Friday, December 31, 2010

Year's End

Another year flown by. I began to wonder midway through if I'd ever finish another book, but I rallied and have read quite a bit lately.

I lost myself in the hills of North Carolina, thanks to Kathryn Magendie's Tender Graces and Sweetie, and Vicki Lane's The Day of Small Things. Three wonderful, enchanting stories of very memorable female characters and magic mountains.

I completely lost myself in Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy. Lisbeth Salander is the most unforgettable female character I have ever encountered. I haven't rushed heart pounding through books like this since the early days of Clancy or Grisham, with the exception of Justin Cronin's The Passage. I am deeply saddened that the author died so young, and was unable to complete the stories he had in his head. Sadder still that he left no will and his family squabbles over the rights and the fate of his unfinished manuscripts and outlines.

I am slowing down now, jumping from the Smoky Mountains and Sweden to the hills of Ethiopia, reading Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. The writing in the first chapters is sublime, the story already revealing itself to be something very special. I feel guilty for paying only $5 for it on my kindle, as I'm sure the author deserves more.

There were many books I meant to read this year, but will focus on in the coming months, especially my unread Haven Kimmel, Helen Gilchrist, Anne Lamott and Jeffrey Lent books.
If I had to pick a best book of the year, it would be East of Eden, so thank you John Steinbeck.

Happy New Year and Happy reading to us all.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Kathryn Magendie has written a beautiful tale of friendship and coming of age set in the mountains of North Carolina. Sweetie and Melissa, who live very different lives, become the best of friends in this story filled with love, hope, bravery, mystery and sorrow. The prose and dialect are beautiful, the characters unforgetable, the setting transporting. This is one of the best coming of age tales I have read in a very long time, and I highly recommend this book and this author. I can't wait to read whatever she writes next.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What Nurses Know.... Menopause

This book is an indispensable guide for anyone experiencing Menopause symptoms, or for anyone seeking to understand the changes in women's bodies as they age. Karen Roush provides an overview of the process of Menopause, and comprehensive chapters on all the major concerns including hot flashes, insomnia and hormone replacement therapy. I appreciate the straight forward explanations of often conflicting data regarding HRT studies, and why the medical community continues to vacillate on their recommendation.

I enjoyed the personal quotes from women experiencing every facet of menopause, I enjoyed the history behind treatment philosophies and drug manufacturing, and appreciated the extensive bibliography, which I used to search for additional information on studies relevant to my situation.

Thanks to the author's clear, concise explanations, I now know what is happening and why, know what conversations I need to have with my physician, and most importantly, better understand the risk versus reward of potential treatment options. I only wish this book had been available years ago when I began this complicated and often confusing journey. I've been prescribed too many medications in the past for all the wrong reasons, and none have made this passage easier, and many have done more harm than good. I wish I had been a better informed consumer in the early years, and had been a more effective advocate for myself. I have discovered over the years, through my interactions with more than a half-dozen physicians, that they often don't recognize the symptoms of peri-menopause, make women feel weak for asking for help or wrongly blame stress for the pain, rather than blaming the pain for stress, they often prescribe medications that pharmaceutical companies want them to sell rather than the best medication for the patient, and are often ill informed about the side effects and withdrawal concerns for these new meds. I'm lucky I question authority, am adverse to blithely taking the medication du jour, and have relentlessly researched and sought answers and support during my rocky transition through Menopause. I was ill prepared, but this book has allowed me to finally feel more empowered about my decisions and my health care.

What Nurses Know... gets my highest recommendation, and I recommend reading it before Menopause makes you think you might be crazy.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Match: Savior Siblings

The Match, by Beth Whitehouse, tells an extraordinary story extremely well. The author skillfully explains the scientific, emotional and the ethical decisions faced by the Trebing family when their daughter Katie, diagnosed with a rare blood disease, requires a bone marrow transplant from the brother conceived intentionally as a genetic match.

I began this story filled with preconceptions and concerns about the ethics of savior sibling conception, having read a related fictional account in My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. I very quickly realized how little I actually knew about this complicated issue. My greatest surprises in reading The Match were how quickly I was able to empathize with the wrenching decisions this family had to make at every step in their journey, and how ably the author helped me to grasp the complex and astonishing science behind their story. As a mother fortunate to never have to make these kinds of decisions, I was moved to tears more times than I can remember. As a reader, I was immediately immersed in the story and felt very connected to the many wonderful people involved. As a science geek, I was astonished at the advances in genetic testing and medicine that drive the events in this story.

