Sunday, February 28, 2016

Smarter Faster Better

Title:  Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business
Author:  Charles Duhigg
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  081299339X / 978-0812993394

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

Opening Sentence:  "My introduction to the science of productive began in the summer of 2011, when I asked a friend of a friend for a favor."

Favorite Quote:  "Productivity isn't about working more or sweating harder ... Rather, productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways."

The title of this book reminds me of the Olympic motto - three Latin words that translate to Faster - Higher - Stronger. I do not know if that connection is behind the naming of the book, but with the three words, the image of a person running towards a goal, and the intent of helping people improve performance, the connection does occur to me.

I am not quite sure what to say about this book. I enjoy reading it. I enjoy the variety of the case studies presented. Yet, at the end of it, I am not quite sure what I learn from it. This book address a topic often addressed - productivity - but does so in with broad philosophical brush.

I can best explain with a comparison that takes a completely different approach to the topic. In the world of self improvement literature, it becomes a question of what works better for you.

David Allen's book Getting Things Done:  The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is by title and stated intent about the same topic - productivity. That book lays out flowcharts, tools, and very specific and concrete processes about how to manage workload and to accomplish goals in a productive manner.

This book, in comparison, lays out "the eight ideas that seem most important in expanding productivity": motivation, teams, focus, goal setting, managing other, decision making, innovation, and absorbing data.  An introduction provides a little background on how the book came to be and an appendix applies the eight ideas to the author's process of writing the book itself. In between, eight chapters address each idea in turn.

Each chapter is more a compilation of case studies that illustrate the idea than a cohesive piece on what that idea entails. For example, the chapter on absorbing data uses case studies based on Cincinnati Public Schools, Chase Manhattan Bank, and a high school freshman by the name of Delia Morris. The case studies are quick and easy to read; the author is very much a storyteller in this regard.

Some are more successful than others in illustrating the ideas and adding to the value of the book. No surprises in finding case studies from Google and Disney in a book about productivity and creativity. These organizations are cited in almost every recent book on the topic. Thus, while interesting to read again, they don't bring new information. Others such as the Cincinnati schools, the crash of airline jet, and the FBI investigation of a kidnapping are new to me, and, as such, make the book stand out from the others already written on the topic.

The case studies are presented in an intermingled fashion - pieces of one, sections of another, then perhaps back to the first, and so on. Not all the chapters then pull the ideas into a cohesive statement of ideology, but rather leave the reader with the lessons of the case study itself. The chapters themselves seems to stand independently rather than as pieces of the productivity puzzle. As such, the book is somewhat like reading a collection of well written, well told, and easily read stories rather than a cohesive powerful message on productivity.

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

Friday, February 26, 2016

Empress Orchid

Title:  Empress Orchid
Author:  Anchee Min
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2004. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0618068872 / 978-0618068876

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

Opening Sentence:  "The truth is that I have never been the mastermind of anything."

Favorite Quote:  "We were capable of surviving battles, external as well as internal. We were meant to survive because of our minds' ability to reason, our ability to live with frustration in order to maintain our virtue. We wore smiling masks while dying inside. I was doomed when I realized that my talent was not to rule but to feel. Such a talent enriched my life, but at the same time destroyed every moment of peace I had gained."

Empress Dowager Cixi - rather an impressive name for a young country girl who starts life as Orchid and who is reduced to poverty by the death of her father. History agrees on the facts. The Empress ruled China for forty seven years. Historians disagree on her role in history. Some characterize her as a despot while others see her role more positively as a reformer.

This book, however, is about none of that. This book is not about the Empress Dowager. It is about the young girl who rises to that role and her journey from poverty to empress.

The book is very insular, focusing only on the life of those within the Forbidden City. The walls are very definitive and very clear. At the same time, the book provides glimmers of the world forces that batter at those walls. Whether it is the residents' longing for family beyond those walls or the threat of foreign powers to the dynasty within, the sense of the walls closing in is present throughout the book.

The first half of the book is about life in the Forbidden City. It is about the sights and sounds and the elaborate social structure. "Imperial life was about nothing but elaborate detail." The second half of the book, although still centered on the same characters, is about the politics of China and the struggle for power. It is about alliances, maneuvers, and counter maneuvers.

The first half of the book is about a young woman searching for a better life. It is about a girl who seemingly gets the opportunity to live a dream only to find that the dream has tarnished edges and a dark side. The second half of the book is about a mother and a savvy politician, who seeks to protect her child and his heritage. I am not entirely sure how an innocent, not very educated young girl turns into a woman who understand negotiations and treaties. The book does not explain how that transition and education happens, but it does happen.

This book in part reads like a history and biography; at the same time, the story rivals that of any soap opera. I cannot say how accurate the history is, but the story engages and entertains. I want to know what happens next.  One warning, this book does have a sequel titled The Last Empress. As such, the ending to this book does leave the story of the Empress in the middle. Am I intrigued enough to read the second book? I don't know yet.

