All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

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.

To make it easier to purchase books you may read about on the blog, I've linked to Amazon.com through The Cats and a Book Bookstore, which is located on the bottom of this page. Your purchases are fulfilled and handled through Amazon. To assure your privacy, Cats and a Book doesn't handle any of your payment or contact information.

Happy reading!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cats and a Book Names Top Ten Books of 2011

Happy New Year’s Eve! It's time once again to name Cats and a Book's favorite books of the year. Narrowing down the list to ten is always challenging, but here are the books that are most noteworthy (not in any particular order): 

1.  Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward.  This powerful book is the deserving 2011 Winner of the National Book Award.  Ward uses her formidable skills to weave a story about a Mississippi family that is raw, realistic, and hopeful in spite of tragic circumstances, which includes facing Hurricane Katrina. 

2.  The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.  A delightful novel, The Night Circus will captivate readers with its lush and whimsical settings. Apprentice wizards compete in Le Cirque des Reves (the Circus of Dreams--only open at night) as their dark and mysterious supernatural connection intensifies. 

3.  The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.  Written for pre-teens and teens, The Hunger Games is the first novel of a trilogy.  Its lively action, good versus evil story line, and futuristic setting engages readers of all ages. 

4.  Emily, Alone, by Stewart O'Nan.  Emily, Alone follows O'Nan's novel Wish You Were Here.  O'Nan is a masterful storyteller, creating characters the reader can recognize with interaction among friends and family members that is realistic and heartwarming.  Both books are good choices. 

5.  Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray.  Skippy Dies begins with the death of Skippy Juster, a student in a private school for boys in Dublin.  Murray's writing is lyrical and wry, and his treatment of the deceit and grief which pervade the novel is artful and thought-provoking.

6.  A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.  Time is the goon in this futuristic novel.  Egan does a masterful job delivering the pieces of Bennie's story, a successful music producer, while leaving the reader to puzzle it together as she goes along.  While it may feel disjointed at first, readers will quickly find the thread and be delighted how it falls together. 

7.  The Widower's Tale, by Julia Glass. The Widower's Tale is another gem from Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and The Whole World Over.  The widower is Percy Darling, a retired reference librarian and curmudgeon, whose finds his world changing around him, much to his chagrin.  Glass allows us to experience Percy's transformation, reluctant though it may be, as well as his confusion, dismay, and eventual recommitment as he finds his way in a new world. 

8.  My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme.  My Life in France is not a current book, of course, but is a classic memoir of Julia Child, and the book upon which the blockbuster movie Julie and Julia was based.  It is delightful and uplifting, and casts Julia Child in such a favorable light, it is no wonder the "Julie" from blog and movie fame felt an attachment to her. 

9.  Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott.  Charming Billy was published in 1998, and is the winner of the National Book Award and deserves a read if you haven't already.  It is a complex book about having enough, with themes of generosity and commitment, along with resignation, guilt, and deceit. 

10.  Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese.  This fascinating novel is written by a doctor, so readers can expect a medical overlay on the story, but Verghese makes what is technical fairly easy for the layperson to understand.  Cutting for Stone is the story of twin boys born to a disgraced nun and her doctor lover, who work in a mission in Ethiopia.  The novel is the intriguing and engaging story of one of the twins and will keep readers enthralled until the end. 

Since it's so difficult to identify only ten books from fifty-two, here are a few honorable mentions:

Bossypants, by Tina Fey, is hysterically funny.  Fey offers some good advice, too.  The Whole World Over, by Julia Glass, captures the reaction and mood after 9/11 very well.  The book doesn't center on this tragic event, but it does significantly impact the characters' lives, just as it did our own.  The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker, features a relationship between elderly neighbors on a barrier island which isn't easy to explain or understand. The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, is the story of a young doctor who volunteers to work in England during World War II and the correspondence between him and his newlywed wife, who makes a home in New England and awaits his return.  Prayers for Sale, by Sandra Dallas, is an uplifting story with appealing characters.  Set in a mining town, the harsh reality of daily life needs spiritual intervention. 

Thank you for reading my blog this year.  If you're interesting in expanding your library, would you consider purchasing your books from the Cats and a Book Bookstore?  It's located at the bottom of each blog page and is affiliated of Amazon.com--in other words, Amazon.com fulfills your order.  None of your personal information is retained or processed by Cats and a Book so your privacy is assured! 

Look for the Cats and a Book Book Club Guide coming soon!  I hope your New Year is filled with joy and laughter.  Forgive yourself and others, and let kindness carry you through your days!  Happy reading!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka, is a poignant and poetic short novel about Japanese immigrants to the United States.  Told from multiple perspectives, she follows the journey of young Japanese women to meet their waiting husbands in America, their home lives as they adjust to their new surroundings, and eventually to the suspicion that tormented them during World War II. 

Otsuka captures well the dreams of the young Japanese women and their experience traveling to America.  The young women share the pictures and stories they've learned about their husbands, whom they haven't yet met, who will meet them at the dock.  They learn how different the men are from the stories they'd been told, and how often their husbands do not resemble the photos they were given, mainly because the pictures weren't of them at all.  Instead of a banker, their husband was a field worker.  Instead of a business owner, their husband was a gardener.  Instead of living a life of leisure, they would be field workers and domestic help, lives no better than they left behind in Japan. 

Japanese immigrants faced prejudice and mistrust.  Stereotypes portrayed them as hard workers, and then later as untrustworthy spies.  They watched as their neighbors disappeared, accused of being enemy sympathizers.  They hid, but prepared for a mysterious knock at their door. 

Otsuka's style of narrating the story is all encompassing, relating the story from many angles.  "One swore she would one day marry a preacher, so she wouldn't have to pick berries on Sundays.  One wanted to save up enough money to buy his own farm.  One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father. One wanted to become anything but."  Otsuka powerfully records their hopes, their dreams, even their resignation.  Otsuka writes, "They learned that some people are born luckier than others and that things in this world do not always go as you plan." 

The Buddha in the Attic was published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, is a meandering, reflective, and philosophical novel. Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the book is told from the perspective of Tony Webster, as he looks back on a school friendship and relationship, trying to decipher the significance of both in his life.  At the time of the story's telling, he is retired, divorced, and living alone. Still friends with his ex-wife, he tells her of a recent inheritance from the mother of a former girlfriend and the puzzling encounters he has with her. 

