Thursday, December 31, 2015

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Title:  Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Author:  Bryan Stevenson
Publication Information:  Spiegel and Grau. 2014. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0812994523 / 978-0812994520

Book Source:  I read this book based on hearing and reading about the book

Opening Sentence:  "I wasn't prepared to meet a condemned man."

Favorite Quote:  "... we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, we're also in a web of healing and mercy ... The power of mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It's when mercy is least expected that it's most potent - strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration."

Thought-provoking. Terrifying. Heartbreaking. This book is all of the above. All the more so for being about our nation today.

The author Bryan Stevenson has quite an impressive resume. Winner of MacArthur Genius Grant. A Harvard lawyer. Graduate of the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. Clinical Professor at New York University Law School. Named by Desmond Tutu as "America's young Nelson Mandela." Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. It is this last institution that is currently his life's work and the basis of this book.

This book begins with Mr. Stevenson road to and work with the Equal Justice Initiative whose mission is to "provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system."

This book speaks to the US justice system as a whole but takes on three main issues in depth:
  • Death penalty - "In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn't implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would."
  • Racial and social inequality in the dispensation of justice - "... the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can't be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice."
  • Treatment of juvenile offenders - "Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”
The book alternates between facts and statistics and the heartbreaking stories of individual cases. Mind you, the book does not put forth the innocence of all offenders. It is way more realistic. Some individuals are innocent and wrongfully prosecuted. Many are guilty of the offenses, but the question of their treatment through the system still warrants analysis.

Anchoring the book is the case of Walter McMillan, a black man. In 1986, an eighteen year old white woman named Ronda Morrison was killed. Walter McMillan was implicated even though numerous witnesses placed him as a family church fish fry at the time of the murder. In 1988, he was convicted after a capital murder trial that lasted only a day and a half. The jury recommended a life sentence; the judge overruled the jury and sentenced Walter McMillan to death. In 1991, the conviction and sentence was upheld. In 1993, based on Bryan Stevenson's work, the conviction was overturned and Walter McMillan was exonerated after six years on death row. He walked away a free man; however, the exoneration could not undo the damage of the wrongful prosecution. Walter McMillan would never truly be free.

This case is but one example cited in this book. Many other cases and instances are discussed, including one of Mr. Stevenson himself being suspected and held by the police outside his own home. The examples are indicative of an injustice that has existed and continues to exist today.

The examples, of course, are chosen and presented in a way to support the thesis of the book. They shock and elicit sympathy. The cases are told as stories - stories that create emotions. The stories anchor and make the facts memorable. Collectively, they writing style makes this book of very serious material very approachable and very readable.

The point is to begin and continue a conversation - a conversation that must take place leading to change that must come. The point is also to serve as a reminder that change can happen. Bryan Stevenson is one lawyer. The Equal Justice Institute is one organization. Yet, even the one brings about hope, reform and change.

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wreck and Order

Title:  Wreck and Order
Author:  Hannah Tennant-Moore
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1101903260 / 978-1101903261

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

Opening Sentence:  "My father inherited a small fortune when his mother died, and on my twenty-first birthday, he handed me a card with a check inside."

Favorite Quote:  "I think of myself as someone with an unusually high capacity for happiness, just not from the right things."

What to even say about this book except to begin with the conclusion. This is not the book for me, and I am completely not the reader for this book.

The description makes it sound like a memoir-like book in the same vein as Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Here is a young woman on a self-destructive path who travels to Paris and Sri Lanka looking to change her life.  The description, however, fails to mention that Elsie takes a trip to Paris and returns home to an abusive relationship, takes a trip to Sri Lanka and returns home to an abusive relationship, moves to New York only to return to an abusive relationship, and takes yet another trip to Sri Lanka to - you guessed it - return home to an abusive relationship. No development and no change occurs in these trips.

At times, I think perhaps this book is a parody of many memoirs that talk about transformation, particularly as a result of grand journeys. Elsie's lack of change and her self-destructive behavior appears an exaggerated caricature intent on showing that "wherever you go, there you are" and that a new destination does not mean a new you. However, the book has no hint of humor that a parody may encompass; it seems to take itself too seriously to be a satirical commentary. This means that the book becomes a repetitive cycle of Elsie's choices.

Let's talk about Elsie. Unfortunately, I find very little to like about Elsie. Yes, she had a dysfunctional childhood which may elicit pity. However, that is negated by the fact that she is now an adult and continues to pile together one self-destructive decision on top of another. She seems to have unlimited resources from an indulgent but uninvolved parent. His sole purpose in the book seems to be to send her money, which he does at regular intervals. Elsie holds no steady job because she does not have to support herself. Her life work seems to be translating some unknown book about stray cats from French into English.

She is equally untethered in her personal relationships. She returns time and again to a physically abusive boyfriend. Her internal thoughts in the book are disrespectful towards so many of the people she meets along the way. She comes across as self-absorbed and selfish; she doesn't even seem to like herself very much. The book makes no attempt to establish or explain a reason for Elsie's behavior except for one statement that "A psychiatrist would call my bad times depression." Unfortunately, this statement is never developed; I never really find any understanding of or sympathy towards Elsie.

A likable main character is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying a book. It depends on the story itself.  So, let's look at the story told in this book. A main component (if not the main component!) of this story are graphic descriptions of Elsie's sexual encounters - actual ones, imagined ones, dreamt ones, consensual ones, abusive ones, forced ones, and everything in between. That type of book is not the story for me. Added to that are descriptions of drug-induced hazes. Again, not the story for me. Rarely, the book has a description of a place or a character - particularly while Elsie is in Sri Lanka - which hints at hidden potential. Unfortunately, the potential remains well hidden.

