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Sunday, December 4, 2011

The White by Deborah Larsen

Some little books are gems; where the author packs a bright, dense world between its pages.  One book like that is "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress."  Another book like that is "The White" by Deborah Larsen.  Wholly American, with prose as spare as a Shaker rocking chair, this recounting of a true story brought me effortlessly back to 1758 Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Sixteen-year-old Mary Jemison was captured with her family by a Shawnee-and-French raiding party during the French and Indian War.  When Mary was 81 years old, she told her life story to a white minister, James Seaver, and so there is a detailed record of her long life with the Seneca Nation.  Deborah Larsen extrapolates from this in The White, allowing us to step into Mary Jemison's moccasins and see how it might have been.  Larsen took Seaver's flowery pre-Victorian language and broke it down to a more-real essence.  She tells this story in a new way, imbuing it with feeling and depth despite her bare-bones language.  Professor Larsen also did a lot of research for this book and so even the crops and trees and plants ring true, as do the Seneca traditions Mary must have embraced.  Mary's Native-American name was De-he-wa-mis, which can mean pretty, handsome, pleasant and good.  It can also mean "two falling voices" and this is the apt translation Larsen chose.  I didn't want this book to end.  The author, Professor Deborah Larsen, is also a poet, and this shows in her gorgeous interpretation of this fascinating story.  For younger readers, there is also another fictionalized account of Mary Jemison's life; "Indian Captive" by Lois Lenski (but I have not read this one).  Deborah Larsen also wrote a book of poetry; Stitching Porcelain, and a memoir; The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story.  Deborah Larsen-Cowan has also been published in The Nation, The Yale Review, The Quarterly, Oxford Magazine, and The New Yorker, and has been reviewed by NPR, and interviewed on the Diane Rehm show.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Open Wound by Jason Karlawish

I love historical fiction, and so I really enjoyed this new novel based on a true story. The book opens on Mackinac Island in the year 1822.  Mackinac Island (pronounced mackinaw) was a Native American settlement of the Ojibwe peoples since prehistoric times, but was then occupied by the British during the American Revolutionary War.  Being a tiny island strategically located between the peninsulas of upper and lower Michigan, Mackinac was overrun by two of man's most horrible creations; the fur industry, and war (the French and Indian War,  and the War of 1812).

Enter Dr. William Beaumont, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, based alongside The American Fur Company.  Beaumont seems to be admirable; hardworking, meticulous, and a modest drinker.   The previous doctor at this frontier outpost was addicted to both drink and opium, so Beaumont (in comparison) brought great measures of hygiene and competence to this wilderness.  Time spent as an assistant surgeon in the War of 1812, and specifically, the Battle of Plattsburgh, have made him an expert surgeon. But curled within Beaumont lies a bud of ambition that threatens to blossom into a terrible flower.   Then, a shotgun accident involving a young French trapper calls upon all of Beaumont's surgical skills.  This sudden collision of Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin is almost like a koan or a parable, with the outcome depending upon the wisdom and integrity of those involved.  Despite the medical nature of this read, it is not dry.  Instead, we're brought back to a fascinating time in U.S. history, and the story does move along at a decent clip.  As a bonus, I found the writing to be keenly brilliant and elegant.

In Open Wound, author Jason Karlawish does a good job of staying objective, despite the actions of the doctor at the risk of the patient's health.  Reading this made me think about the larger questions in life.  What is violence?  How can Free Will be exploited?  There are complicated natures of debt in this story, and equally complex payment structures.  This would be a good novel for book club discussions due to the many ethical and moral issues that abound in this good read, and in medicine itself.

