Wednesday, November 30, 2011

So Much For That

For this book about how a family navigates the twisty world of the health care system during a crisis the reviews from our group were mixed.  We all agreed that the author was not the best writer we've ever read and that her  editors should have talked her into losing a story line that was rather stomach churning and didn't really add to the flavor of the character's journey.  However, we talked about the subject matter for almost two hours, skipping over our normal social chatting.

The book touched on themes of the meaning of marriage, parenting, familial duty, friendships during a crisis and self worth.   Who comes around when the going gets really tough?  Lionel Shriver, our author and a woman, suggests it is not always whom you think it will be.   At one point our main character, Shep makes a list of his wife's friends and puts them into groups, distant friends, close friends and "family".  As they spend a year on her  chronic illness the people in those buckets shift.

We discussed how that happens in real life, one of our members shared the heartbreaking story of a beloved uncle with a devastating illness and she tried everything to be of help and was pushed away.  It sounded like the Uncle and his wife were in hunker down mode and decided that they would handle it on their own.  Granted, those we love that are dying don't have an obligation to make us feel better about it but it is understandable that the inability to spend time with this loved one made the process harder for those that love him.  Another member shared an all too true feeling that when someone you know becomes ill you aren't sure what to say and also you aren't sure if you're really welcome or if you're actually intruding on their intimate and personal space.

We agreed, that statements like "let me know if there's anything I can do" puts the burden back on the patient and or their caregiver, and that it is better to fill a need if you see it.  Something a small as dropping by to mow the lawn or leaving food.  Communication with the patient or the caregiver is key, because

Another member who spent a significant time in the hospital system (but wasn't dying - whew!) shared that when visiting someone in the hospital you should go, but be prepared for anything, including leaving without seeing your person and come with stories.  Do not expect the patient to entertain you.   (I really had to scan my memory to make sure that when visiting her I wasn't guilty of making her do all the work, and I think I get a B+ for my hospital visits.  She still had to run through the medical update with me, but then we moved on to other non-hospital stuff which I'm hoping was enjoyable.)

We think that technology can be used to the patient and families benefit, in that by using social media or a blog the burden of providing the current medical update to everyone can be done once and people can check in without intruding.   I know of several situations where the documenting of the experience has been helpful for the families and is a heartbreaking but wonderful account of their story.  It's a bit voyeuristic, in that you're putting your personal thoughts and state of being out for the world at large to read, but not fielding 800 phone calls a week would be nice.

Back to the book, we all felt that Shriver's descriptions of the inner thoughts of her male characters were too flat and overly "mannish".  Meaning that she didn't seem to give men credit for being well rounded beings and that descriptions of why they loved their wives were limited to "possessing her body" and other physical aspects versus the reality of a complex relationship between two people who have found a connection and decided to work to keep it alive.  Her descriptions of sex from the male point of view were off putting.  (And, I am no prude!)

One important theme in the book was money.  Her points seemed to be that the healthcare system fails to consider the true cost of treatment vs. the value and will continue to push option after option for something to  do and discussions about money are shied away from at the least.  We all know that no doctor will put hard cold odds on your chances of survival or give you a solid timeline, but the soft way of discussing the facts can be very detrimental to the family and the patient.   Shep was made to feel like he was being crass when he brought up the subject of the cost of an experimental medicine vs. the likelihood of any positive results.  As ugly as that conversation would be, we (as a group) agreed that is it one we hoped we could have with our care team.

So, while our opinions on the book were varied, the sentiment seemed to be "we didn't hate it, and there was a lot to talk about."   I will put forth that if you are currently experiencing or just recently experienced a loved one with a chronic illness this book is likely not for you.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cleopatra is in the house!

A coin with the image of Cleopatra
As the keeper of the blog, I may be getting poor marks this year.  This post will cover the last two books and I have a call out to the ladies to help me find the book I know I'm missing.  My guess it is one that I didn't actually read and that is why I can't remember it.

