Faith brought him out of that downward spiral and enabled him to go on productively, positively, and with love instead of hate.

What makes this section of the book even more interesting is the fact that the book speaks in parallel of fate after the war of Matsuhiro "the Bird" Watanabe, Louis Zamperini's worst abuser and number 23 on General MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted Japanese war criminals. The war may have ended, but it was not over for Louis Zamperini for a long, long, long time.

I leave this book, awed by Louis Zamperini's story, and even more overwhelmed but the thought that this is the story of one soldier - one out of thousands and millions who risk everything to serve their country. As the author's note states, "Finally, I wish to remember the millions of Allied servicemen and prisoners of war who lived the story of the Second World War. Many of these men never came home; many others returned bearing emotional and physical scars that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. I come away from this book with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity. It is to them that this book is dedicated."

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Vanessa and Her Sister

Title:  Vanessa and Her Sister
Author:  Priya Parmar
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  080417637X / 978-0804176378

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

Favorite Quote:  "There can be no beginning again. Love and forgiveness are not the same thing."

Several books I have read over the past couple of years present a fictionalized account of an actual relationship:
  • Madame Picasso is the story of Eva Gouel and Pablo Picasso.
  • Mrs. Hemingway is the story of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway.
  • Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the story of Fanny Osbourne and Robert Loius Stevenson.
  • I Always Loved You is about the relationship between Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.
  • Mrs. Poe tells the story of Edgar Allen Poe, his wife Virginia, and Frances "Fanny" Osgood.
  • The Paris Wife is another story about Ernest Hemingway and his marriage to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson.
Each book shares the idea of depicting both a relationship and a time in history. They all do so with a varying degree of success and a shifting balance between the history and the individual story.

Vanessa and her Sister is different from the other in that it is not the story of a romantic relationship. It is the story of two sisters - Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. The two were sisters, friends, and rivals. They were also central members of the Bloomsbury Group in early twentieth century London. Virginia, the author in the family, suffered from mental illness, now suspected to be bipolar disorder, and eventually committed suicide in 1941 at the age of only 59. Vanessa, the artist of the family, was perhaps always in the shadow of her sister and perhaps always in the role of her sister's caretaker. Even today, most biographical listings or Vanessa Bell include in the opening sentences the fact that she is Virginia Woolf's sister.

The Bloomsbury Group was not a formal group but rather a name given after the fact to a set of individuals who met regularly in the early 1900s. Its significance lies in the people involved, which included Virginia, Vanessa, their brothers Thoby and Adrian, economist John Maynard Keynes, art critic Clive Bell, writer Leonard Woolf, writer and critic Giles Lytton Strachey, writer EM Forester, and artist Duncan Grant. Interestingly, at the time, none in the group had reached the fame they would later find. Relationships flourished within the group, including friendships, marriages, and affairs.

This story begins in 1905, towards the beginning of the time this group started to meet. It continues to about 1912. The story centers on Vanessa and Virginia, but really encompasses the entire Bloomsbury Group. The book, in fact, begins with a character list several pages long.

Unfortunately, even by the end, the characters remain somewhat just a list. The story is told primarily through Vanessa's point of view. It is an epistolary tale, told through Vanessa's journal entries interspersed with letters, facsimiles of tickets, postcards, and other such things. This format leads to this sense of viewing snapshots in quick succession without a sense of continuity or flow.

This combined with an extensive cast of characters makes the story difficult to follow and the characters - even the narrator Vanessa - difficult to know or develop an empathy for. The interest in learning more about the members of the group is there, but the book does not get beyond the surface of this fascinating list of characters. At the end, I am left with neither a sense of the time and history nor an in depth look at the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia.