From the description, Wreck and Order should have been the book for me. At the end, I am simply not the reader for this book.

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

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Why We Write About Ourselves

Title:  Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
Author:  Meredith Maran, Editor
Publication Information:  Plume. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0142181978 / 978-0142181973

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

Opening Sentence:  "Gloria's right."

Favorite Quote:  "Truth in memoir is a lie ... The idea of truth in memoir is absurd. Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can't fact check memory."  [Dani Shapiro]

The dictionary defines memoir in two ways: a historical account written from personal knowledge or  or a written account of one's memory of certain events or people. The first definition sets up the exception of a true history. The second sets up the expectation of one individual's recollection. The distinction seems small, but it truly is not.

Years ago, I remember reading A Million Little Pieces by James Frey for my book club. We picked up and approached the book as a memoir. Before our meeting, however, came the news that many aspects of the book were not indeed true. James Frey was accused of literary forgery. The book was pulled and re-marketed as a novel. That, of course, became the bulk of our discussion. What emerged were several conclusions. One, as readers, we take memoirs as "true" - one person's truth but true nevertheless. Two, reading something as true only to find it is not creates a sense of having being betrayed. Three, reading a book as a story - true or not - liberates a reader to enjoy it the story for what it is - characters, plot, writing style, and all things associated with literature.

So, as a readers, is my enjoyment of a memoir based on the idea that the story is true? Is it based on the way the story is written and told as with any book? Is it the book that creates the experience or is it my expectation? My experience is that it is both.

This book - Why We Write About Ourselves - brings the author's perspective on memoirs. It is a collection of essays by twenty authors who have written one or more memoirs. The list includes some authors, whose work I have read - Edwidge DanticatSue Monk Kidd, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, and Jesmyn Ward.

Each author's section is structured the same way - an introduction to the author including birthday, home, schooling, and social media links; a listing of the author's works; the essay which is the author's answer to why they write about themselves; and finally, some short words of wisdom for memoir writers.

I am clearly not the audience for this book. The book is written for the writers of memoirs or those considering writing a memoir. I am neither. However, I enjoy the "behind the scenes" look at how these works come to be. Reading memoirs, I have often wondered what leads someone to write something so intensely personal about not only themselves but those around them. I have often wondered what impact a public memoir has on an author's personal life and relationships. I have often wondered how true memoirs really are. Memories depend on the author; what is included and excluded depends on the author; but is what is there true within those limitations? These essays, to varying degrees, answer these questions.

The positive and the negative of the book is that the points made by the different authors are similar. This is the best part of the book because patterns emerge for the how and the why of memoir writing. This same aspect, however, makes the book somewhat repetitive, with the same ideas coming from different voices. Perhaps, choose to read the essay by the authors whose memoir you have read. Familiarity with the memoir being discussed adds another dimension to read the essay about how and why it's written. Perhaps, choose to read an essay occasionally rather than the book from start to end.

My "takeaway" from this book ... In fiction, I often remind myself to suspend disbelief and go along to where the story takes you. Perhaps, memoirs are no different. Simply read it and go where the author takes you.

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

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Title:  Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Author:  David Allen
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2015 (revision), 2001 (original). 352 pages.
ISBN:  0143126563 / 978-0143126560

Book Source:  I read this book based reading and hearing about the book.

Opening Sentence:  "It's possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control."

Favorite Quote:  "What does this mean to me? What do I want to be true about it? What's the next step required to make that happen? These are the cornerstone questions we must answer, at some point, about everything. This thinking, and the tools that support it, will serve you in ways you may not yet imagine."

Getting Things Done or "GTD" was originally published in 2001. The latest edition is "brand-new for 2015." The book's goal, as the subtitle implies, is to promote productivity. Productivity can be looked at in two ways - effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness is about what is being done. Is the focus aligned with personal and organizational goals and mission? Efficiency is about how things are being done. Are tools and time being used in a manner to maximize progress towards goals? This book focuses on efficiency - how things are done. It assumes that goals and priorities exist, and what is needed is a system to accomplish them.

The first part of the book lays out a work flow - the process of collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing and doing - that can be applied to any goal or project. The second part of the book takes that process and presents each component in detail, with rules and guidelines for each step of the way. Part 3 explains the "power" behind the approach and why it works. Central to the approach is a one page flowchart that is repeated and highlighted through the book. It provides context as each element is discussed, providing a visual reminder of how the individual tools fit into the entire process.

The ideas of this book make sense. Once stated, many of them appear intuitive:
  • Collection - Ensure that every item you have to work on is captured and that it flows through one "inbox" such that you can prioritize your time with an accurate picture of everything to be done.
  • Processing - Go through items one at a time, making a decision on each item before moving forward. The decision may range from identifying an immediate next action to shelving it for someday.
  • Organizing - Have consistent "bucket" of works based on what is required, for example, taking proactive action, waiting for an outside trigger, planning and executing a project, or thinking about as an idea for someday.
  • Review - Adhere to a regular, scheduled time, perhaps weekly, to consciously go through the process of organizing and maintaining this system.
  • Doing - Doing becomes a natural progression from the planning. At any given point, determine your actions based on context, priority, time, and energy. Over time, level actions between immediate needs, current projects, and long-term goals and responsibilities.
Within each section, the book describes tools and techniques. My biggest concern with the book is the way in which it addresses technology. The original publication in 2001 describes a paper-based system. The 2015 "update" introduces technology.  However, it appears to superimpose technology onto what it still a paper based system rather than adapt the system to truly take advantage of the tools available today. The terminology used in the book highlights this fact:
  • "digital project support"
  • "for those who have become increasingly digitally oriented"
  • "digital technology will continue to emerge."
Warranted, the ideas can be applied regardless of tools. Many books of this genre are tool-neutral; they present the ideas and leave the choice of tools up to the individual. This book, however, is not without tools; they are just paper based. It does not just present a framework and then say find tools to implement it; it prescribes tools that do not harness technology.