Our discussion last night was over the book Cleopatra, a Life by Stacy Schiff.   We skipped over the book group part where we all catch up and immediately jumped into the book.  At first we were marveling over the significance of Cleopatra and her story.  For those of us who were uninformed it was an eye opening read to learn how integral she was in the Caesar / Mark Anthony era.  My image of her was similar to Helen of Troy, someone you hear about but don't really know any details. 

We were impressed that at the time of her reign her gender was a non-issue and the fact that she had children by multiple fathers also didn't seem to bother her people.  She taxed the heck out of everyone and yet was liked. 

We agreed with (a missing Melinda) that at times it felt like the Cleopatra story line was secondary to the drama unfolding in the Roman Empire. We attributed that a bit to the availability of historical reference material.  The "doings" in the RE are well documented while the historical artifacts from Alexandria were largely lost and thus many things are speculation.  The author did not take liberties and describe scenes, moods and conversations that she could not be privy too.  Thank you!

In discussing the tone of the book we wondered what an author like Doris Kerns Goodwin could do with the same subject matter.  We agreed that Ms. Goowin's historical offerings tend to "put you in the room" with the action more than Ms. Schiff's book.  However, we do acknowledge that it would be a lot easier to write about Theodore Roosevelt or the Kennedy's because of the availability of their schedules, writings, and the documents that others who were in the room provided.

We felt that the second half of the book flowed better and was far more intriguing.  The first half read like a college history book.  In fact, one of our members had to spend the day with her daughter in the car on an unexpected road trip, so she downloaded the audio book and the daughters response was that mom was reading a history book.  We enjoyed the book, but personally I think it is great torture for the teen to have to endure mom's book.

Our understanding of the era has increased and individuals whom we knew little about have become clearer.  Herod - bad guy.  Mark Anthony - love sick warrior.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Light of the Evening, Edna Obrien

This is the tale of Dilly an Irish woman and her relationships, primarily that of the one between her and her daughter. 

Dilly is dying and in the hospital and is recalling her life - her move to America where she endures a horrific journey to arrive basically alone without  a plan.  A distant cousin sets her up as a domestic servant until that falls apart.  She ends up back in Ireland where she marries and has children.  Suddenly she is old and recalling her daughters story and wishing the daughter would come to visit.   These transitions are not done very well and it isn't clear if it is bad story telling or if Dilly is only giving us information as it comes to her.

At the end of the novel, the story shifts from a narrative to letters and they reveal different nuances of the story.  Mostly this story is about mothers and daughters and communication.  Even when Dilly gets her wish it is unsatisfying.

This is a nice story that doesn't quite work. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

What can I tell you... I don't respond well to short stories.  I stopped reading after the first few and I wondered if they were all going to be dark and pointless.

I was assured that not all Ms. Davis' stories had that tone and some were actually quite funny. 

This reader didn't finish enough of the book to write a fair review, so instead I will provide a picture of the author.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Missing in action

Whoops – there has been quite the break in service at this blog.  What in the heck have I been doing? Oh wait, I had a baby.  I hope that is excuse enough for the delay in write ups for multiple books.

Since I’ve been missing in action we have read and discussed three books:

  • War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The “we” in that above sentence is rather generous as I did not read nor really attempt to read War & Peace.   I will write each recap to the best of my ability and then post them as if they were published in a timely manner.

We also brought our better halves together for a lovely dinner at Melinda's.  It can be a challenge to cook dinner for 14 people, so we were all assigned a group and that group made a specific element of dinner. It was interactive and fun.   Who knew that a zucchini patty could be so darned tasty.

The idea that we were able to find a date when we could all attend was noted as a book group miracle.

Slaughterhouse Five

Picking a ‘classic’ can be a crap shoot.  Some books are important in our world collection of works and they stand up to the test of time.  Hemingway's books come to mind for me.  Others are important because of what they meant at the time they were written but they don’t necessarily have the same impact in the modern world. 