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

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle

Title:  The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle
Author:  Joanne Huist Smith
Publication Information:  Harmony. 2014. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0553418556 / 978-0553418552

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

Favorite Quote:  "One of the greatest gifts we all possess is the ability to give. Wealth isn't a prerequisite; compassion and a kind hear are all you need. What better way to honor our loved ones, past and present, than to reach out and change a life for the better? And, the holidays are a perfect time to look outside of ourselves and be a true friend. A legacy of generosity can create memories that reverberate beyond the moment and outshine the brightest of heirloom ornaments."

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle is and is not about Christmas. It is about Christmas in that the book is set in the Christmas season - the first Christmas a family has to go through after suffering a devastating loss. The book is not about Christmas in that it is not about the religious beliefs of Christmas. It is about loss, grief, friendship, compassion, and most of all, hope - ideas and feelings that are universal no matter what your beliefs.

Joanne Huist Smith married her husband Rick in 1980 at the age of 25. They had three beautiful children - Ben, Nick, and Megan. In 1999, Rick died suddenly. The family fell apart emotionally. Joanne had no idea how to hold her family together, how to move forward herself, or how to help her children cope.

Do you know that bereavement counseling through hospital and hospice programs often care for a family for over a year following the death of a loved one? A key reason for this is that the first year following the death is a year of firsts - first birthday without..., first summer without...., first winter without...., and first holiday without..... Grieving is a moment by moment process; yet, almost universally, the first holiday without a loved one is one of the most daunting things to face.

For the Smith family, the approaching Christmas holiday seemed more ominous than joyous. How would they get through a Christmas without Rick? How would they get through this first Christmas?

Then, thirteen days before Christmas, a gift mysteriously appeared on Smith's doorstep. The card read, "On the first day of Christmas your true friends give to you, one Poinsettia for all of you." The family, of course, picked up on the reference to the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. Yet, who were these "true friends?"

On the next day, another gift and another card. And then another. As Christmas drew closer, the gifts and the mystery of the "true friends" gave the Smith family a focus and could momentarily draw their attention from their sadness. The gifts were small and varied - wrapping paper, bows, a poinsettia. They did nothing to mitigate what the family had suffered; nothing in the world could do that. However, the gifts did bring a smile to their faces and perhaps lessened the dread of facing the first of many firsts without Rick. This act of kindness got them through. It could not take away the pain, but it provided room for hope and joy in the middle of sadness.

The mystery of the "true friends" identity was ultimately solved; yet, it almost did not matter for by then, the Smiths had survived that first Christmas. More important than the who was the what - the "true friends" provided hope, kindness, and compassion. Each one of us has gone through losses and can feel the pain of the many moments when you turn around to share with your loved one and he or she is not there. An act of kindness at that moment makes all the difference in the world.

It doesn't take much - a card, a small gift, a kind word, a helping hand, a hug - but it can mean the difference between despair and hope. This is especially true around the holidays - whether the holiday be Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid, Kwanzaa, and any day that holds special meaning in a person's life.

This book is a beautiful story of the difference a "true friend" can make and a gentle reminder to be a "true friend" to someone every day.

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sins of Our Fathers

Title:  Sins of Our Fathers
Author:  Shawn Lawrence Otto
Publication Information:  Milkweed Editions. 2014. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1571311092 / 978-1571311092

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Favorite Quote:  "He was going to find a way, starting tonight, to turn things around. A way to come together and move forward again - not as if nothing happened, but acknowledging that it had, and then finding the forgiveness and the strength and the love to heal together."

On its surface, Sins of Our Fathers is about greed and business. JW is a banker in northern Minnesota. Because of a gambling and a drinking problem, he lands himself in serious trouble. His boss offers him a deal to salvage his life - infiltrate the competitors and help to defeat their efforts. Simple enough. The book is the story of a man dealing with loss and addiction - a man who is handed the opportunity to reclaim his life.