To use outdated tech terminology limits its appeal to and usability by the generation taught to incorporate and use technology from an early age. At this point in our personal or professional lives, to have a discussion on efficiency without effectively incorporating all the tools available seems lacking. The ideas of this book provide value; the prescription for implementation less so.

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

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Title:  Eleanor
Author:  Jason Gurley
Publication Information:  Crown. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1101903511 / 978-1101903513

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

Opening Sentence:  "She sits in the breakfast nook and watches the rain."

Favorite Quote:  "Dreams do no occupy any particular reality ... They are a fabricated world, wholly owned by their makers. The rules do not apply."

This book is a difficult to classify into a genre. For its teenage main character, it is YA. For its themes of death and grief, it is a very adult book. For its metaphysical elements, it is science fiction and fantasy. For the way in which the story is told, it is literary fiction. No matter what genre you place it in, the book is a memorable read.

My reaction to this book differs according to the sections into which my mind divides the book. The first section of the book about Grandmother Eleanor is sad and compelling. Here is young woman who has given up her dreams of the Olympics and of her life to settle into a life of motherhood. She is perhaps not well suited to the choices she has made. Her sadness seeps through the book in the cold, harsh setting and the beating rain. The ending to this section is shocking. Questions about why and what happens next keep me reading.

The second section of the book introduces twins Eleanor and Esmerelda and the terrible accident that leaves one dead. At this point, I don't know exactly how it will tie back to Grandmother Eleanor's story, but the story of this family's grief keeps me reading.

This is the second book I have read recently that is based on the death of a twin. Untwine by Edwidge Danticat is the other. Both books have a car accident. In both, a twin dies, and the other is left behind. That is where the similarity ends though. Untwine is a book about the pure, unadulterated grief of one person - Giselle, the twin left behind. This book is about the grief of the twin left behind but also about her efforts to help alleviate the grief of her parents. Instead of being taken care of, Eleanor becomes the caretaker. Compassion for Eleanor keeps me reading.

The third section of the book takes this story in a completely different direction.  It introduces a science fiction and metaphysical element that I did not expect. It is mentioned in the book description, but I expect that reference to become a manifestation of grief not the central idea of the plot line. At this point, I feel that the book may be too far out in science fiction, which is not a bad thing, just unexpected in this story.  This section also feels a little repetitive as Eleanor experiences the same thing several different times. The story is building but too slowly at this point.

I am not sure if I want to keep going, but I do because I still do want to know what happens. The intrigue is there, and it keeps building. I do not see the ending coming, but when it does, the reaction is that of course, that's what it had to be. You have grandmother Eleanor's story, and granddaughter Eleanor's story. The ending brings one to a conclusion, but leaves me wondering about the other.

The compelling nature of this book comes primarily from the visual writing. Whether real or not, I see the worlds described. The descriptions are vivid and imaginative. I can hear the waves of the ocean, feel the rain, and see the vast darkness. The visualization captures the sense of isolation and desolation that is both the setting and the plight of the main characters. A very unusual and memorable book.

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Name is Lucy Barton

Title:  My Name is Lucy Barton
Author:  Elizabeth Strout
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 208 pages.
ISBN:  1400067693 / 978-1400067695

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks."

Favorite Quote:  "And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do."

I just finished reading this short novel in one sitting. I am still caught up in the force and emotion of the story. I will likely read it again to get the full depth of Lucy Barton and the person she is. It's difficult to exactly describe this book, but one way is to look at what this book isn't and what it is.

This book is not a chronological story with a beginning, middle, and an end. The book centers on a time when the Lucy Barton spends nine weeks in the hospital.  As the opening sentence indicates, the story is a reflection back on this event many years later. It is unclear at what point Lucy is writing this story; in other words, it is unclear what the present time is except that it is years later, and much has changed.

Anchoring the story to that hospital stay almost makes that point in time the "present" day of the story. Lucy goes in to the hospital for an appendix operation, and complications ensue, which keep here there for weeks. However, her illness is not at the heart of the book. At the heart of the book is the fact that her mother comes to help for a period of five days during this time. Five days out of nine weeks. From that point, the story swings to the past, to that point, and to the future.

From the conversations with her mother come memories of childhood, love, marriage, and children. There are certain things mother and daughter do not talk about, but even seemingly superficial conversations about people they used to know carry deeper meaning. Lucy carries with her the remains of a traumatic childhood - extreme poverty, a dysfunctional family, judgement, isolation, and so much more - all of it sad and melancholy.

To a great extent, that childhood determines the direction of the rest of her life. Lucy's childhood and their inability to talk about it defines Lucy's relationship with her mother. It propels her to escape from the small town Amgash, Illinois without much of a look back. It reinforces the insecurities with which Lucy approaches her skills and her work as a writer. It underlies the inability of her husband and her own two daughters to erase the scars left by her childhood.

For the reader, all that insight into Lucy comes from reading between the lines of this book. This book reads almost like a play. Each chapter - if you can call it that - is brief and has the sense of fading in and out of a scene. Each presents a snapshot of a moment or a person. The next moves on to a different moment or person. At times, particularly at the beginning of the book, this fact is disconcerting and makes the book a little disjointed. However, before I know it, from these snapshots emerges a life. It's as if the individual points are the brush strokes, and only when you step back do you see the painting emerge. Individual notes, without much meaning on their own, create a melody when put together.

This book is fiction that reads like a biography. The first person narrative certainly lends to that impression. The fact that the main character is a writer lends to that image. The fact that she talks about her process of writing "this story" lends to that.