As a Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics at an American university, Jason Karlawish is perhaps the perfect person to have written this intriguing story.  Here is a youtube video with the author talking about this book.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

I did not want to read "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman, but it came up for book club at our local library.  Well, I could not put it down, and it blew my mind.  It's a non-fiction account of not only a single Hmong family, but also of how the Hmong came to America.  Along the way, we learn about the rich Hmong culture, which is partially based in ancient legends, bad spirits, and unfortunate animal sacrifice.  Once this culture hits the United States, that's where things begin to break down.  For example, when a Hmong is born, their placenta is buried in a special place under their ancestral home.  When they die, this placenta is their garment in the next world.  Their spirit must retrace all their steps back to this garment, and then run a dangerous gauntlet to a peaceful place of rebirth.  If their soul cannot find this garment, it's condemned to wander eternity naked and alone.  But for a moment, let's go back to how the Hmong came to America.   In Laos, there are different cultures as you move into higher elevations, including the Lao, the Karen, the Khmu and Mien peoples.  "At the highest altitudes, between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, if it is possible, live the Hmong."  These remote locations helped keep their ethnic identity very pure, despite their lack of a unifying literacy.  They rarely visited the plains, which they called the Land of Leeches.  At the end of the 18th century, the British East India Company introduced opium to China, and since then, the Hmong have been master opium growers, "drawn into this international trade they neither created nor controlled."  Fast forward to the Vietnam War.  For geographical reasons, the U.S. provided covert army training in Laos since 1955, and President Eisenhower considered the situation in Laos to be the most important problem facing the U.S.  Then, in 1961, at the Geneva Conference, the U.S. and ten other nations signed an Accord agreeing to the neutrality of Laos.  So what did the U.S. do to control this area without sending in U.S. troops that would violate this accord?  We got the Hmong to fight for us by proxy, and we promised them a safe place to live if they would do it.  And so, this charming and "non-violent" (by normal standards) people fought.  At first, they would fire over the enemies' heads or throw away their weapons.  They were murdered and napalmed for eight years, and had to uproot 90% of their villages and run, and run, and run.  And we-the-people didn't know about it because the CIA forbid journalists from going into this geographical area.  And then the U.S. airlifted thousands of Hmong out to the U.S.  Oh, and then the U.S. also left thousands of Hmong on the tarmac to die, waiting for other planes that never came.  Flash forward to the 1980's.  Here is a people who are totally shell-shocked, clinging to the fragments of their culture, and pooling their welfare checks to buy animals to sacrifice, in an effort to fix things.  Due to PTSD and lack of English Language skills, if they have a simple car accident (for example) and are arrested, they are expecting to be executed.  And all they know how to do is fight guerrilla style, and grow opium.  In 1982, a Hmong girl by the name of Lia Lee is born in Merced, California, and they immediately incinerate her placenta, her garment for the afterlife.  And here is where our story really begins.  A story of the collision of two cultures, and misunderstandings, and heroism and compassion, and sacrifice.  And, it's fascinating.  What if you believed that each person has a finite amount of blood in their body, and then the doctors keep coming in and taking blood from your child?  What if you try to grow crops in the living room of your apartment in urban California?  Or, on the other side of the coin, what if you are two dedicated and caring doctors who spend years trying to save the life of a child that is being raised in a culture you cannot really fathom or communicate effectively with?  As I read this book, I just kept saying, "What!"  This book is very well written and is now on my "must read" list.  Anne Fadiman started out just writing an article about this little girl, but when the article got rejected, she then spent the next eight years writing this amazing book because she could not get this story out her mind and her heart.  Fadiman manages to show the many characters in an objective light, and reveals the incredible compassion and heroism on both sides of this story.  I've heard it said that there are now shamans at the Merced County Hospital, but after reading this book, I know stranger things have happened.  Highly recommended.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Supposedly, this book by Stewart O'Nan is a reprisal of an earlier novel of his (Wish You Were Here).  I didn't know this until I began writing this review.    However, this quiet novel, Emily, Alone is very good all by itself.

