Archive | January, 2011

Anna Karenina Read-a-long

28 Jan

Were any of you required to read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy in high school?  I might have been, but I didn’t read it.  Yes, mom, I said it.  Anyways, if you know anything about the classics, this one’s known to be a doozy.  It’s over 800 pages, translated from Russian, written by the same guy who wrote War and Peace and needless to say, few can say they’ve read it when required to, let alone for fun.  Well I’m going to do it for fun, but it shouldn’t be as difficult as it sounds.  Here’s why…

I have this group of readers I chat with online and many of them participate in RALs (Read-A-Longs) to help them get through these harder books.  Basically, the book is divided up into small sections and a section is assigned per week.  Each week, the section that was to be read is discussed.   RALs work wonders for these tough books for several reasons:  1.  Support of the group –   it helps that you’ve all taken the plunge together.  2.  Small chunks make it more manageable.  3.  The discussions after each section help to ensure you understand what you’ve read before continuing.  I’ve done one RAL for the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and it was so much easier to enjoy the book!

Here’s the description of Anna Karenina  by Leo Tolstoy (from b&n.com):

Vladimir Nabokov called Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “one of the greatest love stories in world literature.” Matthew Arnold claimed it was not so much a work of art as “a piece of life.” Set in imperial Russia, Anna Karenina is a rich and complex meditation on passionate love and disastrous infidelity.

Married to a powerful government minister, Anna Karenina is a beautiful woman who falls deeply in love with a wealthy army officer, the elegant Count Vronsky. Desperate to find truth and meaning in her life, she rashly defies the conventions of Russian society and leaves her husband and son to live with her lover. Condemned and ostracized by her peers and prone to fits of jealousy that alienate Vronsky, Anna finds herself unable to escape an increasingly hopeless situation.

Set against this tragic affair is the story of Konstantin Levin, a melancholy landowner whom Tolstoy based largely on himself. While Anna looks for happiness through love, Levin embarks on his own search for spiritual fulfillment through marriage, family, and hard work. Surrounding these two central plot threads are dozens of characters whom Tolstoy seamlessly weaves together, creating a breathtaking tapestry of nineteenth-century Russian society.

Here’s the reading schedule I’ll be following:

Wk 1 – Part 1, Ch 1-16 – February 14
Wk 2 – Part 1, Ch 17-34 – February 21
Wk 3 – Part 2, Ch 1-17 – February 28
Wk 4 – Part 2, Ch 18-35 – March 7
Wk 5 – Part 3, Ch 1-16 – March 14
Wk 6 – Part 3, Ch 17-32 – March 21
Wk 7 – Part 4, Ch 1-12 – March 28
Wk 8 – Part 4, Ch 13-23 – April 4
Wk 9 – Part 5, Ch 1-16 – April 11
Wk 10 – Part 5, Ch 17-33 – April 18
Wk 11 – Part 6, Ch 1-16 – April 25
Wk 12 – Part 6, Ch 17-32 – May 2
Wk 13 – Part 7, Ch 1-12 – May 9
Wk 14 – Part 7, Ch 13-31 – May 16
Wk 15 – Part 8, Ch 1-19 – May 23

Anyone want to join us?  We’d love to have you!

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Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

25 Jan

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein: Book CoverRating:  3 out of 5 stars

About the Book

Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver.

Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn’t simply about going fast. Using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate all of life’s ordeals.

On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through: the sacrifices Denny has made to succeed professionally; the unexpected loss of Eve, Denny’s wife; the three-year battle over their daughter, Zoë, whose maternal grandparents pulled every string to gain custody. In the end, despite what he sees as his own limitations, Enzo comes through heroically to preserve the Swift family, holding in his heart the dream that Denny will become a racing champion with Zoë at his side. Having learned what it takes to be a compassionate and successful person, the wise canine can barely wait until his next lifetime, when he is sure he will return as a man.

A heart-wrenching but deeply funny and ultimately uplifting story of family, love, loyalty, and hope, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a beautifully crafted and captivating look at the wonders and absurdities of human life . . . as only a dog could tell it.

