I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.
I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.
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Friday, December 31, 2010
1. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. The first book I read and reviewed for Cats and a Book, it remains one of my favorites. The protagonist of the story is Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican-American boy who is a cook, plaster-maker, secretary, and most importantly, writer. He chronicles his life and the book is, in a sense, autobiographical. The reader follows him through interactions with historical figures such as Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, as well as with his mother, father, and secretary, Violet Brown. Kingsolver deals lightly with McCarthyism (Shepherd himself seemed apolitical) and homosexuality, so as to tell a story rather than to persuade. The reader is left to draw whatever conclusions he or she wishes and to decide the moral, if there is one, of the story. Read the full review here.
2. Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, spends the majority of the book convincing us how doomed we all are for our gratuitous and reckless use of Earth's natural resources and environment. He cites expert after expert and packs the book with facts like the alarming rate of CO2 growth in the atmosphere, what the analysis of the Greenland Ice Sheet tells us about our climate, and how all we need to do is to step outside our front doors. Daffodils in January? No snow on the mountain tops? Widespread flooding, unusual snowstorms, terrifying hurricanes? All signs of climate change. But the purpose of the book isn't to terrify or debate. It's to inspire America to greatness, to recognize what we need to do--no, must do--to survive in this new climate and thrive. Read more on Cats and a Book.
3. Noah’s Compass, by Anne Tyler. Tyler’s Liam Pennywell has moved down the academic career ladder with each job change, the latest being downsized out of his position as a teacher at a private elementary school. With this last change, he also downsized to a smaller living space. And this is where the book begins: Pennywell is attacked on his first evening there. The resulting loss of memory from a concussion obsesses him. This leads him to an unlikely relationship with a professional "rememberer" and greater interaction with his three daughters and an ex-wife, with their varying degrees of concern for Pennywell's health and happiness and demands for his attention. But Pennywell has plenty of memories which he shares throughout the book, though his inability to remember the attack is like a puzzle he can't solve. Read more about this charming story in the blog review.
4. Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. Sophie’s World novel centers around fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen who one day receives in her mailbox a letter with three words: Who are you? A second envelope addressed to Sophie asked, Where does the world come from? And finally, a postcard appeared addressed to Hilde Moller Knog, written to Hilde by Hidle's father, which raised the perplexing questions, Who was Hilde? And why was it addressed c/o Sophie Amundsen? Followed by these initial questions and Sophie's ponderings on what they meant, Sophie begins to receive philosophy lessons--short, easy-to-read explanations of philosophical theories. Sophie's thoughts about the material help the reader assimilate the ideas, too, so that Sophie and the reader are progressing together toward a deeper understanding of each philosophical theory. Read the review on Cats and a Book.
5. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. This fun book to read is an account of author Gretchen Rubin's personal quest for happiness. Rubin suffered from "midlife malaise"--not being unhappy, but not being particularly happy, either. It's not that Rubin didn't appreciate her life. In fact, she was grateful for what she had. But the nagging question remained, "Is this really it?" More disturbing was the recurring answer she provided, "Yep, this is it." Thus, the Happiness Project was born. Rubin studied happiness--what did it mean, how did others obtain it, how is it measured--until she settled on an "I'll know it when I see it" approach. Rubin decided to create twelve "resolutions"--one for each month, except for December, in which she'd attempt to do all twelve. Rubin leaves readers with lots of ideas on how to create and sustain happiness in their own lives. Read more here.
6. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Help is a complex story of African American maids and the whites who hired them. Rooted in the deep South during the Civil Rights movement, The Help is written from the perspectives of two of the maids, Aibeleen and Minnie,and Skeeter Phelan, a white woman raised by a maid. The plot centers around the white woman's fledgling journalism career and her attempt to capture the stories of Aibeleen, Minnie, and others. Having been raised by a maid she loved and who was unceremoniously fired by her parents, Skeeter felt empathy for the maids and their working conditions. Although some maids had close relationships, particularly with "their babies" (the white children they raised) many were subject to whims, superstitions, and mistreatment at the hands of their employers. Class within white society is also explored in the book, as Skeeter's project is unveiled and she is ostracized by old friends. Read the full review here.
7. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely book. Charming and funny, Helen Simonson’s first novel is a gem. Major Pettigrew is of one of the older families in Sussex, England, the sort of quintessential British military man characterized by loyalty to one’s country, character, and politeness above all else. He is stung by his only son’s banking career and attachment to an equally ambitious and far too casual American woman (she called him “Ernest” when first meeting him, instead of his preferred “Major”). He is a widower, and the sudden loss of his only brother, Bertie, brings to mind an array of emotions, some of which he hadn’t expected, particularly with regard to the bequest of a hunting gun which matched his own. Complicating his life was Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper who aroused in him an unexpected but not unwelcome passion. A charming book, it is one of my favorites this year, and was selected by One Book of Rutherford County for 2011.
8. The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall. The Lonely Polygamist is a rich, enjoyable novel written by Brady Udall. Udall doesn't attempt to address the real-life tragedies of polygamy, choosing instead to take a humorous and bittersweet approach to the fictional story of Golden Richards, husband to four women and father of twenty-eight children. Golden is a surprisingly sympathetic character. He was raised alone by a depressed and emotionally absent mother. After reuniting with his father, Golden finds religion in the form of a fundamentalist Mormon sect and marries his first wife, Beverly. The demands of his growing family result in a schedule, created by his wives, which determines when and where he spends his time. There's the Old House with one wife and her children, The Big House, with two wives and their children, and a condo across town with his newest wife and her daughter. In addition to the demands of attention from the wives, there are the demands of running three households and meeting obligations for 28 children: band concerts, school meetings, doctors' appointments, and so on. His construction business supports them all, and a recent job building a brothel keeps him away from home much of the week while creating an ironic moral dilemma. Recommended to me by WPLN's GM Rob Gordon, I also reviewed The Lonely Polygamist for the Examiner.com.
9. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart. This delight of a novel features Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe, who live at the Tower of London. Jones is a Beefeater, or more properly "Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary." But what he typically did was give visitors tours of the Tower, regaling them with tales of torture and escape, and dutifully pointing out the restrooms. It wasn't a terribly glamorous position, notwithstanding the public's perception and the traditional uniforms, and the living quarters were damp, round (it was a tower, of course)--which made picture hanging and furniture placement dicey--and haunted. When the Queen decides to reestablish the Royal Menagerie at the Tower, the role of its overseer falls to Jones, mainly due to his ownership of a geriatric tortoise named Mrs. Cook. A quirky and charming love story, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise ranked among my top five favorites this year, and reviewed here on Cats and a Book.
10. Run, by Ann Patchett. Ann Patchett's Run is a delight. An interesting story with unpredictable elements and rich and likable characters, Run focuses on the nontraditional story of a former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle. A widower, he raised to adulthood a biological son and two adopted sons, but finds that his family may not yet be complete. Doyle was a former Boston politician who still had a passion for public service. He and his wife, who were both white, adopted two African American boys, Tip and Teddy, as very young children, in what some criticized as a political move. Just three blocks away from their affluent neighborhood, Kenya Moser lived with her mother, Tennessee, in a apartment project. At the book's opening, a disagreement between father and son following a political speech leads to an accident in which the former mayor and his sons' lives collide with 11-year-old Kenya and her mother Tennessee, leaving the families merged in a unexpected way. The full review of Run can be found here on Cats and a Book.
In my next entry, I’ll briefly describe ten additional books which were also noteworthy and considered for my Top Ten list.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Lost River is a charming little community in which everyone knows everyone else. The inn had long since burned, so he finds a room to rent instead. Although a small town has its advantages and disadvantages, groups like "the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots Secret Society" spiced things up a bit with their secret attempts at doing good, such as decorating the community Christmas tree. The club's motto was "To Toot One's Own Horn is Unattractive."
Campbell becomes a cause celebre in the small community of Lost River, with every available female in the area vying for his interest. He makes friends with the best fisherman in town, learns about an old feud between this side of the river and the other side, struggles with alcoholism, befriends an abandoned girl who needs medical treatment, meets the local storekeeper who keeps a pet redbird, and miraculously, Oswald begins to return to health.
A popcorn read, and caramel popcorn at that, A Redbird Christmas is predictable but sweet. Flagg is an engaging storyteller, spicing her narrative with humor, realistic characters, believable dialogue, and just the right amount of eccentricity.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Walter is a highly moral person, determined to press his view of the world on others. Eventually, he becomes entangled in a questionable business deal which he convinces himself is a means to achieve a moral end. Finally, he "was compromised and losing on every front." Patty is unhappy and has her own moral dilemma with her longstanding attraction to Richard, who is also Walter's best friend. The theme of "freedom" pervades the story--freedom from family, freedom from situations, freedom from obligations. This freedom has consequences which are not always pleasant or expected. "Mistakes Were Made," as Patty entitles her own memoir, included in the text of the novel.
