This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama, 1995 * * * *

On the eve of the Second World War, a young Chinese painter, named Stephen, is sent to his family's summer home in Japan to recover from tuberculosis. He will rest, swim in the salubrious sea, and paint in the brilliant and shore light – it will be quiet and solitary. He is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener, and the “samurai” of the title – a man devoted to finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world. Stephen is a noble student.  Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu's secrets and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight learning to appreciate Matsu's generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu's soulmate, Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.  But it is the four local residents he meets - a lovely young Japanese girl and three older people. What then ensues is a tale that readers will find at once classical yet utterly unique. Stephen has his own adventures, but it is the unfolding story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo that seizes your attention and will stay with you a long time.   

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, 2009, * * * *

In her tale of an aspiring white writer in 1960s Mississippi who decides to secretly compile the untold stories of black domestic workers, Kathryn Stockett attempts to work out her own complicated feelings about race relations in her native South. She throws herself into the attempt with gusto and gravitas, a risk that pays off to a point. Skeeter Phelan is a misfit, a 24-year-old college grad growing uneasy with the social hierarchies of home; the two black women who risk their lives and livelihoods to help collect the interviews she seeks, Aibileen and Minny, two black maids, are sympathetically if somewhat predictably, drawn while the the white characters have the least dimension. Other characters feel stock and could have used more dimension. There is also the matter of a white author writing in “black” voices. It is easy to understand black idioms as an aesthetic choice but the white characters appear free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners have. There's also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn't always avoid going down a road too well traveled  Despite my comments, it was still one of the best reads I had last year, and I have no doubt that a great movie will be made from this story.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman, 1997, * * * *

In Merced, CA, which has a large Hmong community, Lia Lee was born in 1981, the 13th child in a family coping with their plunge into a modern and mechanized way of life. The child suffered an initial seizure at the age of three months which her family attributed to the slamming of the front door by an older sister. They felt the fright had caused the baby's soul to flee her body and become lost to a malignant spirit. The report of the family's attempts to cure Lia through shamanistic intervention and the home sacrifices of pigs and chickens is balanced by the intervention of the medical community that insisted upon the removal of the child from deeply loving parents with disastrous results. This compassionate and understanding account fairly represents the positions of all the parties involved. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, written with the deepest of human feeling. According to Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author and professor of bioethics and medicine at Yale, “there are no villains in Fadiman’s tale, just as there are no heroes. People are presented in all their humility, frailty and nobility”. An intriguing, spirit-lifting, extraordinary exploration of two cultures in uneasy coexistence. Fadiman's book is a superb, informal cultural anthropolog, eye-opening, readable, and utterly engaging.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God and Diversity on Steroids, by Julie Salamon, 2008 * * *

In this remarkable book is an unflinching portrait of the doctors and administrators at Brooklyn's Maimonides Medical Center. Julie Salamon, a bestselling author and former New York Times reporter, illustrates the complex machine that is the modern hospital, vying to provide cutting-edge facilities and compassionate care, while being profitable. Maimonides is a case study for the particular kinds of concerns that arise in institutions that serve a simmering mix of ethnicities and cultures, particularly the influential Orthodox Jewish community. Maimonides is compared to a factory, where medicine is industrialized and streamlined for efficiency the book explores the political machinations that exist between doctors, staff, administrators, hospital and the community.  Julie Salamon paints a compelling, and damning, portrait of a dysfunctional health-care system while documenting financial crises, feuds, personality clashes and real life-and-death dramas. She succeeds in providing a completely unique, three-dimensional and compellingly human perspective of the demanding work—both frustrating and rewarding—that is rarely apparent to hospital patients and their families.

Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese, 2009 * * * *

A sweeping, emotionally riveting novel — an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home. Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia. Orphaned by their mother's death in childbirth and their father's disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Verghese recreates the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie - a place suffused with flavors, colors, scents and sounds. Ultimately, the political events in Ethiopia, and family betrayals send Marion fleeing to the United States where he finds refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital where the only interns are from overseas. When the past catches up to him — nearly destroying him — Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him. Even the remarkable coincidences of the final third of the book never feel anything less than pitch-perfect  - a tribute to the author’s carefully-constructed plot and writing. A riveting tale of love, medicine, and the complex dynamic of twin brothers it was one of my favorite books of 2009.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Evening, by Susan Minot, 1996 * * *

