I really enjoyed reading this. It was a little different from Amy Tan's usual, but it had a lot of great elements -- adventure, humor, depth, etc. I h...moreI really enjoyed reading this. It was a little different from Amy Tan's usual, but it had a lot of great elements -- adventure, humor, depth, etc. I highly recommend it.(less)
Another recommendation on loan from Margueya -- her book club is reading this one.
I thought this was a great book. Its deceptively simple style and im...moreAnother recommendation on loan from Margueya -- her book club is reading this one.
I thought this was a great book. Its deceptively simple style and immediate accessibility belies a deep, provocative story. I loved the subtlety, and the complex look at human relationships. This would be a great choice for a book club! There's a great deal to discuss. Not for the fainthearted, though -- I also found the book to be terribly sad.(less)
Wow -- I couldn't put this down. Which is a funny thing to say, because it wasn't a pageturner in the classic sense; not plot-driven or particularly s...moreWow -- I couldn't put this down. Which is a funny thing to say, because it wasn't a pageturner in the classic sense; not plot-driven or particularly suspenseful. I just found the heroine and her story very engaging. I also liked the way many of the characters managed to be both jerky and sympathetic -- complex, in other words, something that's missing from many books! Finally, I think it was sweetly nostalgic for me to read about a heroine growing up in the 80s, whose developmental clock pretty much mirrored mine. I appreciated the references to friendship pins, Keds, Ocean Pacific sweatshirts, etc. -- Moriarty really evoked that time period for me without it being overkill. I had a similar experience when I read "The Song Reader" by Lisa Tucker, which I also enjoyed, although I think this was a richer book. Anyway, I can't really name a flaw in this book -- it was enjoyable and interesting, well-written, characters you could see and feel, etc. Highly recommended.(less)
I loved this. It had so many elements of a great novel -- romance, mystery, richly drawn characters, humor, a story within a story (with both plots eq...moreI loved this. It had so many elements of a great novel -- romance, mystery, richly drawn characters, humor, a story within a story (with both plots equally enjoyable and dovetailing in interesting ways), and great writing -- even in translation. Someone compared it to "History of Love." I sort of see the comparison, but I think I would compare it more to "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield. Anyway, I highly recommend it.(less)
I guess I can live with jet lag when there are great books to read...Maybe it's just the contrast effect with the crap I've been reading lately, but c...moreI guess I can live with jet lag when there are great books to read...Maybe it's just the contrast effect with the crap I've been reading lately, but certainly at least four of the stars are well-deserved. Loved the writing, loved the characterization, loved the way the story unfolded, etc. I did question whether it was realistic that Esme would have a hold on her sanity after 60 years in an insane asylum and everything else she'd been through, but it was worth suspending my disbelief.(less)
"The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" explores the tragedy of Lia Lee, a Hmong child with epilepsy who eventually suffered severe brain damage, f...more"The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" explores the tragedy of Lia Lee, a Hmong child with epilepsy who eventually suffered severe brain damage, from a variety of perspectives. One perspective is that of her family, who believed that epilepsy had a spiritual rather than a medical explanation, and who had both practical difficulty (as illiterate, non-English speaking immigrants to the U.S.) and general reluctance to comply with Lia's complicated medical regimen. Another perspective is that of her doctors, who were extremely frustrated at all the barriers in dealing with this family and felt understandably determined to treat Lia according to the best standards of medicine. Then you have the people in between -- the sympathetic and aggressively advocating social worker (resented by the doctors) who came from the American point of view but aligned with the family; Lia's temporary foster family who ended up forming an apparently close relationship with her birth family; and the author herself, who unpacked this story with all its layers and recognized the profound questions it elicited, such as:
What’s preferable from a doctor’s point of view – a lower standard of care with a higher probability of compliance from the family, or a higher standard of care with a lower probability of compliance from the family?
When a child is involved, who's the boss -- the doctor, or the parents?
Why are we Americans so intolerant of those who do not wish to assimilate into our culture? And do we owe them the same rights/privileges as those who adopt American culture?
