Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cutting For Stone, Abraham Verghese

Well, what a beautiful and satisfying book.  The author weaves a tale of twin brothers who are raised in a hospital in Ethiopia during an era of revolution.  They are aware of the unconventional family in which they find themselves in and excel in their own ways.

They are at the core of a tragedy, a mystery, lost and missing family.  They are well cared for and loved.  Their story unfolds mostly through the narration of one of the twins.  Marion, like all the characters in this book, is well rounded, complicated and human.  His maturity expands as the story unfolds and his transformation from child to man is stunning.

Our book discussion jumped from topic to topic mostly on the bent of "I LOVED THIS PART" and "I loved how this was written."   We found that in spite of the books 650 pages that it was a quick read.  To say we devoured it would be an understatement.

Dr. Verghese, if you ever Google your own name and find our silly little blog we want to invite you to come to dinner.  WE LOVED YOUR BOOK!

We were infinitely impressed with the amount of medical information in the story, especially around surgeries and illnesses and how it was extremely accessible to us non-doctor type people.  The journey of our characters to become a doctor and the involvement of the multiple doctors and medical personnel could have been tedious, but it wasn't, it was lovely.

The only loud and remotely negative comment related to this story is the general outrage that smart men have trouble walking away from women who are 'trouble'.  This isn't a complaint about the book as much as a commentary on humans (women do it too.)  What is it about us that we see others for who we want them to be, rather than who they may have become?    Is it so hard to accept that if someone hits you, lies to you, manipulates you, sleeps with your best friend, kills your cat, sets your house on fire, takes your savings or other general malfeasance that maybe, just maybe they aren't worthy of your love???  Sorry for the side track - I'm not suggesting that forgiveness isn't an option, but snap out of it, some people are douche bags.  Learn to recognize them and get them out of your life!

Back to the point.  Cutting for Stone, confusing title and all, was well received by our humble group, come dine and discuss with us Dr. Verghese.  We want to shower you with our appreciation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Zelda, A biography

an attempt at ballet

at age 19

with her husband
We read Nancy Milford's Zelda, a biography this month.  Ms. Milford brought us Savage Beauty that was well appreciated by our book group and we had high hopes for this, her first novel.

Zelda is the biography of the charmed but troubled life for Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald.  She was in essence the first flapper and symbolized the roaring 20's for many.  The reality of it is that she was mentally ill, married to an alcoholic and was starving for a creative outlet of her own.  Writing was essentially denied because her husband claimed their (her) life story and experiences as his own creative domain.  Attempts on her part to fictionalize anything based upon her own thoughts and experiences were squelched or shunned.

Examining the life events of people who are iconic can be exhausting.  It is difficult to learn that they were not the happy, go lucky people that society wants them to be. It is (to me) frustrating to immerse into a world where unhappiness and abuse reins.   Zelda was a strong woman prone to whimsy and her life might have been different had she selected a life partner who was just that, a partner.  It was clear that Scott was the star and all things must support that.  When she did have minor successes Scott managed and facilitated it so he a) was seen as responsible for it and b) could control the impact on their world.  He negotiated her contracts, "co-authored" articles and because of his own debt basically eliminated any profit she may have seen.  She netted about $150 from her one mildly successful book because the remainder of the compensation was held to cover Scotts debt with the publisher. 

We were mixed on how many finished the book, but were unified in our opinion that while it was a noteworthy effort that Ms. Milford could have benefited from an editor.  She spent pages on examples of how Scott used letters and passages from Zelda's diaries in his books.  A couple of examples would have sufficed for the novel.  For her thesis, I understand why Milford would want to show that she found many many glaring examples of plagiarism, but when this part of the book came up I personally found myself skimming.

We were also of differencing opinions as to how sympathetic the author was to Scott.  Some of us felt that in spite of the detail of the alcoholism and his marked cruelty that she was portraying him as a reasonably loving husband.   Others felt that she showed him to be the insecure cad that he was.

Of the two Milford biographies Savage Beauty comes out on top, but this one was certainly worthy of the time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Piano Teacher

Whoops. With this month's book group meeting being held tomorrow it is apparent that this write up is past due.

Our last book was entitled The Piano Teacher.  It was written by Janice Y. K. Lee in 2008 and was a New York Times Bestseller. 

The gist of the story is that of Will, an Englishman, who arrives in Hong Kong as part of the growing and resented British occupation.  He has a passionate affair with a colorful party girl.  The Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in WW2 results in the upheaval of their universe.  He's imprisoned (detained) with the rest of the British citizens and her status on the outside enables him to move back and forth.

The story is also paralleled by Claire, who arrives in Hong Kong with her husband about 10 years later and she encounters Will who is now the driver for a prominent Hong Kong family.    The relationship between Will and the family are mysterious and it seems he has more influence than a driver should. 