The fact that the book and its emotions feel so real, however, is the biggest reason. This book feels genuine and leaves me thinking that it is more than fiction. Therein lies the power of this story.

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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Love in Lowercase

Title:  Love in Lowercase
Author: Francesc Miralles (author). Julie Wark (translator).
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2016. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0143128213 / 978-0143128212

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 no time at all the year was going to end and the new one was about to begin."

Favorite Quote:  "For the first time I realized that the most important indicator of our value in this world is the good we do unto others."

The publicity for this book does it a disservice. The marketing materials describe this book as "a romantic comedy for language lovers and fans of The Rosie Project." Unfortunately, the book does not deliver that.

First of all, I don't think romance is at the heart of this book. The book, in fact, defines itself. "Love in lowercase? ... It's when some small act of kindness sets off a chain of events that comes around again in the form of multiplied love. Then, even if you want to return to where you started, it's too late, because this love in lowercase has wiped away all traces of the path back to where you were before." This book seems to be a little bit about romance but much more about the ripple effect of an action - a chance occurrence - that changes many lives. It seems to be about one man being drawn out of his loneliness and seclusion in spite of himself. Romance may indeed be part of that story, but it is not the whole story. I don't even think it is the main story.

Unfortunately, what romance there is in the story does not go the way I wished it would. Without a spoiler, I will say that I really wish the romance story ended differently. I find myself cheering for a particular couple, but that is not where the book ends up. The romance that the book follows, for me, lacks a sense of reality.

Second, this book does not strike the light-hearted tone of The Rose Project. Most, if not all, the characters seem alone not by choice but by circumstance. A hint of sadness runs through all their lives until life brings them together in friendship. The happiest character in the book seems to be the cat! This is not a book about happy people becoming happier together, but rather the need for companionship to shed loneliness.

Third, the comparison of Samuel to Don Tillman in The Rosie Project does not work. They are both bachelors and quirky, but that is where the similarity ends. Samuel "stopped socializing out of fear of being let down again. As an adolescent I got fed up with doing what other people wanted, only to be left high and dry when I needed them." Don Tillman's social struggles arise from who he is as a person.

Don Tillman is a charming character, while Samuel is far less likable. At times, he is rather uncharitable towards many of the other characters in the book - his sister, his brother-in-law, and his students. Throughout The Rosie Project, I find myself cheering for the main character. In this book, not so much.

I do wonder if this book lost something in the translation. This book is originally written in 2006 in Spanish. I have trouble following some aspects of the story, and the entire book does not appear to be what it is billed as. I would love to find someone who has read the original to see if the feel of the novel is different in its original language. Is my reaction to the book because of the translation or is it because of a marketing strategy that sets up unrealistic expectations?

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

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Children's Home

Title:  The Children's Home
Author:  Charles Lambert
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2016. 224 pages.
ISBN:  1501117394 / 978-1501117398

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 children began to arrive soon after Engel came to the house."

Favorite Quote:  "I suppose goodness depends on what you do, as much as what you are."

I have no idea what this book was about. The writing is intriguing enough to keep me reading for over 200 pages because I keep thinking that the story will come together. I want it to come together, but it never does. I want to understand, but I don't.

This book exists somewhere between fairly tale and horror story. It has so many of the elements for the genre. Take one mysterious, disfigured man who lives a reclusive life because of his disfigurement. Take one even more mysterious housekeeper, who seems to understand this man's every need. Take one rambling estate with many secrets and questionable treasures hidden in its many rooms. Take one outsider - a doctor. Take many children, who seem to be not quite children and who seem to appear out of nowhere. Take an establishment - "the ministry" - on the hunt for these children. Take many horrifying details - like acid being thrown on a child, children playing with a dead man, a take-apart model of a pregnant woman and one of a man's severed head, and a factory of buried children.

Take all these things together, and you have this rather odd little book. The details of this story keep me reading, but unfortunately the book provides no context in which to tie the details together into a cohesive whole. Looking at the story element by element, I still know very little:

Character - The only character to be given some background is Morgan. He is a recluse because of the disfigurement of his face and hand. His back story is developed enough to explain the disfigurement. Engel is the housekeeper, who knows and understands Morgan, but how? What is her connection to Morgan or to these children? Dr. Crane is the doctor, a lonely figure who is pulled into the life of this household, but why? From the story, it's unclear how many children there are. It seems somewhere between about 7 and about 40. It's clear that they are not quite children, and that David is a leader among them. Where do they come from? Why? Why to Morgan?

Setting - The book does not specify. For some reason, I have visions of an English country estate, but I couldn't tell you why. The book only specifies the house, the city, and the factory.

Plot and conflict - The plot has a positive thread and a horror one. Positively, the children provide Morgan with acceptance for who he is. They enable him to emerge from his closed-off, reclusive life. Perhaps, that is the main point of the book, but then why the entire horror plot line? On the horror end, the plot leads to a factory and a conflict. I am not entire sure how or why or even exactly what happens when the story gets there.

Theme - The book seems like it has an allegorical message; I just don't know what it is. It leaves me more puzzled than anything else.

Two statements from the book itself capture perfectly what I think about the book. "Have you learned nothing from all this?" And "It seems I'm doomed always to miss the point." Unfortunately, I feel as if I missed the point on this book.

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

Title:  The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
Author:  Dorothy Gilman
Publication Information:  Doubleday (original). 1966 (original). 208 pages.
ISBN:  0739411438 / 978-0739411438

Book Source:  I read this book for a book discussion at my local library.

Opening Sentence:  "The nurse walked out of the room, closing the door behind her, and Mrs. Pollifax looked at the doctor and he in turn looked at her."