How could the Lees be perceived so radically differently by the doctors and nurses who worked with them vs. the more sympathetic social worker and journalist?
If the doctor's goal is to save the body and the family's goal is to save the immortal soul, who should win that conflict?
This book was amazing, on so many levels.
The writing was excellent, and so was the organization. I find that non-fiction books often err on the side of being either informative but too dry, or engaging but also too sensationalist/one-sided. This book was neither. The story was gripping, and so was the background (and Fadiman did a great job of interspersing the two so as to build tension, and so that neither aspect of the book ever got boring). Fadiman has clearly done her research, and I felt like I learned a great deal from the book but never felt like I was reading a textbook.
Best of all, this is one of the rare books I've read that felt truly balanced and three-dimensional. Fadiman was sympathetic to the Hmong and their viewpoint without romaticizing or idealizing them. She described some unfair racist reactions to the Hmong, but she also acknowledged the valid resentment felt by people whose taxes were supporting their welfare-receiving huge families. Fadiman also portrayed the doctors as motivated overall by good intentions. She acknowledged factors such as cultural blindness and the arrogance of the profession, but did not imply that the doctors were coldhearted, insensitive automatons -- quite the contrary.
Highly recommended for anyone who wants an engaging and thought-provoking read.(less)
Great fiction offers you a gripping plot, memorable characters, and complex relationships. Great non-fiction expands your mind, educating you with new...moreGreat fiction offers you a gripping plot, memorable characters, and complex relationships. Great non-fiction expands your mind, educating you with new information and inspiring you to think. This book, technically non-fiction, was the best of both worlds.
This book was a family saga set in a fascinating historical context. Each of the three women in the book is a microcosm of surrounding events in China at the time. The author's grandmother, becoming a concubine to a warlord as a teenager and undergoing all sorts of difficulties before finally finding love and relative security against the odds. Her only daughter, the author's mother, a pioneer of communism struggling with fierce dedication to the party which comes at a high price. The author herself, growing up during the cultural revolution and having to overcome the ingrained psychological controls implanted by the cult of Mao in order to think independently.
These women are strong and courageous and great to read about, but I agree with another reviewer who said that the most interesting character was the author's father. A rare idealist strong in his beliefs, his willingness to sacrifice on his family's behalf infuriates you at first but you come to deeply admire him. This reviewer also put it well when she said that China itself was a character in this book. In fiction, making a place into a character is something that usually doesn't work for me. Here, it did -- maybe because it was non-fiction, and the book was vastly informative beyond telling the story of the family itself. I've read fiction and memoir from the Cultural Revolution ("Waiting," "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," "Red Azalea") but I felt that this book helped me understand the phenomenon, and what it was like to live through it, in a way that the other three books did not.
The only reason I hesitated about the fifth star was that the book was very long and perhaps a little over-detailed at times. I think I would have had more patience for this, though, if my life were not currently so busy so that's not something I'll hold against the book.(less)
I’m the first to say it. The Holocaust genre is way oversaturated. When I read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” I was filled with rage that this was...moreI’m the first to say it. The Holocaust genre is way oversaturated. When I read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” I was filled with rage that this was what it had come to – a cheap, gimmicky, and frankly stupid book written simply to capitalize on the marketability of the Holocaust. But every now and then, I do end up reading a Holocaust-related book that has something interesting and different about it and is worth reading even though it’s Holocaust lit. “The Book Thief.” “Those Who Save Us.” And now, this one which has become my recent favorite – “Not Me.”
“Not Me,” aside from enjoyable writing and deft characterization, has a gripping premise. Michael Rosenheim is a stand-up comedian who performs under the name Mickey Rose. Like many comics, his personal life is unhappy and desolate – he’s divorced from his ex-wife whom he still loves, has difficulty staying connected with his child, has lost his mother and sister, and his father is now dying of Alzheimer’s. Michael is also conflicted about his Jewish identity – it makes great comic fodder but not much else, and he resents the excess reminders of his Judaism that fill his father’s apartment – knickknacks and honors from a wide array of Jewish organizations. His father, Heschel Rosenheim, is considered one of the all-time great Jews, a Holocaust survivor who has always been unusually devoted and generous with his time when it came to Jewish causes, and Michael just doesn’t get it.