The undercurrents and depth of this story come in with who the competition is. JW's employer is North Lake Bank, which operates around Indian country in Minnesota - the Native American reservations and the casinos found there. The bank's objective is to make money off of the casino business but to retain that money in the bank rather than reinvest it in the Native American community running the casinos. Undercurrents of the racial divide, prejudice, and discrimination enter into this picture and the business model of North Lake Bank. In fact, the book begins with JW conducting a seminar on "Banking in Indian Country" - tips and techniques to legally draw money out of the casinos and into the bank. Legal - yes. Ethical - probably not.

The competition to North Lake Bank is Johnny Eagle, a qualified and expert banker. He has returned to a life on the reservation with his teenage son and is working on setting up a bank on the reservation. A bank on the reservation means the end of the business model North Lake Bank perpetuates. A bank on the reservation means that casino earnings stay on the reservations and are reinvested into the community rather than the "white man's" bank.

JW enters into the situation to do exactly what his employer wants - to stop Johnny Eagle. Yet, as he gets personally involved, things change. What choices will JW make? Will he choose the right thing or the expedient thing? Will he turn his life around? Will he find the salvation he seeks? These are the questions the story answers.

Throughout this book, I get the feeling that I have read it before. If not the story, then the characters at least. The characters seem to each fit a type and not veer from that. The down and out main character rehabilitating his ways and looking for salvation. The the stoic underdog fighting the establishment. The rebellious teenager. The greedy banker. The wife who walks away unable to deal with the downward spiral of a loved one's choices. The daughter betrayed by a father. The enemy who may or may not turn out to be a friend.

The character behave predictably through the story, bringing it to a somewhat predictable conclusion. No real surprises.

What is beautiful about this book is the wonderfully visual writing. The author Shawn Lawrence Otto is a screenwriter for TV and film. He wrote and co-produced the Oscar winning movie based on House of Sand and Fog. Sins of Our Fathers is his debut novel. His expertise in imagery shows clearly in this book. He paints a picture with his words - whether of the characters or of the setting. From the character with “a rugged air of adventure that contrasted nicely with his well tailored banker's suit” to the setting of “the dusky rolling hills … darkening skies … and the dark planes of a building.”

Because of the writing and visualization, I look forward to reading more from Shawn Lawrence Otto.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Bowl of Olives: On Food and Memory

Title:  A Bowl of Olives:  On Food and Memory
Author:  Sara Midda
Publication Information:  Workman Publishing Company. 2014. 128 pages.
ISBN:  0761145265 / 978-0761145264

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Favorite Quote:  "Certain foods are forever linked with particular places and times - memorable meals with special people."

A Bowl of Olives:  On Food and Memory is a little gift book with charming artwork. The author Sara Midda is an artist, who has lived in the South of France and currently lives in West Essex, England.

The dust jacket of the book reads, "This work of pure enchantment celebrates all things food and cooking .... Its watercolor paintings shine like jewels ... it is a book layered with memories and impressions, and throughout, recipes..."

The first element of the book description is "all things food and cooking." The table of contents is an eclectic collection of food related topics. The sections range from food markets to eggs, from table settings to food wishes, and from food packaging to olives. The sections vary in the scope of topics. One section talks about specifically eggs while another cover the broad spectrum of food memories. Each section drifts between lists, descriptions, notes, and artwork related to the topic without really a flow or organization within the topic.

The artwork itself is lovely, and the book includes a lot of artwork. However, the book is little - about 5 x 7 inches in hardcover. Most of the pages contain multiple individual images, making each one even smaller than the size of the book indicates. Some pages have only a few images, but some have as many as 10-20 individual images. As a result, the artwork is really, really small - beautiful but small. At times, I found myself reaching for a magnifying class to more clearly see what details there might be.

As to the layering of "memories and impressions," many sections are somewhat like lists. The individual items on a list may or may not trigger a memory for the reader. The author does not explain her memories; No stories underlie the lists and descriptions. For examples, the food memories include:

  • Italy:  "in wine bars along the back streets of Venice, chicchetti of rice balls, artichoke hearts cooked in olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon juice."
  • Morocco: "grilled sardines - eating them in the harbor at Essaouira"
  • France:  "scents - figs, wood smoke, herbs, coffee, bread baking, olive oil, garlic."