Favorite Quote:  "Everything is a matter of choice, and when we choose are we not gambling on the unknown and its being a wise choice? And isn't it free choice that makes individuals of us? We are eternally free to choose ourselves and our futures. I believe myself that life is quite comparable to a map like this, a constant choice of direction and route."

The one requirement for reading this book. Suspend disbelief. Is Mrs. Pollifax an unlikely spy? Yes. Are most events in this book improbable? Completely, yes. More like impossible.

Does it matter? Absolutely not.

Mrs. Virgil "Emily" Pollifax is my hero. I love the fact that she does not take to the life that seems meant for her. She is a widow. She is a senior citizen. Her children are grown and gone, with lives of their own. She is spending her life between her garden and her volunteering. She is living the life she is expected to live - a "sensible life."

A chance question from a doctor - "But isn't there something you've always longed to do, something you've never had either the time of the freedom for until now?" - sends her on a madcap adventure around the world. Turns out that Mrs. Pollifax has always wanted to be a spy. So, in this book, she becomes a spy.

It is the doctor's question and Mrs. Pollifax's response that makes Mrs. Pollifax such an endearing character. The doctor's question strikes a chord with many readers. So many times, all of us choose the sensible course of action and walk the expected path. Yet, that question lingers. What if? Well, Mrs. Pollifax answers that in a resounding way.

This whole book is about the "what if" on a grand, over-the-top adventure scale. Mrs. Pollifax goes from suburban housewife to CIA agent. She goes from her quiet home in New Jersey to Mexico and beyond.  The reader goes along with her. Her ability to maintain her poise and maneuver (I may even say "Macgyver") her way through every situation has me laughing through the book.

This book is such fun if you suspend disbelief. Imagine walking into CIA headquarters and volunteering to be a spy. Imagine memorizing code signals. Imagine scoping out a place in which you have a meeting planned. Imagine making deals with guards based on the contents of your purse. Imagine planning a daring escape with little hope of success. Now, imagine a grandmotherly figure doing all these things in her very proper way.

Mind you, the book also has its more serious side. It is a spy book. Guns, drugs, loss of life, and fear all play a role. Given the 1966 publication date, the "other side" in this spy conflict are the Communists, as the prejudices of that time conjure up. However, because Mrs. Pollifax is such an unusual spy, the story also shows the human side of each character more so than the stereotype of the table. The "villains" of the story are not all villainous. They are people, some making really bad choices and some caught in their own circumstances.

Given the 1966 publication date, this book is also unusual in its strong, independent female main character.  Mrs. Pollifax, unhappy with her housewifely role, takes on the adventurous and dangerous life of a spy. She does so very successfully, sometimes even successfully than her male counterparts. At the same time, she remains gentle and considerate in her view of people. She presents such a wonderful balance of strength and sensibility.

The fun of the book definitely supersedes the serious spy story. This book proceeds in a predictable manner, and the mystery of the missing item that begins the book  also resolves in a predictable solution. It does not matter because the predictable is still enjoyable.

This book is also the beginning of a series of books featuring Mrs. Pollifax. I am so glad to have discovered it for now I have another "to read" list when I want a quickly read, sometimes silly, fun escape from reality.

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

Community: The Structure of Belonging

Title:  Community:  The Structure of Belonging
Author:  Peter Block
Publication Information:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2008. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1576754871 / 978-1576754870

Book Source:  I read this book because it is the base of a community program I attended.

Opening Sentence:  "This book is written to support those who care for the well-being of their community."

Favorite Quote:  "Real transformation occurs only through choice. It cannot be sold or mandated."

To understand what this book is about, understand the meaning behind the title. The author suggests "belonging" has two meanings - to be a part of something and to have a sense of ownership about something. A "community" is defined as a place to belong. To belong to a community embodies both meanings; you are a part of it, and you play an active role in its success.

The book also distinguishes between a community of citizens versus consumers. "A citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg, or dream for the future." On the other hand, "consumers give power away. They believe that their own needs can be best satisfied by the actions of others."  The "structure" is what this book seeks to get to. How can a community promote a sense of belonging in its citizens?

This book puts forth an ideology for transforming communities - for creating communities of citizens who are an active part of and the creators of their communities. The basis of the transformation is a paradigm shift from thinking about problems to considering possibilities. Conversations are at the heart of this transformation. The first half of the book focuses on the community paradigm, and the second half focuses on structuring conversations to transform our communities.

The book is not an easy read. It is philosophical and at times dense. The author recognizes that and provides alternatives. Each chapter begins with a summary statement. Each chapter ends with an outline of its content. Towards the end, the book has a section titled "Book at a Glance," which does just what the title suggests. It provides an outlined summary of the book. The same ideology is presented in different ways throughout the book, making the book at times repetitive. At the same time, I find myself re-reading paragraphs to make sure I understand what is being said. Again, it is not an easy read, but the ideas are relevant and important.

Interestingly, the book has some religious undertones. One of the final chapters addresses "unnecessary suffering," an idea often found in religious conversations. The author suggests using round tables in conversation - "the shape of communion" - again an idea that can be interpreted religiously. The book suggests serving healthy snacks at meetings - "bread, unleavened if you can find it, a reminder of the Sabbath." These undertones reinforce this as a book of philosophy.

The book lays out its ideology - the "what" - but is short on the implementation - the "how." As the author acknowledges, this paradigm does not lend itself to be measurable; hence, a lack of statistics, graphs, and charts to measure results. It should, however, lend itself to case studies as to how the ideas have been implemented and the results, however non-quantifiable. The book does include some examples, but they are few in number and brief in explanation.