In one of his increasingly sporadic lucid moments, Michael’s Alzheimer’s-ridden father hands him a box of 24 journals he apparently wrote, although it’s the first Michael is hearing of it and it’s not even clear where the journals materialized from at this time. When Michael reluctantly decides to read them, he is shocked to find a third-person story in his father’s handwriting written about someone with his father’s name who was in fact in the camps, but as an SS officer named Heinrich Mueller. Fearing the oncoming liberation, Heinrich Mueller decided to starve himself for three weeks, tattoo a number onto his arm, and steal the uniform and identity of a dead concentration camp victim – Heshel Rosenheim – so as to avoid getting caught on the wrong side by the liberators. In a sequence of events that is almost comic in its irony, this former SS officer then follows a very Jewish trajectory – DP Camp and then Palestine, where he becomes a kibbutz leader (in a passage which cracked me up, this German decides to whisk those disorganized Jews into shape) and later a freedom fighter for the emerging state of Israel. Although Mueller/Rosenheim secretly still dislikes Jews and plots ways to join the Arab side, he ends up digging himself deeper and deeper and escape seems impossible as he becomes further entrenched in his new identity.
But is this man Michael’s father? It’s hard to tell, because every time Michael tries to confront his father on this, his father slips into an Alzheimer’s-induced fugue. The most Michael’s father will say about the Heinrich Mueller/Heschel Rosenheim of the journals is, “That was not me,” which could mean any number of things – that the journals are fiction, that Michael’s father insists on denying their truth despite his having documented it in this form, or that he is simply suffering Alzheimer’s and no longer remembers. Naturally, Michael becomes increasingly anxious to learn his father’s true identity, and as a reader, I felt swept up in this quest myself. More murky secrets about Michael’s past and family gradually come to consciousness, and the complexity increases. Equally gripping, though, was the story taking place in Michael’s father’s journals of an SS officer posing as a Palmach member, terrified of being recognized by survivors of his camp, constantly wavering about whether to go over to the Arab side even as he leads his groups in the War of Independence.
The ending is powerful, a bit speculative but not disappointingly so. Overall, my reservations re. Holocaust lit. notwithstanding, I found this book moving and very thought-provoking, and I highly recommend it. (less)
No book is perfect, but this one came close for me. I loved Cassandra, the protagonist -- a genuinely funny and sharp seventeen-year-old girl who is t...moreNo book is perfect, but this one came close for me. I loved Cassandra, the protagonist -- a genuinely funny and sharp seventeen-year-old girl who is the quintessential chick lit heroine in many ways, setting the tone for that cliche while simultaneously rising above it. Cassandra and her impoverished family, oddly enough, inhabit a large castle originally rented with the earnings from her father's great, and thus far unrepeated, writing success. Now that her father appears to be suffering endless writing block, the family is nearly starving.
Cassandra's mother is dead, and her father has remarried. Cassandra's stepmother, Topaz, is another interesting and three-dimensional character -- an 29-year-old artist's model who seems flaky in many ways but is deeply devoted to her husband and step-children. Rose, Cassandra's beautiful 20-year-old sister, despises their poverty and dreams of a way out, while Cassandra and her younger brother Thomas are more accepting of the situation. The last member of the household, Stephen, is a young man who works for his room and board (such as it is) and suffers deep and unrequited passion for Cassandra.
Enter the insanely wealthy Cotton family from America, who has just inherited the estate on which Cassandra's family's castle is situated. The Cottons have two eligible sons, and the intrigue begins. Lest you think the plot is predictable, though, be forewarned -- it isn't.
If I wanted to nitpick, I could. I did occasionally have to suspend my disbelief in certain minor places. But I don't care. Those places were few and far between, and the overall story and characters were so great to read about that it didn't matter. This book managed to be light and funny, and profound and wise at the same time -- how often does that happen? The situations were surprisingly complex, as were the characters, but it never felt ponderous or slow. I wish there were more books like this.(less)
The story begins at the end and basically works backward with a little back-and-forth within that structure, a device...moreI thought this book was fabulous.
