We read this one for book group because it came so highly recommended by Will Schwalbe in The End of Your Life Book Club, which we read last year. InWe read this one for book group because it came so highly recommended by Will Schwalbe in The End of Your Life Book Club, which we read last year. In fact, Schwalbe made us feel a little guilty (in a good way) about the fact that we hadn't already read it. In an interview, he was asked which of the books he and his mother read together during her illness affected him most and he answered:
The book that affected me the most was Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. It's a masterpiece. And that I discovered it at age 45 became somewhat symbolic for me of everything that is still ahead in life. How could I have made it to 45 without reading that book! It's such a rich, involving, moving work. And I'm not giving anything of the plot away to say that it ends with a character saying one of the most powerful words there is, maybe the most powerful.
The question that Stegner sets about to answer for himself in this novel is "How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?" He is able to do this successfully, I think, because he so masterfully structures the story to reveal greater and greater depth in his characters over time. As one member of our book club said, "he writes in layers--first the bread, then the mayo, etc. until you have the whole sandwich."
The novel is about 2 couples who remain friends over several decades. Just as in real friendships and real marriages, we learn about the characters in increments. We are in turn frustrated by them, entertained by them, concerned for them and disappointed in them. But by the end of the book, we love them and are loyal to them because we've been through so much with them.
One of my favorite sections of the novel was the trip to Florence. I loved the scene where Larry carries Sally out onto the balcony to watch the donkey carts coming into the city for market day. Such an ordinary scene, but Stegner captures the magic of it.
I also really liked the day they saw Piero's Resurrection and the conversation that Larry and Sally had at the end of the day:
"When you remember today, what will you remember best, the spring countryside, and the company of friends, or Piero's Christ and that workman with the mangled hand?" She thought a minute. "All of it," she said. "It wouldn't be complete or real if you left out any part of it, would it?" "Go to the head of the class," I said.
And, ultimately, that is what makes this novel a real gem--the whole issue of control and how we don't really have any, much to Charity's chagrin! From an interview with Stegner back in 1987 when the novel debuted, "the book is about a kind of hunger for order in the world that I think afflicts Westerners more than Easterners."
I found this very interesting. Stegner is holding up a mirror for us so that we can hopefully see how much time and energy we waste orchestrating our lives so that we can always be on the sunny side of the street. This is impossible. Hurt and pain and tragedy can't be avoided. The good news of this novel is that we can survive the "bad" stuff as well as the "good" stuff, and maybe not just survive, but thrive. As Sally is basically saying in the quote above, it's all part of the same whole--"it wouldn't be complete or whole if you left out any part of it."
I also really appreciated how Stegner creates a sense of place. His descriptions of nature and the interiors of buildings are palpable and poetic and welcoming. I looked forward to picking the book up so that I could re-enter that world.
I wanted to like this book more, but when it was all said and done, I didn't really care that much about the characters. :( I just didn't get Sabine.I wanted to like this book more, but when it was all said and done, I didn't really care that much about the characters. :( I just didn't get Sabine. She seemed capable enough and I just couldn't understand why she settled for the life she chose. I also didn't see what was so fantastic about Parsifal. I mean he seemed nice enough, but Patchett just didn't give me enough insight into what motivated these characters....more
At what price do we remember? At what price do we forget? And even when we do remember, how reliable are our memories? And, for that matter, how reliaAt what price do we remember? At what price do we forget? And even when we do remember, how reliable are our memories? And, for that matter, how reliable are our immediate perceptions? Ishiguro touches on these hot topics as so many of us worry about becoming victims of dementia. And on a larger scale, he also asks what happens when we lose our collective memory or when the truth is distorted by politicians and the media.
I listened to the audio version of this novel as I painted my living room. It made the painting go more quickly, and I looked forward to what might happen next. I like a little fantasy every now and then and always enjoy a hero's journey story. I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I had read it. ...more
Beautiful, poetic, haunting. I read this several years ago and I still think about it. Guterson creates an atmosphere as much as a plot, characters, aBeautiful, poetic, haunting. I read this several years ago and I still think about it. Guterson creates an atmosphere as much as a plot, characters, and setting. ...more
Be sure and visit the author's website. She has a gallery of images that inspired her as she wrote the book. You won't want to miss it. www.carolrifkaBe sure and visit the author's website. She has a gallery of images that inspired her as she wrote the book. You won't want to miss it. www.carolrifkabrunt.com
This review contains mild spoilers.
We read this one for book group and it generated good discussion. I really liked the book myself. It was a sensitive coming of age story, a well-crafted story of a particular family, and a story grounded in a specific time and place, yet it deals with universal themes and issues.
My favorite thing about the novel is the "secret sharer" quality (as in Joseph Conrad's short story in which a young ship's captain hides a stowaway who represents the captain's "other self"). In Tell the Wolves, we have this with Finn and Toby--I love how June discovers that Toby has been there the whole time and that many of the things that she loved about Finn were Toby's influences. We also have this quality with the sisters, June and Greta. And to some extent with the girls' mother and Finn (her brother). The characters compliment one another and are almost like two sides of the same coin. This is so true for siblings as they grow up in a close relationship and then struggle to differentiate from each other.
My other favorite thing is the idea that appears a few times in the novel and is expressed really well in the following paragraph:
And then I thought something terrible. I thought that if Finn were still alive, Toby and I wouldn't be friends at all. If Finn hadn't caught AIDS, I would never even have met Toby. That strange and awful thought swirled around in my buzzy head. Then something else occurred to me. What if it was AIDS that made Finn settle down? What if even before he knew he had it, AIDS was making him slower, pulling him back to his family, making him choose to be my godfather. It was possible that without AIDS I would never have gotten to know Finn or Toby. There would be a big hole filled with nothing in place of all those hours and days I'd spent with them. If I could time-travel, could I be selfless enough to stop Finn from getting AIDS? Even if it meant I would never have him as my friend? I didn't know. I had no idea how greedy my heart really was.
I stood there staring at the skyt over Canal Street as it faced from orange to a dusty pink. An old lady dragged a shopping cart filled with bags down the street, click click clicking over the sidewalk. The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible.
I love the way Rifka bleeds the characters into one another and mingles the good things into the terrible things, so that everything is a part of everything else. This makes her novel sort of messy, just like life, but also very beautiful, just like life.
I also liked the way she used the painting almost as an additional character. The changes in the painting reflected the changes in the relationships among the characters.
And I loved her title. Tell the Wolves I'm Home. It's the reason I even picked up the book to begin with. The negative space between us, the wolf that comes between us, but is part of both of us. The shadow part of ourselves that we must welcome into our lives if we are ever to feel at home....more
I found this book very satisfying and I love the irony of Kingsolver's juxtaposition of "a young woman whose life morphs and takes flight just as she learns about the very real problems of the world in which she's spread her new wings."
Is Kingsolver preachy when it comes to climate change? I didn't think so. She doesn't offer any easy answers. On the one hand you have butterflies in danger because of climate change and on the other you have a struggling family who needs the income available to them if they log their property.