The words simply do not bring the memory to life. Food should appeal to all the senses, and this book does not elicit that delight. The few recipes included are fairly basic ones. As this book will likely appeal to "foodies," the recipes (like roasted beets and apple jelly) are likely ones they are already familiar with.

Functionally, the book is difficult to read. The font is very linear and italic in appearance. The font size is sometimes really small like the artwork. On certain pages, the font and color of print resembles that of a notebook hurriedly written. The small size of print and artwork gives some of the pages a cluttered appearance. Perhaps, that goes with the artistic aesthetic of the book, but it becomes very challenging to read.

At the end of the day, this book is really a work of art - more about the illustrations than the content. The individual illustrations are lovely; I just wish I could have seen them in a cleaner and larger environment so as to appreciate each and every one.

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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

Title:  Brown Girl Dreaming
Author:  Jacqueline Woodson
Publication Information:  Nancy Paulsen Books. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399252517 / 978-0399252518

Book Source:  I read this book after the announcement of the National Book Awards.

Favorite Quote:  "Each day a new world opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are ... gather into one world called You where You decide what each world and each story and each ending will finally be."

Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio in 1963. Her childhood was spent between Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. In other words, Jacqueline Woodson grew up in the heart of the civil rights movement.

She writes for an audience of children and adolescents. Her works have won many awards such as Newberry Honors and the Coretta Scott King Award which recognizes books about the African-American experience that are written for a youth audience. In 2014, she was the US nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award which recognizes a living author for their "lasting contributions to children's literature," and in 2005, she won the Margaret A. Edwards Award which recognizes an author and a specific body of his or her work for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. This book, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award for young people's literature in 2014.

This book is Jacqueline Woodson's biography told through poetry. At a personal level, it is a story of childhood, At a family level, it is a story of births, marriage, divorce, death, and everything in between; it also captures Woodson's upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness. At a societal level, it tells her story of growing up African American during the 1960s and in the heart of the Civil Rights movement. With her traveling back and forth between South Carolina and New York, the book captures the juxtaposition between the North and the South on civil rights issues.

Each poem is a vignette of a moment; together, the moments create a vivid picture of a childhood and of a turbulent time in US history. Part 1 is about her birth and time in Ohio. Part 2 is about the years in Greenville, South Carolina. Part 3 is about life in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City. Part 4 is about the straddle between South Caroline and New York.

The vignette approach reminds me of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The individual vignettes are only a page or two long, with brief titles like "uncle odell," "night bus," "the blanket," "leaving greenville," "Because we're witnesses," "lessons", and "the stories I tell." (Note: The book does not capitalize titles.) Sprinkled throughout are 10 very brief poems titled "how to listen" #1 - #10. These seem to capture her progression as a writer - remembering, observing, thinking, and writing.

Although written for an adolescent audience, this book grabbed me to the point that I read almost the entire book in one sitting. My reaction at the end - Wow. Written with restraint and in a few, well chosen constructs, the book beautifully paints a history. For a younger audience, I would hope the book would be accompanied by a conversation about the history that the book describes but does not explain - Kingdom Hall, Angela Davis, Black Panthers, Woolworth's, Langston Hughes, and the phrase "deep in my heart I do believe" among other things. For a younger reader to fully appreciate the content, the conversation is necessary. However, even without the conversation, this book is an interesting take on biography, grabbing attention perhaps more than a fact-based narrative of a life.

Recommended reading for young adults and adults alike!

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho

Title:  The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho
Author:  Anjanette Delgado
Publication Information:  Kensington. 2014. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1617733903 / 978-1617733901

Book Source:  I received this book as added bonus along with a book I won through the GoodReads First Reads program.

Favorite Quote:  "I wondered how many marriages were that one hateful second away from a precipice they wouldn't be able to back away from."