At the heart of all these cross-sections is Orchid itself. The book begins at the end of a lifetime. "For half a century, I participated in the elaborate etiquette of the court in all its meticulous detail." Then, it goes back to the beginning when Orchid and her family first come to Peking. Told as a first person narrative, the book submerges the reader into her world and her perspective. As such, the story appears as viewed through the lens of a camera - Orchid's eyes. What is beyond the frame - beyond her perspective - remains beyond the reader. History, biography, and all the makings of a soap opera surround Orchid and come together in an entertaining story.

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Tabasco Cookbook: Recipes with America's Favorite Pepper Sauce

Title:  The Tabasco Cookbook: Recipes with America's Favorite Pepper Sauce
Author:  Paul McIlhenny and Barbara Hunter
Publication Information:  Clarkson Potter. 2016. 144 pages.
ISBN:  0770435394 / 978-0770435394

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

Opening Sentence:  "Time was when you could tell the length of a marriage by the level of Tabasco Pepper Sauce left in the bottle." [from the original introduction]

Favorite Quote:  "Hot regards from Avery Island!"

A variety of hot sauces, including a variety of Tabasco hot sauces, are a staple in my kitchen. Every person has their favorite, from the red original Tabasco to the green chili Tabasco. In my household, we use hot sauce as a topping for food and also as an ingredient in cooking. As such, I am intrigued whenever I see a cookbook based around such an ingredient. What uses does the book suggest that with that I haven't tried before? What flavor combinations?

I am also intrigued by the history I might learn. The original version of this cookbooks was published in 1993. Even at that time, the book was subtitled 125 Years of America's Favorite Pepper Sauce. That means, at this time, Tabasco sauce has been around for almost 150 years, with a long history on Avery Island, Louisiana and a history of the McIllhenny family.

This version presents a new foreward by Chef John Besh, a preface by the current President and CEO of the McIlhenny Company, and the original introduction written by Paul McIllhenny himself. The two new addtions are not as much about the sauce as they are an homage to Paul McIllhenny who passed away in 2013. Paul McIllhenny's introduction provides a very brief history of how Tabasco sauce came to be. Scattered throughout the book are other brief historical notes such as advertising billboards and the role of Tabasco at the White House dining table.

The remainder of the book is the recipes organized by meal or type of dish:  breakfast and brunch; soups, starters, and drinks; mains; sides and sauces; and desserts. At under a 150 pages, this is not a big book and has fewer than 100 recipes. Many recipes are those you would expect in a book with its roots in the South - Cheesy Grits, Fiery Catfish Fingers, Eula Mae's Cajun Seafood Gumbo, Shrimp Creole, and Judy McIlhenny's Crawfish √©touff√©, to name a few. Others such as Peppery Polenta with Tangy Tomato Sauce, Portobello Nachos, Salmon Steaks with Cucumber Sauce, and Spicy Pumpkin Tart are more unexpected. The recipes seem to cover a variety of dishes and can serve as a starting point for experimentation of your own. Maybe add a little Tabasco sauce to your favorite recipe and see what happens.

Each recipe includes an indication as to the level of heat or piquancy of the recipe. Each is also marked as to whether it is from the "classic" original cookbook or a new addition.  Each recipe has a brief introduction which either explains the dish or gives a short note as to who the dish is named form. Recipes are one to two pages, with a clear ingredient list, number of servings, and paragraph style instructions. The table of contents presents only the main categories of recipes; however, an index includes a listing of recipes. The book ends with an invitation to tour Avery Island, the home of the Tabasco Visitors Center and the Tabasco Country Store.

In our house, we have a tendency to splash a little hot sauce into almost everything, and look forward to trying some new ideas. For me, this book is a piece of history and Americana as is the sauce itself. It would make a cute gift for a fan of Tabasco.

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

Monday, February 22, 2016

Two if By Sea

Title:  Two if By Sea
Author:  Jacquelyn Mitchard
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2016. 416 pages.
ISBN:  150111557X / 978-1501115578

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

Opening Sentence:  "So many things happen when people can't sleep."

Favorite Quote:  "Can you be grateful for something awful that happened ... just because it didn't happen later?"

This book begins with a tsunami and the death of the wife and child of the main character, Frank Mercy. Frank buries his sorrow i his work with a volunteer rescue unit. In the course of his work, he is trying to rescue a family trapped in a car, a mother and two young boys. He is able to save one of the boys. Instead of turning the boy over to the authorities in the hope of reuniting him with his family, Frank simply keeps the boy. He decides to leave Australia where he has been living as an expatriate and return to his childhood home in Wisconsin. He brings the child with him.

So begins this story of loss, grief, and the meaning of family. The first few chapters of this book are by far the most dramatic part of the book. The remainder of the book is about how Frank and Ian move forward, the emotions of it and the things standing in their way. Unfortunately, the rest of the story does not match the intensity of the first few pages.