I also liked another novel by O'Nan; Last Night at the Lobster, which I read a couple of years ago, and it was a good introduction to his better writing, which is understated but elegant.  In these two books there are no car crashes, murders, or other shocking events.  Maybe there's a snowstorm here and there, but you know what I mean.  Both Emily and Lobster are sort of about the ordinary moments of life.  But enough about Lobster; we're here to talk about Emily.  Emily is a 78-year-old widow and this is about how she navigates through life as such.  Her husband Henry is 8 years gone, and her best friend more recently departed.  Her children do not live nearby.  The everyday challenges are sometimes troubling.  Like, how do you get a big old boat of a car through the steep streets of Pittsburgh, and then actually park it?   Luckily, Emily's sister in-law Arlene lives nearby and these two plucky women help each other through the sometimes-daunting days.  The irony of this is that they were never crazy about each other in their younger days.   What I love about Emily is her effort to keep going with dignity and pleasure, despite the hardships of age.  She works at it and organizes her days to stave off boredom and loneliness.  Her affairs are in order, down to the letter.  She does difficult crosswords, cares for her old dog Rufus and listens to classical music on the radio.  She goes to Eat'n Park for the breakfast buffet with Arlene when they have a two-for-one coupon.  They go to funerals and Emily feels her mortality every day.  She contemplates the past and hopes she never falls and breaks a hip.  She rues the lack of communication from her grown children, and the lack of thank-you cards from her grandchildren--she frets but keeps it mostly to herself.  She tries to hang on to the vestiges of courtesy that were so important in her youth.  In these quiet moments, she has grace.  I read this with interest because, after all, we're all getting older.  Emily gives us a little glimpse of what's coming, if we're lucky.  I was really impressed that a man could write so beautifully from the point of view of a woman.  Author Stewart O'Nan is an avid Red Sox fan, and even wrote a book about the 2004 season with his friend and fellow author, Stephen King.  You can find audio interviews online and on itunes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Girls in White Dresses
I guess some would call this chick lit, but I hesitate because when men write good books, they don't call them "guy lit."  Actually I was thinking of putting a category on this blog called "Guy Books," but that's another story.  Here, we have a group of girlfriends who are like a cloud; constantly changing and floating around.  Sometimes peripheral characters have little vignettes, but somebody from the core group is always there.  These characters are so fleshed out that they seem alive.  This writing is so detailed without being tedious, that your synapses are gathering information in almost the same way you do in a live conversation with someone.  I just read The Family Fang on Kindle (despite all the publisher hype, that was ten bucks wasted), and the Fang family are like paper dolls compared with the characters in this book, and the writing was childish.  I'll state here that I listened to the AUDIO version of Girls in White Dresses.  It was so well read with little accents, nuances and inflections, that despite the wealth of female characters, it was not confusing.  Lauren was one of my favorite characters, and toward the middle and end of the book, I was laughing out loud.  If you can remember what it was like to be a young, single woman living in a city with your girlfriends, you will adore this book.  And I'd recommend it to anyone who just wouldn't mind stepping into that world for a bit, in the same way we do when we read books set in other countries.   Through the relationships (and lack thereof) and many hangovers, they stay friends, but this book is not sticky sweet.  I don't know if the humor will transcend reading the written form, but I hope so.  This is on free library download through Overdrive, so you can slap it on your MP3.  This is not the vapid chick lit that kills so many trees, but something elevated above that.  No crazy plot, no cute gimmicks, no big catastrophes, just realistic writing.  I'll be looking for any future novels by Jennifer Close.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Since I enjoyed the book The Heretic's Daughter, I thought there was a good chance I'd like this one too.  And I did. This was a great summer read for me; it really took me out of my element and to another place and time. The setting is the island of Martha's Vineyard in the 1600's. White settlers had arrived in 1641, and, while conning Native Americans out of lands, were hacking homes out of the wilderness, trampling on the clam beds, burning the forests, and infesting the native Wampanoag Tribe with deadly diseases, all in the name of God.   Although the book is called Caleb's Crossing, Bethia (beth-eye-ah) is our narrator; a comely 16-year-old girl, and this re-telling is from her journal.  The author, Geraldine Brooks, went to live on Martha's Vineyard in 2006, and became evermore fascinated by the Native-American and Early-American history.  This is her fictionalized account of Caleb, the first Native American to ever graduate from Harvard (in 1665), as seen through the eyes of a Puritan girl.  Bethia has a brilliant mind, especially in contrast with her brother, Makepeace, who obviously has some sort of learning disability.  Makepeace takes his frustration out on his sister, and she must endure it.  For me, Bethia in this book is a symbol of how women were made to kneel under the oppressive thumb of Puritan male society.  We feel it especially keenly because Bethia is so smart and kind and open.  There's a bit of The Scarlet Letter in this book (literally), although we can hold out more hope for Bethia than we ever could for poor Hester Prynne.  As for the pure and handsome Caleb, he was a real person.  In this book, he strives to save his people by adapting to the Puritan culture.  As Bethia eavesdrops in on Harvard lectures from an open vent while working in the buttery, her thirst for knowledge only grows.  She spends a good deal of her young life coveting the education that is wasted on her brother.  And she absorbs the complicated Wampanoag dialect through her great friendship with Caleb.  She must often pretend she doesn't understand what's going on, and when she does speak her mind, she is made to regret it.  Her frustration is palpable.  So great is her quest for understanding all things that at one point, she covertly drinks an hallucinogenic potion while visiting a local Tribe with her evangelical father.  Any female, young or old, can get a glimpse of what it would be like to endure the harsh living conditions and societal mores of the Puritan culture, but this is perhaps not the most important part of this book.  It's the love that Bethia feels for those around her, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them, while still managing to keep her faith.  I don't want to put too much detail here because I read this book knowing hardly anything about it, and that's part of the fun.  Like Bethia, we can step onto the liberating path toward the beach, and find something unknown and wonderful, including friendship and love.  I have adored other books of Geraldine Brooks', including Year of Wonders, and her brilliant non-fiction book Nine Parts of Desire.  With all her novels that feature American history, I was surprised to learn that Geraldine Brooks is from Australia.  She won the Pulitzer for her book March, which is about the American Civil War as seen from inside "Little Women."  I'll end by saying that I've possibly made Caleb's Crossing out to be too dark, and it's really not.  It's moody, Puritanical feel was appropriate, and it was a fun read and I would even recommend it as a Young Adult novel, especially for girls.   There is a bit of romance in this book, but in today's world, it's very chastely done.  Thumbs up.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