During a 3-day summer weekend on the coast of Maine, where she attended the wedding of her best friend, Ann Grant fell in love. Forty years later — after three marriages and five children — Ann Lord is a patient on the verge of death. Family and friends take vigil at her bedside, and through the haze and confusion of Ann's heavily sedated mind, there are ramblings about unconnected things, which pass in an instant and then quickly dissolve. Only one thing remains sharp in Ann's mind, the man she met during that weekend, a man with whom she fell in love. In the surge of hope and possibility that coursed through her at twenty-five, Ann discovers the highest point of her life. Evening is an exploration of time and memory, of love's transcendence and of its failure to transcend. As she careens between lucidity and delirium,  the writing creates an authentic “other world”,  where consciousness slips between reality and dreams. The writing is choppy at times and confusing at others, but a vivid portrait of the final portions of a person’s life and of the memories that are never forgotten is portrayed. This is a book for anyone who remembers the passions of their youth and the wonder of a first love.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Crow Lake, by Mary Larson, 2002, * * * *

Crow Lake is that rare find, a novel so quietly assured and emotionally pitch perfect that you know from the opening page that this is an experience in which to lose yourself. Kate Morrison narrates the tale in flashback mode, starting with the fatal car accident that leaves seven-year-old Kate; her toddler sister, Bo; 19-year-old Luke; and 17-year-old Matt to fend for themselves. At first they are divided up among relatives, but the plan changes when Luke gives up his college scholarship to get a job and keep the family together. They struggle against the grinding rural poverty of Crow Lake and Luke and Matt conduct a fierce battle of wills until a terrible tragedy at a neighbor’s house changes the course of all their lives.  Kate is now a 26-year-old woman reflecting back on her anguished childhood from the seemingly safe vantage point of worldly success as a professor of invertebrate biology. She is educated, has escaped the rural impoverishment and isolation of her childhood , and she is making her way by her wits. However, with all her apparent advantages, Kate is anything but free as the past has a stranglehold on her so life-choking that it has left her almost unable to feel. Her backward reflections are an attempt to probe the course of her life to determine just exactly where she lost herself. In this universal drama of love, loss, misunderstanding, and resentment Lawson ratchets up the tension continually overturning expectations right to the very end

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, 2005 * * * *

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, and their four children, lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever. Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town that Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank,  he stole the grocery money and he disappeared for days at a time. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home. What is astonishing about Jeannette Walls,  is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. The story is one of triumph against the odds, and also a moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.  I could not put the book down but often felt like a voyeur to a completely disfunctional family.

Friday, January 8, 2010

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, 1952 * * * * *

East of Eden refers to the place that Cain was exiled to from the Garden of Eden after killing his brother Abel. Steinbeck's book is a symbolic recreation of the story of Cain and Abel, woven into a history of California's Salinas Valley. Spanning the period betwee the American Civil War and the end of World War I, the novel highlights the conflicts of two generations of brothers. The first set of brothers includes the gentle Adam Trask and his wild brother Charles. The second set of brothers refers to Adam's sons, the twins Aron and Caleb. The enduring themes of light vs. dark, good vs. evil, hatred vs. love, and the ability to choose one's own destiny are paramount to this rich and multi-layered tale. Above all, it is the characters you will long remember from this saga, especially Cathy, the whore with a heart of stone who isone of the most evil characters in all literature. She kills her parents, beds her husband's brother on her wedding night, shoots her husband and desserts her infant sons - all before she turns really bad! As counterpoint, there are Samuel and Lee Hamilton, men who are truly the "salt of the earth." John Steinbeck based the character of Samuel Hamilton on his own maternal grandfather. The story is complex and involving and the characters are unforgettable. I had not read this book since college and remembered again why it is considered one of the great classics.

Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald, 2001 * * * *

A sprawling saga about five generations of a family from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Fall on Your Knees was the impressive first novel from Ann-Marie MacDonald, a Canadian playwright, actor, and broadcast journalist. It is an epic tale of family history, family secrets, and music which centers on four sisters and their relationships with each other and with their father. Set in the coal-mining communities of Nova Scotia in the early part of this century, the story also shifts to the battlefields of World War I and the jazz scene of New York City in the 1920s. Fall On Your Knees is a saga of one family's trials and triumphs in a world of sin, guilt, and redemption. The novel's structure weaves back and forth in time and tells multiple versions of the same events from multiple points of view, which can be confusing. However, as the story unfolds, answers are revealed and things are clarified. It is a wonderful read which is multifaceted with characters who will remain with you for a long time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008 * * * *

It is January 1946 and London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. The writer Juliet Ashton, looking for her next book subject, finds it in a letter from a man she's never met. He is a native of the island of Guernsey and the man has come across her name written inside a book. As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into his world and the world of his friends. This world consists of a wonderfully eccentric group called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island. The book boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, all of them literature lovers.. Thus begins a remarkable correspondence with the society's members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, Juliet sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever. Written as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connections in the most surprising ways. This book captivated me from the beginining to the end and proved a wonderful read while enlightening me about a part of history I knew nothing about.