There is a lot going on in this book. It is the science fiction story of Ian's gift. It is the dramatic story of Frank's grief at the loss of his family. It is the family story of Frank's pull towards home and obligations towards the family and friends he leaves behind in Australia. It is the romance story of the possibility of new love. It is the crime story of those who would pursue Ian for their own purposes. It is the mysterious story of Ian's family. It is even the animal story of the horses Frank trains. A lot of threads weave together in this story.

The story of Frank's loss is a heartbreaking one and truly one that can stand on its own. It makes sense for him to throw himself into his work. It makes sense for him to fixate and hold on to Ian. It makes sense for him to return to his roots. It makes sense for him to begin anew with the hope of new love. Unfortunately, his story is the emotional undercurrent to the plot which is all about Ian. As such, the emotion remains in the background and does not really become the heart of the story.

The book description speaks about Ian's gift, the quest to keep him safe, and the "sinister" forces at work. Based on this description, I expected this story to be larger and grander than it actually is. I expected the supernatural element to be a bigger force in the story, and I expected the bad guys to have grander goals than they actually do. As a result, the dramatic climax of the book is not the resolution of Ian's story towards the end but rather the tsunami at the very beginning of the book.  This also means that unfortunately, the book ends up being a very slow read because I keep waiting for something to match those first few pages.

Frank Mercy is at the heart of all the threads of this story, but Ian's story is at the heart of the plot. Is this the story of grief and new love or is this the story of a gift and the good and evil uses to which it may be put? It becomes difficult to know and, as such, difficult to engage with.

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

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Title:  Georgia
Author:  Dawn Tripp
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  140006953X / 978-1400069538

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

Opening Sentence:  "I no longer love you as I once did, in the dazzling rush of those early days."

Favorite Quote:  "... I determine that when anyone else asks, I will say I took nothing. I purged it all. A woman who keeps nothing. A woman who has stripped her world down to tomorrow. It's only up to me now:  what I give them to construct their understanding of who I am."

Fictionalizing the lives of historical figures can be an intriguing introduction to history I may not otherwise study. Fiction is just that - fiction. I don't ever mistake it for actual history, but, having read a fictionalized account, I find myself researching the actual history.

In reading this book, I find myself looking up biographies of Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. I find myself paging through images of their artwork - her paintings and his photography. This book by Dawn Tripp takes on their relationship and marriage. The cover, of course, is a nod to Georgia O'Keefe's work, and the title indicates the focus of this book. In fact, the book begins with an elderly Georgia O'Keefe looking back on her life, her art, and her relationship.

The relationship between Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz begins because he sees her artwork, well before he ever meets her. Over the course of their lives, they are partners, lovers, spouses, and friends. They work together and at times, seem to work against each other. He is her promoter and agent and her supporter. She is his model and his muse, but he is sometimes a hindrance to her work. Regardless, time and time again, they return to each other, and the relationship survives, even as Georgia O'Keefe finds her own voice as an individual and as an artist.

The physical attraction between the two is clear and is graphically described in the book. Perhaps that is expected given two historical facts. First, many people have suggested erotic interpretations of Georgia O'Keefe's artwork. Second, many of Alfred Stieglitz's works include many suggestive and revealing images of Georgia O'Keefe. Given that, the physical aspects of their relationship are not a surprise; neither is the impact on their work. However, I can imagine the relationship and don't need the graphic descriptions in the book. Such descriptions are not for me, especially when presented in the context of historical figures.

Part of what I enjoy about historical fiction is that surrounding the immediate story, the books often bring to life a time and a place. For example, The Swans of Fifth Avenue vividly depicts the life of the rich in 1960s New York. Rodin's Lover focuses on the relationship between artists Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin in the context of those around them. This book seems to zero in on the relationship but does not build the world around them. For example, at one point, Alfred Stieglitz closes his gallery because of World War I. That fact is mentioned, but then the war that altered the world is not mentioned again. As such, the book appears a microscope into the lives of these two individuals. It is about the relationship.

Why and how does this relationship survive? I am not really sure. I suppose that emotion is not really captured in their true histories and hence cannot be realistically depicted in a fictional version. Still, I wait for that fiction to emerge throughout the book. I want to understand and wait not for the history but for the fictional story to engage emotionally. "He once called our relationship a mixing of souls. But then again, he called it a love story. And it was far more - and less than that." What draws her to him, and given some of his machinations and manipulations, what keeps her there? I wish I knew.

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

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Keep Me Posted

Title:  Keep Me Posted
Author:  Lisa Beazley
Publication Information:  NAL. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1101989866 / 978-1101989869

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

Opening Sentence:  "Later - much later - I would regret pretending to be asleep when Leo sidled up to me in bed that night."

Favorite Quote:  "You've got to stop waiting for something to change and make something happen. You have all of the ingredients for an exciting life, but maybe you haven't figured out the recipe yet. (Oh Lord, that was corny - sorry - but true!)"

Two sisters. Two husbands. 4 children including a set of three year old twin boys. Parents. Siblings. In-laws. Friends. Frenemies. Tons of secrets only sisters share. One year of letter writing. And, last but not least, the internet. Put all these elements together and you have life. Put them all together in a book and you have a laugh out loud book about life and things that just sometimes happen.