The story begins at the end and basically works backward with a little back-and-forth within that structure, a device which would have been irritating and ineffective in the hands of a less gifted author but worked beautifully here. As a result of the structure, events which seem minor at first gradually take on a breathtaking symbolism and significance as you begin to discover their roots, and the story becomes deeper and deeper as you keep reading. The language is beautiful -- for once I found myself (mostly) thinking, "lyrical" and "poetic" rather than overwritten. The continually shifting viewpoints, something I usually dislike, actually served to make all of the characters three-dimensional and real.
At the beginning of this story of the unhappy Rajasekharan family, an Indian family living in Malaysia, we learn of three disappearances -- the dismissal of Chellam, a mysteriously accused servant, the departure of Uma, the oldest daughter in the family, for America, and the death of Paati, the children's grandmother. As we move back in time, we learn about the original mismatch of the two Rajasekharan parents, Amma and Appa, and their growing divide; Amma's ascent from her poor family of origin into the life of a rich socialite desperately trying to mask her unhappiness, constantly carped at by Paati, her superior live-in mother-in-law, and disconnected from her three children; Paati's increasing irascibility with old age leading to the family's hiring Chellam in the first place and then to Paati's mysterious death; Uma's increasing detachment from her family even before her escape to America; and eventually, the pivotal events two years prior to the end of the story which brought the family's unhappiness to the surface and served as a catalyst for everything that followed. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Aasha, the youngest child, who attempts to palliate her loneliness through richly imagined communication with "ghosts" (another device I usually dislike, but one which worked here because it seemed less about magic realism and more about an exploration of the inner life of a six-year-old) and who is tragically an important agent in the story as well as the one most deeply affected by the events.
Naturally, I have a few gripes. The story was a bit of a slow starter for me; I became captivated around Chapter 4 but was more ambivalent until then. Looking back, I don't know whether it could have been otherwise given the structure, as you don't really understand what's happening until you keep moving backward. My bigger gripe is with the incest/non-incest part of the plot -- I AM SICK AND TIRED OF DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY STORIES WHICH INEVITABLY CONTAIN AN ELEMENT OF INCEST/MOLESTATION! AAARRGGHH! There are dysfunctional families without incest! And they can be interesting too! It's become a cliche already. The only reason I didn't remove a star for that (and I was sorely tempted) is that, looking back, that's probably the only kind of event that could have facilitated everything that followed. I also had an issue with the ambiguity of the incest; if it wasn't actually incest but something like incest (which is what the book seems to imply), then why were the results so dramatic?
But I forgave that, because the book as a whole was so damn beautiful and well-done. I should add as a disclaimer that my sister and some other goodreads reviewers didn't like this book, but it certainly has my vote.(less)
It's always nice to read a really great novel, especially if it's after several consecutive disappointing reads. "Little Bee" focuses on two women. On...moreIt's always nice to read a really great novel, especially if it's after several consecutive disappointing reads. "Little Bee" focuses on two women. One woman, the eponymous heroine, is a sixteen-year-old refugee from Nigeria who has fled to England. After two years in an immigrant detention center, she is mistakenly released without papers and fears deportation. Little Bee manages to find the only person she knows in England -- Sarah, the book's other heroine.
Sarah, in contrast to Little Bee, is a thirty-something posh magazine editor and young mother. Sarah met Little Bee two years earlier during an ill-fated vacation to Nigeria with her husband, a vacation which changed their lives for the worse in a highly dramatic and permanent way. Sarah's husband, Andrew, eventually committed suicide after a downward spiral which appears to have begun after this vacation. Little Bee arrives on Sarah's doorstep on the morning of Andrew's funeral with nowhere else to go.