I like Dellarobia and I was pulling for her. I like that Kingsolver believes in transformation and that the novel ends on a hopeful note....more
From the very beginning of the novel, we learn that Ursula, the main character is trying to assassinate Hitler. We also know that "she dies repeatedlyFrom the very beginning of the novel, we learn that Ursula, the main character is trying to assassinate Hitler. We also know that "she dies repeatedly, in a variety of ways, as the new century marches on toward its second cataclysmic world war." (from the inner flap of book jacket)
So, in our logical Western minds we assume that she keeps coming back until she gets it right. But what is right? Kill Hitler? Save her brother? One life after another. Some good, some bad, some horrible. Mistakes are made and then corrected, but then another mistake is made. Atkinson is a genius in the ways she brings Ursula back--in one life she is a victim of a bombing during the London Blitz. In another life she is on the rescue crew of that bombing.
I think Atkinson is making the point that life is out of our control. And this is a good thing. There is no good outcome, no bad outcome. They are all part of the same whole.
As you read, pay attention to the conversations that young Ursula has with Dr. Kellet. He's the Merlin/Cheshire Cat/Dumbledore, of the novel and their discussions are quite comical. I think the crux of the novel revolves around the ideas that Dr. Kellet presents on pp 163-4. He talks about Nietzche's ideas concerning "amor fati" (a simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good) and "werde, der du bist" (become what you are, having learned what that is). I don't fully understand these ideas myself, but I think that Nietzche and Atkinson are onto something.
I found a 30 page paper by Babette Babich called "Nietzsche's Imperative As a Friend's Encomium: On Becoming the One You Are, Ethics, and Blessing." I skimmed through it. If I were writing a paper on this novel, I would have read it thoroughly, but I'm not, so I didn't! However, skipping to the end, Babich quotes Shakespeare: "love is not love which alters when it alteration finds" and St. Paul's description of love's infinite forbearance in I Cor. 13:7. Like them, Babich explains that Nietzsche affirms "one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity . . . but to love it." Babich says "the consummate fulfillment of love takes everything that will be, everything that is, and everything that has been all together and at once." This is what Atkinson seems to be doing with her novel. Taking everything all at once and pronouncing it neither good nor bad.
What is the point of this? When one gets to the end of one's life and wants to change nothing, but say yes to everything, it is possible to affirm one's life as it has been, and this transfigures everything. As Nietzche says elsewhere:
I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
I love Atkinson for writing this novel and wrestling with these concepts. As I said, I don't fully understand these concepts myself, but I keep running into them in the work of people like Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr and I love every opportunity to wrap my mind around it.
I really enjoyed this book. It's my second favorite Lee Smith novel behind Fair and Tender Ladies. This one is set in my home state of North CarolinaI really enjoyed this book. It's my second favorite Lee Smith novel behind Fair and Tender Ladies. This one is set in my home state of North Carolina and my hometown, Statesville, got a brief shout-out when it was mentioned that one of the characters had previously been arrested there! Most of the action of the novel takes place in Asheville at Highland Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, run by the innovative psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Carroll, from 1938 to 1948.
I thought that the main event of the novel was going to be the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women, including Zelda Fitzgerald, who were sleeping in a locked ward on the top floor. Smith does deal with this historic event, offering a plausible scenario of events leading up to the fire, and a couple of suggestions of who might have set the fire. But this isn't really the point of her story.
The thing that Smith does so well is present the reader with a cast of characters who are all somewhere on the continuum of mental illness. She is very good at putting a face on clinical depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. The reader doesn't get to know the characters by their diagnoses, we know them by their humanity.
One issue that Smith touches on again and again, especially with the female characters, is that some of them end up in the psych ward simply because they don't fit in elsewhere in society. Or else because society has damaged them in some way.
Although the book doesn't have a particularly strong plot, the characterization more than makes up for this. I loved the characters and thought about them when I was away from the book. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the activities that they participated in at the hospital--gardening, painting, putting on musicals. It sounded like a really fun place--except for the insulin- and electro- shock treatments.
I enjoyed browsing around Lee Smith's website, watching a short video and reading a few articles. Smith's own family has been plagued with mental illness--her father and her son both spent time as patients at Highland Hospital and her mother spent time in a different hospital. Smith says that she has her own "personal knowledge of the landscape of this novel." This is apparent in the care and tenderness with she treats her characters. I loved the last paragraph of Chp. 15, which I won't quote here because it is somewhat of a spoiler. I'll just say that even in the face of tragedy, Smith's characters are triumphant. ...more
I liked this one fine, but I think I would have liked it better if Russo had stuck to one main character. I kept losing Lucy in the shuffle when the pI liked this one fine, but I think I would have liked it better if Russo had stuck to one main character. I kept losing Lucy in the shuffle when the point of view changed to Noonan or Sarah. But maybe that was the point--Lucy was a weak person. I wanted him to be a stronger character even in his weakness. I liked him, but I think I would have liked him better without the intrusions of Sarah's story and Noonan's story. ...more
I read this book several years ago and I liked it, but I also found it disturbing. I'm not big into post-apocalyptic literature. (Sometimes it hits juI read this book several years ago and I liked it, but I also found it disturbing. I'm not big into post-apocalyptic literature. (Sometimes it hits just a little too close to home.)
Our book group wanted to read it this summer, so the day before our discussion I thought I would just skim through it a little bit. I ended up re-reading almost the entire novel and this time I loved it. Instead of worrying about the collapse of society and whether or not the electricity was going to come back on, this time I was able to see beyond that to the transformation of the sisters--the practical knowledge they gained, as well as the wisdom that they embraced. I was reminded of two of my favorite children's books, Little House in the Big Woods and My Side of the Mountain.
As you read, pay attention to the roles of the Forest and the Encyclopedia throughout the book--how the parents viewed these things and how the girls' relationships to these things change as the story unfolds. Ironic. And fantastic. ...more
This book was recommended by the YA librarian at the library where I work. She really liked it and wanted some of us to read it so that we could discuThis book was recommended by the YA librarian at the library where I work. She really liked it and wanted some of us to read it so that we could discuss it. She wouldn't say anything about it because she didn't want to give anything away, but she did say that there was a twist at the end. Even though I knew this, I didn't see it coming. And when I got to the end I went back and re-read big chunks of the book and there it was. It was subtle, but it had been there the whole time. My second reading was even better than the first. I say any book that immediately draws you back in as soon as you've finished it and gives you more than it did the first time is worth at least 4 stars.
I was surprised that several people said they didn't like the short, choppy sentences. I like them and I think the author uses them very effectively for emphasis and contrast. In my mind they sort of echo and emphasize Grandpa's mottos "Don't take no for an answer" and Mummy's admonitions to "Be normal. Right now. Because you can be." The grown-ups' simplistic approach to life doesn't work out too well, does it?
I also like the author's use of fairytales. I think they give the story a universal appeal. This isn't the story of just one family, it's the age-old story of humankind and the fairytales give it that archetypal feel.