The premise of the book is that two sisters - Cassie and Sid - feel like they don't know each other as well anymore even though they were very close when younger. Cassie, her husband, and her toddler twins live in a small New York City apartment. Sid, her husband, and two kids currently live in Singapore on an expatriate assignment for her husband.

Cassie is all about the urban lifestyle, technology, and social media. Since the birth of the twins, her life has, to put it mildly, changed. She resigned her job to be a stay-at-home parent. Her apartment, hard won and perfect for life before children, seems cramped. Her stroller doesn't seems to fit New York streets and stores. Even her marriage seems changed. She adores her kids and loves her husband, but something about her life seems to not fit. Whatever happened to the person she used to be?

Sid, on the other hand, is all about yoga and good works. Sid became a single mother at a young age and is now married and mother of two, one heading off to college and one still a toddler. Her husband travels significantly, and Sid tries to find meaning and belonging in a new place.

Their letter writing campaign is one that could only take place between sisters or best friends. It is the uncensored environment in which you feel comfortable saying anything, and you do say anything and everything. Sometimes, the conversation is about nothing and everything. If you are fortunate enough to have a friend or sister like that, you will completely relate. The letters sound sad, happy, and even outright childish and whiny at times as such a conversation is likely to be. Above all, they are meant to be a private conversation between the two sisters. As Cassie thinks, "the things you say when you think no one is listening are a lot different from the things you would say otherwise."

Sid's and Cassie's escapades are relatable and sometimes laugh out loud funny, all the more so because they are not my own. Even though the sisters, particularly Cassie, make some questionable choices, I still find them both likable and find myself cheering for them especially because underlying all their bravado and mistakes is a abiding love for their families.

The drama escalates when the conversations they thought were private turn out to have been not so private after all. Oh dear! Choices have to made, apologies have to be said, and relationships have to be repaired. Again, the stuff of real life.

The book does wrap up at the end in a neat package not quite like real life, but in this instance it works. I care about the characters and want to know whether things work out for them or not (no spoilers here!). A lovely, light-hearted read about sisters and about life.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Widow

Title:  The Widow
Author:  Fiona Barton
Publication Information:  NAL. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1101990260 / 978-1101990261

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

Opening Sentence:  "I can hear the sound of her crunching up the path."

Favorite Quote:  "I fiddled with the GPS and marked this place 'home.' I wasn't sure why, but it felt right."

Greg Taylor is dead in an accident. His widow, Jean or Jeanie, is devastated. Or is she? A shadow hangs over the couple bringing the press and the police to Jean's door again. The shadow is not new; nor is the presence of press or police. Jean has been through it all before. This time because Greg is dead. Before because of an unsolved crime committed three years ago.

Three years ago, three year old Bella disappeared from her garden. Bella went out beyond her mother Dawn's sight and disappeared. The case was never solved. Bob Sparkes, the Detective, has been on the case since then. Kate, the Reporter, follows the story still. Three years have gone by, and no one has been convicted of the crime.

How does this crime link to Jean and Greg Taylor? Why? What will Jean do now that Greg is dead? What truth will emerge?

This is the story the book tells. It starts when Greg dies. It goes into the past through the Taylor's marriage and Bella's disappearance, gradually bringing the reader forward to the point when the past and present meet.

The intrigue of the book of course is what happened to Bella and what does Jean know. The story comes out in short chapters titled with a date and a character - the Widow, the Mother, the Reporter, and the Detective. Pay attention to the dates as it is important to understand where in the story line you are.

The book's publicity compares the book to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Unfortunately, in this case, the publicity does the book a disservice. This book is an entertaining read on its own, but does not compare to the characters and intensity of the other two. The books are all about couples and the dynamics of relationships. All the characters are rather unlikable and unreliable narrators. This book just seems less dynamic and vibrant than the other two.

One reason, perhaps, is that Greg, one half of the couple in this book, seems not quite present in the book. Of course, the book starts with his death, but even going back into the past, he doesn't quite become real. The book describes him through Jean's eyes, through the eyes of the detective, and through what is revealed about him. However, he still seems a placeholder in the book rather than a developed character.

The other reason is the character of Jean herself. She is not a likable character. However, he is not a villainous character either. She comes across as a little bit nondescript. Perhaps that is to convey the result of the emotional stresses she is under. Unfortunately, the result is that I find myself neither cheering her on nor waiting for her to be found out. Considering she is The Widow and the anchor for the book, this makes the entire book less engaging.

With less than engaging characters, I waited for a plot twist to add suspense or drama to this book marketed as a thriller. The "big reveal" when it comes in neither big not particularly revealing. It falls a little flat.

The issue may lie in the marketing of the book for it does not match its publicity. The book is entertaining and a quick read. Just not the suspenseful thriller I was expecting.