If Erik Larson never wrote another book, it wouldn't matter, because The Devil In The White City is so damn good.  This is  not only a page-turner/murder mystery, it's also a non-fiction, historical account of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  And, it reads like fiction.  The first time I read this book, it started out slow for me.  Not so this time, perhaps because I already knew it was going to get better as it went along.   Larson brings an entire era to life here, and this Gilded Age was packed with new inventions and discoveries.  This book will place you in the forefront of American Architecture and also Landscape Architecture.  Eiffel had created his famous Tower and the pressure was on for the Chicago World's Fair to compete with his graceful monument.  If all this isn't enough for you, there's a chilling thread of heinous crime that runs through this book like a dark river, perpetrated by a serial killer who's every bit as charming and deadly as Ted Bundy.  You'll wonder why you've never heard of this person, who's right up there with his contemporary, Jack the Ripper.  And I loved the detective who plodded along and doggedly closed in on the murderer, without the benefits of modern technology.  This Fair was a junction where all kinds of famous people came and went, everyone from Susan B. Anthony to Buffalo Bill.  And in with all the calamity are the inventions that were introduced at this fair.  Think peanut butter and Cracker Jacks, the Ferris wheel and electric boats.  Entire tribes of people were brought over for this fair, from the Middle East and Africa.  Union standards were changed forever, and so were the many laborers who toiled (and sometimes died) for two years to make this grandiose vision a reality.  You'll be up in the swank offices of the elite in the world's first skyscrapers, and down at the gates of Hell in the infamous meatpacking stockyards.  The Chicago World's Fair, also known as The World's Columbian Expedition occurred just 13 years prior to the publishing of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."  Chicago was a paradox; an epicenter of wealth and developing culture fueled by an abattoir.  And the "White City" created by the fair was so beautiful that some fainted upon seeing it.  This spectacle brought work and excitement to the city, and also many young women looking for employment and lodging.  With all the city embroiled in the affairs of The Fair, the killer found the crowds and bustle the perfect distracting environment for his activities.  Reading this book was not only a very entertaining history lesson, but also just a good read!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