One of the final sections of the book does present a list of "Role Models and Resources." Some of these role models are individuals who study and write about these opportunities, and some are community leaders who have implemented these ideas. Including more descriptions of the work communities are doing within the book itself would help ground its ideas and communicate them even more strongly. Done in this way, I find that more research is necessary to completely understand the use of the book's ideas.

The book is difficult to read and probably requires more than one reading. It does not really cover the implementation of ideas. However, the ideas themselves are worth reading and worth considering as communities continue to struggle with promoting a sense of belonging in all their citizens.

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

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Guest Room

Title:  The Guest Room
Author:  Chris Bohjalian
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385538898 / 978-0385538893

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

Opening Sentence:  "Richard Chapman presumed there would be a stripper at his brother Philip's bachelor party."

Favorite Quote:  "Options. Such a word. Such an idea. Try having options when you have never had options before. Very difficult."

You know a book is a gripping story when you read the last words, still turn the page to make sure there's no more, and then remain wondering, "What happens to these characters next? Are they okay? Will they be okay?"

That is my reaction to The Guest Room, which takes on the very important, very disturbing issue of sex trafficking -  young girls kidnapped or sold into slavery and then marketed as objects. The sadness is the necessity of this book and other fiction and nonfiction books on this issue:
Chris Bohjalian brings the story of this terror to Russia and to the United States.  He looks at the situations from many different facets - a young girl caught in the system, a "customer" of the system, and a family with a daughter of their own.

It all stars with a bachelor party gone very very wrong. Richard and Kristin have been married over a decade and are parents to Melissa. Richard hosts a bachelor party for his younger brother Philip. Philip's friend Spencer is in charge of the "entertainment" which turns out to be two young women and their guards.

Philip and his friends are apparently repeat customers of this trade and willing participants. Richard knows but does not object or stop it because "he didn't want to be a prig." Kristin knows but does not put a stop to it; she takes her daughter and plans to be away for the evening. By not objecting, this clean cut suburban couple with a daughter of their own become participants to the prostitution and slavery of young women.

At this bachelor party, things go wrong. The book deals with the fallout from this disaster. The two guards end up dead. The two girls end up on the run. Richard finds his family and his career in shambles. He finds himself at risk for legal implications. He finds himself seeing - truly seeing - the young woman that he met as the "entertainment." Kristin and Melissa are left devastated by Richard's choices. Kristin attempts to recover from this betrayal, protect her own daughter, and determine if her marriage will survive. Melissa finds the very foundations of her world shaken.

We see Richard's perspective and Kristin's. The book also shows the world through Alexandra's eyes. She is one of the two young women. Alexandra's story is the only one that reaches into the path. It traces the trajectory of how an innocent child is turned into a sex slave on the run for her life. She is on the run both from her captors and from the authorities.  Who, or where, can she possibly turn for help?

The parallels between Alexandra and Melissa are striking. The repeated references to the collection of Barbie dolls they both at one time played with touch on the innocence of childhood. They are both dancers and speak of dance studios and ballerina dreams. The implication is clear - the young women caught in this system are the victims. The subtle similarities create that message more strongly than any direct statement. Even Richard sees it. For any "customer" of the trade, the message is clear. These young girls could be your daughter, your sister, your wife - someone you love. Without a spoiler, I will say that the book and the end, though a bit contrived, make sense in light of this message.

Human trafficking and the loss of innocent lives is a global concern. Chris Bohjalian brings this important conversation to light once again in this heartbreaking book.

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook

Title:  Brodo:  A Bone Broth Cookbook
Author:  Marco Canora and Tammy Walker
Publication Information:  Pam Krauss Books. 2015. 160 pages.
ISBN:  0553459503 / 978-0553459500

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

Opening Sentence:  "For the past five years the common thread of my work has been an effort to prove that healthy and delicious can go hand in hand."

Favorite Quote:  "Food:  Buy it with thought. Cook it with care. Serve just enough. Save what will keep. Eat what would spoil. Home-grown is best. Don't waste it."

A rich, hearty broth to support healing after an injury; a light, comforting broth to help me feel better; and a fragrant, meaty broth to cook my rice with are some of the memories of my childhood and a part of my "normal" cooking routine. So, to keep reading about this "new" trend in food is amusing. Broths lovingly prepared have been around for a long time and are found in virtually every culture around the world. As Marco Canora whole-heartedly acknowledges, the supposedly new trend is simply rejuvenating an ages old tradition.

Brodo, which literally means "broth," is both the name of Marco Canora's restaurant in New York City and the name of this book. In his book and restaurant, Chef Canora pays homage to the tradition of broth making and, of course, introduces his own unique spin on it. Note the distinction between broth and soup. Broth uses bones, water, and perhaps flavorings to create a stand alone beverage. Fewer ingredients and more a beverage to be served in a mug rather than with a bowl and spoon.

This book surprises me, both when it arrives and as I go through it. When I first open the box, the book is considerably smaller than I expect. It is a 6 inch by 8 inch hardcover and 160 pages. Given that I use broths frequently in my home, I know some tools, techniques, and recipes, but I hope to learn something new. Given the size and simplicity of the book, I am not sure. However, as I go through it, I am pleasantly surprised. This book packs a lot of information into a small package:
  • History and cultural diversity of broth making.
  • Scientific background on the nutrition and health benefits of broths although the scientific references are not provided for follow-up reading.
  • Overall tips and techniques for broth making.
  • A three-day "broth reset" in the same vein as popular detox trends.
  • Recipes for fifteen different broths including those served at the restaurant.
  • Recipes for the ten broth add-ins served at the restaurant (The book uses the analogy of customizing a drink at a coffee bar.).
  • Eight recipes that start with a broth as a based to create a bowl of soup.
  • Six recipes for risottos that use a broth as a base.
I am not a fan of scientific statements without the research references to back it up; however, based on my family's way of cooking, I do believe in the power of a mug of broth! I am also not a fan of the detox trend, but I do appreciate the benefit of broth as a part of a healthy lifestyle. Note that although the title references "bone broth," the book does include three broths that are not meat based.