I also like the author's use of metaphor in her descriptions of some of the characters. Johnny is "bounce, effort, and snark." Mirren is "sugar, curiosity, and rain." Gat is "contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee." These poetic descriptions say loads about the characters that normal prose couldn't get at. She uses metaphor in a similar way to describe Cady's migraines. Very powerful....more
There was a lot I liked about this book. Kwok did a great job of dealing with the immigrant experience. Having been through the experience herself, heThere was a lot I liked about this book. Kwok did a great job of dealing with the immigrant experience. Having been through the experience herself, her voice came through with great authenticity. Kimberly literally had to translate every aspect of her life from one culture to the other and back again. Reading this novel really opened my eyes to how complicated life can be for immigrant children who must straddle two cultures. Her school experience was especially interesting--the way that cultural barriers stood in her way despite her great intelligence. The book is worth reading for this alone.
My only problem with the book was the ending. It just didn't live up to the rest of the story. It sort of felt like Kwok had let go of the substance of the story and had switched into romance mode. It was unsatisfying for me. ...more
**spoiler alert** First of all, I give Tracy Chevalier 10 stars for her website. I am a librarian and we read this book for book discussion. Whenever**spoiler alert** First of all, I give Tracy Chevalier 10 stars for her website. I am a librarian and we read this book for book discussion. Whenever I am preparing for a book discussion, I will often research background topics pertaining to the book. Chevalier had everything I needed right on her website—right down to the Pinterest page of “Bonnets that Belle Mills might have made.” I have never found another author who is more generous with her research and insights. I enjoyed watching a video of a talk she gave at a quilt shop and hearing about her quilting experience. I also heard her speak last spring in Columbus, OH and she was very warm and down to earth.
I don’t often write a review in reaction to other reviews I’ve read, but I feel compelled to throw my hat into the ring regarding Honor Bright’s tarnished honor. It seems that some reviews, including one professional review I read, found the scene with Jack in the corn field to be a gratuitous sex scene that came out of nowhere and was inserted by Chevalier just to sell books. We all interpret things differently, don’t we? I saw that scene as an example of just how stranded and disempowered Honor felt in her new life. She is clearly bewildered by the prospect, “Was this how American courtship proceeded? One conversation at a frolic, three rides in a wagon, and a coupling in a field?” (p. 123) It’s clearly not what she wanted, “Honor had always assumed she would have a deep familiarity and connection with her husband, born of a shared history and community.”(p. 124). But she pragmatically realizes that it’s a matter of survival, “Did she have a choice? She could say no, and Jack would gee up the horse and they would continue along the road to Faithwell where he would drop her off and never give her a lift again, and never smile at her except in a neighborly way. She would be stranded at Adam and Abigail’s house.” (p. 124). Even Belle, her independent, strong, small-business-owning friend had told her in the previous chapter, “It’s simple, Honor Bright, you got a choice to make. Go back home to England, or stay here. If you stay, you got to find a man to marry. What’s it to be?” (p. 109).
Some reviewers found her behavior in the cornfield to be out of character for the young Quaker woman who spends the rest of the novel standing up for what she believes to be morally right. To me, it added depth to her character, as did her relationship with Donovan—which some other reviewers saw as a continuation of the cheap romance nature of the novel. I saw Donovan as a shadow figure for Honor. As I read this novel, I was reminded of Joseph Conrad’s short story, “The Secret Sharer.” Like the young Captain who is unfamiliar with his ship and his crew because he has joined their company only recently, Honor is also unsure of herself in her new home with its strange flora, fauna, and customs. Like the young captain who hides a fugitive from a nearby ship in his cabin, Honor hides fugitive slaves from both Donovan—a low-life slave catcher and scuzzy human being—and from her new family--who you would think would know better being Quaker and all.
Yet Honor is drawn to Donovan, just as the captain is drawn to the fugitive he harbors in his cabin. It is only by negotiating their way through their attractions to the “dark side,” that both the Captain and Honor are able to integrate this shadow side, find their power, and become more well-developed characters. (And I love that Honor comes to terms with Donovan by recognizing his Inner Light.)
Getting back to the cornfield—even though this scene seems to come from nowhere, if you see it as a herald of things to come and then follow the theme of corn and cornfields throughout the story, it becomes a metaphor for Honor’s journey. Think about how she grows weary of the taste of corn, corn, corn in everything. Until Jack introduces her to sweet corn and popcorn! He woos her with corn! And then think about her next foray into the cornfield. Who’s the runaway now? Who is leading whom to safety? I love this role reversal between Honor and Virginie. At the beginning of the novel, Honor enters the cornfield as a naïve girl, but through the hardships of her new life on the farm with her overbearing mother-in-law and through the guidance and sometimes harsh counsel of Belle and Mrs. Reed and through her coming to terms with her feelings for Donovan and Jack and her letting go of her former life, she comes out of the cornfield at the end with a sense of her own strength and her own voice. She tells Jack, “’We cannot continue as we were before. We must find a new way, different from thy family’s.’ Jack nodded. ‘Now I have to do this.’ Jack nodded again.” (p. 299) Jack just stands there nodding. Whatever you say, dear.
Other things I liked about the book: the quilt descriptions; the bonnet descriptions; the differences between old England and young America—as well as the difference in birds, trees, light; the characters of Belle Mills and Mrs. Reed and the way they both gave Honor confidence and also cut her down to size; the ending—I didn’t see it coming—I was looking around to see who pulled the trigger! And I especially liked Chevalier’s descriptions of the silence and what it’s like to enter into, or sink into silence. “Honor closed her eyes and allowed her body to sway naturally, harnessed to the rhythm of the wagon’s movement. Steady and comfortable at last, she sank down inside herself to wait for the Inner Light.” (p. 18)
My favorite scene in the book was when Honor and the slave woman were hiding from Donovan in the hay:
“After the intense darkness his lantern seemed as bright as sunlight. As he stepped inside, the temptation to bolt was almost overwhelming, but Honor knew they could not outrun him. They must remain where they were, and not only keep still, but somehow negate themselves so that he would not sense their presence. This was harder to do than keeping quiet. It meant harnessing and stilling the Inner Light.” (p. 180)
Tracy attended a Quaker camp as a child and somewhere in an interview I recall her saying that she wasn’t sure if she got the descriptions of the silence correct. As a person who has engaged silence intentionally over the years through silent retreats and meditation, I would say she is right on target. ...more
REALLY, REALLY liked this book, but I read it so long ago that I can't write an intelligible review. It has many layers and many references and allusiREALLY, REALLY liked this book, but I read it so long ago that I can't write an intelligible review. It has many layers and many references and allusions--packed with all kinds of good stuff, plus a great storyline. It's one of the few books I would want to read again. ...more
Cutting for Stone is a big sweeping novel that deals with injustice and political corruption; medical drama; coming of age; family conflict; the experCutting for Stone is a big sweeping novel that deals with injustice and political corruption; medical drama; coming of age; family conflict; the experience of living in a country not your own; unrequited love; etc.