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My Review

This book has been on the Paperback Trade Fiction Bestseller List for a whopping 57 weeks.   Obviously, it was going on my to be read list.  When I finally got it from the library, however, I had to force myself to pick it up.  This is mainly because it sounded incredibly dumb to me.  I mean, really, the perspective of a dog?  Perhaps you dog owners would find this a little more intriguing than I, since I am not a dog owner and never have been and may not get some aspect of the relationship with man’s best friend.

The story itself, although sad, was pretty generic.  The tie-in with the car racing and the words of wisdom of the sport and its stars was interesting at first, but then I started skimming – it got sort of cheesy.  The angle of being told from the dog’s point of view was extremely original though and with it, the book is actually pretty enjoyable.  This is solidified by the fact that it is an incredibly fast and easy read (I read it in a little over 5 hours).  Any longer would have been too much of an investment for what I got out of it.  I do believe it I were a dog owner, I would have rated it a bit higher.

Bottom Line: I wouldn’t consider this book as a best of…well, anything,  but I don’t think reading it is time wasted either.  It is interesting and touching, especially if you are a dog owner.

Book Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

25 Jan

Faithful PlaceRating:  4 out of 5 stars

About the Book

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was nineteen, growing up poor in Dublin’s inner city, and living crammed into a small flat with his family on Faithful Place. But he had his sights set on a lot more. He and Rosie Daly were all ready to run away to London together, get married, get good jobs, break away from factory work and poverty and their old lives.

But on the winter night when they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn’t show. Frank took it for granted that she’d dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again.

Neither did Rosie. Everyone thought she had gone to England on her own and was over there living a shiny new life. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie’s suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank is going home whether he likes it or not.

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he’s a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly and he’s willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.

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My Review

Faithful Place is actually the third book in a ‘series’ by Tana French.  The first book is called In The Woods and the second book is called The Likeness.  I write ‘series’ because while they are related, you don’t have to read them in order.  Minor characters in one book becomes the focus of the next book.  I read In the Woods sometime last year and liked it okay, but I have not read The Likeness.  After reading Faithful Place, however, you can bet that The Likeness is on my list!

I read this book during a record cold weekend here in my hometown.  It was the perfect choice.  This book describes what I (and many others) call a ‘cozy read’.  It’s pretty self-explanatory – it’s a book that makes you feel cozy, that is best read when being cozy!

I loved this book for a couple major reasons.  First and foremost, I thought the writing was brilliant – the characters are very intricately developed. The main character especially, was so multi-dimensional, ‘layered’, and very realistic.  Also, no words were wasted – each sentence carried meaning and weight, and furthered the development of the characters and story.  And there were many subtleties in the writing…here’s a passage that illustrates this well:

The bass player broke a string to prove he was serious, and while he was changing it Rosie and I went up to the bar for more wine.
“That stuff’s poxy,” Rosie told the barman, fanning herself with her top.
“I know, yeah.  I think they make it out of Benylin.  Leave it in the airing cupboard for a few weeks and away you go.”  The barman liked us.
“Poxier than usual, even.  You got a bad batch.  Have you nothing decent, have you not?”
“This does the job, doesn’t it?  Otherwise, ditch the boyfriend, wait till we close up and I’ll take you somewhere better.”
I said, “Will I give you a smack myself, or will I just leave it to your mot?” The barman’s girlfriend had a Mohawk and sleeve tattoos.  We got on with her, too.
“You do it.  She’s harder than you are.”  He winked at us and headed off to get my change.
Rosie said, “I’ve a bit of news.”
She sounded serious.  I forgot all about the barman and started frantically trying to add up dates in my head.  “Yeah?  What?”
“There’s someone retiring off the line at Guinness’s, next month.  My da says he’s been talking me up every change he gets and if I want the job, it’s mine.”

Did you catch all that?  Two parts stick out…the reference to the bass player breaking a string “to prove he was serious” and the main character “…frantically trying to add dates up in my head.”   I had to read this novel slowly to ensure I didn’t miss any of these – they really add to the overall story and the main character.  Because of the Irish dialect, this was a bit tedious, but I adore it so much it was a treat for me.