The section I find the most beneficial is the "Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Making Broth at Home." The exact broth recipes are fairly similar in ingredients and in process except for the choice of the base you start with. As such, it is truly the technique that matters. Master the technique, and you are free to create your own recipes.

What rings clearly throughout the book is Chef's Canora's passion for his food and his food lifestyle choices. In these cold months of winter, I am looking forward to start a new pot of broth simmering and incorporate Chef Canora's techniques to improve the end result.

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

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Title:  The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
Author:  Katarina Bivald
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks Landmark. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0701189061 / 978-0701189068

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

Opening Sentence:  "I hope you enjoy Louisa May Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl."

Favorite Quote:  "Books had been a defensive wall, yes, though that wasn't all. They had protected Sara from the world around her, but they had also turned it into a fuzzy backdrop for the real adventures in her life."

The book has "readers" in the title and books on the cover. It pulls me right in. Sara Lindqvist, a bookseller from Sweden, has travelled thousands of miles to Broken Wheel, Iowa to visit Amy Harris, a friend she has never met. Amy and Sara have been pen pals. Amy has invited Sara to visit and to stay with her, and Sara actually comes.

The problem is that Amy Harris has recently died. What is Sara to do? Enter the residents of the very small town of Broken Wheel. They adopt Sara as one of their own, and convince her to stay for her vacation in Amy's house as a guest of the entire town. Of course, Sara stays, and predictably is pulled into the life of this small town.

Broken Wheel, Iowa depicts a stereotypical small town, with a dying economy, people who can't leave fast enough and people tied to it, several quirky characters, and a pride often found in small towns.  Setting this book into the context of a small town in the United States adds a whole layer of small town drama that would not be possible in a different setting. What makes this depiction more remarkable is the fact that the book is written by a Swedish author with no real personal knowledge of small town America.

Sara brings her love of books to this town, especially as she discovers Amy's treasure trove of books and the fact that no one else in this town really reads. Of course, she has the knack of picking the right book for the right person and a way of drawing people to her.

Ultimately, this book is all about relationships and the things that get in the way of two people and their relationship. Some of the perceived obstacles to relationships in this book are:
  • Difference of age
  • Differences in culture
  • Difference of race
  • Fear of society's judgement ("what will people say!")
  • Former relationships
  • Immigration legalities
  • Society's prejudices
    This theme of relationship roadblocks - real and perceived - repeats across multiple couples throughout the book. Different couples deal with their challenges in different ways - moving past the obstacle together, keeping the relationship a secret, and even walking away from the relationship.

    The other theme that occurs throughout is, of course, books. Many books are referenced throughout. Some old favorites - including childhood favorites - bring a smile to my face; some new ones get marked for the never-ending "to read" list. Sara's way of organizing collections and matching books are readers adds level of enjoyment to the bibliophile in me.

    Sweet and predictable are the words that come to mind for this book. Sweet in the way the small town embraces Sara. Sweet in the way Sara invests in the town to repay their kindness. Sweet in the way Broken Wheel is a place to belong to. Predictable in the ending. Predictable in the way things seem to work out. As Sara thinks, "Feel good books were ones you could put down with a smile on your face, books that make you think the world was a little crazier, stranger, and more beautiful when you looked up from them." Sometimes, sweet and predictable and a cup of tea are all that is needed for a feel good afternoon curled up with a book.
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    Guest post by Katarina Bivald
    How To Capture Small Town America

    Step 1: Slowly Step Away from Reality
    Nothing good has ever come from reality. Now is not the time to be burdened by that the most boring of boring questions: could it really happen that way? I’m going to spend years working in this small town, escaping to it on evenings and weekends and holidays, and it has to be much more fun that real life and real small towns.

    Step 2: Read and Research
    I think small towns are best experienced in books. This is not in any way a critique of small towns: everything is probably better in books. Real life is so incredibly… unstructured. God has a lousy sense of plot. 

    Step 3: The People
    While it is technically true that all towns consist mainly of people, it is most true for small town: it is simply impossible to avoid people there. It is one of the reasons I love placing my books in small towns – my characters can be different and still meet. They can have different backgrounds, ages, marital status and so forth and still find themselves having to deal with each other. In a bigger city, Caroline would never have to meet Grace, and wouldn’t that be a shame, for both of them?

    Step 4: Love it or Leave it
    This, of course, is not in any way an absolute rule (as are none of the above). I’ve read many good books about small towns written from the perspective of someone who hated the whole thing (most notably Jonathan Tropper's The Book of Joe). But for me, I couldn’t write about a place (or a person, perhaps) that I didn’t feel some kind of love for. For me, it adds a sort of humanity or kindness to it, and makes it possible for me to describe the problems and the idiosyncrasies; knowing that there is a sort of love behind it all.

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

    Saturday, December 5, 2015

    My Brilliant Friend

    Title:  My Brilliant Friend
    Author:  Elena Ferrante (author), Ann Goldstein (translator)
    Publication Information:  Europa Editions. 2011 (original), 2012 (translation). 331 pages.
    ISBN:  1609450787 / 978-1609450786

    Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for one of the local book groups to which I belong.

    Opening Sentence:  "This morning Rino telephoned"

    Favorite Quote:  "There were no written rules, everyone knew that was how it was."

    Elena who is Lenu. Raffaella who is Lila. Friends for over sixty years. Best friends? Still friends? It's unclear.