Freedom was published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Little Bee comes into Andrew and Sarah’s life during their ill-conceived outing off the protected grounds of their Nigerian beach resort. Little Bee and her sister were fleeing soldiers when they sought help from the English couple. In order to free one of the girls, Sarah agrees to amputate a finger, while her husband Andrew refuses. Little Bee’s life is spared, but her sister suffers a horrible death. Little Bee manages to smuggle herself aboard an ocean-going vessel, and arrives as a refugee in England.
What follows is Little Bee’s nearly two years of interment in an immigration detention center. During that time, she practiced speaking “the Queen’s English,” which she described as “like scrubbing off the bright red varnish from your toenails, the morning after a dance. It takes a long time and there is always a little bit left at the end, a stain of red along the growing edges to remind you of the good time you had.” But her command of English made it easier for her to communicate after her “accidental” release, and was able to find Sarah and Andrew, only to have Andrew commit suicide shortly thereafter. Little Bee is surprisingly wise for her age, telling Sarah that, “You are making a mistake if you think it (her story) is unusual. I am telling you, trouble is like the ocean. It covers two-thirds of the world.” Little Bee strongly believed that suicide was preferable to the kind of brutal and torturous death her sister suffered. In order to feel safe, Little Bee spent inordinate amounts of time seeking tools of her own demise. How could she kill herself here, in this location, if “the men” should come? Knowing that Little Bee is not safe in England as an illegal immigrant, Sarah begins collecting stories similar Little Bee’s and which leads to their eventual return to that fateful Nigerian beach.
Little Bee is written to bring awareness about refugees, the conditions which made them flee, and the conditions they find themselves in once they are “free” of their homeland. It is not a happy story, but it is well-researched and credible. The book was published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
The main characters, Meg, her youngest brother Charles Wallace, and a friend from school named Calvin O'Keefe, embark on an adventure to find and save Meg and Charles Wallace's father from IT, an evil force that seems intent on stripping people (or other beings) of their free will. Their three witch friends turn out to be celestial beings who are helping combat the evil IT which is a force throughout the entire Universe. The children learn that their special gifts, and in particular, traits Meg might not have previously seen as positive ones, save the day.
Beyond the engaging and mysterious introduction, including the mention of the "tesseract"--the ability to travel through time--the plot becomes vaguely similar to Narnia series, with travel to unusual planets, an overarching battle between good and evil, and strong religious overtones. At least L'Engle leaves some room for different interpretations of the religious aspects of the story.
A Wrinke in Time was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1962. Older elementary readers or pre-teens would likely enjoy this book.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Hebe Jones works at the Lost Property Office for the London Underground, and deals with a unique array of lost items and unusual people. She's not happy at the Tower and doesn't relish her husband's new zookeeper role. They've drifted apart in grief over the loss of their son, Milo, and she questions her husband's strange new obsessions. It is a lost item and her search for it that sets the stage for the book's conclusion.
In addition to the charming and compelling main story, this book is full of subplots and rich characters. Stuart does a remarkable job leading readers through an entire range of emotions without feeling manipulative or contrived. If you liked Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Olive Kitteridge, or The Guernsey Library and Potato Peel Pie Society, you may also enjoy The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise.
The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise was published in 2010 by Doubleday.
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Blair recounts his role in monumental world events, including Princess Diana's death, the peace agreement with Northern Ireland, 9/11, and the Iraq War. In addition, he describes in great detail the inner workings of the party and the political system in Britain, including the Prime Minister's relationship with the Queen and the royal family. But Blair writes with candor, even if it's difficult to judge how significant his role really was in some of these events, writing that after the election--the Prime Minister role being his "first and only" government job--"I was scared." With a true sense of political realism, he wrote, "I realised I knew nothing about how government really works, most of all nothing about how I personally would react when the mood turned against me, as I knew it would."