This is a somewhat sweet, old fashioned story.  We start out in 1950 with Paul Milliron, a school superintendent charged with the duty of closing down the old one-room schoolhouses out in the countryside of Eastern Montana.  As Paul worries over this onerous task, he flashes back in time to when he was a 13-year-old boy, and just such a schoolhouse meant the world to him.  His mother had died not too long ago, and his father Oliver was now raising Paul and his two brothers on their homestead.  Oliver, overwhelmed with raising his three sons alone and running a dryland ranch,  spies an advertisement in the newspaper.  A housekeeper looking for work has written a witty ad that starts with "Can't cook, won't bite."  They of course hire the writer of this ad, Rose.  Rose is full of surprises, beginning right from the moment she steps off the train, resplendent in a satin dress.  Rose has inexplicably brought along her brother Morrie, who eventually becomes the sole teacher of the one-room schoolhouse.  This book is really the adventure of childhood in the turn-of-the-century West, complete with horse races, revival meetings, Sunday suppers with the family and hunting for Indian arrowheads.  Rose and Morrie bring flash and excitement to the Milliron family, arriving in tandem with Halley's Comet.  Paul is mature for his age and perhaps this is why he's asked to keep secrets that trouble his dreams at night.  He literally learns a new language, helps his Dad navigate being a widow, mentors his younger brothers and comes of age in doing so.  The only parts I thought were overdone were Paul's nightmares; a little would have gone a long way on that front.  But if you want to saddle up and ride back to 1909 Montana, to a simpler place and time, this might be the book for you.   If you end up liking this book or this genre, I also recommend Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck.  Also, the PBS docu/reality series Frontier House (available on netflix).  And, The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure's memoir of trying to understand her childhood obsession with The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Finally, for a starker look at life on a Montana dryland ranch (this one is set in the 1940's), Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I could tell you that this book is an historical account of cell culture, but that's too confining, and too boring for some.  It's the story of how a woman unknowingly helped catapult science forward, and save millions and millions of lives.   It's about family and irony and ethics, and it's set in the most modern laboratories in the world of today, and the tobacco fields of Virginia in the Jim Crow era.   Henrietta Lacks is our heroine; a beautiful young Black woman with five children, and a fatally philandering husband.  The promise of work brings Henrietta and her family to the bustling Baltimore of the 1940's, and within the vicinity of Johns Hopkins Medical Center.  Due to Jim Crow era laws, Johns Hopkins was one of the few places African Americans could get medical care, and there our story begins in earnest.  One of the biggest ironies here is that Henrietta's children and grandchildren could not afford medical care or medical insurance.  The author, Rebecca Skloot, spent about 10 years writing this book, and got very involved with Henrietta's surviving family, especially the daughter, Deborah.  One of the other characters in the book that is not so often mentioned in the written reviews is the remarkable and brilliant scientist who discovered the perpetual growth of HeLa cells, George Gey.  He had a true love of science and could have become very rich for his efforts, but all his energy went to proceed ever on with his work, spending his and his wife's own modest incomes to build their laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, and at the end of his life, submitting his own body to torturous experimental cancer treatments.  In the interest of science, he gave away HeLa cells to other scientists and laboratories all over the world, and they were often carried in the breast pockets of airline pilots from one country to another.  The ethics of this book are incredibly complicated and many laws have since been established to protect patients.  These laws grew out of fascinating cases of modern-day patient exploitation that are also encapsulated in this book.  I couldn't believe what I was reading sometimes!  So, you've got everything;  science and family and race and ethics and history and greed and poverty and despair and politics, and love and betrayal of the deepest order.  The author, Rebecca Skloot, has a science background that no doubt helped her write this wildly popular book.  She's a contributing editor for Popular Science Magazine but also writes on other subjects, including food.  This book has been translated into 25 languages and is being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey.  There are good photos on the amazon page, as well as a great little author video, and I also enjoyed quite a few good podcast interviews on itunes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of those books where the author has somehow struck a nerve with a lot of people, and I've been meaning to review this book for over a month.  A decade before this book came out, the author (who was a screenwriter at the time) saw a film set in Mongolia called "State of Dogs."  This film showed the Mongolian belief that a dog will return in its next reincarnation as a man.    Enzo is our dog, a mixed-breed with some wiry hair that possibly indicates a bit of terrier.  Enzo is also our narrator, so we see everything through his innocent eyes.  Enzo loves to watch TV, including the National Geographic channel.  Enzo wishes he had opposable thumbs, and so, so wishes he could talk.  He wants to be human even though it would mean adopting the inferior human body, and he is consumed with love for his people, especially Denny, his racecar-driving owner, and Denny's little girl Zoe.  There's a lot of racecar driving trivia in this book.  While i don't like car racing, I still loved this book, and this sentiment was repeated many times by other readers in my book club.  There are tragedies compiled on top of each other in this story, and this bothered some members of our book club.  But the Buddhist principals are all here, and they are part of the author's belief system;  the suffering in life, and the stripping away of material things, for example.  Denny must practice patience, have faith, forbear the wrongs of others, be tolerant and most importantly, accept his own role in and responsibility for his circumstances, all part of the basic Buddhist tenet.   Although the Buddhist principals are not explained outright, we travel through many of them in this book.  Enzo himself goes through a transformation and finds ways to help his circumstances.  He also has his own personal demons, including some of his own making (as we all do).  Yes, he is on watch for crows and a certain stuffed zebra.  It made me think of other reincarnation-related novels and short stories, such as "Breakfast with Buddha" and "You Are not Here" although this book is unique until itself, and possibly the best of them.  Several people in book club said they looked differently at their dogs after reading this book.  There are lots of good author interviews on itunes, by the way.  p.s.  The author was a race car driver years ago, who also wrecked while racing in the rain.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Yarn: Remembering the Way Home by Kyoko Mori