I could say a lot more, but I don't want to spoil the book -- a lot of the beauty is in watching the events unfold. The story is very dramatic at times but somehow believable, with fully developed strong characters and a plot that actually moves. The writing is beautiful, and the moral ambiguity complex and interesting. Highly recommended.
I blew through this fascinating audiobook, practically manufacturing housework to do so that I'd have an excuse to plug myself in (okay, that's a bit...moreI blew through this fascinating audiobook, practically manufacturing housework to do so that I'd have an excuse to plug myself in (okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration; there was plenty of housework to do without my having to manufacture any). I would recommend this book to just about anyone seeking a great read -- even if you're usually more of a fiction person, this non-fiction book offers plenty of interesting characters and storylines as well as being informative and provocative in the way of non-fiction.
Did you know that much of medical research (and the benefits we derive every day, including many routine vaccines and medications we take for granted) is dependent on a culture of human cells that continue to live and reproduce even after their original owner died in 1951? Well, I didn't. And I wouldn't have thought that this factoid would interest me particularly, not being much of a science person myself. But somehow, Rebecca Skloot was able to make the dynamics surrounding these cells not only comprehensible to me but intriguing (no small feat).
Even more intriguing, though, was the story of the late human being behind these cells, Henrietta Lacks, who never knew that her cells had been taken for research. Henrietta's surviving children, tragically losing their mother at a young age to cervical cancer and raised in a poor and abusive environment, only learned about this later in life and never saw a penny of the proceeds.
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" contains several stories. There is the story of Henrietta, a poor young African American woman with incurable cervical cancer, and of her children struggling to grow up without her after her early death. There is the story of the doctor who decided to slice off pieces of her tumor just prior to her death without asking or even informing her, who then discovered that these cancerous cells were immortal. There is the story of the cells, which began to be mass-produced and distributed to researchers for a wide variety of interesting and often ground-breaking experiments. And there is the story of Rebecca Skloot, a journalist who was persistent and dogged in her efforts to win Henrietta's family's reluctant trust (after they had been duped by others attempting to capitalize on Henrietta) so that she could learn and tell their story.
Henrietta's adult children in this book are colorful characters with their own stories who overcame some difficult situations, some more successfully than others. We also meet different doctors and researchers -- while some prove to be profiteers, others are truly dedicated to science for its own sake. The doctor who originally took Henrietta's tumor for research without her knowledge fell into the latter category, which is part of what makes this a three-dimensional book rather than a simplistic polemic. A product of his times, this 1950s doctor was less sensitive to the medical and research ethics which have since received more attention, particularly when it came to a poor African-American woman.
Should you care if someone uses your body tissues for medical research without your consent? Before I began reading this book, my thought was, why the heck would I care? Assuming that these tissues need to be removed in any case, why not use them to do some good for science and for mankind? But Rebecca offers some anecdotes which complicate this question, and the irony running throughout the book is that Henrietta's descendants cannot afford decent medical care, even as the entire medical profession benefits from Henrietta's unwittingly donated cells.
Even if you think you're not a science person, even if you think you're not a non-fiction person, I would recommend checking this book out.(less)
How can I possibly describe a 947-page book in the space of a brief review? I guess I could start by saying that my interest was maintained all the wa...moreHow can I possibly describe a 947-page book in the space of a brief review? I guess I could start by saying that my interest was maintained all the way through, which is saying a lot. This book didn't change my life or anything, but it was a great read and a great story and I had absolutely no problem with the length. Although a few of the subplots and interludes were arguably less necessary, they were no less engaging.
"Sacred Games" explores the lives of two Mumbai men, a police officer named Sartaj Singh and a gang leader named Ganesh Gaitonde. Both Sartaj and Ganesh are complex characters vividly executed, and I enjoyed reading about their lives' twists and turns -- Ganesh's rise to power in the underworld and subsequent difficulties; Sartaj's challenges as a relatively honest police officer in a world riddled with corruption. I especially loved reading about the characters' love for their native Mumbai, which was vividly and empathically evoked. Despite the fact that Mumbai is not high up on my list of places to visit these days, Chandra made the characters' deep affection for the city palpable and relatable.