As noted in the War & Peace write up, it is an amazing book, but many aspects of the story come across like a gossipy romance novel.  Important – ABSOLUTELY!  Impressive – certainly.   Timeless? – maybe not so much.

Slaughterhouse Five is one of those works.  It is considered an  “American Classic” and was hailed as one of the worlds greatest antiwar books. 

We knew little of the book before reading it.  Personally, I thought the Slaughterhouse Five was a reference to five individuals about whom the story would be centered.  I figured they experienced (or perpetrated) a horrific wartime event.  Nope, the reference is to the name of the building that was their makeshift war camp.    Because of the nature of the building the prisoners who were in that location when the firebombing of Dresden occurred they survived whereas the rest of the prisoners as well as the German captors were killed.   This, however, is NOT the primary story.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an ill-equipped young man who gets deployed behind the German front at the worst possible time.  Before he can even be issued jack boots he is separated from his unit and ends up being captured.   

Billy survives the war and goes back home to his boring life and his boring wife. 

The story of Billy is not told in a linear style, as Billy experiences ‘shifts’ in time.  He experiences his first moment of getting lost in time in 1944 where he seems to ‘check out’ and jump to a moment in the future.  It is not clear if these time traveling moments are actually his later self-re-experiencing the harsh moments of his life or his way of escaping these moments when they actually occur.  (Perhaps the book The Time Traveler’s Wife ruined me for time travel.)  Regardless, both the flash forwards and the moments in the war are accurate events in Billy's life.

The other unique thing about Billy is that sometimes he time travels to the time that he was abducted by aliens and held in a zoo on their planet.  There he learns that all life events occur simultaneously and all events are destined to happen.  He is informed that he will die on February 13th, 1976 and thus during the war he isn’t filled with terror that his life might end.  This doesn’t give him any extra confidence, but with the knowledge of future events he is more calm than a lesser informed person might be. 

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the date of Billy’s death is 31 years to the day of the bombing of Dresden.  The 31 years doesn’t seem to see significant, but the author Is saying something about Billy by selecting that date.

We as a group felt that the book was dated and that there are far more detailed and informative books about WW2 available for readers.  The writing style was very simple and many of us finished this novel in a couple days. 

The author uses a phrase “so it goes” to punctuate moments of death.  It was an irritating nuance and while the intention is to show that that’s just how life works, it seemed to hammer the point home long after its usefulness.

A few members stated that this felt like a “boy book”.  We know that’s a dangerous statement because there is no actual definition of girl books or boy books.  The most general explanation I can give is that “boy books” tend to be story driven and little to no effort is made to get beneath the exterior actions of the characters.  Their feelings, fears, joys and emotions are not important to the story.  “Girl books” tend to present more of a balance between the plot points and how the characters feel about what is happening.  Cliché?  Sure, but this is our opinion.  For the record, war books can be “girl books” – The Things They Carried and Regeneration both fall into the “girl book” category for us.  Both were great reads and by no means should the males in our world ignore them as trivial.

We discussed the time travel aspect of the book at great length and wondered if when the novel was written if Vonnegut had much experience with men who had what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  We felt that Billy’s time travel was a symptom of PTSD.

Vonnegut tells this story with great detail because he in fact was a prisoner held in the underground slaughterhouse and while he is NOT the Billy Pilgrim character he does write his experiences into the novel. 

The randomness of who will live and who will die in a war situation are highlighted in that Billy Pilgram had no skills, no supplies and really no friends and yet he comes home, while another character is strong, savvy, well connected and ends up being shot to death over the theft of a teapot.  A teapot is a great metaphor for the most useless and trivial thing to die for in a city that has just been destroyed and all inhabitants have just died.  A teapot!

I for one am glad that to have finally read this novel.  Not because it was so great and mind-blowingly entertaining, but because it is part of our American Classics collection and it isn’t fair to comment on current authors without the benefit of having the critically acclaimed authors and books under your belt too.

