Tuesday, September 27, 2011

CUTTING FOR STONE – Abraham Verghese

A bit of historic fiction within a medical novel. Even though this was a bit daunting to begin, being 600 pages, I have to say I absolutely could not put it down. However, I must confess that some of the medical jargon and procedures were over my head and I did do a bit of skimming of some content. I could see a young person pursuing a medical career enjoying this book very much. I made sure that the author documented his history and medical information (he is a doctor) as well and then sat back to enjoy the ride. The book covers several generations and five decades of medical practitioners beginning in Ethiopia and ending in an inner-city hospital in New York. I felt like this was almost three books and each section almost could stand alone. The construction of the novel and style of writing is excellent.


In 1947 upon getting her nursing degree in India, Sister Mary Joseph Praise boards a ship for Yemen. She ends up nursing a gravely ill doctor, Thomas Stone, back to life on her shipboard travels and they end up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Many chapters follow the Sister and Dr. Stone working together with mutual admiration and are full of much falling apart and patching up of souls and bodies in the clinic which ministers to the poor of the city. All the stories are gut-wrenching and exciting intertwined with political tension, suspense, and action. A huge shift in the story happens when Sister Mary unexpectedly gives birth to conjoined twin sons, Shiva and Marion. Sister Mary dies, Stone flees, the twins are separated, and on we go to the next whole section as the book gallops off to tell of the lives of the twins growing up, learning about life, sex, and how to cope in a city of poverty and political upheaval. The twins also become doctors in Addis Ababa. Their extended adopted family add much love to their lives.

The twins grow up during the rein of the Emperor Haile Selaisse and so the stories are interspersed with the politics of the cultural upheaval of the times. It was difficult to put the book down and not continue to think about the characters and what could possibly happen to them next. There is history, danger, suspense, romance, and just about everything one could hope for in a good story. At times your heart will break especially when Marion is forced to separate from his family and emigrates to America.

A big book to tackle but one of the most satisfying books I have encountered in a long time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

GLASS CASTLE (revisited) - Jeanette Walls

Glass Castle was the Ball State Everybody Reads choice for freshmen this year which includes an author visit and is free to the public. I for one was very excited and made plans to go. Several Jay County Public Library Book Group members planned to go and I invited the Adams Central Literati members also. Eight of us went out to dinner and to hear her speak this last Monday evening.

She was really good. The focus of her speech seemed to be two-fold. First of all she believes that trials, hardships, and even failure can make you stronger. You can prevail and succeed but you must get a focus, make good decisions, and take responsibility. Secondly, when there are people around you that are different or strange try to be inclusive and understanding. Try not to judge. She did not simply regurgitate her stories (she assumed we all had read her book) but she did use some for examples to support or illuminate her ideas. 

Listening to her speak it was apparent that she has come to terms with her background and no longer lets it be a source of shame. At first she said she forgave her parents but then she said it wasn't necessary because they didn't do anything wrong on purpose. That is to say they were just who they were, and they did the best they could. I had realized when I read the book that there was no reason to be so angry with the Walls, but I also know that in some circumstances it would have been hard not to get mad at them. We talked on the way home about the peculiarities of the parents and the grandparents of the Walls but we are educators not psychologists and we couldn't think of a specific type of mental illness or dysfunction that fit. We do think that simply calling them eccentric was not accurate. I detected a bit of a similarity between Mrs. Walls and Zippy's mother in A Girl Named Zippy. That is a good book too if you haven't read that.

She talked a bit about her mom who still lives in NYC as a "squatter," about her siblings, and about her most recent book, Half-broke Horses. It is apparent that this family is brilliant and they are survivors.  I loved her speech and now I need to get a copy of her newest book and read that too.

Since this is an update on an old blog (Jan. 28, 2010) I went back to read it and discovered that many of my group didn't like the book when they first read it! Yikes, hope they changed their minds as they mulled it over.  Great author, great book, great speech.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

NOAH'S COMPASS – Anne Tyler


Read this title a few weeks ago and going through my documents I realized I forgot to blog! Yikes, hope I can remember enough.