Tony inherits the journal of Adrian, one of three close friends from school. Adrian is the one in the group who is different.  He is brilliant, and they are all drawn to him, including Veronica, Tony's girlfriend.  When Adrian and Veronica inform Tony they are involved, Tony fires off a bitter letter to them, which comes back to haunt him decades later. 

After Adrian's suicide, Tony loses touch with his friends, including Veronica.  But Veronica's mother's recent death, which results in the odd bequest of Adrian's journal, brings Tony and Veronica back into contact.  And, Tony learns something unexpected and surprising about Veronica, her mother, and Adrian. 

The Sense of an Ending is quintessential Barnes:  wry, witty, academic, reflective, and sometimes tedious.  This short novel is aptly named, but there are times the reader may wonder what drew Tony to Veronica and made him want to decipher the secret that she held, except to achieve "the sense of an ending." 

The Sense of an Ending was published by Borzoi Books in 2011.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), is a delightfully silly romp about a hypochondriac and his two close friends (and the dog, Montmorency) who decide to take a boat trip on the Thames. Written by Jerome K. Jerome
 and published in 1890 by Henry Holt and Company, the book opens as the central character decides to research some minor symptoms he has. He discovers to his “horror” as he reads through a medical dictionary, that he has symptoms of everything in the book from ague through cholera and diphtheria, all the way to zymosis, until he determines that he suffers from everything but housemaid’s knee. This discovery leads him to decide that a boat vacation would not only help his symptoms, but soothe the stress of his friends, Harris and George, as well.

Of course, the theory of a boating vacation exceeds the actual experience. Lack of boating skill and overstated ability to camp and cook outside is a source of witty anecdotes and stories which often culminate in the friends turning on each other and hurling insults. Even the dog becomes “sarcastic.” Montmorency, whose “ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at” so that “he feels his day is not wasted” is a charming addition to the trip. Jerome writes, “To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.”

Jerome intersperses bits of useful advice throughout the story, philosophical meanderings that are meaningful and applicable to the reader. For example, as he is relating the extent of the packing the friends do for the trip, he concludes, “Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need—a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, some one to love and some one to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink . . . You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset . . .”

A quick and entertaining read, Three Men in a Boat is almost as funny now as it would have been in the late 1890s--only “almost” as funny because a few of the references might be lost on modern, American readers, but that shouldn’t discourage anyone who would enjoy a witty diversion from heavier tomes. Three Men in a Boat is available free as a Google eBook.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward, is the 2011 Winner of the National Book Award and is a rich and powerful novel. It is the story of Esch Batiste, her widowed father and three brothers, as they struggle to survive in rural Mississippi.

Esch’s mother dies after the birth of her youngest brother, Junior, and he is raised by the three older children. Randall is striving for a basketball scholarship, and Skeet is raising a pit bull, China, who represents his dreams of dominance in the local dog fighting world.  He is breeding her to sell her puppies, and earn badly needed money for the family. Fourteen-year-old Esch is in love with Manny, who is the father of her unborn baby, but Manny is in love with another and has made it clear to Esch that he doesn’t love her despite her devotion to him. In the meantime, Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on the coast, and the Batiste family patriarch gives the family directions: fill the truck with gas, fill the tub and sinks with water, cook the food in the refrigerator, buy canned goods, board the windows. But these efforts aren’t enough when the category five storm bears down on their home, and they barely escape with their lives.

Ward’s storytelling skills are exceptional, with characters and a story so realistic that feels like it could be a documentary. The truth isn’t pretty, but Ward's characters are strong and they are survivors. Salvage the Bones was published in 2011 by Bloomsbury, USA. 


Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a dark yet delightful novel. The story features two illusionists who have been engaged in a decades long contest. But the contest doesn’t involve them directly. Instead, they choose and train two novices.

This time, the novices are Marco, whom one of the illusionists adopted from a local orphanage, and Celia, the daughter of the other. They are bound together through magic rings to the contest, although neither understands the implications of this until years later. The setting for the contest is the Night Circus, or Le Cirque des Reves (the Circus of Dreams), which appears unannounced in fields just outside towns as it travels all over the world. It opens at night, and closes by morning. 

The circus is the creation of a group of designers and planners led by Chandresh Lefevre. The color scheme is black and white, and the tents are arranged in a way that encourage circus goers to explore them in any order, each with a marvel inside—Celia, the illusionist, Isobel, the fortune teller, and Poppet and Widget, twins with their trained kittens were but a few. The most fantastic tents feature a world of ice, a gravity and reality defying carousel, a wishing tree, and a cloud maze, most of which were created through the magic of Celia and Marco as they responded to each other’s “moves” in the contest.

The Night Circus is lushly descriptive and the plot is riveting. Readers won’t want to put this book down or if they must, will look forward to picking it back up again. The Night Circus was published by Doubleday in 2011.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Catching Fire and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The second and third books in the The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, read seamlessly as a continuation of the first book, The Hunger Games. Darker and more violent than The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are full of unexpected and dramatic twists and turns as Katniss Everdeen, the teenaged heroine of the series, becomes the symbol of the revolution against the evil President Snow’s Capitol district.

In Catching Fire, the reaping (selection for the annual Hunger Games) is for the Quarter Quell, which occurs every 25 years. To the dismay and outrage of prior years’ victors, this reaping will draw from their group, regardless of their age or physical condition. Since Katniss, Haymitch, and Peeta are the only available victors from which to draw from District 12, readers know this means they will have to return to the arena.

With Haymitch as mentor and the knowledge of the underground compound in District 13, long believed to have been uninhabitable after the last war, Katniss and Gale, her long-time hunting companion, begin to believe that revolution against the Capitol is possible, and a plan is formulated with Katniss as the Mockingjay, the symbol of the revolution. As the Quarter Quell Hunger Games get underway, allies for the revolution work together to bring the Games to a sudden end . . . at least in the arena.

Mockingjay picks up the thread of the Games as it moves to the streets of the each district, with graphic descriptions of battles that seem tailor-made for movie adaptations. The story is tragic, violent, and gripping, and much like the Harry Potter series, becomes darker as it progresses and its characters are damaged by what has happened to them, their friends, and their families.