The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Wow wow wow.  Some books make me really thankful to be a reader.  This book tells the story of one aspect of medical testing, the benefits gained, and the impact to a family who is an unwilling participant.  The author does a fantastic job of weaving the story of the family into the more clinical side of medical research.

Henrietta Lacks was a mother, a wife and an adored part of her community and in 1951 she died of a horribly aggressive strain of cervical cancer.  Mrs. Lacks tumors were biopsied and retained by Johns Hopkins University and they turned into one of the most prolific forms of human cells ever cultivated in our medical research community.  Because of the cells there were many advancements in cancer research, the most notable being the discovery of the HPV virus and its subsequent vaccine.  This advancement alone is expected to dramatically reduce cervical cancer in future generations of women.

Mrs. Lacks cells – known in the medical community as HeLa were cultivated and shipped around the world for testing in all manner of experiments.  HeLa cells were even sent into space as part of experiments. 
Divide and Conquer A HeLa cell splitting into two new cells.
The green spots are chromosomes.Courtesy Paul D. Andrews
While the doctor who initially treated Mrs. Lacks and took her cells discovered the amazing properties of the HeLa cells didn’t personally profit from them,  at least one multi-million dollar biotech company resulted because of the profitability of selling the cells to researchers around the globe.

The problem – neither Mrs. Lacks nor her family were asked if the cells could be obtained or used.  Her family were shocked to find out years later that their mother was “still alive”.  Furthermore the idea that people and companies were profiting from their mother while they couldn’t afford to see a doctor was extremely challenging.  

This book adeptly explores the topic of medical ethics.  From medical testing that occurred on poor and uneducated populations (the Tuskegee Experiments) to the fact that even in modern times when blood or tissues are sampled for needed testing the remainder of the samples that are unused after the tests are run are cataloged and used for research, Ms. Skloot does a remarkable job of bringing the facts to light in an accessible way.  She balances the benefits of the medical advancements that have been made with the emotional impact to this family. 

The Lack’s don’t have the medical background to understand that while the cells that were taken from their mother are still growing that she in fact is dead.  At one heartbreaking point in the book, her daughter who was 5 or 6 when her mom died asks if it would be possible to use the cells in a cloning process so she could have her mother back.   She is frantic at the idea that researchers are injecting her mother(s cells) with the AIDS virus, with other cancers and other diseases like polio.  She wonders if these tests are causing her mother pain.  Furthermore, in the 80’s little was known about the AIDS virus and the social stigma was also painful for this deeply religious family.

We felt that there were heroes in this true story.  Dr. Gey, the doctor who treated Mrs. Lacks and obtained the cells was a hero.  The idea of informed consent is a modern one and Dr. Gey didn’t operate with those rules.  He could have personally profited from his “discovery” but instead shared his findings (the cells) with the medical research community because it was best for mankind.
The author herself is a hero.  She advocates for the family, educates the family and supports their emotional journey and gives them what they likely need most – acknowledgement.

There was a hero at the mental institution where the Lack’s youngest sister lived and died who stepped up to not hide a horrific truth.  The facts of this little girls life and terrible death were hard to hear, but the relief felt by the family far overshadowed the somewhat reasonable desire by the institution to downplay or cover-up the truth of how life in institutions were at that time.
Along with the heroes there are some very heartbreaking aspects to this story.  The children of Mrs. Lacks suffered greatly after her death.  Not only were they at a disadvantage because they lost their mother at such as young age, but they were subjected to an almost cartoonish horrible step mother.  The youngest child was in an institution prior to her mother’s death, tragically misdiagnosed as an “idiot” when medically the likely  only real issue was deafness.  Additionally, once Mrs. Lacks, who visited with her daughter weekly, died no one ever visited the child again.  Her siblings were horrified to learn much later that they had a sister and that she had died without ever knowing why her mother never came back to see her.
The other tragic figure in the book is one of Mrs. Lack’s sons.  He suffered greatly at the hands of the step-mother and he turned into an angry, selfish man-child with no skills, no hope and no real happiness.