I'll say right up front that you might not enjoy this book as much as I did, if you are not a knitter.  My Dad gave me his old kindle, because he upgraded to an ipad, and this was the first book I ever bought and loaded onto it.  And it just stayed on there, unread for many months while I went vegan in the meantime.  You see, this book does involve knitting using animal hair.  That being said, i did enjoy this book.  The author wrote it several years ago and she was vegetarian (I was still eating meat at the time), and she was concerned enough about animal welfare to buy two rabbits to spin from.  Yes, the bunnies sit on your lap and you spin from the fur that they're shedding.  It's all very fairy tale.  And so, I was able to read this book and really get into the story, despite the contradictions that exist.  I'm sure the author had not made the dairy connection yet, and that she is a humane person.  She obviously loves her rabbits, adores her cat, and wants to find a source for non-factory-farm sheep wool.  While I'm more of an abolitionist regarding animal welfare, I already owned the book, and I am a knitter, and I was sitting at an airport and getting ready to fly (two of my least-favorite activities).  So, I began reading, and and I fell down the rabbit hole.  If you are a knitter, you'll like reading about the different patterns, and how she comes to knit them.  I learned how to highlight things on the Kindle device so I can go back and look up those patterns.  Maybe I can knit one of them on some organic cotton yarn someday.  As for the story, it's a memoir.  Kyoko Mori has some traumas in her childhood in Japan, and years later she goes to college in America.  She is seriously dating an American man and ends up staying here, living in Wisconsin.  I have vacationed in Wisconsin and so I enjoyed this part of the book also.  Not since reading "The Fourth Hand" by John Irving have I been able to revisit Wisconsin in this way.  Kyoko takes up her new life, but several things keep her from real joy.  Her childhood history is still haunting her, and she's very reserved, both in her relationships and her social life.  She is lonely, but knitting begins to help her as she navigates her new world, as it has helped women cope for hundreds and hundreds of years.  She takes a sweater workshop, she meets some new friends.  She spices her book with knitting trivia, such as the Knitting Madonna paintings of the middle ages, and St. Sebastian the patron saint of knitters.  She mentions patterns and pattern books and vegetarian recipes.  She creates a pattern for a scarf in the shape of a fox with silver bugle beads sewed on the feet that click like claws.  She knits her man socks made of rabbit fur.  She weaves in wonderful fairy tales, and she made me care about her and hope that all would work out well.  As her story moves back and forth from Japan to America, the mood is a bit dour, but as she hones her handwork skills, she begins to make friends, to connect and let go of the past and other fetters.  She even wisely lets go of something many people won't--money.  She takes a weaving workshop and weaves the colors of the world around her into her  scarf.  There is a slow, meditative quality to this book, and to knitting, so it was all simpatico for me.  I see on Amazon that her other two books are not as well reviewed, but don't let that stop you from reading this one.  p.s.  I want the pattern for that fox scarf!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