Secondly, the setting and time period has a special place in my heart and made it much more personal to read.  This story takes place in modern-day Dublin, Ireland which I have visited.  Reading this book made me remember that trip, which was nice.  Much of the book is Frank reflecting on his life growing up in the 1980s in an area called Faithful Place outside of Dublin.  My father-in-law grew up in Dublin and is close in age to Frank’s parents.   While I don’t think that my father-in-law is anything like Frank’s dad specifically, I can certainly see how they could be in the same generation.  Reading about the Mackey history gave me a glimpse into my own family’s history too.  And he talks just like that!  Additionally, my own grandparents came from Italy to America when they were in their teens.  And while their ‘old country’ is different,  I can see similarities between Frank’s dad and my Italian grandfather as well.  There is this very to the point, black and white, like gruff exterior that I saw in James Mackey that reminded me of my grandfather.  That mentality manifests itself into things like criticizing as a way of controlling situations, not being overly indulgent with the compliments, and not liking doctors (?).  Don’t get me wrong, I love my grandfather, but I didn’t always know what he was thinking or why he thought a certain way.  So some of the struggles I saw Frank have relating to his parents seemed familiar to me and reading about it was a source of comfort.

The only negative I see with this book is the plot – plausible but predictable.  I figured it out on page 169, which made reading the rest of the 400 page book obviously less suspenseful.  If the plot had been a bit fresher I would have rated this higher for sure.

Bottom Line: This is a great cozy read!  It is intelligently written with many subtleties, and realistic characters in an interesting setting.  While the plot is somewhat predictable, how it unfolds and your investment in the characters will keep you interested.

PS – If you are wondering when I will finish The Passage (which has been listed as the book I’m currently reading, even though I keep publishing reviews about other books), I actually AM reading it.  It’s slow going, but I’m reading about 20 pages a day.  I’m on page 253 and things are starting to pick up.  It’s 900 some pages!

Book Review: You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

17 Jan

You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers: Book CoverRating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

An unusual and uncommonly moving family memoir, with a twist that give new meaning to hindsight, insight, and forgiveness.

Heather Sellers is face-blind-that is, she has prosopagnosia, a rare neurological condition that prevents her from reliably recognizing people’s faces. Growing up, unaware of the reason for her perpetual confusion and anxiety, she took what cues she could from speech, hairstyle, and gait. But she sometimes kissed a stranger, thinking he was her boyfriend, or failed to recognize even her own father and mother. She feared she must be crazy.

Yet it was her mother who nailed windows shut and covered them with blankets, made her daughter walk on her knees to spare the carpeting, had her practice secret words to use in the likely event of abduction. Her father went on weeklong “fishing trips” (aka benders), took in drifters, wore panty hose and bras under his regular clothes. Heather clung to a barely coherent story of a “normal” childhood in order to survive the one she had.

That fairy tale unraveled two decades later when Heather took the man she would marry home to meet her parents and began to discover the truth about her family and about herself. As she came at last to trust her own perceptions, she learned the gift of perspective: that embracing the past as it is allows us to let it go. And she illuminated a deeper truth-that even in the most flawed circumstances, love may be seen and felt.

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My Review

This was one of my book clubs February book pick. 

Unfortunately, meh.  The subject matter was interesting; I did not realize such a thing as face-blindess existed.  I think Heather’s approach to it was realistic – I might not have thought anything was wrong either.  I also think her being obsessed with the fact that her condition could be linked to her mother’s condition was something I would have been obsessed with too.  I did NOT like the switching back and forth of timelines in the chapters – for some reason it confused me. 

I didn’t know that this was an autobiography until the end.  I’m not sure this made any difference, but there were some things I didn’t quite understand because I felt like I was only getting a quarter of the whole story.  Once I knew it was autobiographical, it made more sense – there probably were gaps in the story- intentionally done by the author to keep certain things private.  Unfortunately, it made it hard for me to understand the characters.   I didn’t really feel like I ‘got’ how things were for her.

I didn’t get the husband David either was he an alcoholic?  Did he fall off the wagon?  His over niceness was creepy to me.  He was like a robot! 

Bottom Line:  This story is an autobiography that deals with 2 conditions that are sort of interesting:  schizophrenia and face-blindess.  The story itself, however, isn’t very strong.  It has some good parts, but some gaps, which makes it a bit difficult to connect with the main character.   It’s not paced very well either.