Three Cups of Tea One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations...One School at Time by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, 2006 * * * *

Three Cups of Tea is one of the most remarkable true-life adventure stories ever written. In 1993 Greg Mortenson was the exhausted survivor of a failed attempt to ascend K2, the world's second tallest mountain, an American climbing bum wandering emaciated and lost through Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya. After he was taken in and nursed back to health for seven weeks, by the people of the impoverished Pakistani village of Korphe, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school . From that rash, earnest promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time — Greg Mortenson's one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban. Mortenson's struggle to fulfill that promise, and then committing himself to fundraising and building many more schools, is the central subject of the story. Although Mortenson's promise was rash and he had no idea how to achieve his goal, the project has since grown into the Central Asia Institute, which has constructed more than 55 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Co-author Relin recounts Mortenson's efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, and ambitious school girls. An inspirational story of one man's efforts to address poverty, educate girls, and overcome cultural divides, Greg Mortenson provides proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and deterination, can really change the world.

Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, 2004 * * * *

Jon Krakauer's literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In Under the Banner of Heaven he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this "divinely inspired" crime, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith. Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the America, Canada, and Mexico, where some 40,000 Mormon Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Church of Latter-day Saints establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. However, Under the Banner of Heaven is not an anti-Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) diatribe, as anyone who has actually read it can attest. There are several attempts in the book to confront basic issues in the context of modern society, i.e. How does one discriminate between one man's inspiration and that of another? What's the role of obedience in society? What are the consequences of total obedience? Krakauer could have written this book about any fundamentalist religious community. He just happened to pick The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Every religion has stories like these--to pick them out and then declare that they represent the mainstream misses the point--namely that every society has to deal with its fringes and some do so better than others.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, 1998, * * * * *

In The Poisonwood Biblem Barbara Kingsolver ventures intrepidly out of her familiar Southwest settings to create a story of calamitous undoing in the Belgian Congo of 1959. The daughters and wife of controlling, abusive evangelist Nathan Price recount alternating versions of the events that take place after their family arrives in the fictional village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, and defines how each of the female family members passes the next thirty years. From the beginning, Nathan's obsession with "converting the natives" to Christianity is met with open hostility (a logical reaction to his insistence on baptism in crocodile-infested waters) and makes both him and his essentially captive family the mortal enemies of a local witch doctor. The Prices' ill-fated interactions with the community are entwined with the larger political upheaval pervading the country (i.e., independence from brutal Belgian rule, the assassination of the country's first autonomous leader and subsequent CIA-aided, UN-sanctioned rule by the ruthless Mobutu), providing a thorough, thought-provoking, and indicting look into the ruin wrought in Africa at the hands of its colonizers. The voices of the characters are authentic and believable and I was absolutely spellbound by the way the voices changed and developed over time.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, 2001 * * * * *

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's Vice President, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mermerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening until a band of gun-wielding terrorists breaks in through the air conditioning vents and takes the entire party hostage. Their quarry is the President of Peru, who has unfortunately stayed hme to watch a favorite soap oepra, and from the beginning things go awry. Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. The book is loosely based on the real life Japanese "embassy hostage crisis" which began on December 17, 1996 in Lima, Peru when members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of diplomats, military officials and business executives who were attending a aparty at the official residence of Japan's ambassor to Peru. Ann Patchett weaves an amazing story about the hearts and psyches of hostage and terrorist alike, and in doing so reveals a profound, shared humnaity. Compassion and time stand still while priorities rearrange themselves although, ultimately, , something has to give. In a fractious world, Bel Canto remains a gentle reminder of the transcendence of beauty and love. An amazing read.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, 2009 * * * *

Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. What Dave Eggers has found in the Katrina mud is the full-fleshed story of a single family and it makes for great nonfiction. This is the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-born painting contractor, who decides to remain in New Orleans and protect his property while his wife and four children leave prior to the storm. After the levees break, he uses a small canoe to rescue and feed people and animals but is eventually arrested by an armed squad at his home and swept powerlessly into a vortex of bureaucratic brutality. Eggers, compiling his account from interviews, resists rhetorical grandstanding, letting injustices speak for themselves. His skill is most evident in how closely he involves the reader in Zeitoun’s thoughts. Thrown into one of a series of outdoor wire cages, Zeitoun speculates, with a contractor’s practicality, that construction of his prison must have begun within a day or so of the hurricane. Having volunteered in New Orleans post Katrina, I believe that Dave Eggers has managed to convey the lawlessness, breakdown in communication, and hopelessness that existed in that city.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, 2003 * * * * *