OK, I'm going to weigh in on this book. Let me start out by saying I was not fond of Franzen's first big book, The Corrections.  However, Freedom is a brilliantly written and constructed book.  Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed lots of other books more, but this is a great book too.  I listened to the free library audio version of it (Overdrive) and it made housework fly; it's very well read.  That being said, I don't understand the mediocre reviews on  Our main character is Patty Berglund, but there are two other very alive, prominent characters; Patty's husband Walter, and her son Joey.  This book is a family saga of the good old-fashioned variety from the '70s and '80s, but it's very up-to-date with lots of current topics.  It's very intimate because the characters are fleshed out so finely that their thoughts, motivations and their very psyches seem to be laid bare.  The detail is intense and it's no wonder, since it took Franzen nine years to write this book.  And it's so HUMAN, with all it's ridiculousness.  When I began listening, I immediately emailed my girlfriend Chris (who had already read this book and liked it) and spelled out one word . . . . Schadenfreude!  We start out with Patty as a young mother and then through some slight of hand, we're whisked back to Patty's high school years and college days and then before you know it, Joey's grown up and in trouble, and Walter's trying to save the world and it's all so seamless that I wasn't really conscious of the transitions.  My other girlfriend Judy said she just wanted to punch Patty in the face, but then I remembered that Patty had a couple of traumas when she was young (one being the constant belittling by her father and siblings, and some neglect by her mother), and that she also had a clinical depression, so I forgave Patty.  And some of Joey's stupid stunts are just universal youthful follies familiar to us all in one form or another.  And then Walter kind of stole my heart because he just CARES so much about the important things in life, despite all his bumbling.  So then I listened to a few podcasts on itunes and it turns out that the author is quite the conservationist himself, and is passionate about saving wild songbirds in particular, as you can hear on this New Yorker Out Loud podcast.  It's almost like Walter IS Jonathan Franzen, in a way.  Except for one big difference--Walter is almost ego-less, and Franzen is, well . . . not.  And that could account for some of the mediocre reviews, and it definitely accounted in part for the whole Oprah fiasco ten years ago.  I just think the reviews for Freedom should be a little better because this is a smart, smart book.  Oh, and along the way, you'll find yourself immersed in topics of the day (things like energy and war), and family drama, etc.  Anyway, I liked it, and I think it's a wonderful encapsulation of modern-day America.  I imagine some young person reading this book 20 years from now and really being able to get a sense of the previous 3 or 4 decades.  In the meantime, you can hear several free podcasts like this one, or this one, if you want to delve deeper into the motivations behind this book.  Or you can just open the book and go along for the ride.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Little Princes is a surprisingly entertaining memoir, and it's also heartwarming, of course.  In some ways, I liked it better than "Three Cups of Tea."  I know this was written better, and whereas this author is self-deprecating and funny, Greg Mortenson was not portrayed as such by his ghost writer in 3COT.  I listened to the free audio download of Little Princes through my library and I feel it really enhanced the experience of this book.  It was read aloud by the author and so he was able to mimic the voices of the sweet children as he remembered them and parts of it were really funny, despite the dark circumstances of poverty and child trafficking.  I don't want to take away from Three Cups of Tea, because I believe that Greg Mortenson is doing amazing work, possibly even bigger work in that he truly believes the world will not change until girls have equal education and opportunities.  However, I just want to say that Little Princes was more enjoyable in some ways.  Set in Nepal, Conor Grennan brings it to life, and especially makes the images of the darling children come alive off the page.  If you have a choice of whether to read or listen to it, and you enjoy audio books, i would recommend listening to this one, but either way, it's a good read.  Conor Grennan really wants to trek and travel, but he does end up doing a brief stint as a volunteer in Nepal.  Part of his motivation was that he noticed girls would "sort of swoon" when he told them he was thinking of volunteering at an orphanage.  His youthful motivations turned into a sometimes-harrowing quest, however, to literally save helpless children, and along the way, he sort of saved himself and found love in the offing.  I wish we could all get along as well as the Christians, Hindus and Buddhists do in this adventurous memoir.  If you ever wanted to trek across a foreign land, or join the Peace Corps, you might really enjoy this book.  Two of my favorite previous memoirs include "Nine Hills to Nambonkaha" and "The Bookseller of Kabul" and now I can add this one to my list.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Crazy Sexy Diet by Kris Carr