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Thing About Jellyfish

Title:  The Thing About Jellyfish
Author:  Ali Benjamin
Publication Information:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2015. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0316380865 / 978-0316380867

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

Opening Sentence:  "A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating."

Favorite Quote:  "If people were silent, they could hear the noise of their own lives better. If people were silent, it would make what they say, whenever they chose to say it, more important. If people were silent, they could read one another's signals..."

As a child, how to do comprehend the fact that sometimes things just happen? Sometimes no reason and no explanation exists that helps to make sense of a situation. This is the big conversation that this middle grade book takes on.

Suzy Swanson and Franny Jackson were best friends. Then, they weren't. Then, Franny dies in an accident before Suzy can repair the friendship. Suzy is twelve years old, and it makes no sense. People are saying that the accident just happened, but Suzy knows there must be more. There must be an explanation. There has to be an explanation; Suzy just has to prove it.

Suzy is surrounded by those who love her, who care for her, and who are trying to help her through her grief. Her parents. Her brother. Teachers at school. Professional counselors. Yet, Suzy retreats into complete silence. She has not spoken for months since the accident. Not because she can't, but because she won't. That is how her grief manifests itself.

Now, though, Suzy think she may have found the explanation. So begins her quiet plan to prove that her friend's death did not just happen. Maybe, that will make things right. That is where the jellyfish come in.

This book is about jellyfish - yes, the book has lots of facts about jellyfish. The jellyfish experts and some of the historical details in the book are real. The author's acknowledgements actually state that this fiction "was born from a failure" to publish a nonfiction essay on jellyfish. Her research embeds itself into this story.

This book is about being a young adolescent in middle school. Flashbacks depict Franny and Suzy's friendship, and Suzy, despite her silence, continues at school after Franny's death. In both parts of the story, the book captures middle school - the popular kids and the not so popular kids, the changing friendships, and what happens when your best friend isn't your best friend anymore. The book does an excellent job of capturing the awkwardness and, often times, meanness of middle school except for one instance. Suzy's way of getting back at Franny is an odd, jarring note in the book. The inclusion of that scene still puzzles me. It seems far-fetched and out of place in the rest of the book.

More than anything, though, this book is about grief and the isolation that grief can bring on. In this, I appreciate that the book depicts Suzy as surrounded by caring adults. Her parents are both deeply committed to their shared responsibility and concern for their daughter. Her brother is much older with an independent life of his own, but he remains a constant presence and support in Suzy's life. Her teacher in school is depicted as perceptive and caring. The counselor she is working with reassures her, "... that everybody grieves in difference ways; that there's no right or wrong way to grieve." Despite her intelligence and her self-imposed isolation, Suzy is a child and needs to see that love and understanding surrounding her as do the middle grade readers of this book. This book is sad but ultimately full of hope.

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

Friday, February 12, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

Title:  When Breath Becomes Air
Author:  Paul Kalanithi
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 256 pages.
ISBN:  081298840X / 978-0812988406

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 flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious:  the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated."

Favorite Quote:  "If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?"

Paul Kalanithi (1977 - 2015) has quite a history. A second generation immigrant. A Stanford graduate with a Bachelors in Biology and a Bachelors and Masters in English. A Cambridge graduate with a Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine. A Yale medical school graduate. A Stanford resident in neurosurgery. Winner of the highest award given for research by the American Academy of Neurological Surgery. A son. A brother. A colleague. A friend. A husband. Sadly, Also a patient diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at age 35. Even more sadly, Paul Kalanithi died in 2015 at the age of only 37.

What can I possibly say about a book that comprises the final words of a dying man? I tear through the book because the writing conveys to me a sense of urgency. I pause, reread and reflect. I furiously underline passages because, if you will excuse the phrase, they take my breath away. And I cry. I cry for him. I cry for his family. I cry for the questions this book asks about life. I cry because that could be any one of us. I cry because this book brings me face to face with mortality - his and my own.

Many books take on the topic of death and end of life. Atul Gwande's Being Mortal brings the conversation of about end of life decisions, both in terms of pragmatic advice and in its application to his own family. The Death Class by Erika Hayasaki looks at death through the safety of an academic discussion of a college class. Hospice Voices: Lessons for Living at the End of Life by Eric Lindner adds the perspective of volunteers who make the journey maybe just a little easier. Many memoirs such as H is for Hawk and Wild speak to a family member's experience with the death of a loved one.

Dr. Kalanithi's book brings together two different perspectives. The first is that of a member of the medical profession examining his own profession. This is not an look at the pragmatic details of medicine - cost, insurance, statistics, hospital management, etc. This is a philosophical dialogue on what it means to be a doctor and on the sacred trust that doctors must take on to truly care for their patients. The fact that he deals with neurosurgery makes that examination all the more philosophical. Written through the lens of his own diagnosis, his commentary on his work becomes even more reflective. "Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and their family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question:  What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?"