Mariela is of Cuban heritage. She lives in Little Havana, a neighborhood in Miami that is home to many Cuban immigrants. She owns a multi-family building, living in one apartment and renting out the others. She has been married and divorced more than once. After the last divorce, she decides that being a mistress is more her style. She now dates only married men. Her current relationship is with Hector. He is married and lives with his wife in one of the apartments in the building.

On top of all this, Mariela has inherited psychic ability and is a clairvoyant. She has denied and walked away from this ability for a long time.

Now, her lover Hector is found dead, and worse, Mariela is a suspect. Owning her clairvoyant ability and solving the mystery of Hector's death may be her only way to save herself.

There is lot going on in this book. Life in Little Havana. Mariela with her life choices. Hector and his wife. The other tenants in the building. Mariela's clairvoyance and what it reveals about the other characters. The mystery of Hector's death.

From the book description, Hector's death seems to be the jumping off point for the book. However, reading the book, that event occurs well into the book. For a while, I kept turning every page waiting to get to the big event. It occurs too late in the for me. The reaction perhaps would have been different had I not been anticipating the event since the beginning of the book.

Mariela's character, unfortunately, is not a particularly likable one. It starts with her statement on page 2 of the book, "I'd played the role of the betrayed wife twice before. Wasn't I entitled to be on the other side of the broken vows for a change?" The first descriptions of the book are of her assignation with her married lover!

The ideas of marriage vows and relationships are a central one for the book. Mariela's entire lifestyle develops as a reaction to her husbands' lack of respect for their marriage vows. Hector's wife Olivia, in this situation, is the grieved wife with the additional burden that she sees her husband's mistress on a daily basis. Abril, one of Mariela's other tenants, is a single mother with her own history of relationships.

Mariela's clairvoyance seems almost tangential to the entire story. It plays into the solution to the mystery, but the answer to "who killed Hector" could easily be built without it. It is somewhat unclear what this aspect of the story adds to the book.

The most intriguing part of the book to me is the descriptions of life in Little Havana - a setting I have read little about. Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street) is an actual street in Miami, and is considered a main thoroughfare of Little Havana. It's a little west of downtown Miami and about 15 minutes from South Beach. The glimpse into Little Havana and its culture is enlightening.

The book has a mystery, some intriguing descriptions and an interesting look at the sanctity of marriage. Ultimately, though, it's not quite the book for me.

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Giver Quartet (The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, Son)

Title:  The Giver Quartet (The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, Son)
Author:  Lois Lowry
Publication Information:  HMH Books for Young Readers. 1993 (original publication of The Giver). 2014 (this edition). 784 pages.
ISBN:  0544340973 / 978-0544340978

Book Source:  The Giver was the selection for our book club this month. I read the entire quartet because I was so intrigued by the story.

Favorite Quote:  "If everything’s the same, then there aren’t any choices! I want to wake up in the morning and decide things!"

The Giver Quartet, as the title suggests, is a compilation of four books written by Lois Lowry from 2003 through 2012:
  • The Giver (1993) is the story of a supposedly utopian society which prizes sameness and eliminates pain and suffering for most people. However, in doing so, it also eliminates joy and exacts a high cost for preserving uniformity. The price of sameness is kept safely hidden away from the masses. What happens when one person breaks out of the sameness mold and dreams of a world that can be different? 
  • Gathering Blue (2000) has a set of characters is completely distinct from those in The Giver. It is the story of a society in which the central issue is one of maintaining control and creating a future as envisioned by a few. What happens when some think to take the future in their own hands and create something different?
  • Messenger (2004) bring the characters from the first two books together. The stories start to overlap. This book is set in a society initially formed on the basis of acceptance, inclusion and caring for one's community as for oneself. Personal desires, however, take over and lead towards a closed society and selfishness. Can selflessness be found again?
  • Son (2012) brings the story full circle, tying together all the different elements and making a statement about what the future holds (no spoilers here). 
Although these are four distinct books written over almost a decade, I read them as one continuous story and, as such, am choosing to review them together.