This is not a light-hearted series, but an adventure story of good versus evil, in which the ending is not all happiness. Because of its teenaged heroine and the writing style, it is better suited for older teens.

Catching Fire was published by Scholastic in 2009, and Mockingjay was published in 2010.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is a gripping adventure with appealing characters that engrosses readers of all ages. A dark science-fiction story, it targets young teen readers but is entertaining for adults as well. 

The story is set in what is apparently a post-United States empire, fraught with pockets of starvation, deprivation, and depleted natural resources. The rich and evil Capitol is now located in the Rocky Mountain area, and the country is divided into districts. In order to remind the populace of the hardships which gave birth to the new empire, “The Hunger Games” are conducted annually. “The reaping” selects by random draw a male and female child to represent each district in the games. To multiply the injustice, odds are against those whose families are so poor the children take “tesserae”—a grant of oil and grain which costs the recipient more chances in the drawing. The book’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, has taken the tesserae for several years, which make her odds of being “reaped” even greater. Unfortunately, it is her little sister Prim, only now eligible at age 12, whose name is drawn. Katniss bravely volunteers to serve in her sister’s place.

Along with Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, Katniss represents District 12 in the brutal games, which are designed to pit contestants against each other in a fight to the death. The winner not only secures untold wealth and security for themselves, they ensure their district receives gifts and support not otherwise known there. Much is at stake, and the games bring out the strengths of each participant, whether it is agility, cleverness, or merely cruelty. The entire country is focused on the games, which are similar to today’s reality television shows with alliances made and cameras catching every movement. Pictures of deceased players are projected into the sky at night, so the remaining players know how many competitors were left.

The book’s conclusion is satisfying only in that the immediate challenge is resolved, but leaves much to bait the readers’ curiosity. The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy, with Catching Fire and Mockingjay following. These books are quick reads, great for a short vacation or weekend getaway.

The Hunger Games was published in 2008 by Scholastic Press.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy, written by Alice McDermott, is a story about resignation and faith, about having too little and about having enough. The story opens in a small Bronx restaurant at a dinner following the funeral of Billy Lynch. Billy was charming, funny, and warm. His mourners recall his short notes that served as letters, written on scraps of paper and mailed to family and friends. They tell stories about his generosity and his commitment. But his drinking problem is the undercurrent at the table; the alcoholism that led to his death. The mourners speculate that his drinking was to assuage the pain of losing his true love to pneumonia before she could come to America from Ireland, a love so deep he never recovered from it, despite his widow’s presence at the table.

Billy’s cousin Dennis holds a secret about Eve, the Irish girl they met one summer as younger men, the one who accepted an engagement ring from Billy before she returned home to Ireland. Dennis knows that Billy’s “true love” accepted the money Billy worked two jobs to earn in order to open a gas station and café with her new husband in Ireland. When he learns of her deception, Eve’s sister tells Dennis in disgust that “she is dead to me.” Dennis decides then to tell Billy that Eve died of pneumonia, rather than letting him think Eve has deceived him. Better to have been loved than to have been spurned.

It is years before Billy learns the truth, but this is also a secret the men hold. Billy’s mourners make him into a tragic character who never had a real marriage to Maeve, driven to drink by his sudden and tragic loss of Eve. Billy, who was never able to be sober because of his lifelong pain. As one told Dennis, “I’ve always said that it’s the ones who are always joking are the ones who feel things more deeply than the rest of us.” Billy seemed to accept the deceit, resigned to his life. And the long-suffering Maeve accepted her fate, as the wife of a man who came home drunk almost every night. But, as Danny’s mother would say, “Isn’t enough as good as a feast?”

Charming Billy won the National Book Award and was published in 1998 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The News from Paraguay, by Lily Tuck

The News from Paraguay, by Lily Tuck, is a story based on true events in South America in the late 1800s. It is also the story of Ella Lynch, mistress to Francisco Solano Lopez (known as Franco), whom she met while in France and traveled with to Paraguay. Franco assumed leadership of Paraguay from his father and became a ruthless military leader, embroiling Paraguay in war with factions from Brazil and Argentina. The capital city he dreamed of building, reminiscent of Europe’s great cities, would never be completed during his lifetime but instead, decimated by war.

Lynch benefits from this relationship with Franco, but is likely hurt more by her affiliation with him. He never marries Lynch, and although she follows him between their home base and battle sites, he does little to protect her and their children. Instead, he proudly attacks his enemies, who outnumber his own troops, and his army is brutally slaughtered. Franco randomly imprisons and tortures those whom he feels threaten him, including old friends and family members.

The story is brutal and Tuck is descriptive. She spares no details, and those interested in South America may find the book enlightening as she brings history to life. As the title of the book suggests, Lynch’s friends rarely hear of any “news from Paraguay” and cannot see or understand the cruelties Lynch has experienced or how she has changed.

The News from Paraguay won the National Book Award and was published in 2004 by HarperCollins.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pie Town, by Lynne Hinton

Pie Town, by Lynne Hinton, is a lovely story in the style of Jan Karon, featuring a new priest, Father George, a pregnant wanderer named Trina, and a young boy diagnosed with spina bifida whose ailment and personality bound the otherwise prickly town members together.

The reader learns quickly that Pie Town, once known for its desserts, now offers not much more than brownies at the local diner. When Father George drives into town with Trina, who is hitchhiking to Pie Town on the advice of an old Apache woman she met along her travels, townspeople are less than welcoming. In fact, they warn both Father George and Trina that the town isn't known for its hospitality, and that most newcomers don’t make it there. Alex, the young boy with spina bifida, takes to Father George and particularly Trina, and convinces the townspeople to give them both a chance.

Hinton does an admirable job introducing readers to an interesting cast of characters, including Sheriff Roger, Alex’s grandfather; Malene, a nurse’s aide and Roger’s ex-wife; Angel, Alex’s mother, who is largely absent; Oris, Malene’s cantankerous father; nosey neighbors, young lovers, and a cultural mix of Caucasian, Hispanic, and Native American elements that gives the story richness. Hinton, who is an ordained minister, weaves spiritual elements into the story without being heavy handed.