Having served while three U.S. Presidents held the highest office in the United States, the Introduction seems to have been written for a U.S. audience, who might have been asking him to compare their leadership skills. And it also kowtows to U.S. book buyers through his praise of "the American ideal" which he describes as "about values: freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work." Although Blair was a "new" Labour leader, the book is diffuse with references to less socialist policy than one might imagine from a Labour leader, with many references to what appears is Blair's personal philosophy of working for what you get.
In addition to being history book, A Journey is also a textbook on leadership. From his discussion on the difference between being on the team and being the team's leader, to handling his calendar, to selecting his staff--all are lessons applicable to a political or corporate leader. A Journey: My Political Life, published by Knopf in 2010, is a book that requires time to read and absorb, but is well worth the effort.
What lessons would you identify for leaders in your organization? Are there skills they must learn to succeed? What would your successor need to do well?
What do you think of Tony Blair's "rules"? If you had to write (or have written rules) for your team, what would they be?
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Frost took this title and applied it to a series of new endings for novels she had already published. She juxtaposed the original ending with her new ending, so that the unpublished and not yet complete book consisted entirely of existing and alternative endings.
Octavia and her son Milo had been estranged for four years. The estrangement began when he read one of her novels which included the sentence, "They were exactly the wrong two to die." Milo and his mother were the two survivors of a tragic accident in which Milo's sister and father drowned. Milo felt guilt and blame, and refused further contact with his mother, assuming that her character felt the way his mother did. Octavia knew he'd read that particular book, and felt certain it was that sentence which was the death knell for their relationship.
Milo was now living in San Francisco with his girlfriend Bettina, lead singer of a successful rock band. Milo's reconciliation with his mother is spurred by Bettina's murder, for which Milo is charged. Octavia flies to her son's city, not sure whether he will see her, much less allow her to help him, and discovers a granddaughter she didn't know existed. The murder investigation unfolds as does a new ending for Octavia and Milo.
The Nobodies Album is a quick read. The theme of "do-overs" is prevalent, mainly in order for characters to be restored to a closer relationship. Readers won't be disappointed by the ending of The Nobodies Album.
Roland Nysmith doesn’t like Octavia’s new endings idea. He says, “The only way you got here, to the point you’re at now, is by writing those books the way you did . . . whatever ways you’ve changed, that’s going to show up in the new work without your even trying.” What do you think of Roland’s opinion?
Saturday, October 9, 2010
George repairs clocks, and Harding describes in detail how the mechanism of the clocks set time in motion. The concept of time, of losing it and restoring it, is a theme that echoes the time lost during seizures, and the resumption of "normal" life. George's father, Howard, suffered the same malady as George--they both had grand mal seizures as a result of epilepsy. Harding describes the seizures as an electrical event, the "voltage" from which the universe is made, and that "Howard, by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos."
As a child, George was shielded from his father's epilepsy until he witnessed a seizure and was accidentally bitten. A visit to the local doctor started a series of events that led to Howard leaving home. After Howard left, George began experiencing seizures himself.
It is not what some might consider a gloomy plot that draws the reader to this short novel. It is the elegance of the writing, the stitching together of descriptive passages, and the artful use of words to give the reader insight into the lives of its characters.
Tinkers is beautifully written. It was published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2009.
Friday, October 1, 2010
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was written by John Fox, Jr. and published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1906. Although it is love story, the underlying theme of progress, greed, and its resultant blight, as well as the attempts to recover from these transgressions against nature, pervade the novel.
John Hale is an engineer and speculator (a "furriner" to the mountain folks) who comes to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, just over the state line with Virginia. He meets two feuding mountain families, the Tollivers and the Falins, and finds himself enmeshed in their decades old battle. Hale becomes enamored of June Tolliver, a girl on the verge of womanhood, and offers her formal schooling in Virginia. In the meantime, Hale and others exploit the coal resources of the mountain area, bringing civilization and "law and order" to the small outpost. While Hale builds his fortune, the area becomes home to transient coal workers, the creek runs black, and coal-mining equipment belches smoke into the sky. June becomes a young lady who doesn't quite belong in "society" or her mountain home, and the mountaineers' feud erupts into violence.
Modern readers may find the relationships between Hale and June Tolliver odd; however, mountain girls married at a young age at the time this book is set. Language includes stereotypes and terms that are dated and may be offensive to some readers. However, the story of the environment is not unlike our modern concerns about climate change and the ability to reverse the effect, and June's transformation is a classic and entertaining Pygmalion story.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
The setting is a rough-and-tumble silver mining town in the late 1800s called Pickhandle Gulch. Dancy describes the town this way: "Transients and a get-rich mentality gave Pickhandle Gulch a bawdy and rowdy temper, but the overriding characteristic of the town was dust." The Cutler brothers, a couple of local henchmen, goad Dancy into a gunfight early in the story, which pits him against the most powerful and dangerous man in the territory.