We found the story to be somewhat convoluted, and some of the periphery characters were hard to follow.  Some of the major ploy twits were left to the imagination vs. giving the reader the proof needed to believe what was being implied.

Also, the two central love affairs seemed unrealistic and frankly we couldn't see the appeal. 

Another complaint was the title of the book.  The Piano Teacher bookends the story and she does play a role in the later story, but she is not the central character nor does her presence serve as the catalyst to set more dramatic events into action. 

Mostly, we felt the book was acceptable but not earth shattering.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Yeah, really?!"

"The salesperson at "XYZ" Books tried to talk me out of buying this book."

"I'm sorry Woody Allen, blood or no blood relation, it's creepy!"

"I'd actually like to read a quality book about Vienna in the 1800's."

A few memorable quotes from our discussion of Selden Edwards, The Little Book.

Here's a quick plot summary to save you the trouble of ever having to read this "especially delicious" (according to Maureen Corrigan, FRESH AIR) tale.

Wheeler is a famous Rock & Roll star from the 1970's who also happened to be an almost baseball legend who speaks German fluently and who has a remarkable knowledge of Freud, the history and politics of Vienna Austria in the late 1890's.  This is all very helpful because for some unknown reason he wakes up to find himself walking the streets of Vienna in 1897.  During his time in Vienna he interacts with Dr. Sigmund Freud,  Gustav Klimpt, Mark Twain and a woman trying to pass herself off as George Elliot.  He also runs into multiple generations of his own family making enemies with some and getting FAR too close with others.

In the beginning we are told that his family had some big book of all sorts of interesting information and while Wheeler was in Vienna he keep a notebook with lots of observations while he was there, and then eventually there is a big reveal that "gasp" the books are one in the same.  REALLY?  wow

We as a group pretty much picked this book apart.  We decided that Wheeler is the fantasy description of who the ideal man might be. A sports hero (stopping short of pitching a perfect game at Haaarvard) a rock star, his most famous song was one he sang only once on a stage in front of 100,000 people, he was saavy with women, told Freud to his face what the flaws were with his theories, made love to a woman 20 years his junior in a loft surrounded by paintings that would eventually be in the Louver, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and on t-shirt and handbags of American women everywhere.  REALLY? (boring)

In concept, this book is the movie Groundhogs day, only there's no big "thing" to fix or resolve.  He's there, he's interacting with people that according to all science fiction fantasy he shouldn't.  Everyone knows, if you go back in time you're not supposed to alter history.  Sure, you can bet on sporting events that you know the outcome to (ala Back to the Future) but you aren't supposed to tell President Lincoln to skip the show.   This guy violates every imaginary back in time rule you can imagine.  He somehow manages (with no clothes and no money) to make friends with the most influential social people of the era.

We do agree that Vienna in the 1890's were an amazing time and we would like to learn more about it, but sheesh, this isn't the book.

The characters were flat, the writing was bad and in spite of the convoluted nature of the plot... it was obvious.  I personally HATED the last lines of the book.

"XXXXX" were XXX's last words.
This time around.

REALLY?!  oh please.

Do we recommend it?  um... no.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Let The Great World Spin

Set in New York in August of 1974, this novel weaves the story of tragedy and redemption of a group of people who have no business knowing each other. 

Lightly centered around the actual events of August 7th, when Phillipe Petit, a French high wire artist strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and for 45 minutes crossed between them 8 times.   His feat was featured in a film last year called "Man on Wire", which was good, but also one I hear you need to not be dead tired while "watching."

Let The Great World Spin, is artfully told about the people down below who watched the event, how it influenced their day, even in the most remote way.  Petit is not even a primary character in this artfully told tale.  He is simply the "story of the day" to people whose lives are unknowingly intertwined. 

The author, Colum McCann tells his story by using a new character at each chapter.  Sometimes it is not clear for a few pages who the narrator is at the moment, but McCann uses this device well and brings the story, the people and their connections around.    He doesn't feel the need to close the loop on characters completely and obviously, but if you're paying attention you can catch the resolution (and redemption) of his cast of players.

McCann draws for us a  group of people who are flawed, insecure, and extremely likable.  This reader has never read a more sympathetic, but real in the light of day account of an inner city prostitute.  She's not the Julia Roberts, beautiful prostitute, she is addicted to heroin, and works her craft to get what she needs. She is conflicted between pride and sorrow that her daughter works the same corner she does.  She is a loving mother and grandmother who is at the same time pathetic and brilliant.   