The second perspective, of course, becomes that of the doctor turned patient, a patient who knows better than most what is happening to his own body and where it may lead. Again, this is not a description of the practical details of his care; the fact that he is treated at the very hospital at which he works and the fact that he is also a colleague to his physicians make his journey different than that of other patients. However, this perspective again is of the emotional, mental, and again, philosophical journey, which transcends all practicalities. This perspective is one of resiliency, of determination, and even of hope. Yes, the book is even about hope for Dr. Kalanithi's journey becomes a journey of life for "even if I'm dying, until I actually die, I am still living."

Paul Kalanithi expected to leave a legacy to the world through his medical research. He expected to run a research lab and may indeed have changed the course of medicine. Cancer changed the course of his life. However, the world does indeed have a legacy of his work - his words and his lesson about death and about life. My recommendation - Read it, and then perhaps read it again. It will leave you changed.

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Girl's Guide to Moving On

Title:  A Girl's Guide to Moving On
Author:  Debbie Macomber
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0553391925 / 978-0553391923

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

Opening Sentence:  "Not so long ago I assumed I had the perfect life."

Favorite Quote:  "If you don't mind a suggestion, the next time you meet someone don't work so hard to impress them. Show interest in the other person. Ask questions and listen and you'll be surprised by how entertaining the other person things you are."

This book begins with an ending - two, in fact. Two long time marriages end in divorce. Nichole and her mother in law Leanne both leave their husbands - father and son - due to their husbands' infidelities. In doing so, they find friendship and support in each other, moving into neighboring apartments. Together, they come up with a list - The Girl's Guide to Moving On as "ways in which we would get through this pain." The list has four items:
  • "Don't allow yourself to wallow in your pain. Reach out. Volunteer. Do something you love or something to help others."
  • "Cultivate new friendships."
  • "Let go in order to receive."
  • "Love yourself."
So far, so good. I love the concept of women finding strength in themselves to stand on their own and to move past relationships that hurt. I love the items on the list - volunteerism, friendship, self-care - all not only ways of healing but also ways of living life. I look forward to seeing these tenets manifested in this story.

Then comes the rest of the story and the unstated item on Nichole and Leanne's list - enter into a new romantic relationship. Yes, a new relationship can indeed be part of moving on, even an ultimately important part. Yes, the idea that love may come again after betrayal is a positive one. In this book, however, the insta-romance becomes the focal point of the book, leaving aside the idea of strong, independent women reinventing themselves after a betrayal.

Glimmers of that independence exist. Nichole juggles work, volunteering, and being a single parent. Leanne finds a new passion in teaching. However, these aspects of the story are presented as background with the romance taking center stage. I expected the story to be the other way around, with the focus more on the women rather than their new romances.

Glimmers of a social snobbery also exist in the book. Nichole's and Leanne's husbands both are well-off. Repeated references are made to their country-club lifestyle. On the other hand, Nichole's new interest Rocco is introduced as a tow truck driver. Mind you, he owns the company, but the references remain to his unfamiliarity with the "finer" things in life. Leanne's new love Nikolai is depicted as a recent immigrant working at a bakery. Mind you, he is a gifted baker who ultimately starts his own business, but the references remain to his differences. The focus on these socioeconomic differences seems to be out of place since the point is that these two men are the true gentlemen in Nichole and Leanne's life whereas the two husbands were selfish philanderers. Why not keep the focus on character rather than economics?

Perhaps, I am over analyzing a light chick-lit read for I end up more frustrated than empathetic with the characters and the story. It is a quick and easy read. For a romance, it is a clean read. Ultimately, though, it is a romance like many others and lacks a depth that the premise of the book could have led to, making it not quite the book for me.

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

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Summer Before the War

Title:  The Summer Before the War
Author:  Helen Simonson
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 496 pages.
ISBN:  0812993101 / 978-0812993103

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 town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slating evening light."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is too precious to waste it anymore with etiquette."

Too much of a good thing is sometimes an amazing thing. Sometimes, it is just too much. That is about my reaction to The Summer Before the War. I love Helen Simonson's writing. The English countryside and the time period of the beginning of the World War provide a setting with a lot of fictional possibilities. The cast of characters of a family of means, the village surrounding them, and an impoverished young woman who enters their domain is a familiar one.

Helen Simonson's writing submerges the reader into the world of East Sussex, England. It conveys the issues of social classes, prejudices, women's independence, and World War I. The best and the worst part of it is the fact that it all sounds familiar. That is great for, as a reader, I can relate to the challenges faced by some of the characters and the emotions felt.

That is not so great for, as a reader, throughout the book, I feel as if I have read it before. Here is a small English village very set in its ways with the ladies of the village vying for power and position and all the gossip and machinations that involves. Within the village is the aristocratic family, with a  lady of the manor somewhat progressive in her ideas. Within the family are two young gentlemen although nephews not sons in this case. Hugh Grange is the one turning his back on his aristocratic upbringing to take on a career in medicine. Daniel Bookham is the rakish toff with the heart of a poet. Into their midst comes Beatrice Nash, recently orphaned and now forced to make her own way in life as a teacher. A myriad of other characters, at times too many, surround these main ones. Layered on that are the changes that war brings to all their lives. It all sounds familiar and already done; I wait for a unique twist on this theme, but that seems missing.