Dancy prefers a mental fight than a physical one, although there is plenty of good old-fashioned gun play in the story. Because of his gunsmith business dealings, Dancy has the wherewithal to challenge the powerful bad men in the story. Money, to him, was "just the score. A way to keep track of who's winning and who's losing . . . and I like to win." But Dancy ultimately settles the score a different way.
The book is rife with stereotypical western themes: warring mining camps, good-hearted local businessmen cowed into "protection payments," a damsel in distress (although she handles herself quite well), and a romantic team of Pinkertons to assist the protagonist in his fight against corruption.
There is typical cowboy violence and a sprinkling of R-rated language, but for the most part, the Steve Dancy series of cowboy stories are suited for any age. The Shopkeeper is the first in the series, Leadville follows, with Murder at Thumb Butte still in the writing stage. The Shopkeeper is quick and fun to read, perfect for a vacation escape.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
But his treatment of these mundane topics is often inventive. After discussing the various techniques of tying shoelaces, Baker describes the differences in knots this way:
"You could imagine a sneaker-shoelace knot and a dress-shoelace knot standing side by side saying the Pledge of Allegiance: the dress-shoelace knot would pronounce each word as a grammatical unit, understanding it as more than a sound; the sneaker-shoelace knot would run the words together."
In this passage, Baker wisely describes how new hires adapt to their office surroundings, justifying the number of bathroom trips they take:
"For new-hires, the number of visits can go as high as eight or nine a day, because the corporate bathroom is the one place where you understand completely what is expected of you. Other parts of your job are unclear: you have been given a pile of xeroxed documents and files to read; you have tentatively probed the supply cabinet and found that they don't stock the kind of pen you prefer; relative positions of power are not immediately obvious; your office is bare and unwelcoming; you have no nameplate on your door yet, no business cards printed; and you know that the people who are friendliest to you in the first weeks are almost never the people you will end up liking and respecting . . ."
This kind of detail can become tedious at times, but will also bring back clear childhood memories -- such as the way cigarette machines dispensed packs of Marlboros. This book could be a primer for budding writers who need to learn to write descriptive narratives.
Finally, readers should know that a good third of the book consists of footnootes. Long, detailed asides Baker uses to allow Howie to further explore shoelaces, for instance, or the practice of buying bandaids in all size assortments. On an eReader, this can be difficult. I'd recommend a paper copy of this book to make flipping back and forth more manageable.
The Mezzanine was originally published in 1986 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson but was recently released in paperback version by Grove Press in 2010.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Saturday, August 28, 2010
The book's heroine is Jessamine Bach, a free spirited graduate student and antithesis of her sister Emily, a driven, tech company CEO. Jess comes to work at Yorick's, a rare bookstore, between attending philosophy classes and volunteering for Save the Trees leaflet campaigns. She has a tendency to become involved with "inappropriate" boyfriends, while her sister Emily's long-term love, Jonathan, has a tech company start-up of his own. Both Emily's and Jonathan's IPOs are due to hit at any time, making them both "gazillionaires."
Goodman introduces readers to Jess, Emily, Jonathan, George (the owner of Yorick's), Jess's roommates, her neighbor Mrs. Gibbs, Richard and Heidi (Jess's father and step-mother), their two daughters, co-workers of both Emily and Jonathan, other Save the Trees volunteers, and friends of George's. It's a veritable soap opera of relationships in flux, money issues, and career concerns. About halfway through the book, we discover the relevance of the book's title and meet a woman who wants to dispose of her uncle's cookbook collection. (To be fair, she does appear twice briefly in the pages before, but only to attempt to sell a book or two to George.)
What we learn is that secrets abound. Who was Jess's mother? What was it about her family that she didn't want Jess and Emily to know? Why was Sandra afraid to sell the cookbook collection? What secret did Emily tell Jonathan? And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Along with secrets and lies, love and betrayal, Goodman deals with the dot com boom and bust as well as 9/11. The latter event is difficult to read about, even in a novel. Perhaps, especially in a novel. But nonetheless, it brings back to mind the post 9/11 reality--the endless horrifying videos, the grim-faced news anchors, the American flags.