A few years ago (maybe 10 or 15) My friend Paula and I got interested in reading Anne Tyler. Her books all take place in Baltimore and are about quirky personalities. They aren't really fast moving or plot driven. What keeps one reading are the unique people, the odd things that happen, and the difference between how the characters behave in light of what the reader would expect.

You may remember some of her books that were made into movies like Breathing Lessons (James Garner & Joanne Woodward) and The Accidental Tourist (William Hurt & Geena Davis) which were two of my favorite books along with Saint Maybe which I don't think was a movie but was a great read.

Noah... is a pretty short novel and not mentally taxing, just fun. Liam Pennywell is 60. He has failed at two marriages and has been fired from his job as a teacher at a boys school. He isn't great at his relationships with his grown daughters either and doesn't even know why. But he isn't depressed or self-pitying at all. He knows he has to conserve and so he procedes to downsize and finds an apartment to move into. On his first night there his apartment is broken into and he is knocked unconscience. From there it is a continuous revolving door of daughters, ex-wife and others trying to help him get back on his feet. However, he cannot remember being accosted and embarks on a quest to remember. Liam desperately wants to recapture the lost hours even though everyone tells him it would be better not to know. While on this quest he meets Eunice a very unusual young woman who becomes his best friend and accomplice in his quest. I know this sounds not very interesting but it is hilarious and so fun. You get to know Liam as the very flawed person who doesn't understand himself or his family but is nevertheless a decent and caring man. Plus there is a somewhat shocking turn I didn't see coming at all involving Eunice!

Liam's daughter who has joined some type of charasmatic fundamentalist church (with lots of rules of what not to do) asks him to babysit for her unusual little boy while she has several appointments. He does so and over a few weeks bonds with the boy and reads Noah's Ark to him trying his best to answer the boy's pointed questions about the story without angering his daughter – hence the title comes from one of those questions/answers about Noah and the Ark. If you like character analysis and quirky plots you will like Noah's Compass.

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND – Helen Simonson


Jay County Public Library Book Club met Monday to discuss Major... We had a nice turn out even though Elizabeth once again had not finished the book! Come on Lizzie get with the program ;-) This British import is a very good read and pretty short so it's a good one to take on a trip or if you have a bunch of appointments where you are in the waiting room a while. The writing style is quite nice and proper and one which I always enjoy. The beautiful artwork on the cover is creative and lovely also. Members had both paperback and hardcover both having the same illustration.

Major Pettigrew is a widower and a retired English teacher who lives in a close-knit community clinging to traditional values and that proper British-ness that we Americans love to read about and at which to often poke fun. The poor Major, still pining for his deceased wife whom he dearly loved, has lost his brother Bertie and now is struggling to keep his greedy son Roger and his niece from selling the family heirloom pair of hunting rifles. While he is fretting over the guns and preparing to participate in an important hunting event sponsored by the local gentry, the Major befriends Jasmina Ali. Mrs. Ali is Pakistani and the recent widow of a local food shop owner. She and he meet to read and discuss literature.

The locals would prefer a nice Christian woman for him but of course you know he will and does fall in love with Mrs. Ali. And the love story is not the only story here. The community has social events to plan and attend and Roger has an American fiance who is not assimilating any better than Jasmina into the community. Mrs. Ali's family also decides that she should follow the traditions of the Muslim community and sign over her establishment to her nephew taking her submissive and “rightful” place in the family. Tension mounts on all sides.

Poor Major turns to his best friend who is also the local vicar for solace and guidance but is sorely disappointed - and not comforted I might add. Instead he gets an intolerant sermon. Over all the prejudices and family feuding light still shines and the Major must take a “stand.” There is sorrow but also humor here to keep you reading. Loved the Major in all his stuffy properness.

Now I must say not all of our group was happy with the love story. One woman wanted the Major to follow the vicar's council because she disapproves of religiously mixed marriage (actually I think just Christian with anything else) and since she feels “Jesus is the only way” I am guessing she is not wanting the Major to love someone destined to go to hell (my words not hers) and so... I had wanted the vicar to comfort the Major and tell him God loves him and her as his children and even though there would be tough times with the community that if he had searched his soul and prayed about it, he should follow his heart and be thankful he found someone to love and care for.