In an interview I read with Verghese, he commented, when asked about the love story element of the novel (and the novel deals with love on all levels—between lovers, children and parents, colleagues, friends, etc.), “Perhaps what love seeks is not reciprocity but redemption, the sense that who you are is worthy and was always worthy of love.” I think this is what drives all the characters in this novel, so many of whom have been abandoned either by parents or society and are in some way “missing people.” It may be what drives most of the human race. We’re all searching for a feeling of worthiness in some form.
When characters act out of their unworthiness, they create conflict and trouble. There is plenty of that in Cutting for Stone. But Verghese is good at giving us the backstory of the characters so we know where they’re coming from and where their sense of unworthiness originates. This gives the characters a sense of depth and multi-dimensionality. It also gives us a sense of understanding and compassion for the characters. We care about them very much and want the best for them.
I loved Chapter 8, “Missing People.” “Missing” refers to the name of the hospital. It’s really Mission Hospital, but the local people pronounce it “Missing.” Matron, the nun who is the hospital’s administrator, is a pragmatic person, but she has also come to value the intangibles:
“the resourcefulness she’d discovered that allowed her to make a cozy hospital—an East African Eden, as she thought of it—grow out of a disorganized jumble of rudimentary buildings; and the core group of doctors whom she’d recruited and who by long association had evolved into her Cherished Own . . . . They were all now self-exiled prisoners at Missing . . . . Prisoners they all were, Matron thought, smiling despite herself; Missing People who could hardly choose their cell mates. But even for Ghosh, who was without doubt one of the strangest of God’s creations, Matron felt a maternal affection. And the parallel anxiety that comes with such an impish child.”
I also loved the part where Hema danced like Shiva: "Hema thought of Shiva, her personal deity, and how the only sensible response to the madness of life . . . was to cultivate a kind of madness within, to perform the mad dance of Shiva, . . . to rock and sway and flap six arms and six legs to an inner tune. Hema moved gently . . . she danced as if her minimalist gestures were shorthand for a much larger, fuller, reckless dance, one that held the whole world together, kept it from extinction.”
I wanted more of Hema and Ghosh. They were prominent in the first part of the novel, but they took a more supporting role as the boys grew older. I would love to read a whole novel about their marriage and life together. Not that this detracts from Cutting For Stone. Anytime I want more of a good thing from an author, I consider that a positive.
Lastly, I really enjoyed the medical insights in the book. I liked Verghese’s portrayal of medical people who look at and touch their patients and follow their instincts as well as logic in diagnosing and treating patients. ...more
This book raises the question of belonging. Two couples, the very American Donaldsons, and the Yazdans, who came here from Iran, meet at the airport aThis book raises the question of belonging. Two couples, the very American Donaldsons, and the Yazdans, who came here from Iran, meet at the airport as each family awaits the arrival of an adopted infant daughter from Korea. The two families become more deeply intertwined as they get together each year for an "arrival party." As the story unfolds we discover that none of the characters feels as if they "belong." Tyler shows us, without telling us, that perhaps that is what binds us altogether--this desire for connection, and that this connection can happen across national boundaries and bloodlines.
Reminded me a little bit of The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri. ...more
I loved this book about the Japanese picture brides who came to this country early in the 20th century hoping for a better life. It reminded me of a hI loved this book about the Japanese picture brides who came to this country early in the 20th century hoping for a better life. It reminded me of a haiku in that there are just enough words and no more; it touches the reader's emotions without telling the reader what or how to feel; it presents things as they are--allowing the light and the dark to inhabit the same space; it captures a moment in time, but in that moment there is everything.
I loved Otsuka's use of the collective first person narrator. It was like a Greek chorus only more because the particular story was woven into the big picture story. The effect of this is that you feel like you've just watched a Ken Burns PBS special on the Japanese picture brides--you have a grasp of the historical details of the period, but you also have faces and individual stories that make the historical event come to life. Like Burns, Otsuka addresses our intellect, but she changes our hearts.
I looked up the significance of the laughing Buddha and found this:
"The Buddha does not laugh at himself or at others, he does not laugh because he has acquired something others don’t have. The laughter is neither cynical, sarcastic, bitter nor defiant. It is the laughter of compassion, an amusement at the interplay of knowledge and ignorance that makes up the joys and sorrows of what we call life."
The Buddha is in the attic, but perhaps the Buddha is also on page 115 with a thick stick of pink chalk in her hand, skipping away, laughing, without looking back. I like this about Julie Otsuka. She believes there is hope for us yet....more
I really enjoyed this book. Stone did a good job getting inside Vincent's head and showing us the world as he experienced it. It is a testament to StoI really enjoyed this book. Stone did a good job getting inside Vincent's head and showing us the world as he experienced it. It is a testament to Stone's storytelling abilities that I found myself rooting for Vincent--hoping he would sell a painting, hoping that his seizures would abate, hoping that he wouldn't die so young afterall.
Now when I view Van Gogh's paintings, I understand them more and I know where they fit chronologically in his life and in his development as an artist. I also have a better understanding of the artists who influenced him--both those who came before him and those who were his peers. I took the time to look up information about some of these artists and while not everything Stone included was accurate, it seems that he captured the spirit of each painter and the spirit of the times as the old rules were being broken and the world of art was being turned on its head.
While I was reading Lust for Life, I was also reading a book by Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey of Your True Calling. Cope gives examples in his book of people who have lived out their calling, or dharma--people like Beethoven, Robert Frost, Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, etc. Van Gogh could easily have been one of Cope's examples. Stone gives voice to Van Gogh's calling in the following passage:
"In the Borinage he had slaved for God; here he had a new and more tangible kind of God, a religion that could be expressed in one sentence: that the figure of a labourer, some furrows in a ploughed field, a bit of sand, sea and sky were serious subjects, so difficult, but at the same time so beautiful, that it was indeed worth while to devote his life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them."
My favorite passage comes at the end of an argument with Gauguin about the nature of art in Book Six, Chp. 8. The whole passage is great, but especially this paragraph:
"The fields that push up the corn, and the water that rushes down the ravine, the juice of the grape, and the life of a man as it flows past him, are all one and the same thing. The sole unity in life is the unity of rhythm. A rhythm to which we all dance; men, apples, ravines, ploughed fields, carts among the corn, houses, horses, and the sun. The stuff that is in you, Gauguin, will pound through a grape tomorrow, because you and the grape are one. When I paint a peasant labouring in the field, I want people to feel the peasant flowing down into the soil, just as the corn does, and the soil flowing up into the peasant. I want them to feel the sun pouring into the peasant, into the field, the corn, the plough, and the horses, just as they all pour back into the sun. When you begin to feel the universal rhythm in which everything on earth moves, you begin to understand life….”