We felt the story was well told, it was accessible, touching and extremely relevant to our world. Ms. Skloot was hailed by the New York Times Book review as having told the Lacks family often painful history with grace.  I personally agree.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

War and Peace

Fair warning, I did not actually read this book.  I purchased it and made it to page 81 (well, my bookmark landed between page 80 and 81) but my notes will be heavily relied upon for the about to be very brief recap.

When we selected this book we did not specify a specific publication and we thought it wouldn't matter.  We thought there would be time to discuss the nuances between the different versions.  We are foolish.  We failed to remember that there are entire college courses devoted to the study of this work of fiction, and we thought that in addition to discussing the tone, story, character development, imagery, plot, historical accuracy, the essays, and intended messages that we could also compare various versions.  FOOLS.

We could have spent the entire 2 hours discussing the different plot points - who died in one book didn't in another, and which version of the story was "better".  As an observer it did seem that the gals who read the unabridged version seemed quite pleased with the longer more elaborate story line. 

Regardless of version read, there was a common feeling that the sections where Tolstoy is discussing his views of war were beating you over the head.  "Here's my point.  Here it is again, and just in case you missed it, this is my point."  No one seemed to dislike or take issue with the fact that in addition to the linear story of the five families that there were what read like essays interspersed.

One point that Tolstoy seemed to drive home is that there is a clear juxtaposition between the ideal of how glorious war is (was) often depicted and the reality of what it is really like.   He also makes it clear that it is his opinion that the idea that the war lends an implicit authorization to kill a large number of people, but in the end, it is still just murder.  Murder on a larger scale.

Tolstoy himself experienced war and did extensive research on the French invasion of Russia in 1812.  He used is own history and his learned knowledge to craft what is one of the best known books of all time. Most every point of fact regarding the events in his book have been annotated, in fact, there are points where he didn't have a reference and he calls those out as well.  This here* is fact and this** is something I couldn't find reference on.  That attention to detail is rarely seen.

The book was well received by the book group even though "it took 300 pages to figure out who was who", but after the characters were established the book "flew by".   This was one of our few book groups were the discussion of the book started the moment there was a majority of attendees and didn't stop until people were dropping like flies.  Heck, I brought a 4 week old baby to the meeting and she was of minor interest. 

The excited discussion was very fun to listen to and made me want to finally take the time to read it.  However, I went home fell asleep and my copy is now buried under other books that are getting my limited attention.  Maybe someday.  Maybe.

Monday, January 24, 2011

An Open Letter to Seldon Edwards

Mr. Edwards:  

We recently saw your comment on the Seattle Girl’s Book Group blog.
We wanted to comment back but the blog does not allow for that type of communication so hopefully this email reaches you.
Our apologies if our blog seemed unkind to you. It is true the 7 of us were not big fans of your book.
Our blog is meant as a historical record for us. 
We are not promoting our blog and other than a few friends it is not visited by many outside of our small group.
However, the last thing we hope to do is to offend a writer.
In general in life we believe in the “if you don’t have something nice to say…” mentality.  
But when having a group whose main focus is to discuss books we try to stay honest to the discussion.

Congrats to you on your success.  Having the ideas, time, energy and bravery to write a novel is a huge thing.
Something none of us have done.
While we have read sooo many books that we have loved, sometimes some come up that we don’t.
If you read some of our other posts perhaps you know you’re in good company -- we didn’t like Herzog – which most of the world considers a classic.
We didn’t like Netherland and yet the New York Times Book Review (which we revere) named it one of the top 10 books of the year. 
Many of us disliked Snow by Orhan Pamuk who won the Nobel Prize (we wanted to like it we really did).

The praise you’ve had from Richard Ford, Pat Conroy, NPR and others are fantastic. We wish the best for you and hope you continue to have a great ride with this novel and your next.