There are also very funny episodes, one pertaining to the hunting event involving a lot of crying school children, protesters, and ducks. I will remember Major Pettigrew for a long time. Books like this one help to keep a trip to England on my bucket list.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID – Bill Bryson


Tuesday the Adams Central Adult Literati met at the Brick House Restaurant in Monroe to discuss this humorous memoir by Bryson. We had in the past read A Walk in the Woods as a group and then several of us had tackled some of his others. Bryson has a definate appeal to people over 40 and anyone who enjoys laughing at people's foibles and ironic situations. He did not disappoint. I have liked some of this other titles better such as the above mentioned and I'm a Stranger Here Myself but none-the-less I/we had a great time with Thunderbolt.

How could you not like a book interspersed with family photos and each chapter starting with a bit of an article from the Des Moines Register which were very funny. For instance chapter one begins with this February 6, 1955 entry;
“The State Senate of Illinois yesterday disbanded the Committee on Efficiency and Economy “for reasons of efficiency and economy.””

More than just a narrative of his childhood Bryson gives us a kind of tongue-in-cheek commentary of life in the 50s and early 60s. What I for one really liked about it was his portrayal of the times as glowing and innocent, kind of quirky and clean. Which is how I remember a lot of life in the 50s. Fifteen cent comic books, roller skates, 45 records, bomb shelters in back yards, Sky King, Red Ball Jets and engineer boots, and wax lips. Ahhhh those were the days. When he covers the not-so-good and even dangerous things like X-raying children's feet in the shoe stores, watching nuclear explosions in the West, and smoking he is not mean about it or judgmental.

Apparently growing up in Des Moines, Iowa wasn't much different from Van Wert, Ohio or Monroe, Indiana. Bryson's parents were writers for the newspaper. His mother wrote a women's column and his father was a sports writer, and apparently a very good one who won awards. Other than his mother not being a housewife and being a bit "unaware" to boot, his formative years seemed to be pretty typical of middle-class America but much more fun and funny than my middle-class upbringing. In a witty way he covers social issues too like the demise of small farms, shrinking pockets of people who adhere to their “old country” cultures, disappearing local movie theaters or as he puts it on page 186, “...I saw the last of something really special. It's something I seem to say a lot these days.” And to that I must say, “Me too.”

Remember Dick and Jane books, the teacher handing you warm papers with purple ink that smelled wonderful, and paste that you could eat and not die?

AS HOT AS IT WAS YOU OUGHT TO THANK ME – Nanci Kincaid


I was talking to my friend Dawn recently about the fact that she and I both like to read southern writers. She gave me this title of hers and I picked it up last Friday and finished it Saturday - not being able to put it down and carrying it in my purse when I had to go on errands in order to steal every minute for reading. Now I need her to come for supper so we can rehash it.

So appropriate that it begins the first paragraph with a description of a loved cat, since Dawn and I are both cat lovers. The whole book takes place over a summer, and a long hot humid one it is, in small Pinetta, Florida. The setting is in a time period that Dawn and I remember well. A time with no air conditioning, soda in bottles, and ice cubes in trays with levers to break them out, mothers who were housewives, and fathers who ruled their families with stern hands.

Berry Jackson, 13 is the narrator who is longing to be pretty, and to understand her family, friends, and neighbors. Pinetta has one school, two churches, and a gas station. Everyone knows everyone else and pretty much all their business. Berry's father is the school principal and is well-respected. Her mother is a good mother but longs for something “else” and appears to be pining for the good-looking overly friendly preacher. Berry's best friend is the neighbor boy who likes to wear dresses and nail polish. Her brothers are typical boys mystifying Berry with their mischief. Just as the reader is floating along with Berry while she sorts things out, the Baptists compete with the Methodists for the most attendees and the loudest singing, a hurricane hits and the town is torn apart. Mr. Jackson and a beautiful neighbor girl are missing, a chain gang from the prison comes to town to rebuild, and Berry falls in love.