Pie Town is sweet and funny. Readers might find the short chapters in the voice of Alex’s great-grandmother, a spirit that visits Hinton’s living characters, feel a little stilted, but the story and dialogue reads well and is an engaging story.

Pie Town was published in paperback by William Morrow in June of 2011. The published includes recipes of dishes mentioned in the book, like Oris’ Famous Cowboy Beans and Posole. Another book in the Pie Town series is slated for release in 2012.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Leadville, by James Best

Leadville, by James Best, is the second in the Steve Dancy series of Western novels in the grand tradition of Wild West storytellers. Leadville reunites Dancy, the former shopkeeper who ventured West to write a novel about his experiences, with Captain McAllen of Pinkerton fame, Jeff Sharp, owner of silver mines, and Dr. Dooley, who was going out West to take a job at a “consumption clinic.” Sharp and McAllen had helped Dancy survive a visit to Pickhandle Gulch, detailed in Best’s first Dancy novel, The Shopkeeper.

In Leadville, McAllen’s high-spirited daughter is kidnapped. Although a posse is assembled to find her and mete out Western justice, something doesn’t seem right. Dancy, along with McAllen and Sharp decide to make their own trek to rescue the missing girl. They uncover a scheme to defraud the town, and contrive to win the girl’s safety in an ingenious plot that is the undoing of the bad elements in the town. In the process, Dancy ends up a shopkeeper again but not before encountering a villain from his past and parts with the intriguing widow he met in the first installment of the series. Never fear, another potential love interest, in the form of his willful and attractive shop manager, may find her way into future installments.

Best’s novels are rip-roaring good stories, with engaging plots, likeable characters, and plenty of action. Dancy is tough, intelligent, and thoughtful, and his compatriots are respectable men of integrity. The books have appeal to a broad audience, with a mix of action, adventure, and a tiny hint of a love story to make readers take interest in the full range of Best’s characters.

Leadville was published in paperback by Wheatmark in 2009. It’s not necessary to read the first “Steve Dancy Tale,” The Shopkeeper, before reading Leadville, but it will give readers a bit of background. The third in the series is Murder at Thumb Butte, which was published in paperback in September, 2011.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Whole World Over, by Julia Glass

The Whole World Over, by Julia Glass, is another of her marvels. Glass intertwines the messy lives of her characters in a way that doesn’t feel contrived, and in this novel, unexpectedly but gracefully weaves in the tragic events of September 11.

The book centers on the life of pastry chef Greenie Duquette. Greenie was one of several names she was known by, and readers may wonder if these multiple names give identity to the stages in her life she undergoes or reflects on in the book. Greenie’s confections are introduced to the governor of New Mexico, whose politics deeply offend Greenie’s husband, Alan. Despite Alan’s opposition, Greenie accepts the governor’s lucrative job offer to become his private chef and moves from New York City to New Mexico with George, Alan and Greenie’s young son. Alan, who is a psychologist, claims his patients couldn’t bear for him to move and stays behind in New York, hoping Greenie will have a change of heart.

Walter is a likable character and dear friend of Greenie’s. Walter introduced Greenie’s delectable desserts to the governor, and is the owner of an intimate restaurant. Walter’s search for love and family is interwoven with Greenie’s, and we meet characters that include a short-term boyfriend, a miscreant nephew, a dog-walker, and Walter’s dog, “T.B.” (“The Bruce”).

And then there is Saga. Saga, who is also known by another name—Emily, is the victim of a head injury. With both parents deceased, she lives with an uncle, whose two daughters and one son seem to resent Saga’s presence. Saga’s recovery progresses, but she is still finding her way in a new world. An animal lover, she helps an eccentric “animal protector” and weaves her way into the lives of the other main characters.

The events of September 11 appear as suddenly in the book as they did in reality. Glass does an exceptional job describing the initial confusion her characters felt, the fear that followed, and the grim shift in their perspective on the world. Rather than focus on the facts of the loss, she follows her characters’ reactions and how their lives are impacted through their reaction to the event. Decisions are made as a result that dramatically shift the direction of their lives.

The Whole World Over was published in 2006 by Random House. Her most recent book is The Widower's Tale, previously reviewed on Cats and a Book. Her novel Three Junes won the National Book Award.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Loose Diamonds, by Amy Ephron

Loose Diamonds . . . and other things I’ve lost (and found) along the way, by Amy Ephron, is a collection of charming, read-in-one-sitting stories. Ephron’s use of the allegory of “loose diamonds” is intriguing, and leads the reader to involuntarily wonder who or what the “loose diamond” is in each story. Some seem obvious, but the possibility of multiple meanings and interpretations, along with the short chapters, makes this a good book club read.

Not everyone may be able to relate to Ephron’s stories. She is a professional writer who spent at least part of her life in California. She experiences a divorce and a burglary, and in the course of her work and life, meets some interesting characters. For example, she writes about meeting Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme before Fromme’s “bizarre assassination attempt” on then-President Gerald Ford, and about befriending Honey Hathaway, a southern transplant who orders champagne by the case and lives alone in a Los Angeles mansion owned by her married (and out of town) boyfriend. For some, it’s easy to see how these characters have fallen out of their settings, so to speak, like loose diamonds.

In other stories, Ephron is candid and open about her marital history, relationships with her ex-husband, friends, and her ex-husband’s new girlfriends. She describes shopping for shoes, admitting, “I was a little dizzy. The store was a little glitzy, over the top, and had a name like Footlose and Fancy Free, and every shoe, Manolo, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin was displayed on its own cakelike shelf in a glass display case, mirrored in the back, so the shoe reflected on itself as if it had been made for dancing.”

Amy Ephron’s writing is witty and intelligent. Loose Diamonds was published in 2011 by William Morrow.  It will be released September 6, and is available now for pre-order. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker


The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker, is the story of "the watery part of the world"--the coast of North Carolina, where hurricanes reshape the tiny barrier islands, form new ones, create new waterways, and lash the islands with a ferocity that forces its inhabitants to retreat.  The central characters in this story span generations, and the chapters alternate between the two, giving the reader a deeper understanding of the intricate and complex relationships that have developed through the years.  

Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr, is the sole survivor of a brutal attack on her ship just off the coast of North Carolina by Thaddeus Daniels, the "black-heartedest pirate of them all."  Daniels spares her life when her erratic behavior and attachment to a self-portrait made her seem to him as being "touched by God."  Stranded on  Yaupon Island, she is befriended by Whaley, himself a seaman, who allows her to live with him.  Eventually, he leaves but not after providing her with help in Hezekiah Thornton.  Whaley leads Theodosia to believe he purchased Thornton but gives him his freedom shortly thereafter so that there was no obligation for Hezekiah to stay under her employ. 

The book skips ahead to Whaley and Theo's descendants, Miss Whaley and Miss Maggie, elderly sisters now living on the nearly deserted island.  Although at one time the population of the island was more robust, continuous storms even drove natives to the mainland.  Also living on the island are Thornton's descendant, Woodrow and his wife, Sarah.  Although Woodrow has no obligation toward Miss Whaley and Miss Maggie, it is as if he has inherited them.  He picks up their mail by meeting the mail boat.  He runs errands and shares his catch of fish.  Their relationship is close, but it seems as if fates have ordained it.  The reader wonders if it is truly a voluntary arrangement.  

Parker describes the fateful storm that changes the island and the lives of its inhabitants forever during the book's narrative, which he alludes to many times.  The reader is aware something terrible happened, but the entire story with the accompanying guilt, fear, and grief that each of the characters experience is only gradually revealed, as if even the narrative can't bear to describe something so painful all at once. 

The story is compelling, the relationships perplexing yet believable, and the history and culture of the islands intriguing.  The Watery Part of the World was published in 2011 by Algonquin Books. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is Ann Patchett’s most recent offering, the gripping story of a top secret scientific breakthrough, a powerful pharmaceutical company, and a man presumed dead and lost in the jungles of the Amazon. If this combination of factors isn’t thrilling enough, add a colleague who goes searching for the missing man, an eccentric scientist, and poison-dart-wielding cannibals, and your attention ought to be grabbed and held for the duration of the story.

Anders Eckman is a scientist, sent by the pharmaceutical company for which he works to meet with Dr. Swenson, herself a scientist working in the Amazon on a project so mysterious that the details are secret from almost everyone outside of her cadre of assistants. She is funded by the pharmaceutical company, which is becoming anxious to gain some return on their investments. Eckman disappears, is reported dead due to some jungle malady, and Marina Singh, as a colleague and someone the company trusts to reach Swenson, is sent there to complete his assignment.

Eckman’s wife Karen continues to believe he isn’t dead. Without a body or any of his personal effects, she keeps hope. “Hope is a horrible thing, you know, “ she said. “I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it.”

Singh enjoyed a complex relationship with Swenson—she was Swenson’s student in medical school. When Singh locates Swenson, after no little difficulty, she becomes enmeshed in Swenson’s research, despite Swenson’s initial desire to have no “outsiders” joining her team. In the meantime, Singh learns the true reason for Swenson’s secrecy around her research, and begins to understand how Swenson’s philosophy of non-interference in the local culture and her dogged commitment to her research may explain Anders Eckman’s disappearance. As Swenson explains, “The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people.”

Singh suffers from nightmares, jungle insects, and Swenson’s demands. She gradually discovers what Swenson is researching, how it impacts the indigenous people, and the facts around Eckman’s disappearance. The revelations continue to surprise until the last page of the story.

State of Wonder is a suitable addition to Patchett’s formidable library, following Run, Bel Canto, and The Magician’s Assistant. Published in 2011 by HarperCollins, State of Wonder is available as an eBook and paperback, as well as in hardcover.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Emily, Alone is a touching story, a mere glimpse into the life of Emily Maxwell, 80 years old and living with her aging dog Rufus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Emily is widowed and both of her grown children live out of town. Her contact with them and her grandchildren is predictable and sometimes awkward, their visits a flurry of activity, welcome and wanted, but also a disruption to her routine. Emily resents growing older, and sympathizes with Rufus, who also is beginning to suffer symptoms of advancing age.

Emily has a routine she prefers. She likes to relax in the evenings with classical music and a glass of wine, takes a weekly trip to a local buffet brunch restaurant with her sister-in-law Arlene, and rotates her tissue boxes between all the rooms of the house based on use. She and Arlene attend funerals of old friends, critiquing the service and the food, all while making mental (or actual) notes for their own services.

Emily’s reflections may strike a chord with readers struggling to understand complicated relationships with family members. In one passage, Emily’s difficult relationship with her daughter Margaret comes to mind. “Margaret would still be battling her (after Emily’s death), just as, occasionally, Emily still fought with her own mother, both guiltily and, being eternally wronged, self-righteously. Though everything faded, nothing was ever done.”

Emily considered her life through her photographs, realizing how much thing change as the years passed—including hair and clothing styles—but also how perspective gives one wisdom. How “she wished she could go back and apologize to those closest to her, explain that she understood now.” These reflections, these lessons learned, will serve the reader well.

Emily, Alone is moving, funny, and inspiring. It is the sequel to Wish You Were Here, but it's not necessary to read these books in order.  Emily, Alone stands on its own merits.  It was published in 2011 by Viking, and due in paperback this December.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, follows the story of three women: a World War II news correspondent in London, a postmaster for a small town on the Massachusetts coast, and a young bride making a home with her town doctor husband in the same small town.

The woman whose narration begins the novel is Frances Bard, often referred to as Frankie. Frankie is a radio reporter, whose job is to, “Seek truth. Report it. Minimize harm.” Frankie was dedicated to finding and reporting the story, traveling to London during Germany’s persistent fire bombing in the early 1940s. When a friend was killed in the apartment they shared, she undertook to continue her line of investigation: the Jewish refugees fleeing German-held territories. When she accidentally becomes part of the story, she finds herself no longer able to report it, and questioning whether she was minimizing harm.

Iris James, the postmaster, finds comfort in the regularity and authority of her post, which she believes defends against chaos and disorder. As the author describes it, “One entered (the post office), as one did every day, and was immediately met with a sense of calm born out of rigid adherence to an unwavering routine.” And Iris enforces that sense of routine and calm by her adherence to duty.

Emma Fitch is married to Will, the town doctor. After a tragic loss for which Will felt responsible, he volunteers to provide medical care in London. He’d heard how bad things were there from Frankie’s radio broadcasts, and in a sense, he seems to want to put himself in harm’s way. Frankie meets him there, and it’s clear he seems happier knowing that bad things do happen without or despite anyone’s intervention. Emma is left at home to wait for news of his return when his letters stop coming.