Another favorite passage comes late in the book when Vincent is talking with Dr. Gachet and Vincent says, "I would gladly exchange my calling for yours." Dr. Gachet holds a glowing yellow sunflower canvas before Vincent and says:
"If I had painted just one canvas like this, Vincent, I would consider my life justified. I spent the years curing people's pain - but they died in the end, anyway - so what did it matter? These sunflowers of yours - they will cure the pain in people's hearts - they will bring people joy - for centuries and centuries - that s why your life is successful - that is why you should be a happy man." ...more
Sometimes I hate giving stars. I waffled between 3 and 4 on this one. Based on the title and a review I read, I wanted this to be one of my favorite bSometimes I hate giving stars. I waffled between 3 and 4 on this one. Based on the title and a review I read, I wanted this to be one of my favorite books of all time. Unfortunately, the writing didn’t sing for me. But since it is a translation, I am giving Sendker the benefit of the doubt and assuming that it would have if I had been able to read it in German.
The reason I am being so lenient is because I think this book has an important message for us Westerners. In several of the other Goodread reviews, readers use the word “fairytale,” but I’m wondering if this isn’t more of a parable, or maybe even a koan. Can Tin Win really hear heartbeats? Is it possible for two people to stay that committed over that long period of time when they’re so far apart? These are questions that our rational minds ask, but maybe the point in this story is to read with our hearts rather than our minds, with our intuition rather than our reason.
This is one of those situations where I would really like to talk to the author and ask some questions. I know that Mr. Sendker has visited Burma and that he fell in love with the country. I wonder if he would say that the Burmese have a different way of looking at reality. I wonder if they see the world in a more seamless way, that they see themselves as part of a greater whole rather than as being separate. This comes across in the relationship between U Ba and his mother when he is willing to give up his career to take care of her. And as he explains to Julia, this is the norm in Burma.
Also, in an interview I read, Sendker said that it wasn’t necessary for Tin Win and Mi Mi to be disabled for the story to work. But in this case I don’t see their conditions as disabilities. I see them as differences that give them a deeper perspective on the world and allow them to see connections that the rest of us ignore. They have a beautiful, symbiotic relationship where he becomes her legs and she becomes his eyes. As MiMi says, “There were things a person who walked through the world on two sound feet simply couldn’t understand. They believed that people saw with their eyes. That footsteps overcame distances.” P. 171 Perhaps this really does deepen their bond in a way that most of us can’t understand.
I don’t have it all figured out yet, but my hunch is that the point of the book is not that hearing heartbeats is necessarily magical realism or a special talent that Tin Win has because he is blind. I think that Sendker would say that we all have the capacity to hear heartbeats; we just don’t know it.
The main reason I am going with 4 stars is because it occurred to me one day while I was out walking, thinking about the book, to juxtapose this love story with the story of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet who could not be together because of family differences and we all know what happened to them. Tin Win and Mi Mi also couldn’t be together because of family relationships and their story turned out very differently. Wow, I wondered to myself, how would the world be different if this was the classic love story? What if love wasn’t bound by close physical proximity? What if romantic love was understood as U Ba describes it to Julia:
“Of course I am not referring to those outbursts of passion that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot live without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person—a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on to what we cannot. No, I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.” P. 11
Below are some of the quotes that I might want to refer back to at some point. Any book that gives me quotes like these is worth 4 stars. (All page numbers refer to the large print edition.)
When U May and Tin Win have a discussion of who is blind: “The true essence of things is hidden to the eye . . . We must learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help in that regard. A person who relies too heavily on his eyes neglects his other senses—and I mean more than his hearing or sense of smell. I’m talking about the organ within us for which we have no name. Let us call it the compass of the heart.” P. 127
In answer to Julia’s question, why does love have to be so difficult? U Ba replies, “Because we see only what we already know. We project our own capacities—for good as well as evil—onto the other person. Then we acknowledge as love primarily those things that correspond to our own image thereof. We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes us uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signs. We do not understand the language. We accuse. We assert that the other person does not love us. But perhaps he merely loves us in some idiosyncratic way that we fail to recognize. P. 245
Julia asks U Ba how long it took him to get over his mother’s death. “Over it? I’m not sure I would put it that way. When we get over something, we move on, we put it behind us. Do we leave the dead behind or do we take them with us? I think we take them with us. They accompany us. They remain with us, if in another form. We have to learn to live with them and their deaths.” P. 315
I gave this book a thorough reading because I knew I would be leading discussions of it at the library. I read about 25 pages at a time, stopped and jI gave this book a thorough reading because I knew I would be leading discussions of it at the library. I read about 25 pages at a time, stopped and jotted down notes, then reviewed my notes periodically as I continued to read. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have “gotten it” quite the way I did. That’s why I gave it 4 stars instead of 5.
Actually, I’m still not completely sure I got it. But that’s also why I love it. After doing all the usual things that I do to prepare for a book discussion—reading reviews and interviews with the author, considering discussion questions, and googling things that I don’t know about (what the heck is a guslar and does chalk water induce labor?), I’m still pondering the book.
The story is basically a hero’s journey with Natalia as our heroine, called on a journey to make sense of her grandfather’s death and, in the process, his life. Like Odysseus, Alice (in Wonderland), Dorothy (of Oz), Natalia is journeying in an unfamiliar place—an unnamed Balkan country where things are topsy turvy because of age-old conflicts and war. Natalia’s story is set firmly in reality--she is a dedicated young doctor on a mission to inoculate orphans (who were made orphans by the soldiers from her side of the border). But the world of myth and superstition (which are not the same thing) are always close at hand.
I think that the conflict between reason and myth lies at the heart of the story. In our scientific age when we understand what makes thunder and why the sun disappears in the winter, we think we no longer need myths. But there are some things that we still can’t explain, like why we abandon our children or batter women or participate in ethnic cleansing. What’s up with all that? Well, did I ever tell you the story of the girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one? This is how Natalia’s grandfather attempts to explain these dark places in the human heart.
It makes me think of Carl Jung and his concept of the shadow. "Everyone carries a shadow," wrote Jung, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. It may be (in part) one's link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.” So this is a great gift that her grandfather gives to Natalia, this ability to imagine herself as a tiger. “Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself—and will, for years and years.”
And it is what makes her grandfather such a good doctor and noble human being. He has experienced first-hand this animal wildness. He knows how easy it is to become both predator and prey. My guess is that this is why he carries his copy of The Jungle Book in his pocket at all times, and why he visits the tigers regularly at the zoo, and why he doesn’t shield Natalia from the tiger incident that takes place in the prologue. He knows that all human beings have a shadow and that the shadow, when shoved down and denied, will eventually have its way with us.
At the same time, when we are conscious of the shadow and find safe ways to acknowledge it and get to know it, it can be a source of power and wisdom. I give Obreht extra points for using the word “ritual” when referring to the grandfather’s regular visits to the zoo. Rituals and mythology go hand in hand. They touch a place in our brains and in our hearts where logic and reason can never go. It reminds me of a definition I read once for myth: a myth is a story that isn’t true on the outside but is true on the inside. (That’s from To Dance With God by Gertrud Mueller Nelson. That definition, by the way, came from her 4 year old daughter—a little child shall lead us!)