Simply, this is one of the best non fiction books I have read in years. Beth Whitehouse is an amazing writer who strikes a fine balance between telling a very good story and educating the reader with the scientific facts and details. I am grateful to the Librarything Early Reviewer Program and Beacon Press for this very moving book.

The Trebing family is an inspiration, and Katie and Christopher are heroes. I wish them all the best, and am very grateful and humbled to know their story.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Going West

I haven't read it, but now I want to.

Enjoy the art, the words and the accent.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Passage

I missed all the hype about Justin Cronin's Passage before I read it, which is great. I love having no expectations before I start a novel. If I had know about the bidding war for the screenplay, or his massive advance for the novel, I might have been more jaded as I read the book.

Instead, I began with a free sample from kindle, and quickly ended my long dry spell from reading. I have been suffering from some sort of doldrum or crippling book ADD, unable to finish the last 10 or 15 books I have started. I'm on track to read less books this year than any other in the last 5 years. Sad. But this book changed everything.

The Passage had me at the first chapter. By the middle of the massive 760-some pages (it's really hard to tell when you read on kindle!) I was obsessed. This story is truly epic, crosses a myriad of genres, literary devices and geographic locations and timelines, not to mention a host of characters that were sometimes a challenge to keep straight. But the story ruled. It carried me along, swept me away and cost me a lot of sleep. I inhaled it in 48 hours, and I could think of nothing but finishing it. I fell in love with at least five different characters, and think of them still, a week after I finished the book.

What's it about? It doesn't seem fair to say vampires, or the apocalypse, or the future, or medical expirements gone awry. It's about love and hope and courage, mostly. It is beautifully written, superbly crafted, eerily prescient, and the best summer read I can recommend. I'll probably read it again before the summer is over, because it is that good.

If you like The Stand, The Road, The Hot Zone, or anything by Michael Crighton, this book will entertain you and leave you wanting more. Thankfully, there is a sequel, but the wait will be long. There will be a movie, with Ridley Scott at the helm and John Logan from Gladiator writing the screenplay. I can't wait.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ms. Wishy Washy

I've started more books than I care to admit, finishing only one, Push, by Sapphire, because I watched the movie first and needed to understand the parts that didn't quite make sense. Bleak, depressing novel.

As a counterpoint, I've been trying to read Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which is amusing, Haven Kimmel's Something Rising (Light and Swift), which is everything I've come to expect from her, Patti Digh's Life is a Verb, which is affirming and motivational, and Sandra Felton's Living Organized: Proven Steps for a Clutter-Free and Beautiful Home, which is calling out my inner slob, and helping slightly. I can't seem to engage in or finish a single book, I just keep shuffling between them and carrying them around. For months now.

Maybe it's menopause, exhaustion, life, teenagers, ADD, or just a temporary slump. All I know for sure is my to read pile is enormous and not getting any smaller. I just ordered the kindle version of the complete works of the Bronte sisters, plus 2 biographies, poems of T.S. Eliot and Edna St. Vincent Millay, plus some Yeats and Frost and Blake and Dickinson. Damn you, free kindle downloads. I must be crazy.

I hope the summer break will rekindle my reading addiction, and I finish the half-read pile. Until then, no new books. No starting another book. No buying another book. No. No. No.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Art of Losing

Dirge Without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts
in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems © 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Reprinted with permission of Elizabeth Barnett, Literary Executor, The Millay Society. Online Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins, 1958)

Also in The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, Edited by Kevin Young, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010).

I sat in the morning March sun's warmth on the floor in front of my old poetry books, wondering where to shelve The Art of Losing, marking my place, but reading ahead. The page fell open to this poem on page 103, the last in the chapter headed Regret. I began to read, and for reasons unknown to me, I reread the first sentence aloud. Then the entire poem. Aloud. Louder.
I made it through, but tears burned by the last verse, my voice shaking with regret and indignation. I felt it in my soul.
I reread the last two sentences several times.
Aloud, to myself, to the world.

When my tears were finished, I felt weary, but cleansed somehow.
I will carry these thoughts in my head now. I do not approve. I am not resigned. Perhaps someday, but not yet. Maybe when I've finished the chapter called Redemption.

This book is filled with some of the best poetry covering every facet of grief, loss, mourning, life and death. Highly recommended. Cathartic.
A suitable, healing gift for anyone who has lost someone they love.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

East of Eden

"I'll want to hear," Samuel said. "I eat stories like grapes."