We are also introduced to a grieving mother of a man killed in Vietnam.  Her support group is meeting at her house for the first time and she struggles with the fact that from the outside she looks like a rich, Park Avenue snob.  Who can feel sorrow for someone with so much?  She says the wrong things and is easily dismissed and yet her grief, isolation and desire for life make her not only likable, but someone you wish you could know.

One of the only complaints from our group was that while we were "updated" on the progression of a characters story, there were a few voices we wish we could have heard again.   We liked how the story wrapped up, we were mostly left wanting at the end.  I was sad to realize that the 30 pages of the book was an interview with the author and not the continuing story. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Netherland, Joseph O'Neill

For the record, we are avid readers.  We enjoy exploring fiction and non-fiction and allow our group discussions to flow in whatever direction they may.  One of our members made a comment about a recent book selection of ours being painful and the individual to whom she was speaking took great offense.  The offended, a professional author, suggested that since our member was not an author or editor that she had no business criticizing the work.  This may be the most absurd suggestion ever uttered.  Authors are to be commended for their efforts but because they write and publish books it does not mean they are the only people entitled to an opinion.

You don't have to be a chef to know when something tastes bad, you don't have to be a clothing designer to know when someone is dressed inappropriately, and you don't have to be an author to know when something you read is badly written, boring or over indulgent.

So there!  We are entitled to our opinion and while we hope you authors keep writing (ok maybe not you Alice S.) but we will have opinions and we will share them with anyone who cares to pop by our little page.

Our book this month was Netherland by Joseph O'Neil.  It was supposed to be "suspenseful, artful, psychologically pitch-perfect" and an engaging tale of life as an immigrant in New York.  We didn't find it to be any of those things. 

The gist of the story is that Hans is in New York working for a bank and married to a British woman who is understandably shaken up after 9/11 and takes her leave with their son and tells Hans to stay in the US for a while.  They will "figure out" what to do about their marriage later.  Hans, being European naturally is a cricket fan (naturally!) and gets involved in a cricket club and meets Chuck, a dreamer/schemer from Trinidad.  Eventually, Chuck is murdered (I'm not revealing anything, it is the first two pages of the book) and the situation with the marriage is 'resolved'.

There is A LOT of cricket talk in the book, and perhaps for an educated reader for whom cricket is more than a sport with a funny stick and white shorts the parallels between the game and the narrative may have been clear.  However, for this reader and the other rather smart ladies of our book group we agree we know more about the nuances of "Quiddich" from the make believe world of Harry Potter than we do in reading O'Neills cricket episodes. 

There is a lot of interesting New York life in the Chelsey hotel where our Hans lives while his apartment is de-dusted from the 9/11 debris.  There is also a lot of nothing taking place. 

For those of us who finished it there was a sense of waiting for it to get better, but we agreed we were glad we finished it.  Comments around the table were as follows.  (Mr. O'Neill, take comfort in the fact that you won a PEN/FAULKNER award and earned the New York Times Book Review, Best Book of the Year while you read these comments.)

"It was indulgent"

"He's masturbating with the words"

"The writing gets in the way of the story"

"Reading this made me realize I miss "chapters". "

We also felt the author jumped back and forth in time more often than a LOST episode.  As Christine paraphrased;  "as I was standing at the window, I was reminded of a party I attended with my wife where I saw a butterfly that reminded me of a dark time in my past."  Holy CRAP man, be reminded, but whoa, skip the complex Visio diagram to get us there. 

As an offering of the "masturbating with words" example we share with you a SINGLE SENTENCE:

I suspect that what keeps us harmless from them is not, as many seem to believe, the maintenance of a strict  frontier between the kingdoms of the fanciful and the actual, but the contrary: the permitting of a benign annexation of the latter by the former, so that our daily emotions always cast a secondary otherworldly shadow and, at those moments when we feel inclined to turn from the more plausible and hurtful meanings of things, we soothingly find ourselves attached to a companion far-fetched sense of the world and our place in it.

I bet you do!  We think it means that we are helped along in our lives by having our head in the clouds somewhat.  Our daydreams get us through, or something like that.   I stopped reading at "the annexation of the latter by the former."

This book did win awards and has been recommended by organizations and individuals that we revere but it is likely not one we will be recommending anytime soon.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A novel

The problem I see with having a book group that has been together for over 15 years is that we care too much about each others lives. The first half of our gatherings are simply wasted on catching up on the latest news, family updates, business adventures, and the stuff of life. These updates get longer and longer as the years go by. They are, well, frankly - wonderful! Even when the news is not happy it is so nice to support each other.

When we finally settled enough to discuss the book the plot comparison to William Shakespeare's Hamlet was immediate. The title character Edward is born mute and communicates with his family and the dogs they raise as their business in his own form of sign language. He is easily mistaken as someone to be overlooked, but is one smart cookie. He unravels a tale of revenge and envy that dates back before his time and risks everything to prove it.