I can't quite remember how I heard about the book "Crazy Sexy Diet," but I'm glad I did.  I've been a fan of Kris Carr since I saw her on Oprah a few years ago, talking about her TLC  documentary "Crazy Sexy Cancer."  I did watch the film a little while later and really enjoyed it.  I loved the way she did not just accept her cancer diagnosis, but got up and tried to figure it out and save her own life.  My take on this new book is that it's for anyone who wants to be healthier and to live in a way that helps prevent cancer.  One of the main principles in the book is to eat in such a way that your system PH is more alkaline, so your body is less acidic and inflamed.  And of course, the other health benefits are myriad and ideal.   One would think that fruit is acidic, and it is, until you eat it.  I have read a bunch of books on health over the last 20 years and I still learned a lot from this book.  Do you know what the best anatomical position is for your body when you eliminate, the truth about amalgam fillings, that there's a best way to juice?  How to do a one-day juice fast, and what to expect (a lot!).  There are many suggestions for exercise, chemicals to avoid, what type of salt to avoid, which vitamins are best absorbed, product recommendations and recipes in the back of the book.  There's a questionnaire, and a 21-day cleanse guide also.  Health gurus such as Dr. Mehmet Oz, T. Colin Campbell, Dean Ornish and Neal Barnard chime in as well.  This is a book I'll go back to again and again, as I learn to live just a little bit healthier every day.  p.s.   There are about ten pages of recipes on her web site, but I haven't tried any yet.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

I read about this book when it came out last Autumn, but I didn't rush to read it because I thought it would be way too depressing.  I thought of that woman in Austria held prisoner in a basement, and I shuddered. But then this book came up on free library download, so I went for it.  And I'm so glad I did, because it's one of the best books I've read in a while.  It grabbed me by the heart and pulled me into the tiny world where Jack and his Ma live, a place called "Room."  And everything in Room has a name, and often a gender.  Rug is like a person, and Lamp is cheery and bright and all these inanimate objects are Jack's "friends."   Because Ma is a brilliant survivor, a warrior for her son, Jack doesn't know that his world is just a tiny piece of the universe, even though they have a TV.  I wrote more about this world, but then I deleted it because how this ingenious novel unfolds is part of its magic.  How Ma so cleverly helps Jack to perceive the world is what keeps him safe.  This novel is DIFFERENT and SMART and a page turner.  I loved the audio voices of Jack and Ma, but I urge you to read the hard copy if that's what you prefer.  My final word on this book is WOW!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

If you love art and art museums (as I do), you might really enjoy this book (as I did).  I liked both of Steve Martin's other novels; "The Pleasure of My Company"  and  "Shopgirl" (which was made into a movie starring the author and Claire Danes).  Whereas the other two books are set in California, "An Object of Beauty" plays out in the epicenter of the elite, volatile, and (often) bizarre art world of New York City.  The main character is Lacey Yeager, a beautiful young woman who will stop at nothing to make money.  She seems to care really only for herself and does many unscrupulous things in order to achieve more money, and more art.  Luckily, she has some redeeming qualities, such as a wicked sense of humor, and oh yes, she actually does love the art.  Her best friend is the narrator, Daniel, a young art journalist.  But the thread that runs faithfully through this entire very-entertaining novel is the constant reference to famous paintings, with little side trips to Russia and D.C., to broaden the landscape and bring in evermore art talk.  Even the conversation is saturated with art, such as the telling of the famous theft of 13 priceless works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as shown in the documentary film entitled "Stolen."  This book will make you want to go to (or go back to) the National Gallery, and the Frick, and MOMA.  It will send you running to your computer to google images of Warhol flower paintings, and Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley.  I wanted to know what happened in the end, and I hoped that Daniel would find love.  I remembered the days of my youth, when I was antiquing and would come across Maxwell Parish prints too expensive for my pocket.  I too have yearned to own great art, and so I identified with Lacey at least in this way, and that was enough.