Kincaid has a wonderful style able to evoke whole days from memory of life in the 50s and 60s. She is able to make one feel cool rain on hot skin, the frustration of trying to find a cool spot on a hot and humid night, and smell burnt timbers from a bonfire. She is also able to make skin crawl with descriptions of snakes that get flooded out of their dens during hard rain. There is nothing like the prose of a southern writer with a rich vocabulary and especially this one who remembers how we thought and talked back then. Who says davenport instead of sofa today, and no one I know drinks Kool-Ade like we did then. I don't feel I can do this book justice but to say I highly recommend it. Thanks Dawn Williams, fellow feline fancier and southern literature connoisseur.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN – RANSOM RIGGS


My sister-in-law had a copy of this title and said it was really good. I wanted her to give it to me but she passed it to my niece (her daughter) instead so I looked for a copy from an online vendor. When my copy arrived it was slightly damaged but I couldn't send it back because by then I desperately needed to read it. The vendor did give me a discount so that is fine too. Starting it last evening I read today until finished. I do have to say once started I wanted to have undisturbed reading time to the end.

Years ago I read and loved several books based on the premise of true stories told in the form of fairytales. In the beginning this book seemed to be one of those. Aging Abraham Portman has told his grandson Jacob stories about himself as an orphan fleeing “monsters” in the 1930's and living in a magical children's home where life was beautiful and children could levitate, hold fire in their hands, lift incredible weight, and other such wonderful things on an island off the coast of Scotland. Abe's story appeared to be a Holocaust story cloaked as a fairy story.

The format of the book is wonderful and the book is beautiful. The end papers and chapter divisions look like aged fabric and the chapters include old photographs of peculiar looking children. Many of the photos are downright creepy. The photographs represent characters from the book and mostly children who lived under the protection of Miss Peregrine in 1940. I liked the construction of the novel and the idea of the home being for children who were either orphaned, or abandoned and who had supernatural powers. Probably because I had a preconceived notion that this would be a supernatural thriller I felt disappointed that it was actually an alternate world time travel fantasy. But, by the time that realization set in I was hooked.

It is through the grandson Jacob that the reader follows Abe's clues to Scotland, finds the “loop” where he time travels to Miss Peregrine's orphan home. There is enough action, gore, monsters, and suspense to keep the pages turning. The characters are not only peculiar but also so creative. It is most definitely the marriage of the eerie pictures with the text that makes the book so good.

Not being familiar with Quirk publishing led me to investigate. Quirk can be found at quirkbooks.com and you will see that they were established in 2002, are “seekers of all things awesome,” and publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and other such silly books that make some of us laugh and make some of us mad.

One tiny little quirk of my own got a workout though. I hate typos and situations that I can't work out appearing in a finished book. It always leads me to believe the publisher doesn't have good enough proof-readers. On page 140 Jacob has his hands tied behind his back. When asked to remove his shoes and socks and roll up his pant legs he does. I am pretty sure most of us could not do that while our hands are tied behind us. Typos included a may when it was supposed to be my, they for their, and a few others I noticed. Also a few of the pictures didn't have corresponding characters at the home and I was disappointed, like the dog with the head of a boy. Oh well. 

I can't help but still think about the kids at my old school AC that are readers of fantasy and thrillers. I hope their new librarian buys this book for them and I hope they find it, read it, and enjoy it as much as I did. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Oh me oh my - changing focus

For the first time since I retired in June from my job as a school librarian I have to admit feeling sad, and my heart aches from missing the school kids.  Being busy every day with things that are fun, relaxing, or even doing work, but work I choose to do, is not quite dispelling my melancholy. It kills me that my (ex)-students are talking reading and good books with .... not me! I also need to change the sub-title of my book blog since I will no longer be discussing books with students. Need to think about that a bit.

But, I will not miss the politics at school, the rat race of getting everything done, trying to please cranky teachers (sorry), or trying to measure up to impossible goals from administrators.

Any adult who happens upon this blog, please remember to ask young people what they are reading. Young people have great insights and they just need to know that you care what they read and what they think about what they read. Working with young adults has been the light of my life for the past 15 years. I am still looking for the proverbial "new door" to open since closing this one.