The author switches narrators and this device allows us to glean insight into the motivations of Edgar, his mother, his uncle, even his beloved dog. Even to a moderate dog lover, the chapters that are narrated by Edgar's dog Almondine are sweet and heartbreaking.

The story is epic and gripping and while there is plenty of foreshadowing certain events are shocking.

There was some criticism that the "villains" seemed one dimensional and that the "all bad" character is hard to buy. We did have some desires regarding the way the story concluded that can't be discussed without ruining it for a reader who should read this book on their own, but I hope it isn't too much to say that if you're reading a book loosely based on the Hamlet storyline don't be shocked when the book doesn't end with a wedding or a big party.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

You mean they didn’t have turkey at Thanksgiving?

We may have bit off more than we could chew this time. We tackled A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn which walks us through the formation of these great United States from 1492 to present. That is a lot of territory to cover and since Zinn’s charter was to not sugar coat the true story by omitting the uglier aspects of our history it is a dense and deep read.

None of us finished the book. This is not the first time that has ever happened, but it is the first time it has happened with a book that we essentially liked. We have committed to each other to try and finish it by our next meeting and I’m pretty sure it is a book that will come up over and over again, especially as we discuss how our past affects current events.

Zinn doesn’t shy away from the true economics of slavery and before that how “we” maneuvered the native people off their land. That’s a kind way of saying we stole it and then killed those who didn’t appreciate our rightful ownership. He also paints a very dreary picture of our founding fathers Andrew Jackson…not such a decent guy unless you were a white wealthy business or land owner. Funny how we don’t hear about those things in high school history class.

In Haiti, Columbus managed to kill half of the indigenous peoples in a two year period (around 1495) in his quest for gold. That’s an impressive feat - by the year 1650 none of the original Arawak people could be located, and entire native population was wiped out. It is no surprise that when Columbus arrived on the continent we now call home that the natives were identified as easily conquerable.

The book is at the same time overflowing with information and too brief. Slavery and the industrial revolution go on for chapters and chapters while WWI gets a brief overview. The more recent historical events are much briefer than the earlier topics – perhaps because we have a better understanding of those events. Maybe the industrial revolution needed investigative reporters to blow the lid off unions and labor issues.

The other thing that becomes clear is that there wasn’t one massive conspiracy to keep the little guy down and the rich guy rich… but a series of events and decisions made with a common element that seems to have been “How can I keep the power in my court?” Zinn doesn’t go so far as to suggest that there was a meeting and the folks who were trying to keep the peace while the newly emancipated slaves were demanding equality, openly discussed just how much they had to give in to keep the peace while not giving up too much control. “How about this Jedediah, what if we let them vote, but only if they own land. That’ll keep the numbers down, but they’ll have hope that one day they’ll have a say. That will help us deal with those pesky Irish immigrants that are about to hop off the boats too. They’ll want a say as well and we can’t have that.”

It seems cynical to view history through these eyes, but the version we are presented with most frequently is rather pretty and ignores certain events – such as the complete manufacture of the primary provocation for the Mexican war (we wanted the land north of the Rio Grande – pure and simple). It is no wonder that in our current age of desiring more information that someone would go back and review the archived materials and paint a more accurate picture of events.

Zinn doesn’t suggest that the US is an all evil empire, the evolution of the United States is a human story – it is a story of what people are capable of – good and bad. It isn’t surprising though that our neighbors in Europe and even in the Americas are openly irritated by our arrogance and holier than thou attitude. They probably have a better understanding of our history than we do.

None of us would advocate that if you only read one history book ever that this be the one – but it is a nice version to have in your library.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2009 Reading List

  • Maus (I & II) Art Spieglman
  • The Complete Percepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • Blankets, Craig Thompson
  • The Geurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • The Fate of Africa (abandoned)
  • The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
  • The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poiter
  • Savage Beauty: the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay , Nancy Milford
  • Sweetness in the Belly, Camilla Gibb
  • The White Tiger, Aravind Aidga
  • The heart is a lonely hunter, Carson McCullers
  • The Things They Carried

Book of the Year 2009

It was a lively discussion regarding book of the year. We had lots of debate around the three graphic novels as our favorite book group discussion, but opted to split the three books and have them stand alone for voting.

There were votes for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but in the end, Savage Beauty: the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford emerged as our top pick in 2009.

It was also a book club first that all seven of us selected the same book as "least favorite" - can you guess? Sorry Mr. Poiter, we think your book is terrible. All the Oprah fans may try to track us down for disagreeing with Ms. Winfrey, but the fact that he may be a good man doesn't translate into a great book.

So, skip Measure of a Man and pick up Savage Beauty!

( Hey Kristen! Happy 2010 )