On top of that, all of these aspects are very slowly developed in close to five hundred pages. So, the book takes too long. It is a somewhat entertaining read, but it lacks the depth of character and story to keep me engaged for that long. After a while, I find myself skimming through some of the details to gather up the salient aspects of the plot. I find myself digging to see if the characters develop in a way as to take this period piece into more of a deeper character study, but that too does not come.

The one deeper issue that the book gets to through several different characters is the role of women in that society, whether that is Agatha who works within the system, whether it is Beatrice who by her chosen profession and independence brings change, or whether it is Celeste whose drama brings in the societal pressures at work in a woman's life. This issue, further developed, would give the book a much greater depth. As it is, it just seems to simmer amongst all the rest. Again, interesting but not memorable.

The book has all the elements to make me fall in love with it, but I don't. I enjoy it, but somehow I don't think it will stay with me. I will wait to see what Helen Simonson writes next to see if the story matches the strength of her writing.

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

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking

Title:  Donabe:  Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking
Author:  Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2015. 328 pages.
ISBN:  1607746999 / 978-1607746997

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

Opening Sentence:  "Donabe is Japanese traditional earthen cookware."

Favorite Quote:  "The excitement of seeing and smelling the steaming-hot food when the donabe's lid is lifted never gets old and brings together everyone at the table."

Donabe:  Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking is definitely a specialty cookbook. It deals with a specific food culture - Japanese. It is even more specialized than that. Within that food culture, it deals with a specific type of cookware, a collection of different shapes and sizes of clay cookware known as donabe.

The first part of the book, about the first fifty pages, present a history of donate cookware, an explanation of how it's made, the artistic qualities of authentic donabe, tips on how to choose one, and some cultural menus in which donabe is incorporated. This section of the book is the education. These sections have beautifully photographs of the artisans and their work in progress. I do wish it had more photographs of finished pieces as the photographs do not lend themselves to appreciating the finished artistry. Even the double page spreads of menus are a top down view so the reader sees the food more than than the vessels. In a book focused on the cookware, I would like to see more of that.

The next six sections of the book are recipes organized by the type of donabe. The six types are the classic, the double-lid rice cooker, the donabe for soup and stew, steamer, the more modern tagging, and a smoker. Each section starts with a one to two page explanation of what that style of vessel looks like and what it is mostly used for. The individual recipes are presented with number of servings, an ingredient list, paragraph style instructions, and a picture of the finished dish. Many of recipes also includes directions for substituting one type of donabe for another or recommendations for other types of pots if you do not own a donabe.

The final recipe section of the book presents a collection of base recipes for dashi (broth), sauces, and condiments that can be used across the recipes of the book and as a basic guide for Japanese flavors. The book ends with a glossary which is really helpful as I am no familiar with many of the Japanese terms, a very short resource list for buying donabe or specialized ingredients, and an index which I always find helpful in a cookbook.

I don't know much about Japanese cooking, nor do I cook often with Japanese flavors. You may ask why then would I choose to add such a specific niche cookbook to my collection? Clay cookware can be found in found in many different cultures - a Moroccan tagine, a Southeast Asian haandi, a Mexican comale, and so many more. This book introduces me to the Japanese contribution in this tradition.

Although Japanese cooking and Japanese donabe cooking is not familiar to me, the concept of one pot meals and the use of clay cookware is. Having used clay cookware and having eaten food prepared in it, it truly does impart a unique flavor to the food cooked and served in it.  In particular, my bakeware is clay, and I find it makes a big difference in the texture and flavors of my baked goods.

As such, I may or may not used the exact recipes in this book, but I definitely look forward incorporating the techniques of donabe cooking, first perhaps using pots I have to mimic a donabe and maybe one day investing in a work of art that is a donabe.

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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Title:  13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
Author:  Mona Awad
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2016. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0143128485 / 978-0143128489

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

Opening Sentence:  "We went against the universe at the McDonald's on the corner of Wolfed and Mavis."

Favorite Quote:  "... she says she still feels 'like a stranger in my own body.'"

Distressing. Disheartening. Depressing. Three ways of looking at this book. The "13 ways" of this book are the thirteen different points in time in which the reader meets Lizzie/Beth/Liz/Elizabeth. At the beginning of the book, Lizzie sounds to be in her early teens and impossibly young to be contemplating the actions she is contemplating. By the end, she seems middle-aged. At each point, Lizzie/Beth/Liz/Elizabeth struggles with her vision of herself as the "fat girl;" her body is at the center of her thoughts at all times.

The issue of being comfortable in your skin and of body image versus body reality is at the heart of this book. The fact that the book begins with such a young main character is a definite statement as to society today and the pressure on young women to look a certain way. Sad but unfortunately true. This book takes a serious look at how images established at a young age can follow a woman all her life.