I mentioned the hero’s journey. The whole point of the journey is for the hero/ine to gain some gift or boon that they can bring back to the community. I think I can say, without revealing a spoiler, that the gift Natalia receives is the ability to hear the voice of the tiger. I give the book a high rating because Obreht made me want to hear the tiger’s voice too.
If I had more time I would write a paper called “Befriending Your Inner Tiger,” or “The Importance of Carrying a Tiger in Your Pocket.” (Which is different from a tiger in your tank.) I would look at the archetype of Tiger as it appears in The Jungle Book, Life of Pi, The Tiger’s Wife, and Calvin and Hobbes. ...more
We tried to read this one for our library Book Discussion group last spring, but there was such a long waiting list that we had to postpone it for thiWe tried to read this one for our library Book Discussion group last spring, but there was such a long waiting list that we had to postpone it for this fall—which tells you how popular this book has been. Although The Paris Wife got some not-so-good reviews from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, I tend to agree with the more positive review in The Washington Post and the overall consensus of reviews from us regular people on Good Reads and Amazon who both gave it 4 out of 5 stars.
In fact, my only real criticism of the book is the cover. The woman on the cover is too skinny and chic to be Hadley and her outfit is from the 40’s, not the 20’s. (I think they got mixed up and used Martha Gellhorn’s picture instead of Hadley’s!)
McLain really cares about her main characters and she presents them in a multifaceted way. Even though I wanted to see Ernest as a rotten s.o.b. for doing Hadley wrong, McLain wouldn’t let me. (It’s hard to hate a guy who has to sleep with the light on because of battlefield nightmares and who grew up with a domineering mother who was so big and loud she could change the gravity in a room.) McLain gives us reasons for why Hemingway is the way he is and why Hadley is the way she is (she also suffered a domineering mother and a father who committed suicide). And even though I knew how it was all going to turn out, I couldn’t help rooting for them and enjoying their tender moments.
According to what I’ve read about Hadley in her later years, she didn’t hold a grudge against Ernest and I really like the way McLain deals with this. I love the paragraph on p. 308 that begins “There are some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage. . . .” I won’t quote any more here because it’s sort of a spoiler. Just watch for it as you read. In my mind, the whole book comes down to this.
Ironically, even though I liked feeling torn about Ernest and Hadley, it was very pleasurable not to have to see Pauline’s side of things. I was very happy not to have too much of her back story—no bad childhood experiences that might make me understand how she could be so . . . how would you describe her? . . .conniving? manipulative? mentally ill? Anyway, it was very satisfying to hate her. Maybe someone will write, or has written a book from her perspective, but I don’t want to know about it right now. (Too late. One of my colleagues just handed me a review of a new book called Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage. I guess I’ll have to read it at some point when I’ve cooled off a little and can give Pauline the benefit of the doubt.)
My favorite thing about historical fiction is the way it draws me in to the real life and times of the setting and characters. In addition to reading The Paris Wife, I also read A Moveable Feast, and a good bit of The Sun Also Rises. (The only Hemingway I had read up until this point is The Old Man and the Sea and a few of his short stories.) I also enjoyed exploring www.thehemingwayproject.com which has a good bit of information about Hadley. I checked in with Google several times to find pictures and info about some of the people mentioned in the book (including Scottie Fitzgerald—I wanted to make sure she made it to adulthood!). I want to read A Farewell to Arms and re-read some of Fitzgerald and Pound.
For years I’ve known vaguely about the “lost generation” and what Paris was like in the 20s. This book gave me the opportunity to explore this period a little more and get a better handle on things. If nothing else, at least I understood Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris a little better! :)
P.S. Is it just me or does Paula McLain bear a resemblance to Pauline Pfeiffer? ...more
Somehow, I missed out on this book until now. When I read the first chapter I had the same feeling I had all those years ago when I first read Little Somehow, I missed out on this book until now. When I read the first chapter I had the same feeling I had all those years ago when I first read Little House in the Big Woods. I’ve always loved books that transport me to another time and place and show me what life was like for people whose lives were so different from my own. It’s all in the details—the little things that would seem ordinary and inconsequential at the time, but are interesting to me because things are so different now and because they represent the wonderful ingenuity and indomitable spirit of human beings. Reading the description of how Francie’s Mama turned six loaves of stale bread into a week’s worth of meals was just as fascinating to me as reading how Laura’s Ma made head cheese. (Not that I would want to eat head cheese, but the grossness makes it that much more thrilling!) What do I do that will someday be a lost art and someone from the future will find interesting? As Francie would say, “I wonder.” These kinds of books don’t really have a central plot line, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happens. In fact, just about everything happens in this book: birth; death; marriage; alcoholism; bigamy; pedophilia; political corruption; war; hunger; etc. As Anna Quindlen says in her Foreword:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line. The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human.
But the book is not heavy or depressing. Francie is one of those children who pays attention to everything around her, but in her innocence, she presents her observations in a non-judgmental way. So even though some people would call her father a “drunk” and her aunt a “floozy,” Francie loves them both and presents them to us with their dignity still intact.
Francie and her great attention to detail (especially in the passage when she reads the headline, “WAR DECLARED” on April 6, 1917 and pauses in her day to look around her and absorb the scene, right down to the patterned grain of the wood on her desk and the sound her purse’s catch made as she clicked it open) made me think of Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. You know the scene after she dies and is allowed to come back for one more day and she can’t stand it because no one is paying attention to anything or looking at one another. As she leaves to go back to the cemetery she says,
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa.. Good-by to clocks ticking.. and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths… sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it- every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER: No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe--they do some.
Francie realizes life while she lives it. She doesn’t have money or prestige or even enough to eat, but she has the ability to pay attention to her life and that is enough. It’s really all any of us can hope for. It allows her to find beauty and happiness in the midst of her difficult life in the tenements:
People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains—a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone—just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.
As Granma Mary Rommely would say, “To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.” This is the gift that Betty Smith and Laura Ingalls Wilder bring to their readers. Their books give us the chance to take a peek into the life of someone who lived long ago and far away, but as we journey through the experiences of these beloved characters, we eventually find ourselves. That’s why their books withstand the test of time.
A fan letter that I sent to Mary Doria Russell after reading Doc:
Just wanted to let you know that we will be discussing Doc this coming week aA fan letter that I sent to Mary Doria Russell after reading Doc:
Just wanted to let you know that we will be discussing Doc this coming week at our Monday Book Talk. You have loyal fans here since your visit to Coshocton County in 2009 when you spoke on A Thread of Grace and gave us a sneak preview of Doc.
Multiple generations in my family have enoyed Doc. I brought the book home when it first came out and my son Michael read it, then my husband Kevin read it. They both loved it. During the past few years the two of them have been working their way through The Top 100 Movie Westerns of all time--so they were primed for it.