The Cookbook Collector might not appeal to cookbook collectors. Although food and drink is part of the story, it is tangential at best. Rather than the aroma of yeasty bread baking, the book conjures the scent of newly minted money instead.
Random House published The Cookbook Collector in 2010.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
The term "Shangri-la" that is often used to refer to utopia, came from Hilton's book Lost Horizon. Hilton described Shangri-la in his novel as a place of beauty, simplicity, culture, and agelessness. Although the visitors attempt to discover why they were delivered to Shangri-la and what the secrets are to living there, differences in their cultures and religion make it difficult. In this passage, one of the travelers asks,
. . . you're a philosopher, I remember that remark of yours. 'Many religions are moderately true.' You fellows up on that mountain must be a lot of wise guys to have thought that out. You're right, too, I'm dead certain of it."
"But we, " responded Chang dreamily, "are only moderately certain."
Lost Horizon is a multi-faceted book and an engaging story. Hilton's fictional perfect place still captures the imagination.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Saturday, August 7, 2010
The book's author, Roland Merullo, cites numerous sources for the Rinpoche's spiritual theories, giving the reader the feeling of having met a reincarnation of the Buddha in modern times. The book does have a "self-help" flavor, though, as many "how to be a better X" books do. Fortunately, Breakfast with Buddha seeks a different result: a greater spiritual understanding, with love as its centerpiece. Breakfast with Buddha was published in 2007 by Algonquin Books. He is the author of many books including Golfing with God and Leaving Losapas.
Saturday, July 31, 2010
Later in the book, Minnie and Aibeleen talk about the "lines" between classes and between races. They disagree. Minnie says,
"Not only is they lines, but you know good as I do where them lines be drawn."
Aibeleen shakes her head. "I used to believe in em. I don't anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain't."
Friday, July 23, 2010
Major Pettigrew is of one of the older families in Sussex, England, the sort of quintessential British military man characterized by loyalty to one’s country, character, and politeness above all else. He is stung by his only son’s banking career and attachment to an equally ambitious and far too casual American woman (she called him “Ernest” when first meeting him, instead of his preferred “Major”). He is a widower, and the sudden loss of his only brother, Bertie, brings to mind an array of emotions, some of which he hadn’t expected, particularly with regard to the bequest of a hunting gun which matched his own. Complicating his life was Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper who aroused in him an unexpected but not unwelcome passion.
Simonson does a remarkable job illustrating the messiness of culture, religion, and generation in this complex love story. Her writing is lyrical and wonderfully descriptive, so that the reader can smell the compost as the Major’s neighbor hides between her compost heap and hedge to spy on surveyors on her neighbor’s property, or feel the dampness of the air in the Colonel’s hunting cabin, or see the gaudy imitation flowers at the club dance. The narrative is funny and bittersweet, with the Major's dry humor and the situations that are nearly slapstick but entirely plausible. He describes the waitresses at the club as having "sullen charms" and "culled from the pool of unmotivated young women being spat out by the local school, (who) specialized in a mood of suppressed rage." And when offering commentary on his son's love life, the Major opines, "The human race is all the same when it comes to romantic relations. A startling absence of impulse control combined with complete myopia."
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Friday, July 9, 2010
Their destiny is already set, having been married to sons of an American-born Chinese businessman through an arrangement with their father prior to their escape. Held at Angel Island for months, May gives birth and because only Pearl consummated her marriage, Pearl claimed the baby as her own. The interrogations at Angel Island are intense, but they are finally allowed to rejoin their husbands in California after the baby is born.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Golden is a sympathetic character. He was raised alone by a depressed and emotionally absent mother. After reuniting with his father, Golden finds religion in the form of a fundamentalist Mormon sect and marries his first wife, Beverly. The demands of his growing family result in a schedule, created by his wives, which determines when and where he spends his time. There's the Old House with one wife and her children, The Big House, with two wives and their children, and a condo across town with his newest wife and her daughter. In addition to the demands of attention from the wives, there are the demands of running three households and meeting obligations for 28 children: band concerts, school meetings, doctors' appointments, and so on. His construction business supports them all, and a recent job building a brothel keeps him away from home much of the week while creating an ironic moral dilemma.