The evolution of the main character's name throughout the book is an interesting technique to convey the evolution of the character. Lizzie, Beth, Liz, and Elizabeth are all one person. Sometimes, such name changes come with growth and maturity. In this case, the changes seem to accompany how unhappy she is with herself and her seemingly constant desire to be something else - to reinvent herself to be someone else.

At times, Lizzie/Beth/Liz/Elizabeth is not a very likable character, but even that makes sense in the context of the message. She does not even like herself; so, it seems to follow that the reader would the mirror that reflects that back. My reaction wavers between pity and sadness for her and an urge to talk some sense into her. At many times in her life, she has friendship and love and support; yet, her own views of herself keep her from it. No joy seems to ever find its way into her life.

What I also find interesting is that the book blurb describes this book as "hilarious" and "caustically funny" as well as being a journey of a young woman looking to be comfortable in her own skin. For me, the book is just sad and distressing. At no point does Lizzie/Liz/Beth/Elizabeth seem to find joy - not in her relationships, not in her work, not in her life. Understandably, the point of the book is the reach of a negative body image and its ability to cloud every aspect of a person's life. However, a little tempering - something that pulls you out of that image and allows you to experience other things only to then be sucked back into that image - would add a greater sense of reality to this young woman's experience.

What I find even more interesting about this book is that it is a book essentially about body image but it contains virtually no physical descriptions. Having read the entire book, I really have no idea what Lizzie/Beth/Liz/Elizabeth looks like. To me, that fact strongly reinforces the point that body image has little, if anything, to do with actual physical appearance. Body image is not about what a person truly looks like; it's what he or she thinks they look like. It is a perception, and perceptions are so much harder to change than reality. Even though the book describes a journey of weight loss, weight gain, and a changing physical body, the image of the "fat girl" never changes. A sad fiction that points at certain sad but very real, very true facets of our society.

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

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Where My Heart Used to Beat

Title:  Where My Heart Used to Beat
Author:  Sebastian Faulks
Publication Information:  Henry Holt and Co. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0805097325 / 978-0805097320

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

Opening Sentence:  "With its free peanuts and anonymity, the airline lounge is somewhere I can usually feel at home; but on this occasion I was in too much of a panic to enjoy its self-importance."

Favorite Quote:  "How many men were there ... like him? People who could draw on what they knew, on what they'd seen - on what they'd read - to rise to the occasion ... There was something about the way he accepted the circumstances of our rat existence in the marsh. He didn't rail against it; he submitted to the absurdity that fate ... had handed us ... He would never stop believing in .... the possibility of a normal world."

Robert Hendricks is an expert in his field of psychiatry and a published author. He is also very much alone. He receives an invitation from a stranger who lives on a secluded island off the coast of France. Dr. Alexander Periera claims to be a fan of Robert's work and a war buddy of his father's. Robert's acceptance of Dr. Periera's invitation to visit sets him on a journey through his own memories of the past.

This book meanders through a life but does not really end up with a conclusion or a thread to draw it all together. What makes it an even more challenging read is that it does so without a sense of chronology in its meanderings. Different moments in Robert's past and present simply mingle together, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. The time periods I identified - childhood memories of his father, school & college days, the war, his initial career, and present day. Actually, I am not sure that is all, but I find myself distracted trying to keep track of the myriad directions in which the story drifts. Perhaps, these are the defining moments of Robert's life, but trying to follow them all simultaneously reduces the sense of importance that any one has.

Two moments in the book seem to stand out, but not for the right reasons. I cannot see the purpose they serve. Unfortunately, the first chapter is one, and that sets a tone for the entire book. Why does this book begin with a casual sexual encounter with a prostitute whose number he randomly finds in a phone booth? Second, why are the encounters with Celine on the island highlighted for them to develop into nothing in the story? These two aspects don't add to the story except to make the main character less likable and less interesting to follow.

The two connections central to the plot are Robert's connection with the mysterious "L" during the war and the connection started by Dr. Alexander Periera's letter. "L" is described as the love of his life, but as that story concludes, my reaction is, "That's it?" The entire love story is less than I expected. It is also less significant to the book than I expected. This book is more about a man trying to make sense of his life, and this love affair is one part of that.

Dr. Periera's connection comes because he served with Robert's father during the war, but when they meet, he is much more interested in Robert's life than in sharing his memories. Why? That piece seems missing. Why does Dr. Periera reach out? What is his interest in Robert? Also, the way that connection is made seems improbable. Dr. Periera says he found Robert because of his unusual last name - Hendricks.  Is that really such an unusual name? The entire premise does not seem believable

The most compelling aspect of the book is the descriptions of the war in the trenches. Both the physical and psychological impacts are described. The physical descriptions come through Robert's first person narration, and give a sense of the horror and the mundane in a soldier's life. The psychological impacts are developed through other characters, but the pieces of the puzzle are too spread out and presented too matter-of-factly to have the emotional impact.

This book has potential. Unfortunately, I spend most of it waiting for more, and it doesn't quite come together in a compelling story.

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