Recently in a book store, I saw a advertising note for this book that reads "from utopia to dystopia". According to the dictionary, utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. Dystopia is the opposite - an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. What is fascinating in The Giver Quartet is the dark and dystopian truths that underlie seemingly utopian worlds. The Giver was not the first book to describe a dystopian society, but these books do it beautifully, capturing the menacing reality that underlies a seeming peaceful surface. Not everything is as it seems. The question is who has the courage to reach into that dystopia and envision a new reality? And how? And at what cost? 

Lois Lowry won the Newberry Award in 2004 for The Giver. Awarded by the American Library Association, the Newberry Awards honors "the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Interestingly, the book also makes the ALA's lists of "Best Book for Young Adults", "ALA Notable Children's Book", and "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000." The current book description on many bookseller websites calls the book "one of the most influential novels of our time."

Our local library has the books listed in the catalog under both the children's fiction and the young adult/teen fiction. Local schools have incorporated it into the curriculum anywhere from third grade to eighth grade. The book has also been banned by different schools and organizations. A wide range of placements, accolades, and criticisms confirm the depth of questions and discussion raised by these books.

One question often under discussion is what is the appropriate age for the content of the books? As an adult, I love the books. I love the ethical and philosophical questions they raise - the price of sameness, the dark underpinnings of a supposed utopia, the culling of society to protect its uniformity, the attitude towards anyone or anything different, changes that occur over time that take a society far from its original goal, and many more. These books leave me with a lot to think about.

I love the open endings, leaving a reader to decide which way the society goes. Warranted, reading all four together brings the closure as the differing elements of the story come together. The ending of The Giver is definitely not definitive and leaves the next step open to interpretations. That is one reason I read the rest of the quartet. I had my thoughts on what happens next, but I wanted to know where the story really went. Had I stopped at the first book, I would have long wondered about the ending.

The books do have some very disturbing images (read about "release!") that I would not see appropriate for an elementary school age audience. Middle school and high school, yes. Elementary school, no.

In her acceptance speech for the Newberry, Lois Lowry said, “The man that I named the Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing. It is very risky. But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."

I am so glad that, as an adult, I opened these books and stepped into this "magnificently, wonderfully unsafe world."

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Second Bite at the Apple

Title:  A Second Bite at the Apple
Author:  Dana Bate
Publication Information:  Kensington. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1617732605 / 978-1617732607

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

Favorite Quote:  "There are no guarantees ... but guarantees are overrated. I'd rather trade in adventure. In chance. In opportunity. It's a scarier way to live, demanding trust in myself and others that I'm still trying to master, but I'd rather ask for a second chance than not take any chances at all."

Sydney Strauss dreamed of a career in food - working with food and writing about food. She dreamed of a future with her college boyfriend Zach. Neither happens. She ends up working as a producer in television and alone after a breakup.

Changes in circumstances bring her back to the world of food and to a job at the local farmer's market. Sydney meets new people, makes new connections, and even begins a new relationship. Then, a potential journalistic scoop comes her way - one that could catapult her to the career she has always wanted. Yet, everything has a cost. Is it worth it? How far do you go as a journalist to get the story? How do you balance your relationships when they conflict with the story you are chasing? These are the questions Sydney faces.

Sydney is an entertaining character as is the supporting cast in the book - the cantankerous boss who really has a big heart, the best friend who is there through thick and thin, the ex-boyfriend who tries to waltz his way back in, the sister who has always been the precocious one, and the new friend who may have a shady past. A perfect list of chick lit characters.

Some of the food descriptions in the book are quite delectable. Many - from the fresh baked bread to the perfect bite - at a little restaurant make you hungry! The book includes six recipes at the end as an added bonus.