And it is his letters that are the focal point of the story, and in particular, the dilemma for more than one character. As Frankie remarked to Iris, ‘“Something could be diverted, or stopped, and it would be your hand that fixed it, your hand that set the story going again. You’re like a good narrator.” Frankie paused, noting the flush rise in Iris’s face. “Or even, the author. You could choose who gets their mail and who—“‘ before she was interrupted.

Frankie’s reporting mantra proves to be a struggle for more than one of them, and it is the diversion from both their values and their job requirements that causes them to question when reporting the truth conflicts with minimizing harm.

The Postmistress was published in 2010 by Penguin.

Book Club Discussion Questions for The Postmistress

If the task for a “postmaster/postmistress” is to deliver the mail, who do you think the author was referring to in the title of her book? Why?




Several of the main characters faced turning points from which they seemed to stray from their core values or beliefs. What happened? Do you think they might have returned to these beliefs in time? Do you know people who have faced situations that drove them to abandon deeply held beliefs?



Did the Postmaster make the right decision to withhold “partial” news? Should the reporter have divulged her knowledge of the doctor’s fate? Are lies OK to protect others? Or to protect ourselves from the truth we find difficult to bear?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, is a funny and tragic novel that begins with the death of Daniel “Skippy” Juster, who collapses at the local doughnut shop. Juster is a student at Seabrook College, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Dublin. What follows is a meaty, multi-faceted story of grief and deceit.

It’s important to know that Skippy Dies is funny--a poignant reminder of school days, close friendships, exclusive cliques, cruel pranks, and bathroom humor. But Murray also illuminates the darker side of youth, with its loss of innocence, its dawning realization that parents and teachers are flawed human beings, and its “Lord of the Flies” rule through intimidation. Murray does more than show us how these children relate to each other. He shows us how the grown-ups live in their own “Lord of the Flies” world, with their own doubts, bravado, and tactical maneuvering so similar to the children they teach. They may not give each other toilet “swirlies,” but physical violence isn’t out of the range of possibilities. The administration and teachers at Seabrook, and most notably Howard (“Howard the Coward”) the history teacher and an alumnus of the school, are the central figures here, although parents occasionally feature in the interactions.

Murray's writing is funny and lyrical.  He describes one of the school's teachers as wearing "an eye-searing, headache-inducing houndstooth" with "shaggy eyebrows that bristle from his forehead like two Yetis about to hurl themselves from a cliff."  He spends great swaths of narrative that is dedicated to Ruprecht, Skippy's roommate, describing the time and space conundrums which obsess Ruprecht, a student whose grades alone bring up the average for the entire class year. 

Readers will quickly see how grief damages the characters, with Skippy’s demise being the trigger point. Another pervasive theme is deceit, from how the school handles Skippy’s death and the events that led up to it to how nations (and in this case Ireland), persuade their citizens to go to war to achieve objectives that may not be those touted as the rallying cry. There are many real-life issues in this book—poverty, sexual abuse by an authority figure, drug abuse, alcoholism, illness—and most of his characters find a way to cope. Some are successful.

Skippy Dies was published by Faber and Faber in 2010. It was shortlisted for the Costa Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010.  The paperback version of Skippy Dies is scheduled for release on August 30. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is titled for the two most impactful characters on Mario, the book’s protagonist, an 18-year-old Peruvian law student and News Director of Radio Panamericana. Written by Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is both a coming of age and a love story.

Mario is an aspiring writer, his law school status primarily to please his parents while he dreams of writing in Paris. As “news director” he rewrites news stories from other sources (a change to an adjective here or a different noun there) and keeps his staff from inserting too many graphic tales of death and destruction into the evening news. It is not the news at the station, however, that attracts listeners. It is the daily serials—soap operas—broadcast several times a day. So, when the scriptwriter Pedro Camacho, prolific writer and director of these popular serials is lured to the station from Bolivia, fortunes were sure to change, not only for the station, but for Mario as well.

At about the same time, Mario’s uncle’s sister-in-law arrives from Bolivia, fresh from a divorce. “Aunt Julia” is an experienced woman in her 30s who teases “Marito” (a nickname Mario deplored) and is courted by available suitors who aren’t put off by her divorcee status. Mario is intrigued by his “Aunt Julia,” and playful dalliances become more serious until Mario is convinced he and Julia must marry. Mario is underage to wed without his parents’ permission (who have by now gotten wind of the romance and are livid), so he and Julia engage friends and tolerant family members to help them arrange a hasty marriage by a sympathetic and corruptible officiant.

In the meantime, Senor Camacho’s gift for storytelling is becoming more and more bizarre, with characters from one serial suddenly appearing in another, or the same name being used for different people in different stories, or the plot line suddenly terminating in a disaster in which all the characters die. Camacho confides to Mario that his memory is failing and the threads of stories are confusing, and Mario tries to intervene with the station owners on Camacho's behalf. 

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is bittersweet, both funny and tragic.  There are delightful surprises, such as the author’s introduction of the serials to the novel so that the reader is suddenly immersed in a soap opera story. Llosa is such a good storyteller that readers may find they’d like the serial story to go on. Pedro Camacho is himself an odd character, and some of his habits are both amusing and sad. For example, he has an inexplicable dislike for Argentians, and interjects something derogatory about them into almost every story.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was published by Picador in 2007. Llosa is the 2002 PEN award winner and the 2010 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! opens with Hilola Bigtree’s daring high dive into the “Gator Pit,” the star attraction at Swamplandia!, the island sideshow for which the book is named. Travelers to the Sunshine State might recall the attractions that used to dot highways designed to lure tourists to see alligator exhibits or purchase counterfeit Native American tomahawks and moccasins. The Bigtree’s island park was the quintessential attraction of its time, with a museum of Bigtree memorabilia, an alligator wrestling event, and of course, Hilola’s thrilling dive and swim through a holding pool of live alligators. Reclaimed from swampland fraudulently sold to the Bigtree family a generation ago, Swamplandia! was also the home of Chief Bigtree, his wife Hilola, their son Kiwi and two daughters, Osceola and Ava.