Seattle Girl’s Book Group

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2010 Book of the Year

The vote was close this year.  There was a lot of  support for our second favorite "Let the Great World Spin" but "Cutting for Stone" won the most votes for book of the year.  We really loved this book and recommend it without reservation.

In the stinker category the vote was again close (4 to 3) for "The Little Book" as the worst book we read over "Netherland".  We recommend neither.   Someone commented that in other years The Piano Teacher would have taken a beating at year end, but with these two books in our midst, TPT eked out a (lower) middle of the pack placement.

2010 reading list

Hiroshima in the Morning, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

Little Bee, Chris Cleave

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
Zelda, a biography, Nancy Milford

The Piano Teacher, Janice Lee

The Little Book, Selden Edwards

Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Netherland, Joseph O'Neill
The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wrobleski
A People's History of the United States (1492-Present) Howard Zinn

Hiroshima in the Morning

It is rare that we as a group split on our opinions of a book.  Last night was a great discussion because of the passionate discussions that were displayed at the dinner table.  Hiroshima in the Morning is a memoir by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.  She was given the opportunity to leave New York and live in Japan for six months to interview the few remaining Hiroshima atom bomb survivors in an attempt to draw out their true stories.  She finds that the information she gets feels like the stories they have told and re-told over and over again.  They don't seem to have much truth and emotional depth.  That is, until after 9/11 when the events in New York seem to awaken the people she has been talking with and their stories become more "human."

However, the book is also about Rizzuto's loss of her mother (a Japanese woman who was sent to the interment camps in America during the war) to Alzheimers and the eventual ending of  Rizzuto's marriage.

Complaints about the book is that she was paid to write a story about the survivors and their experience and this novel about how hard it was to adapt to life in Japan and the authors struggles with her own family dynamic didn't quite mesh.  We wondered if THIS really was the book that she wrote about Hiroshima or if 10 years later she's still working on the actual book.

Some of our group took issue with Rizzuto's decision to leave her family for six months.  Is leaving your children who are 3 and 5 wrong when it is for work?  Would we have felt differently if Rizzuto had been the father and not the mother?

Others felt that her actions were fine, but she seemed cold and not emotionally present for anyone.  She spends many pages sharing how difficult it was adjusting to life in Japan, but didn't express missing her children.  When they finally are able to visit she seems to resent their presence. 

There were folks that liked the book and expressed that the longer they are away from it the more it tended to grow and resonate for them. The disdain for the book was not universal, in fact the authors actions and motivations were handily defended.

A little late, but here's Little Bee

In November the ladies packed their cars and snow gear for a weekend getaway.  We ventured over Stevens Pass to Plain, Wa (outside Leavenworth) for a cozy couple days. 

As usual, the food was amazing and the wine flowed freely.  There was a couple AM yoga sessions and walks in the snow.  Over breakfast Saturday morning we discussed our book, Little Bee by Chris Cleeve.

It is the story of a young immigrant girl, Little Bee,  from Nigeria who comes to England to find a husband and wife whom she encountered on a beach in her native land.

The story is told from the perspective of Little Bee and Sarah, the British wife. Their story is unique but at times not really very believable, however the story moved along quite well and we as a group had many topics to discuss. 

We weren't too impressed with some of the decisions that Sarah makes and thought that she was needlessly endangering her own life and the life of her 5 year old son.   Her reaction to certain events seemed untruthful and distant.  She makes a grand gesture for a stranger and then is cold and distant when an intimate is in need.

The book jacket practically implores you to not reveal the plot to others implying a rather large "gotcha" or "wow" moment. There is some devastating violence and the death of significant characters, but perhaps we are jaded as readers we didn't have a "Crying Game" / "Sixth Sense" moment that was somewhat implied. 

We think the author was attempting to comment on the shadow people who are illegal immigrants as well as the corrupt political structure in Nigeria, but both were used as plot points and thus softened somewhat. 

For the most part, we liked the book, bleak as it was, but I think we enjoyed our weekend together more.