Book Review: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

17 Jan

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: Book CoverRating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

An epic novel that spans continents and generations, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, compassion and redemption, exile and home that unfolds across five decades in India, Ethiopia, and America.

Narrated by Marion Stone, the story begins even before Marion and his twin brother, Shiva, are born in Addis Ababa’s Missing Hospital (a mispronunciation of “Mission Hospital”), with the illicit, years-in-the-making romance between their parents, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a beautiful Indian nun, and Thomas Stone, a brash, brilliant British surgeon. Mary and Thomas meet on a boat out of Madras in 1947; she follows him to Ethiopia and to Missing, where they work side by side for seven years as nurse and doctor. After Mary dies while giving birth to the twins — a harrowing, traumatic scene on the operating table — Thomas vanishes, and Marion and Shiva grow up with only a dim sense of who he was, and with a deep hostility toward him for what they see as an act of betrayal and cowardice.

 The twins are raised by Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors who also work at Missing, and who shower Marion and Shiva with love and nurture their interest in medicine — part of the deep, almost preternatural connection the brothers share. They are so close that Marion, as a boy, thinks of them as a single entity: ShivaMarion.

 Marion and Shiva come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution, and their lives become intertwined with the nation’s politics. Addis Ababa is a colorful, cosmopolitan city: the Italians have left behind cappuccino machines, Campari umbrellas, and a vibrant expat community. But they’ve also left a nation crippled by poverty, hunger, and authoritarian rule: Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s is both bolstered and trapped by its notorious emperor, Haile Selassie, and rocked by violence and civil war.

 Yet it is not politics but love that tears the brothers apart: Shiva sleeps with Genet — the daughter of their housekeeper and the girl Marion has always loved. This second betrayal, now by the two people this sensitive young man loves most, sends Marion into a deep depression. And when Genet joins a radical political group fighting for the independence of Eritrea, Marion’s connection to her forces him into exile: he sneaks out of Ethiopia and makes his way to America.

 Marion interns at a hospital in the Bronx, an underfunded, chaotic place where the patients are nearly as poor and desperate as those he had seen at Missing. It is here that Marion comes to maturity as a doctor and as a man. It is here, too, that he meets his father and takes his first steps toward reconciling with him. But when the past catches up to Marion — nearly destroying him — he must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him. The surprising, stunning denouement both arises from and reenacts the major themes of Cutting for Stone: love and betrayal, forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and the inextricable union of life and death.

My Review

This book has been on the New York Times Paperback Fiction Bestseller list for 50 weeks. If you’ve read my take on this list and why I use it for book recommendations, you’ll understand why I was so looking forward to diving into this book.

I really liked the characters of this book – I saw them as flawed and deep and ‘true’ in many ways.  I liked the themes of compassion – for those we know, for those we don’t,  as doctors, parents, children.  I really enjoyed the different place and time – Africa in the 1970s – it is such a departure from what I know and understand.

The first word that comes to mind to describe this novel is ‘meandering’.  At first I was using that term negatively, because I really struggled with how slow it was in the beginning.  It wasn’t getting to anything!  I actually stopped reading it and polled my online reader friends – my exact question was, ” Cutting for Stone – Is this book going somewhere?  I’m on page 179 – should I stick with it?”  The response was “Yes, it’s worth it” and so I kept going.  And the book continued to meander, but what I realized by the end of this novel is that I knew the main character in a way I couldn’t have without truly walking with him through his life’s journey.  And that’s the point of the pacing I think – life is about roaming through the years and circumstances and experiences.  The saying “Life is about the journey, not the destination” completely applies to this novel.  It’s long (594 pages) and truly an epic, covering the main character’s 50 year life to date as well as portions of the lives of his closest friends and relatives.  I fell in love with the characters making the story more and more meaningful as it unfolded.  By the end, I was completely emotionally attached! 

I also got a great geography lesson out of this novel.  If you know me, you will know this is an extremely valuable side-benefit!  I now know most of Africa way better than ever.  Much of the novel takes place in Ethiopia, but there are portions that happen in various other countries in that region:  Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen. There is a portion in the United States as well.  I looked up the cities and countries being referenced and doing so enhanced my overall reading experience.  Also,  this explanation of the policital climate of Ethiopia during the time period of much of this novel helped me understand the tone of the country at the time. 