Udall describes a typical scene in this passage describing a family meeting with the wives:
Mother #2 gives the Father a smart slap on the shoulder, which startles him out of his trance. The wives are all looking at him, wanting his input. He lets his attention wander a few seconds and suddenly they are terribly interested in him, in what he has to say. He rubs his eyes and asks them to repeat the question, he didn't hear it clearly as he would have liked. Mother #4 gives him a look and Mother #2 puts her two index fingers behind her head like donkey ears, a secret sign the Mothers have been using for years to indicate when the Father is being a Jackass.
Mother #1 asks the Father what's wrong and he shrugs, and when Mother #2 asks him why he is moping he says he is not moping, which is what people who are moping tend to say. He glances down at the agenda, hoping to come up with a pertinent comment, when, in answer to a prayer he had not yet found the courage to offer, the phone rings. It is Sister Barbara, bless her soul, informing him there is a problem with one of his rental houses, a real emergency.
Golden's wives negotiate with each other to change his schedule to accommodate theirs and their children's needs. Udall does an admirable job describing the interplay of the wives, their weariness or good humor, their requirement to share their husband, and their own unmet personal needs. A couple of the children are described in more detail in the book than the others, including Rusty, a Huck Finn type whom readers easily become attached to.
Golden's job away from home gives him respite from his domestic responsibilities. While on the job in Nevada, Golden seeks the company of another woman who happens to be married to his boss. Golden's boss is not a man who takes treachery kindly, is mercurial on good days and on bad days terrifying. Udall unravels this deceit over the pages of the book, with Golden emerging from the conflict with a new determination.
Interwoven into the book's story is the impact of nuclear testing in the 1950s, when Udall's characters were exposed to fallout and suffer the consequences. Udall's unnerving description of the bomb tests and his characters' relatively casual reaction to their exposure was disconcerting. The author provides a list of references describing nuclear bomb tests and the results in his acknowledgements.
The Lonely Polygamist is an entertaining book, pricks the conscience at appropriate times, and brings to life cultures we aren't a part of. Although it is fiction, further study can provide a more serious look at the book's main themes. For example, for more about the victims of polygamy, consider Stolen Innocence, by Elissa Wall, Escape by Carolyn Jessop, or Favorite Wife, by Susan Schmidt. Udall references Dorothy Allred Solomon's book, Daughter of the Saints, as "the best account of polygamy ever written."
Friday, June 25, 2010
Silenced by his lack of English skills, illness, and trauma from the horrors he witnessed, Deo struggled to face his abrupt change in direction and deal with the losses of family and community. Eventually, he was able to unravel some of his story--his escape from medical school and the brutal murders he witnessed as he made a desperate attempt to reach the border of Rwanda--and he gradually made friends who were able to offer him assistance and shelter.
In the second part of the book, the author explains the history of the conflict in Burundi and what factors contributed to the slaughters that plagued the country for many years. Finally, in the third part of the book, Kidder narrates his visit to Burundi with Deo, who takes him on a tour of the important places in his life--his hometown, the schools he attended, many memorials to the dead, the town where his mother and father were able to start a new life, and the site of the health facility Deo was determined to build.
Deo's courage, naivete, perseverance, and ability to engage others in his dream, helped him recruit those who understood the connection between health of the people and health of the country, education, and their ability to resolve tribal, ethnic and cultural issues. Deo's project, Village Health Works, is now a fully functioning health clinic for Kigutu and surrounding communities, and he has returned to his medical training while serving as Vice President of the organization. The Village Health Works website states that their programs recognize that "the relationship between socio-economic status and health is obvious to members of poor communities who, in their daily lives, witness the link between ill health and lack of food, shelter and clean water. VHW works to simultaneously address the social determinants of ill health and provide quality, compassionate health care."
There are many lessons from Deo's powerful story--how one person can be driven to help thousands despite spirit-breaking and immovable roadblocks; how responding to a need may give another person the foothold from which to reach great heights; how people who work together can help themselves and multiply the benefit. It's an inspiring story.
More information about the Village Health Works project can be found at http://villagehealthworks.org/.
Friday, June 18, 2010
There were times Rothman seemed to skim over details that could have enriched the story, and later in the book, the author frequently brags to dates about how he is doing this or that "for the book." The reader gets the sense that much of what he did was nothing more than a book premise. He sends up what he calls "weather balloons" to gauge reactions, such as telling his friends that he had sex with a seventy-five year old woman. He didn't, but for some reason, he wanted to know how his friends would react. Again, this reinforces the feel that this is gimmick literature, and that he was conducting nothing more than play experiments "for the book."