Michael has been in and out of a cowboy phase for the past few years. Last October (2010) he dressed up as Doc Holliday for Halloween. In fact, we all dressed as cowboys, but he was the only one who researched his costume and insisted on authenticity. I made him a brocade vest and donated a silk scarf to use as a cravat and drew his mustache. He used his own money to buy the replica Colt. 45 (which was not Doc's actual gun, but the closest one Michael could find in his price range) and handmade leather holster. (As it turns out, that was Michael's last "little kid" dress up Halloween. He is now 13, taller than me, and his interest in guns and the Wild West has been replaced with an interest in Buddhism and Japanese poetry.)
We bought a copy of Doc for my dad for Father's Day and he pretty much read it in two sittings. He just raved about it. You have to realize what a compliment this is--my dad is the biggest Western fan of all time AND he's a dentist. He was very impressed with the dentistry that you described--he says that your descriptions are very authentic! Then he launched into an explanation of gold foil work and how difficult it would have been for Doc with that cough.
As for myself, I decided to save the book to read closer to our book discussion. As the leader of the discussion, I read it slowly, taking notes, and savoring it. As usual, I love your characters and knowing what makes them tick. It's amazing--the insight you give us into everyone from John Riney, to "China Joe" to Mattie Blaylock, to Father Alexander von Angensperg, S.J. Let alone, Wyatt, Kate, and JHH himself. You're a master at weaving all of these small stories into the larger story.
I think you've done an excellent job of writing the story of Alice Holliday's son. As a mother of three sons and the sister of four brothers I know how complex and multi-layered menfolk can be. Having watched my brothers and my sons grow up, I can still see their 3 year old selves shining through their square jawed, manly, whiskered faces. I don't think they can see that--I think that even the most sensitive of men (my husband included) loses sight of their own little boy. That's partly why they need us womenfolk around--to cherish the little boy in them--without him they lose a piece of their humanity. Kate couldn't really do that for JHH, could she? He did that for her--he could see her lost little girl and cherish her, but she was too busy trying to save her own self to see much of him beyond what he could do for her. That's why JHH needs you, Mary! I love the passages like this: " Anyone out in the street who happened to look up would have seen a slim, well-dressed young man lounging not a sickly boy grieving."
As I think about it, you've done the same for Wyatt and Bat and many of the other characters. In your hands they are more than cowboys and lawmen and card players and prostitutes. You help provide the other side of the story--the side of the story their mother's would tell if they were here. You're like the den mother of Dodge City. These cowboys have needed someone like you for a long time to take them in hand, remind them who they are, and not let them take themselves too seriously!
It all comes together in the party scene at the end--the ghost life scene--where everyone is revealed to be more than they, and we, thought they were. How appropriate that it happens on the dance floor! It's the kind of scene I've come to expect from you when you surprise the reader with a little glimpse of heaven and heaven isn't all that far away. Like the scene in A Thread of Grace when Schramm realizes that Mirella is Jewish as she makes preparations for the Sabbath. It's like that final scene in Places in the Heart when they are passing communion from person to person, living and dead.
Just one more thing. I knew that in the end Doc's tuberculosis was going to kill him, but as I got to know him so well I kept hoping that maybe this time he wouldn't have to die. (Sort of like I felt when I went to see the Titanic--maybe the captain will pay attention to the iceberg warnings this time and they'll miss the iceberg this time!) I found myself thinking, along with Kate, "Don't die on me, Doc. Don't die . . ."
And finally, I've enjoyed reading your blog entries about Doc. I read the one about Going West-ern (your justifications for all your cowboy gear) aloud to Cheri, one of my co-workers the other day and we had a good laugh! We looked further, hoping to find an entry about how you put together a saloon girl outfit, but were disappointed. Cheri figured the first line would have been something like, "Well, I already had the fishnet stockings . . . "
Mary's reply: Holli, this is just the best letter I've gotten all year about DOC. I love the idea of being the Dodge City den mother! I've been putting off replying to your note because I wanted to send you back photos from the Vendetta ride. Still don't quite know how to attach them -- my husband the software guru has all the jpegs filed someplace that takes 38947 clicks to get to and I don't know where to find them on my machine. But he's working a less baroque storage solution for digital archives. So soon...
In the meantime, thank you so much, and I am just thrilled that you enjoyed the book so much. ...more
Chevalier does a fine job of getting inside the heads of people who didn't know about dinosaurs. I enjoyed the discussions among the characters of whaChevalier does a fine job of getting inside the heads of people who didn't know about dinosaurs. I enjoyed the discussions among the characters of what this means and what it says about God and the way the world works. I liked Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot and felt for them as they negotiated in a man's world. I liked that they were true to their gifts and interests and ultimately to their friendship. I liked that in the end it all came back to long walks on the beach where the curies were waiting to be found....more
A pretty good book, but not as good as March and People of the Book. I didn't care about the characters enough. Michael Mompellion was a huge disappoiA pretty good book, but not as good as March and People of the Book. I didn't care about the characters enough. Michael Mompellion was a huge disappointment--I really thought he knew what he was doing. I like the way Anna's character grew during the course of the novel, but maybe she was a little too good. The ending? I kind of liked it, but I needed more convincing or more time to get used to the idea that this could happen. She sort of sprung it on me and, whereas I usually like it when I don't see something coming, this seemed to be pulled from thin air. It's too bad because I really wanted to like this one--I had heard great things about it, but it just didn't do it for me....more
Chapter 3 ends with this statement, "Here now, we have entered another state." That about sums up the book. John, who is a victim of Alzheimers, and EChapter 3 ends with this statement, "Here now, we have entered another state." That about sums up the book. John, who is a victim of Alzheimers, and Ella, who is in the last stages of cancer, have taken off on a road trip against the advice of their doctors and their children and their own better judgment. Ella narrates their journey, marking their progress by the states they pass through as they re-trace historic Rt. 66 from their home in Michigan to their ultimate destination, California. But on a subtler note, Ella traces the journey of their lives, their marriage, and the progression of their illnesses. By the end of chapter 3, they have enough miles under their tires to take them out of their ordinary lives and put them in traveling mode where new possibilities lie just around the next bend.
Zadoorian is a fine storyteller, giving voice to the melancholy of two people who are approaching the end of their lives, but tempering it with new adventures and relationships. Especially poignant are the slide shows the couple watches at night of their past vacations when their children were young and their friends were still alive. These excursions into the past are juxtaposed with the people they meet along the way and the challenges they conquer even in their depleted states--Ella figures that the two of them together add up to one whole person! They are still waking up every morning and making sure they have a full tank, still drinking Pepsi and eating hamburgers, still up to their necks in the flow of human interaction, still giving and receiving.
One of the ladies in my Sr. Center Book Club told me that she had a hard time reading this book--it struck too close to home and made her think of people she misses. I know what she means--the book definitely forces us to come face to face with our mortality. But I found a lot of hope as I traveled along with Ella, full of spit and vinegar and pain pills, and John, who kept fading in and out of the present moment. Theirs is a story about love and loyalty and courage. With humor and persistence they invite us to travel with them, allowing us to reflect on how remarkable an unremarkable life can be, and bringing us ultimately to a state of grace.