The plot line of journalistic integrity and the pursuit of a story balanced against trust in relationships is not a new one, but it is a viable one. Sydney's dilemma is as follows:  "Sexy investigative journalism isn't my thing. Those aren't the stories I want to write. I want to write people stories, stories that humanize some aspect of our food system. But if a salacious story is what it will take to get my foot in the door ..., then that's what I'll write." Add to the ethical dilemma the complication that the story involves people who trust her. Is the compromise of principles worth making? Does the end justify the means?

Interestingly, the title of the book "second bite at the apple" as a phrase has its basis in legal and real estate negotiations. A financial dictionary defines the phrase as "a second chance at an argument or negotiation previously lost." I do not know if Dana Bate intended for this connection to be made, but the book does have a lot of do with second chances for several characters - a chance to redeem a professional reputation, a second chance for a dream career, and a second chance at love and a relationship.

This book has so many elements that interest me - food, the local food movement, big business versus independents, and journalistic integrity. Sydney is a likable main character as are some of the strong characters who surround her. However, unfortunately, there is something about the book that keeps it from resonating with me. I am not entirely sure why but I find myself not engaged with the characters or the plot. Don't get me wrong. It's a quick, light, enjoyable read; I just did not fall in love with it. Given the subject matter, I expected to, but I did not.

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Prayers for the Stolen

Title:  Prayers for the Stolen
Author:  Jennifer Clement
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2014. 240 pages.
ISBN:  080413880X / 978-0804138802

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

Favorite Quote:  "You might ask how can the world forget about a human being, but it happens all the time."

Guerrero is the state of Mexico that is home to the beach resort town of Acapulco. Archaeologists have found evidence of human history in the area dating back to 300 BC. The area has rain forests, mountains, rich natural resources, and a beautiful Pacific coastline. Unfortunately, currently it is also overrun with political guerrillas and drug cartels, creating a reign of lawlessness and terror.

The "stolen" refers to the frequent kidnapping and disappearance of women in this area. The rural communities are often communities of women as the men migrate to the United States seeking work. Some men maintain the relationships with the families back home; some simply disappear. Because of the mountainous and forested geography of the region, law enforcement is difficult.

This book presents a very powerful picture of one such rural community. It speaks of the steps people take to keep their girls safe:  "On our mountain only boys were born, and some of them turned into girls around the age of eleven. Then these boys had to turn into ugly girls who sometimes had to hide in holes in the ground." It also tells the story of the girls who are stolen and the girls who leave.

Ladydi Garcia Martinez - named not for the positive image of Lady Diana but for a constant reminder of what Prince Charles did to her - is a young girl living in this world. Her life is that of school, friends, family, community, and home. However, school is taught by transient teachers who come to this community to fulfill their own goals and leave soon after. Friends are "stolen" and lost, sometimes returning shrouded in sadness and mystery. Family is a father who abandons her and a mother filled with the resentment at her husband's behavior. Community is people constantly struggling to survive through poverty and danger. Home is where you dig holes to hide in when "they" come for you, where dead bodies may be found on your doorstep, and where you hide your very identity to somehow escape notice and keep from being stolen.

The first part of the book is the most difficult to get through. The story is told in vignettes and does not follow a chronological sequence. The first person stream of consciousness narratives goes from story to story of Ladydi's life. The reader has to infer and understand the chronology based on the descriptions. The individual vignettes are moving, and together, they create a depressing picture of the reality in this community.

Creating a picture of the society seems to be the goal of the narrative rather than the development of characters and plot. The book meets this goal successfully describing the depressing reality of drug trafficking, human trafficking, poverty, alcoholism and other things that threaten this community. However, because of the structure, the story appears far away and removed from the reader.

The second half of the book moves much quicker and centers on a sequence of events. The picture drawn carries forward all the tragedy of the first half of the book but becomes much more plot driven. The central plot line creates a strong focal image to anchor and build the emotions of the book.

The success of this book lies in the awareness it raises about the sad conditions in which communities such as this one live. I find myself researching the news reports to read the "real" stories after reading this fictional one.

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