    The story begins at what I think is the beginning of the end. Elena lives in Turin. Lila has, to Elena's knowledge, never left Naples. However, now, Lila has disappeared. Elena's reaction, "Lila is overdoing it as usual" and "We'll see who wins this time."

    So begins this story within a story. If Lila wants to vanish, then Elena is going to write down their story to ensure that all the details are remembered. She will not allow Lila and the memories to vanish.

    Lila and Elena meet in first grade. This first book, the first in the quartet of the Neapolitan novels, takes the reader from that age to when the girls are sixteen. Through Elena's eyes, we see her rough neighborhood outside of Naples, the relationships between individuals and families, and the power plays in the community. We see the dependency and the competition between Elena and Lila.  Through the beautiful writing, we see a world come alive visually.

    Interestingly, however, the story does not read as if it is an adult's reflection on her past. The story goes back into the past and is told as if occurring at that time. It is a child's perspective on childhood and her community - sometimes loving, sometimes harsh and cruel, and always with a hint of meanness running throughout. It is that meanness that gives the book is sad and sometimes depressing tone. In a story of friendship and childhood, is there not at least some joy and are there not playful moments? Not in this book.

    Everything in this book is seen through the lens of Elena's perspective. It is her reality, but perhaps it would not be reality told through another perspective - Lila's or anyone else's? It is an intriguing question. Is Elena a reliable narrator? How the story would differ if told through a different narrator?

    I am also left wondering at the end who is the "brilliant friend." Is it Elena with her ability to go to school and to excel at her studies? Is it Lila who is self-taught and who seems to be a survivor in the tough life that is hers? Does that answer again depend on perspective?

    The book often reads like a memoir. Is it a coincidence that one of the main characters is named Elena? The author "Elena Ferrante" herself is a mystery. First of all, the name is a pen name. Although a prolific and very popular author in Italy, little is known about her. She is protective of her very identity and rarely grants interviews or appears in public. We do know that she was born in Naples, the setting of this series. It is another intriguing question. Does the memoir-like tone of the book implies a biographical connection?  Would that connection be to Elena, the namesake, or Lila or perhaps both because sometimes they seem like two sides of the same person?

    The unresolved questions perhaps become the most intriguing aspect of this book.  This is the first in a quartet of books, and at the end of this one is a clear feeling that the story is incomplete. Perhaps the remaining three books in the series answer the questions. Perhaps not. I don't know that I am vested enough in the story to read the rest of the series to find out. I enjoy the story, but something seems lacking, and it does not elicit a gripping emotional connection to keep me reading. A cliff notes version to find out what happens, yes. Three more books to drift through the story, perhaps not.

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

    Wednesday, December 2, 2015

    The Stargazer's Sister

    Title:  The Stargazer's Sister
    Author:  Carrie Brown
    Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2016. 352 pages.
    ISBN:  0804197938 / 978-0804197939

    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 wind is with them, and she watches from the ship's rail as the hard places disappear, fortress and stony beach and the long humped quay at Hellevoetsluis, the church and bell tower reduced in minutes to dark notches on the horizon."

    Favorite Quote:  "I should have had independence to do my own deeds, for good or ill."

    Caroline "Lina" Herschel is the "stargazer's sister," but she is so much more than that. She was an astronomer in her own right. She is credited with the discovery of several comets, including one named after her. She was the first woman to paid for her work as a scientist, and one of the first to be publicly acknowledged for her contributions. Yet, she is perhaps best known for her work in support of her brother, astronomer William Herschel, who is credited with many advances in astronomy  including the discovery of Uranus as a planet.

    Born in Germany, Lina's childhood is spent with her parents and brothers. Her mother and one brother are particularly abusive towards her, while William and her father provide some shelter. She functions pretty much as a servant of the household. To make matters worse, a childhood illness forever scars her face and stunts her growth.

    William leaves to seek his own way in England. He eventually returns when Lina is in her twenties, and becomes her escape route. Yet, even in her life with William, Lina remains as much a housekeeper as before. She handles all of the practical details of William's life and works along side him in his astronomy endeavors. That is, until William marries. Lina finds herself sidelined, and a new chapter of life begins.

    The book description makes William's marriage a central element to the plot. Much to my surprise, the marriage occurs over 200 pages into the book. The book covers Lina's life well before and well after the marriage. Of course, this change in her relationship with William has an impact, but it is not as central to the book as the one I expected based on the book description. So many other things determines the direction of Lina's line.

    The science of stars forms the background of this book, but this is the story of the girl and woman Lina. The vastness of the night sky form a backdrop, providing the beauty and the philosophy that underlie Lina's story. Oddly, the descriptions of the stars are not as visually arresting or memorable as I would have expected. What is more memorable is the science and the equipment that William and Lina develop.

    The book also has an undertone of physicality running throughout. Lina's life is irrevocably altered by a childhood illness. She is convinced that she can in no way be desirable to a man. Yet, she spends much time contemplating her physical nature and the desires that raises. On the flip side, many instances of the physical impact of illness and injury are described in detail. Oddest of all, innuendos and hints are found throughout the book about the physical closeness between brother and sister. The book makes no presumption or judgment about that relationship, but suggestive hints abound. These descriptions highlight the point that this is the story of a woman who happened to be a scientist and not a scientist who happened to be a woman. The focus forever remains on the woman, but I would rather hear about the scientist.

    I am not sure what it is about this book. It introduces me to some historical figures about whom I knew nothing. It teaches me about astronomy and the telescopes the Herschel's built. I separate fact from fiction by doing some research about the actual life of William and Caroline Herschel. I enjoy the story but don't fall in love with it. At the end, I feel as if I still don't really know the characters. I know about Lina and William, but I don't know them.

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