Written by Karen Russell, Swamplandia! is the story of another world, a parallel island universe, which offers its inhabitants only limited interaction with the mainland world, consisting of paying guests who were willing to part with their money to ride the ferry to the island amusement park. But, Hilola’s illness and tragic death leaves her family bereft and disintegrating and the future of Swamplandia! uncertain. Chief Bigtree temporarily relocates to the mainland, leaving the three children on their own. Kiwi, the only son, leaves the island to work for a rival amusement park, and dreams of living a normal life and going to school. The oldest daughter, Ossie, finds a book about the occult and believes she is communication with a young man who died tragically many years before while working on a dredge boat in the swamps. And Ava, the youngest daughter, meets with tragedy as she attempts to follow her sister into the Underworld to prevent Ossie’s marriage to the dead dredger.

Russell interjects some interesting similes, like “ . . . our mom’s cooking strategy was to throw a couple of raw things into a greased pan and wait to see what happened, like watching strangers on a date.” And pieces of good advice, “But if you kept thinking about a fight you’d lost, Mom said, you were programming yourself to lose again.” Some of the stories are humorous, and some are intriguing, but there is tragedy, too, enough for the reader to feel how damaged the characters are by their circumstances.

Elements of the book might suggest to a potential reader that it is a whimsical story, somewhat fantastic and lighthearted, with the notion of a created “tribe” of Bigtrees, along with their manufactured heritage and the fascination with wrangling alligators. But the family’s isolation and subsequent move to the mainland from their created world will be a difficult adjustment. Readers are left to wonder if the resilient ones will make it.

Swamplandia! was published in 2011 by Knopf.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, is centered around Bennie, a successful music producer, who is struggling to protect his reputation, his relationship with his son, and an old friend.

The first chapters of the book suggest that her opening character, Bennie’s kleptomaniac administrative assistant, might be the “main” character in the book. But she continues to introduce multiple characters, who at first seem tangential—but pay attention, they are likely to appear again in a more prominent role, and the one you thought might carry throughout the book does not. Yet, once you adapt, this doesn’t feel disjointed or confusing.

The other skill Eagen has is moving the book back and forth through time. She unveils the past and gently revisits it, so that the character is richer and more complete. In the final pages of the book she ventures into the future, and describes a possible reality that doesn’t seem far-fetched or silly. Texting, for example, is the preferred method of communicating any private or personal thoughts. Threats like global warming and national security play prominent roles in the new, future reality. And, Egan’s characters adapt to their own losses and private griefs. As Bosco, one of Bennie’s oldest musician friends, says, “Time’s a goon, right?”
Another homage to the modern world is an entire chapter created from SmartArt so that the story flows like a diagram in a PowerPoint presentation. A note of caution, if you’re reading this book on an eReader that can’t adjust the size of embedded pictures or diagrams, they may be difficult to read.

Egan’s novel is a richly woven tapestry of a story, taking the reader along like a loom’s shuttle, moving in and out of time and drawing in the threads of characters as it unfolds, so that by the end of the book, the story’s cloth is tight, intricate, and complete. A Visit from the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was published in 2011 by Anchor.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Bossypants, by Tina Fey, is a laugh-out-loud account of Fey’s rise to success in the comedy and entertainment world. While dispensing snippets of her biography--Fey gives carefully measured glimpses into her personal life, including giving her husband an alias that she ‘forgets’ to use--she shares her personal philosophy on an array of topics, including women in comedy, raising girls, and leading others. Pretty heady topics for a comic but it’s clear, if you didn’t already know this about Tina Fey, that’s she one bright person. In addition to being funny on screen, she’s a talented writer and producer. The other thing you quickly discover about Fey is that she’d be a hoot to hang around with, and she writes the book as if you’re already a pal. She’s honest and approachable.

Some topics will probably resonate more with women readers. In one passage, she describes how her young daughter had a reversible doll, with Snow White on one side and Sleeping Beauty on the other. Her daughter clearly preferred the Sleeping Beauty side. Why? Because Sleeping Beauty’s hair was blond (or as Fey insisted she call it, “yellow”) instead of brown. Fey goes on to discuss female body image and how grateful she is for a long list of what she considers to be her less-than-desirable body parts.

Even with philosophical interjections, Fey is unfailingly witty. She refers to a class at the YMCA, where she briefly worked, as “Toddler Gym N Stuff N Mommy N Thangs.” She gives a short lesson on improvisation, and how using those basics can improve collaboration and creativity. She advises readers on dealing with difficult people and achieving your personal goals by referring to an old film piece by Sesame Street called “Over! Under! Through!” Fey’s advice is firmly rooted in her own approach, “Do your own thing and don’t care if they like it.”

Yes, Fey talks about her scar, but only briefly. It’s clear she doesn’t think it’s material to her story and readers just don’t need to know that much about it. She tells about her experience impersonating Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, and actually meeting her, including an unusual offer by Palin to have Bristol babysit Fey’s young daughter during the show. But there’s much more to Fey’s story than these curiosity lightning rods.

Bossypants is serious funny business. It was published by Little Brown and Company in 2011.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination, by Hugh MacLeod

Evil Plans is a delicious little book of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.  Illustrated with MacLeod's cartoons, the book seeks to inspire those who feel they're on "the hamster wheel" as MacLeod describes it, and don't like working for others anymore.  They need an "evil plan"--something so simple yet so rich with potential that in the right hands, it cannot fail.  But you're not ready for your "evil plan" until you have what MacLeod calls the "Moment."  That's "when we stop futzing around and actually start behaving like proper adults," according to MacLeod.  "That moment we actually start acting like officers in command of our own lives." 

MacLeod's theory includes the belief that it's important to connect with buyers on a different, more human, level.  He writes, "It's no longer enough for people to believe that your product does what it says on the label.  They want to believe in you and what you do."  MacLeod reiterates this philosophy several times in the book.  "It is your soul, and the purpose and beliefs that your soul embodies, that people will buy into."  If you're making a product or providing a service and don't feel inspired after reading MacLeod's theories, then you may not be cut out for building your own business. 

The book is a fast and easy read, and the cartoons are enjoyable and artfully drawn with bits of pithy advice or observations. MacLeod's modus operandi for success is clear:  hard work, long hours, multiple means to success, and few luxury needs. He describes being involved in multiple endeavors at once, all the while cartooning and working his connections in the art community. 