In the book's Epilogue, Rothman admits he "wasn't so changed" from the experience. Although he does admit that having so many elderly friends was enriching, there were many opportunities to learn from his interactions with them. It's a shame he missed them.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Gilbert had always wanted to learn to speak Italian and had made some attempts prior to her trip. In Eat Pray Love she recounts her attempts to learn the language while in Italy, distracting herself from her relationship pain and ongoing divorce negotiations by sampling the country's sensory pleasures, mostly gastronomic since Gilbert had taken a vow of abstinence. By this time her marriage officially dissolves, and she spends the next four months in spiritual study in her guru's ashram, where she makes friends and achieves some spiritual solace. Finally, she goes to Bali to find an old medicine man who, years before, told her fortune and declared that she must come back to Bali someday, teach him English, and live in his home. Although she does find the medicine man and learn from him, she also befriends natives and expatriates, forming deep bonds that impact all of their lives. At one point, Ketut, the medicine man responds to Gilbert's observation that "some people like to argue about God." He says:
"I have a good idea, for if you meet some person from different religion and he want to make argument about God. My idea is, you listen to everything this man say about God. Never argue about God with him. Best thing to say is, 'I agree with you.' Then you go home, pray what you want. This is my idea for people to have peace about religion."
Gilbert is an honest narrator, and writes her story in an entertaining way. Rather than being self-indulgent and self-absorbed, Gilbert manages to avoid the blog-like self-obsession many writers fall victim to. At one point in the Bali section of the book, though, the reader has the feeling they're reading a private diary or at best, a fictionalized account, since it graphically illustrates Gilbert's passionate affair with Felipe, her Brazilian lover. And, she regrettably includes a nickname she and her gardener-pal use for each other ("homo") which could have easily been omitted.
Eat Pray Love is an entertaining story which may make the reader pine for a year in Italy, India, and Bali. A "search for happiness" book with a happy ending, Eat Pray Love will leave the reader feeling buoyed by Gilbert's experiences and the lives which touched hers. Eat Pray Love was published by Penguin in 2006, and in paperback in 2010.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
Thus, the Happiness Project was born. Rubin studied happiness--what did it mean, how did others obtain it, how is it measured--until she settled on an "I'll know it when I see it" approach. Rubin decided to create twelve "resolutions"--one for each month, except for December, in which she'd attempt to do all twelve. Resolutions included a different area of focus that affected her overall happiness. For instance in February, her focus was on love. Her plan included "quit nagging, don't expect praise or appreciation, fight right, no dumping, and give proofs of love." For July, the focus was on money. Her money goals were to "indulge in a modest splurge, buy needful things, spend out, and give something up."
She devised a chart on which to record her progress, and created a list of Twelve Commandments which she'd apply throughout the year. Commandments were guidelines that would apply all year, like "Let it go, " "Act the way I want to feel," and "Be Gretchen." This last one came in handy several times when faced with choices that seemed appealing but Rubin knew were contrary to her nature. And for fun, she created a list of Secrets of Adulthood, lessons she'd sometimes learned the hard way, like "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," "What's fun for other people may not be fun for you--and vice versa," "Bring a sweater," and "People don't notice your mistakes as much as you think."
Rubin dutifully recorded her successes and struggles, all the while providing insights from her blog readers who were following the project online. In addition, Rubin encouraged her blog readers to start their own projects, recognizing that her project was personal to her. Readers should develop their own areas of focus based on their needs, write their own commandments, if they chose to, or even create their own Secrets of Adulthood lists. In order to encourage readers to develop their own projects, Rubin included blog entries from readers in the book. (When Rubin was criticized for writing "stunt nonfiction"--doing something for a year and then writing about it--she turned those feelings into pride in doing something "on the cutting edge," following her Happiness Projects guidelines!)
The Happiness Project is full of useful advice. For the goal-oriented, it offers a structured way to enrich your life. But for those who prefer a less examined approach, there is much to learn. If you're interested in starting your own Happiness Project, Rubin's website is loaded with information, discussion guides, and more.
Gretchen Rubin is a former attorney and author of Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, and Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide. The Happiness Project was published by Harper Collins in 2010.