One word of caution – this book does have detailed descriptions of medical procedures – it’s a bit graphic at times. Medicine is a primary theme of this novel, as is the title itself.   “I will not cut for stone,” says an early version of the Hippocratic oath, “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”  At the time this version was used, cutting a patient to get out a gallbladder stone was a very precarious operation and could only be performed by a skilled surgeon. 

Bottom Line:  When you’re ready to transport yourself and have the time and patience to depart, this novel will not disappoint on any front.  Don’t look for the explosions, or dramatic plot twists – make friends with the characters and share their life’s experiences – the setting and time period will seem fascinating and unknown, yet the human reaction will be familiar.

Insanity

13 Jan

Goodreads.com is a very popular site for book reviews and reading recommendations.  You sign up and get a profile and can share your reading experiences with others.  It’s also where I track my reading challenges each year and my master reading lists.

There are millions of people who write reviews on books, and you can look at average ratings – the recommendations I’ve gotten from Goodreads have been very close to what the site told me to expect.  What I also use a lot are the lists – people create a list but allow the site members to contribute to it.  Lists are usually things like: “Best Beach Reads”, “Best Books of 2010”, “Best Science-Fiction Books”, etc.   I’ve always thought that these were so great because so many people’s opinions are represented on them that they are probably pretty good to use.  Until today. 

I came across something HORRIFIC last night.  Simply put:  A list titled “Best Books Ever”, that had the first 4 books as (I can barely type the words)…THE BOOKS OF THE TWILIGHT SAGA.  Twilight, Breaking Dawn, Eclipse, New Moon all by Stephanie Meyers. 

I get that a bunch of people like these books.  I did not and I curse the day I heard about them, but I know many, MANY people do not share that sentiment.  And I appreciate that people have a difference of opinion.  But this wasn’t called “Best books in 2008” or “Best Young Adult Books this Decade” or even “Most Popular Books Today”…the title of the list was “Best Books EVER.”  EEEEVVVEEEERRR.

Somehow the Goodreads community allowed these books to float to the top of this list, higher than every single other book that has ever been written in the history of time!  These are the people I rely on to drive my book selections?!!  Am I nuts? 

Don’t answer that. 

I’m reading the comments under the list from other members and many of whom are as appalled as I am.  That helps a bit.  For a minute I thought the whole world had gone crazy!  Those books being at the top is insanity.

None of this is really the point.  Well, it was, but now I have another one.  The real point now- what would I vote for to be on the top of the list instead? I’m making an assumption that Best Book Ever = Best Book I Have Ever Read.  But is that same as My Favorite Book?   Can we even really make a list like this?  What would you put?

Book Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

8 Jan

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver: Book CoverRating:  4 out of 5 stars

Wow.  The concept for this book was very unique and I thought it was really well executed.  

Here’s the gist:  Samantha Kingston is a popular senior in high school.  She goes to a party on a cold, rainy Friday night and it turns out to be her last – she gets into a car accident on they way home.  Then she wakes up to  her alarm and it’s the same day all over again.  And again and again. 

This book is young adult – in some ways it was a teensy bit predictable for a reader like me (so old, so wise).  Samantha is 18 and in high school and she has what my mom calls the “insulation of youth”.   But at the same time, while I knew what to expect, reading about Samantha experiencing being given a second chance to relive her last day was still very emotional and interesting to me.  I see reviews for this book that say things like “This book changed my life” and “A whole new outlook” and I don’t think I’d go that far, but it did make me do a gut check on how I’m living my life, treating people and myself.   And I found myself surprised at how many things can be altered in one short day just by what seems to be an innocuous change in a timeline or circumstance.

I think what I admire most about this novel though is that the author is around my age, yet she captured the essence of the high school girl spirit to a tee.  The importance of silly things, the selfishness, the shallow relationships – these are all vaguely familiar to me, yet so far removed from my personality at this point that I would never be able to develop a character like she did.  I may have to pull this book out again when my daughter’s  a teenager to refresh my memory about what it’s like to be a teenage girl.  Which in the case of this book includes drinking, smoking and sex.  Greeeeaaattt.    

Read it.  It’s an easy read and you won’t be bored.  And you might smile a little more or look harder for opportunities to be a good human being which makes it worth it.