It has been decades since I read a book by John Steinbeck, although I remember being very touched and transported by them all these years later. It's a good thing I waited so long to read East of Eden, because I would not have been capable of appreciating all the subleties and layers hidden among the pages. I would have devoured it for the story alone, which is a masterpiece in itself, but I might have missed the point and the beauty in the meaning behind the words.

I've recently read some excellent multigenerational sagas by exceptional authors - John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River and Jeffery Lent's In the Fall - steeped in story, place and complex, unforgettable characters. Now I know that John Steinbeck did it first, and did it best, telling us "the story of my country and the story of me."

I was working at a school book sale, talking books, when an English teacher recommended East of Eden. She told us her son, and English major, recently read it as well, and they both felt it was the best book they had ever read. I agree.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Solace of Leaving Early

The Solace of Leaving Early is a fascinating look at the people in a small town, through the preconceived notions they have of one another. A brilliant student walks away from her academic life, mothers and daughters navigate the mine fields of their relationships, a preacher struggles with his relevance, a marriage unravels with tragic results. As the unique characters in the story struggle to pick up the pieces around them, they find themselves made more whole in the process.

This is my third Haven Kimmel book, my first of her novels, her first novel. I've already gushed in my previous reviews how much I love her writing style, and again, yes, very much. She is unique, brutally perceptive and gifted with descriptive talent. I have to read her in spurts, each chapter is so riveting and thought provoking or ponderous to me that I plaster the pages with sticky notes. Also, I try to make it last, because I know I'll read it too fast. If I were ever to be stuck reading a book over and over, I'd like to start here. Her characters are all so very real and tragic and touching and human. People and relationships shine in every imaginable combination. And she writes a compelling, touching story. But that’s only a piece of my adulation.

Haven Kimmel is a smart writer, she's used her education and curiosity and intellect to great advantage, drawing from sources I can barely grasp. I wonder what she hasn't read or studied. Through her bright characters, she name drops authors of philosophy and theology that make me feel desperately that I need to learn more, read more, think even more, to help make sense of it all. She made me start another reading list, and not much of it fiction: Donne, Whitehead, Updike, Tillich - just to name a few. I think philosophy and reason and religion classes might have given me some perspective or foundation I lack. Luckily, none of that is required to enjoy this story, but it is always nice for me to leave a book enthused about learning more.

It is very hard to pick a favorite quote, but here is one:

Amos knew AnnaLee was nervous around the children. She couldn't determine how to be herself; she was just moved by the desire to save them, to rescue them from the flood. But she's just like the rest of us, Amos thought. The water is wide and her boat is so small.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Spare Room

The Spare Room is a quick, engaging and insightful novel about the bonds and responsibilities of friendship in the face of death. Helen Garner is an exceptional writer, her spare prose so realistic and honest that I actually checked to be sure I was reading a novel, not a memoir. I have since learned that much of the book and the character Helen are based on her life experience. I enjoyed reading her work very much, finishing it in one day, captivated by her characters and the complicated emotional dynamics that unfold, particularly denial, anger and compassion. There are moments of discomfort, peace and heartache in this story, and much to think about when the book is finished. I felt the ending came too quickly, and would have preferred it lasted longer to provide more closure, but otherwise I highly recommend The Spare Room.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Next?

My To Be Read Pile mocks me.

So What Next?

I read some some exceptional books last year, and I see my trend is toward less books, not more, which is not likely to improve in the near future. Choosing the right book is essential, as I doubt I'll ever finish this pile, at least at the pace I keep adding to it.

I'm happy to report that of the 42 books I read in 2009, there were only 3 stinkers in the bunch. You know who you are.... And at least 20 I rated 4 or more stars who stole a little piece of my heart or fed my soul or fascinated me...There were a few monsters, huge, 700, 900 pages, labors of love or story lust. So I shouldn't be disappointed in myself for failing to hit the 50 mark. It's just a number, and I could read manja or kids books and get there easy. I don't do anything the easy way, do I?

I can't pick a favorite, and can only comment on some of the authors who touched me:

Haven Kimmel, I wish we were kids together, your memoirs made my year. A Girl Named Zippy, She Got Up Off the Couch - I laughed and cried and remembered so much I had forgotten about the magical fun of kidhood in an interesting family.

Jeffrey Lent, Lost Nation and In the Fall will linger in my memory for decades. You are another lifetime favorite author.

Olive Kitteridge and Abide with Me were revelations. I love the way Elizabeth Strout writes, and I will remember her characters for a very long time.

