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Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

29 Jun

Rules of CivilityMy rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Gin and jazz – NYC in 1938…a vivid setting with slightly tedious characters and plot. 

This book is about a young, single woman, her best friend living in New York city in 1938 and their adventures after meeting a young, wealthy New York socialite on New Year’s Eve.  The backdrop is rich with all of the goodies you’d expect of Greenwich Village in the 1930’s – jazz clubs and martinis, flapper dresses and spats, and cigarettes and summer homes. 

Anyone who gets into that sort of thing won’t be disappointed.  Towles of makes these scenes come to life in the most compelling way. 

Speaking of characters, the best I can say is that didn’t dislike any of them.  That said,  I didn’t love them either.  Katey seemed realistic, but Tinker and Eve didn’t.  I also didn’t quite understand some aspects of the back-story, like why Eve was so terrible to her parents and why she acted so wacky all of the time.

Quotations from classic novels, especially Agatha Christie, are prevalent throughout, given that Katey (last name: Kontent.  Yes, for real) is a reader and aspires to a career in publishing.

Honestly, I don’t have strong feelings about this book either way, really.  I love the setting and that kept me going, regardless of plot.  My only real gripe is that what starts as quirky advice or words of wisdom from Katey turns into repetitive overly sagacious commentary that really wore on me after a while.

 I read on the author’s Facebook page that he has published a short story that follows Eve to Hollywood. Not winter in Manhattan?  Not interested.  I didn’t even like Eve that much!


Book Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

18 Apr

Peony in LoveMy Rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

This book was wayyyyy too much for me.  Most of it is told from the perspective of a dead girl in 17th Century China.  Very transcendental.  I hope I’m even using that word right.

I have read several Lisa See novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls, both of which I really enjoyed.  Unfortunately I did not feel the same about this book at all. 

It actually starts out okay.  It’s about a girl named Peony who lives in China in the 17th century, falls in love with a stranger and does not think she can handle having to marry someone else (pre-arranged) and let her one true love slip through her fingers. 

I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I will leave it at that, but I will tell you that it gets OUT of control with the afterlife nonsense. I will tell you that most of the book is told from the perspective of a dead person.  Another thing I found weird was that there is a famous Chinese opera entitled Peony in Love (which really exists) and there are parallels between the character of this opera and Peony in this book.  But it’s not the retelling of the opera.  I hope your head hasn’t exploded yet. 

I still adore Lisa See, especially because I do like Asian historical fiction and she’s great at it.  I would recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan any day.  But this one not so much.

Book Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

14 Dec

The Paris WifeMy Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

This book is about the life of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife.  If you know anything about Ernest Hemingway, you know that he was a famously troubled and eccentric writer in the 1920s.  So it’s obvious that his wife would have a great story to tell.   

But relationships are always more complex from the inside looking out.  Hadley had good breeding and education with lots of promise.  On one hand it was hard to believe that she ended up so in love and willing to bend to the wills of Ernest’s craziness.  But at the same time, knowing the mutual love and respect they had for each other and the happy times they shared, it becomes believable that she would try to hold on to their marriage and endure his ‘dark’ periods.

I thought Hadley’s character would annoy me, since I was banking on her being a helpless coward who didn’t have the strength or confidence to get herself out of a destructive relationship.  But she was much stronger in many ways and their relationship was so more complicated than one would ever know from the outside looking in.  I thought this was one of the most believable relationships I’ve ever read about.  Kudos to the author on that.  Add in the era (1920s) and the locale (Paris) and it makes for a very cozy and thoughtful read.

Book Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

12 Dec

The Red TentMy Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

This historical fiction is narrated by Dinah, daughter of Jacob .  As in the Jacob, brother of Esau, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham.   She tells of her life as a young girl growing up in Mesopotamia amongst her father’s small tribe of wives and children.  The red tent is, literally, the place where the women go each month to bleed and ‘celebrate’ their womanhood.  As a child she saw the red tent as a mysterious almost heavenly experience.  Upon entering womanhood herself she became indoctrinated in the ways of a biblical woman and soon after enters wifehood, at which point her life takes a very grave and violent detour.  The novel follows her throughout her life up to her death in Egypt as a famous midwife. 

This book is pretty fast paced (I had to write down the names of the family members which added a bit of time for me) and the writing is solid.  It’s a great way to learn about the actual history and logistics depicted in pieces in the bible.  

I loved how being a girl during these times meant a lot of hard work and a lot of hardships, yet these women respected themselves and their womanhood like they were royalty though they were quite often treated like slaves.  They had this “Behind every great man…” attitude. This book was pretty emotional for me, especially as a woman, wife and mother.

I typically don’t like chick lit, but this is chick lit in a different sense.  There is a LOT of discussion about menses, child-birth, etc.  If you are not fully comfortable with these topics in their most descriptive, I suggest you not read this book.  But if you are, then this is a great ‘girl power’ book!

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.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

21 Jul

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by a friend who spent time vacationing in Utah last year.  She likes to pick books relevant to her vacation destination to help enhance her travel experience which I think is a really cool idea.  This was also one of my book club’s monthly picks.

I chose to listen to this book rather than read it, which I’ve since realized was a terrible decision.  This book has 2 primary story lines that are unveiled in alternating chapters.  In between that are letters and diary entries of various origins and it is nearly impossible to keep all of that straight when listening to it.  I believe that regardless of the content delivery though, this book would still have been a struggle for me – a ton of description and detail.

One story line takes place in the near present day and is told from the perspective of an ex-Latter Day Saint named Jordan Scott.  He was excommunicated from one of those sect communes when he was a teenager.  His mom is still living there and becomes accused of murdering his dad.  We follow Jordan as he goes back to his old home to help his mom.  The other story line is about Brigham Young’s wife, Ann Eliza, and the scandalous book she wrote about her life as a plural wife in the late 1800s.  

I learned a lot about the history of the Latter Day Saints and how polygamy came to be a part of their doctrine in the early days.  More importantly, I learned that the present day LDS church has long ago split off from the crazy sect that believes in polygamy.  There are still remnants of the crazy sect around – these are the scary polygamy communes you hear about on the news.  I appreciate a book that can give me this sort of historical information while being mildly entertaining at the same time.

If this book were about a topic less taboo and freakish than polygamy, I don’t believe the other elements of the story would hold up.  The diaglogue is fragmented and unrealistic.  The present day plot is a mystery, but less focus is placed on solving it  than on the internal conflicts Jordan is experiencing.  The mystery is resolved in about 3 anti-climactic lines.   The character development was okay, better in the Ann story, but certainly not enough in either strain for me to feel anything for any of these characters.   I would be lying if I didn’t say I was slightly disappointed that there were no juicy descriptions of they ways of polygamy behind closed doors.  Polygamy is actually really boring.  I would be less irritated by that if there wasn’t an f*** word on every page and a pretty colorful description of gay sex – – being conservative was certainly not the goal of the author and these references looked out of place.

I liked this book for the educational aspect but not as entertainment.  I cannot recommend it as a ‘good book.’  I do recommend this book if you want to learn something new in a unique way and are prepared with the patience it takes to get through it.