A few quotes I liked:
"How upset should you get over a suicide note where the person seems to lose interest in the middle?" (p. 67)
"All the cups of coffee, hand-washings, changes of clothes, lunches, goings to the bathroom, headaches, naps, walks to school, trips to the grocery store, conversations about the weather--all the things so unimportant that they should be immediately forgotten. Yet they aren't." (p. 174)
"He has a little dementia." (p. 264)
"If love bonds us during our lives, why can't it still somehow bond us, keep us together after our deaths?" (p. 272)
**spoiler alert** Wow. Wow. Wow. I almost didn't read this book. Even after I started it, I almost put it down after the first 20 pages or so. As Mich**spoiler alert** Wow. Wow. Wow. I almost didn't read this book. Even after I started it, I almost put it down after the first 20 pages or so. As Michael Cunningham says on the jacket, "Potent, darkly beautiful, and revelatory." I was afraid it was a little too potent and dark for me. I actually loved those first pages--the description of Jack and Ma's day and all the fun things they did in Room. I just hated the thought of why and for what purpose they were in Room.
But I stuck with Jack and he pulled me through. I loved his voice--so matter-of-fact and innocent and quirky--and I realized that I had a lot to learn from him so I stuck it out. Donoghue says on her website about Jack's voice, "I made myself a dictionary of my son’s kid-English, then narrowed it down to some classic errors and grammatical oddities that would not seriously confuse readers." I think it would be very hard to tell this story from a 5-year-old's point of view, but she does it beautifully through Jack's unsentimental explanations of the world from his viewpoint (what's real and what's "TV")and his magpie reporting of the adult conversations that go on around him (which he often doesn't understand, but which give the reader enough of the back-story to fill them on the details they hate to know).
Be sure to visit the website www.roomthebook.com and poke around Room, which Donoghue says she designed on home-decor website. I was especially interested in the bookshelf, which reveals Emma Donoghue’s reading list and how ROOM connects to other literature. Fascinating! This is really an archetypal story we're dealing with here.
These are two of the reasons I give the book 5 stars--Donoghue's skill with a narrator and the way she came up with a story which seems so new and different but is really so old and elemental.
The other reason I give it 5 stars is Ma's line, "I think what babies want is mostly to have their mothers right there." She says this in response to the TV talk show host's comment on how terribly difficult it must have been to raise Jack on her own, without books or professionals. It's pretty simple really, and this may be the most important thing Jack and Ma have to teach us.
I wanted to like this one more than I did. It was interesting and the story kept me turning pages, but I didn't care about the characters as much as II wanted to like this one more than I did. It was interesting and the story kept me turning pages, but I didn't care about the characters as much as I wanted to. Other than the fact that Marlena looked good in pink sequins I didn't really understand why Jacob loved her so much. Gruen alluded to her skill with horses and if she had developed this a little more I probably would have admired Marlena more and thought she deserved Jacob's attention.
I liked Jacob--he was a very loyal and honorable man. But he reminded me a little bit of Richie Cunningham. I like Richie too, but he's a sitcom character--he's supposed to be one-dimensional. I guess I wanted Jacob to be a little more complicated. And part of me didn't believe that he had to join the circus. He had a string of bad luck, but was this really his only choice?
August was easy to hate--maybe a little too easy. He must have had some redeemable character trait. Was he just bad because he was a "paragon schnitzophonic" or was there something more? Did his mother love him?
And then there's Rosie. I really wanted to like her and it's not that I didn't like her, but like the other characters, Gruen just didn't give me enough.
That's why I sort of felt cheated at the end of the story. The ending surprised me, which was good I guess, but it also felt a little cheap. It could have been spectacular if I had cared more. When I really love a novel, I think about the characters when I'm away from them. I didn't think much about these characters. Gruen didn't let me inside their heads and hearts enough. It was more like reading an interesting story in a newspaper or magazine than reading a really good novel that you just can't put down.
I give this book four stars partly because it's so thought provoking. When you read it you'll get all caught up in your thoughts about the ethics of gI give this book four stars partly because it's so thought provoking. When you read it you'll get all caught up in your thoughts about the ethics of genetic enhancement. The scene involving the debate between the Nobel Prize winning author and the "notorious geneticist" really brings this home. I was really pulling for the author, but the geneticist had some good points . . . it's not easy to choose sides.
But this plot line is only part of the story. Throughout the novel there are references and remarks about writing, creative nonfiction, story, the role of the novel in our modern world, etc. You'll want to pay attention to this theme as it weaves itself through the story. That's the only way the ending will make sense. The title of the textbook that Russell uses in his creative nonfiction writing class, Make Your Writing Come Alive , sort of sums it up.
I must admit that part of the reason I wanted to read this book was to find another piece to the secret of happiness. If this had been ignored or if Powers had given an easy answer, I would have been disappointed. In my opinion he handled it beautifully. Thassa's speech on the Oona Show (p. 222) is koan-like enough that I understand it on one level, but I'm also still trying to figure it out (and probably will be for a long time to come). The way Powers delivers Thassa's speech is brilliant.
I'm going to include the speech here so I'll be able to refer back to it when I need it. It's not really a spoiler because it doesn't give the plot away and if you're like me, you won't fully understand it anyway:
"Oona, listen. I promise you: This is easy. Nothing is more obvious. People think they need to be healed, but the truth is much more beautiful. Even a minute is more than we deserve. No one should be anything but dead. Instead, we get honey out of rocks. Miracles from nothing. It's easy. We don't need to get better. We're already us. And everything that is, is ours."...more
An interesting book. I kept thinking about Homer, the blind narrator and Homer, the blind poet. This seemed sort of like a reverse Odyssey--instead ofAn interesting book. I kept thinking about Homer, the blind narrator and Homer, the blind poet. This seemed sort of like a reverse Odyssey--instead of going on a journey, the journey came to them. In fact, the whole 20th century sort of paraded through their house, bringing all kinds of quirky characters from different decades. None of the reviews I read mentioned this, although I did see a reference to it on someone's blog. At least twice, Homer depicts himself as a traveler. When the house really begins to get junky and he was having trouble finding his way through the rooms, he says, "I was a traveler who had lost his map" (p. 96). And later, just before the gangsters move in, he says, "I think now what happened I had wanted to happen, though what I will describe here was finally only one more passing event in our lives--as if our house were not our house but a road on which Langley and I were traveling like pilgrims." (p. 112)
I didn't know much about the Collyer brothers until I looked them up online after I finished the book. I admire the way Doctorow, as pointed out by Liesl Schillinger, in her review in the NY Times, "considers them in a less lurid fashion, casting them as sympathetic, if eccentric, players in the drama of the departed American century . . . .Where other writers, titillated by the brothers' ghoulish history, have asked, 'How did they die?' Doctorow asks the more respectful, and thus more surprising, question: 'How did they live?'" To me, this made all the difference. I kept thinking about an older gentleman in our town who used to come into the library to get our discarded newspapers. People said that his house was completely filled with stacks of old papers and magazines. It's easy to look at people like that and see them as one-dimensional, stereotyped characters. This book made me wonder about the circumstances of his life and see him in a more compassionate light.