And for Charlaine Harris, a special shout out for the excellent diversion the Sookie Stackhouse books were over a wintry Christmas Break. I read until my eyeballs ached, each book just calling to me from the new shiny seductive kindle... 8 box set, sure! I lost myself in each book, guilty that I liked your sassy fashion forward chic lit so much. Well, I wish I'd stopped at the box set. Your last book was bleak, dark, painful, cruel and a bit sicker that the others, and you let me down, left me hanging on the hope that book 10 will redeem you, and salvage my chances at happy escape with Sookie once more.

So, 2010, we're off to a great start, with 2 by Amy Bloom under the belt, East of Eden queued up on top of the next pile, though Haven is winking at me from underneath are the three Ellen Gilchrists I bought after I read A Dangerous Age. I love her writing very much, and these stories interweave with each other, so I can revisit the characters I loved in the first book. Hopefully before I forget who is who.

Maybe I should focus on deleting books from the tbr pile. Surely there are a few clunkers in there I should just set free in the world. So, feel free to nose through my library, tell me who I must read and who I should toss.

And hope you all have something good waiting to be read in your world. It's the best use of winter I can imagine.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Where the God of Love Hangs Out

Trying to review an author who writes this well, who paints such lyrical and haunting emotional landscapes - it's like trying to talk with a mouthful of marbles. Amy Bloom is an artist. A poet. She creates startlingly dense and rich vignettes, filled with unforgettably complex characters, conflicted and sometimes inexplicable emotions, each story a window into truth.

I found myself equally tongue tied trying to post a review of Away, which I received as my first Librarything Early Reviewer advanced book in 2007. What a gift. I feel like I'm only qualified to write a thank you note and some fan mail, not review any of her writing. Which I love. I would only ask that the stories and books be longer, as I always want just a little more.

She teaches creative writing at Yale, and is a psychotherapist. She's as good as I might expect that combination to be, even better, at telling people's stories, at pulling me into her character's lives, at surprising me. She clearly knows a thing or two about love and life, about painting a picture with words.
I'll read anything she writes.

Her website is a revelation. Lies, Memories and Other Research

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I finished Last Night in Twisted River, reading 70 pages in October, a smattering in December and the back half of the 550+ pages in a three day reading marathon this week. It is a complicated novel, and I came so close to giving up, but thank goodness I kept reading. I am in awe of this novel, now that I understand what it is, and why it unfolds the way it does. It is not an easy read, but sometimes the best novels make you work for the payoff. It took me a lot of tears to finish this story, as it broke my heart in several places. Love and loss seem to strike a serious chord with me, and this story is steeped in both, spanning three generations and decades of US history, the vanishing logging trade, the artistry of cooking, the craft of writing, the serendipity of life and the comfort of love.

It's been a long time since the remembering the words in a story could make me cry days after I read them. I can't listen to After the Gold Rush without tearing up now. I don't want to go either. And I want an angel to rescue me too. I don't want love to always be about losing it, I don't want to be afraid or sad all the time.

I will remember this Irving novel for a very long time, and I rank it among his most honest and touching novels. It will resonate for a very long time.

And yes, of course there are loads of bears.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Twisted Journey

I find myself entangled in Last Night in Twisted River two months after I started it, officially past half finished, picking up steam and in need of catching my breath. The story is massive, almost 600 pages, and dense, with sentences that go on for paragraphs. I forget how much a writer likes writing sentences. The story unfolds slowly, in bits and pieces, remembered in extraordinary detail, often distracting amounts of detail, by likable characters caught up in complicated lives. I'm trying not to notice or count the insane number of paranthesis, hyphens and italics on each page, and struggling to keep track of the timeline and lives intertwined in this story. I keep reading because I want to know what happens, the suspense is dragging on for generations, and because every now and then John Irving writes something so true or so meaningful or beautiful that I remember why I read him in the first place. I'm wishing I remembered all the details from all his previous novels, as I'm sure I'm missing references galore, and I can't resist looking for parallels between the lives of Danny Angel and John Irving. It's everything quirky and man-centric I would expect, and maybe it would have helped me connect if there were a consistent female character, as dozens of women pass through the men's lives. Much sex, not much love, though there is the love of father, son and grandson holding everything together.

And one more thing: this novel makes me yearn for good food, inspires me to cook something from here or there, to see how hot my oven can get, to add a little honey to my pizza dough. I'm going to gain a few more pounds before I am finished. And finish I shall.