A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, i.e., Columbine, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far. Eva Khatchadourian is a smart, skeptical New Yorker who impulsively marries Franklin, a much more conventional person. This results in the birth of Kevin –a largely silent, cynical, often malevolent child. The narrative leads with quickening and horrifying inevitability to the moment when Kevin massacres seven of his schoolmates and a teacher at his upstate New York high school. Told as a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband this seems a gimmicky way to tell the story. It is, however, surprisingly effective in its picture of a couple who are poles apart, and enables Shriver to pull off a huge and crushing shock far into her tale. In well-crafted sentences that cut to the bone of her feelings about motherhood, career and family Ms. Shriver yanks the reader back and forth between blame and empathy, and retribution and forgiveness. Never letting up on the tension, Shriver ensures that, like Eva, the reader grapples with unhealed wounds.

The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam, 2008 * * * * *

An ambitious and moving look at the human cost of Afghanistan's war-torn reality. It reveals the impact of the large historical and religious forces that deals with the decades of war, exploitation, and fundamentalist repression and its effects on the lives of five remarkable characters. Marcus, an English doctor who has lived in Afghanistan for many years, married an Afghan woman, Qatrina, and converted to Islam; David, a former cold war spy for the US, who has returned to Afghanistan to try to discover the fate of the boy he thinks of as his son; Lara, a Russian woman who is searching for her brother, Benedikt, a soldier who went AWOL during the Soviet invasion; Casa, a bitterly angry young jihadi eager to give his life for Islam; and James, an American special forces agent willing to go to any lengths to protect America from Islamic terrorists. Lyrical but not overwritten, the novel creates an unflinchingly clear picture of a country whose history of strife is still being written. This book is more complex than A Thousand Splendid Suns, and should be read by anyone who loved that book and wants to move further. This book was orginally recommended to me by one of my daughers who heard a review on NPR. To be fair and honest, she liked A Thousand Splendid Sons and The Kite Runner, both by Khaled Hosseinim better than Wasted Vigil. On the other hand, I found this to be a remarkable novel and one of the best books I have read in several years. It is increasingly relevant today given the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, 1989 * * * *

Until this novel was published, Ken Follett had previously been known for writing in the thriller genre. Pillars of the Earth became Follett's best-selling work. Set in 12th-century England, the narrative concerns the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. The ambitions of three men merge, conflict and collide through 40 years of social and political upheaval as internal church politics affect the progress of the cathedral and the fortunes of the protagonists. Follett has written a novel that entertains, instructs and satisfies on a grand scale. I've never been a fan of Follett, and picked this book up with some misgivings but found it a wonderfully satisfying read. Its sweep, characterization, tensions, and love of its subject are riveting. The power of the book is in the magnificent characters, both main and supporting, whose strengths and weaknesses make them appear real. The author manages to write of an age of religious devotion without tumbling into two common pitfalls - making fun of medieval Christian faith, or uncritically adopting it. This was a wonderfully satisfying novel that I could not put down.

Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, 2003 * * * *

This is a wondrous novel about Lou Arrendale, part of a small group of high-functioning autistic adults, who work at a pharmaceutical company. He has a car, friends, and a passion for fencing. Then a supervisor states that he and the other autistic employees must accept an experimental treatment to “cure” their autism and with this request, Lou struggles to maintain his identity and freedom of choice. With this treatment, Lou might think and act likes everyone else but he wonders if he was free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world, including the shades and hues that others cannot see? Elizabeth Moon has written an outstanding testament to the unique gift every one of us has to share, exactly as we are, while also cheering us on to be all that we can be. A lot of novels promise to change the way a reader sees the world; The Speed of Dark actually does. After reading this book, you will think deeply about what constitutes normal.

Body & Soul, by Frank Conroy, 1998 * * * *

Body and Soul tracks the improbable development of a young man named Claude Rawlings from a musically talented child to his emergence as a full blown piano prodigy – equally gifted at both classical and jazz. Conroy has a clear, concise and engaging writing style and has the ability to effectively convey mood within the story. Against a backdrop that pulses with sound and rhythm, the book brilliantly evokes the life of a child prodigy whose musical genius pulls him out of squalor and into the drawing rooms of the rich and a gilt-edged marriage. But the same talent that transforms Claude also hurtles him into a lonely world of obsession and relentless ambition. From Carnegie Hall to the smoky jazz clubs of London, Body & Soul burns with passion and truth--at once a riveting, compulsive read and a breathtaking glimpse into a boy's heart and an artist's soul. This is, qute simply, a great book. Conroy takes you into New York City in the 1940s and into the music and soul of the main characters. I have recommended this book to many and all have enjoyed it. I only wish that Frank Conroy had written more novels.