A word of caution for eReader users:  the lettering on some of the cartoons is light and small, so they can be difficult to read.  On some eReaders, only the font size (and not embedded pictures) can be enlarged, so efforts to change the size of the text don't affect the cartoon lettering.  This might be a book best purchased to read on paper if your eReader can't adjust the size of pictures. 

Evil Plans was published in 2011 by Portfolio Hardcover.  MacLeod is also the author of Ignore Everybody:  And 39 Other Keys to CreativityMacLeod's blog is http://www.gapingvoid.com/, where you can subscribe to receive a daily cartoon. 

Cover photo from the author's website:  www.gapingvoid.com.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Thirteenth Tale, by Dianne Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale, by Dianne Setterfield, is a light-as-dandelion-fluff mystery novel perfect for the beach or pool. The story features Margaret Lea, the daughter of a bookseller father and an emotionally remote mother, who is contacted out-of-the-blue by the prolific and popular contemporary author, Vida Winter. Lea had dabbled in biographies, but was by no means a well-known author, and she is puzzled why this famous author would contact her, an author whose works she hadn’t herself read.

One of Winter’s works is entitled “The Thirteenth Tale,” which was published with only twelve stories. Subsequent printings of the book deleted the reference to thirteen stories, but interviewers and fans of Miss Winters’ were fascinated by the notion of a tale not told. In fact, Miss Winter was a difficult subject to interview. She invented stories about her past, and would routinely weave tales for journalists who sought to tell the story of her life. Winter revealed to Lea that she was once asked to “tell the truth” and she was now ready to do that. She would tell her tale to Margaret Lea.

Winter tells Lea that she cannot interrupt, ask questions, or attempt to “skip to the end.” Lea discovers that the author is in failing health from an unnamed condition, and wants to “tell the truth” now that her story may otherwise go untold. What she reveals is a convoluted, cruel, and sometimes perverse family history involving twins, orphaned children, incest, arson, rape, and murder. Settlefield writes in the style of Gothic fiction, so her treatment of these elements of the story is not graphic.

As the story is unraveled through Winter’s interviews with her biographer, Lea begins to investigate on her own to learn if the story Winter is telling her is true. What she finds surprises her, and allows her to help Miss Winter unwind the final elements of her story.

The Thirteenth Tale is an entertaining book, quick to read and full of suspense. There are some loose strands at the end of the story that seem to be left untied, but otherwise the story is wrapped up in a satisfying ending. The Thirteenth Tale was published by Atria Books in 2006.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, is the story of twin boys born to a disgraced nun and her doctor lover at the Missing Hospital in Ethiopia. Readers shouldn’t be intimidated by the book’s length—more than 600 pages. The novel’s intriguing opening is indicative of the story to come. Verghese masterfully creates rich characters, some of which are drawn from both medical and political history, and spins a story that once begun, the reader will not want to put down.

Marion Stone is the story’s narrator, one of the pair of twins born to Sister Mary Joseph Praise and Dr. Thomas Stone. Stone was an acclaimed surgeon and Praise his assistant, “dutiful, competent, uncomplaining, and never absent” except for the birth of their twins. The twins, Marion and Shiva, were raised by Hema, the resident gynecologist, and Ghosh, her eventual husband, due to the events surrounding the twins’ birth. Marion is a scholar and becomes a skilled surgeon, but Shiva is a genius, with a photographic memory and inherent mathematical and mechanical abilities. And Shiva has a skill Marion does not. “He had so many ways of climbing into the tree house in his head, escaping the madness below, and pulling the ladder up behind him; I was envious,” Marion wrote.

Because Marion and Shiva are both doctors, the book includes many descriptions of surgical procedures. They are academic but never dull to read, and one can’t help but feel their own interest in subjects like organ donation piqued by the narratives. One of the gifts from Abraham Verghese, in addition to the story itself, is the gift of curiosity. Including medical facts and procedures, places, characters, and events such as Addis Ababa, Haile Selassie, and the political unrest in Ethiopia, encourages the reader to seek out what is true and what facts might have been embellished or changed for the story. Those who love to learn will appreciate these prompts to find out more.

Marion’s story involves his relationship with his twin, Shiva, and the love of his life, Genet, who is raised with the twins and is the daughter of a domestic worker at the mission. While Shiva learns at Hema’s clinic, Marion travels to the United States to complete his training and residency. There, he finds ghosts from his previous life in Ethiopia, and seeks to find closure with his father, Genet, and Shiva.

Cutting for Stone won the American Booksellers Indies Choice award for Adult Fiction in 2010. Dr. Verghese is a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and is himself of Indian decent raised in Addis Ababa. Cutting for Stone was published in 2010 by Vintage Books.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme is the delightful love story and memoir of the inimitable Julia Child, French chef, author, and television personality. The movie Julie and Julia was partially based on the book, and scenes from the movie involving Julia’s rise to cooking prominence, her partnership with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, and the publishing of her first cookbook are all drawn from My Life in France.

The book is engaging and easy to read. Admirers of Child's will find its intimacies about her life fascinating, particularly with regard to her desire to become a chef in the first place. When she is admitted to the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school she declares, “How magnificent to find my life’s calling, at long last!” The reader can’t help but want to celebrate with her, knowing the legacy she left.

But Child reveals much about herself that isn’t related to cooking. She shares how she lacked confidence in the academic and artistic circles her husband cultivated. “I was thirty-seven years old,” she says, “and still discovering who I was.” And, she elaborates on her famous aplomb when cooking mistakes happened. “I made sure not to apologize for (a failed dish). This was a rule of mine. I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make.” Instead, you “grit (your) teeth and bear it with a smile—and learn from (your) mistakes.”

Stories about meals abound, including the ultimate restaurant meals and their chefs’ techniques. When Child and her husband are assigned to a post in Germany—Julia’s husband was a government employee—her despair at the lack of “good” food and ingredients was palpable.

My Life in France is a charming book, full of excellent advice for the budding chef, and a good place to start before picking up Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child’s defining creation. Published in 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf, My Life in France, as well as an entire bookshelf of Julia Child cookbooks, is readily available in print and electronic versions.