Absolutely loved it. This resonated so deeply for me. And at the very end, Tolle talks about the "frequency holders"--those people (like my husband) w...moreAbsolutely loved it. This resonated so deeply for me. And at the very end, Tolle talks about the "frequency holders"--those people (like my husband) who are misfits in today's society but who in another time might have been the "contemplatives." It so affirmed my choice to marry a man who is utterly economically challenged but who brought something so deep and wonderful to my life I couldn't even name it and yet simply could not turn it away. (I read that part aloud to him.)
Tolle suggests that you won't get anything from this book unless you are already on your path to conscious awakening and thus seeking the message it has to impart. Whatever. It was inspiring, life-affirming, and enlightening to me and I certainly have a long ways to go in the awareness department. But don't we all? (less)
In Kate Bracy’s debut novel, That Crazy Little Thing, protagonist Melanie Davis narrates a moving story about illness, longing, and well-kept secrets....moreIn Kate Bracy’s debut novel, That Crazy Little Thing, protagonist Melanie Davis narrates a moving story about illness, longing, and well-kept secrets. When her best friend, Donna, is diagnosed with cancer, Mel must summon inner reserves of strength to provide comfort and closure to a lifelong friend who has been the closest thing she’s had to a sister (and who served as de facto auntie to her rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Jessie). Along the way, Melanie also discovers and must deal with Donna’s anger and regret over a baby given up for adoption long ago. At the same time, she quietly roots for her boss, Dr. E. (an old-fashioned gent in a loveless marriage) to leave his wife for an old acquaintance.
This novel’s strength lies in its hearty subject matter about how to be a good friend to a dying person. Melanie’s sacrifice of time and energy is a testament to the power of kinship and loyalty—often overlooked forms of love. It also poses (through Melanie’s secret monitoring of Dr. E’s tormented email correspondence) the more vexing question of whether duty and commitment ought to take precedence over personal fulfillment.
The climax is a scathing indictment of the now-outmoded “closed” adoption system that shattered the lives of many young women up until just a generation or so ago; a heavy (but skeptical and in no way preachy) dose of Catholicism adds a beautiful spiritual touch to an already tear-jerker read.
Bracy clearly knows how to push readers’ emotional buttons in the very best way while reminding us what is really important in life. The scene where a pissed-off Jessie disappears in Ottawa during a holiday shopping trip is nothing less than heart-stopping, and my eyes welled many a time over the unrelenting progress of Donna’s cancer. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help asking myself how the author would handle what seemed to be a no-win ending: Either Donna would have to die (leaving readers sad and disappointed), or she’d recover (an easy but unrealistic “out” that could ironically prove to be a letdown).
Without giving anything away, I was impressed with the realism and grace with which That Crazy Little Thing made its exit. After that fine grand finale, I could perhaps have lived without quite so many letters from Donna (what the author likens to the “Special Features” in a DVD—and which she suggests readers may skip). But all in all, That Crazy Little Thing is a quite satisfying read with uplifting and important messages we can all learn from. (less)
This is one part book review and too many parts personal observations about what this story meant to me. First, the book review. For the most part, I...moreThis is one part book review and too many parts personal observations about what this story meant to me. First, the book review. For the most part, I thought this was a brilliant work. I found it quite engaging and hard to put down. While I agree with several other reviewers who perceived an “emptiness” due to the lack of character development, I didn't fault the author for not delving into Edie’s deep psychological motivations for eating as much as she did, or her family’s reasons for reacting to her as they did. I thought the the characters' actions spoke for themselves. And while I thought the omnipresent POV (especially the neighbors' narrative at the b'nai mitzvah) made Attenberg’s writing come across as overly stylized, I rather enjoyed it and thought it “worked.”
So that’s the book review. Continue reading only if you want to hear my ramblings—as someone who has battled weight issues her entire life—about overeating and obesity. Although on its face this is a story about a dysfunctional Jewish family, I think this book has a TON to say about the human condition and the nature of addiction in general. The Jewish “backdrop” was cute and funny but to me (being half Jewish), neither here nor there. This story could have been about any family of virtually any cultural or ethnic background, because its messages are so universal. After all, every family is dysfunctional to some degree. It seems to be the natural result of living intimately with others and becoming emotionally invested in them. Over time, we stop “seeing” each other (or rather, see one another through clouded, limiting eyes) and presume to know who our family members are and what is best for them.
We all have demons and “issues.” Some of us, like Edie, use food as our “place to hide,” but make no mistake about it, we all use something to “take the edge off” while avoiding those hard, painful but oh-so-necessary trips within. Whether it’s prescription meds, a glass or two of wine each night, four beers a day, recreational drugs on the weekends, religion, shopping, sex—you name it, when you peek behind the veil of acceptable ways people “let off steam,” you will usually find a crutch. As Edie Middlestein demonstrates, once overeating becomes addictive, it no longer matters why the person does it or what they are taking in; your body, mind, and very being simply crave food, and you pretty much lose the ability to stop. With that in mind, is it our duty to try to “help,” “improve,” or “save” our overweight friends and family members simply because we love them and want to see them live longer? Or should we simply love them and leave them be?
Edie’s family supposedly loved her. So much so that her daughter-in-law felt entitled to stalk her from one fast food drive-through to the next; her son took up midnight residence at her kitchen table (to prevent her from succumbing to a bag of chips the night before a surgery); and her daughter pressured her to diet, head for a fat farm, or go in for a stomach staple. Edie’s habits were admittedly self-destructive (and disgusting, to be sure), but how utterly presumptuous, intrusive, and disrespectful were her family members’ actions—however “well-meaning” they might otherwise be. Nobody can undertake a monumental personal change without internal motivation. It all boils down to us, as individuals. We have to want to change; no one else can force it upon us; wheedle or cajole it from us; nag, blackmail, bribe, or barrage us to “improve” ourselves—such attempts only make both parties miserable. Without a genuine desire to sacrifice our comfortable, self-destructive patterns in favor of personal growth, we inevitably remain stuck.
Edie’s husband Richard was scorned for leaving his ill, obese wife in her “hour of need.” But he could not stand to look at her another minute, so what was he supposed to do? Would he really have done her any favor by staying? Part of me understood perfectly why he needed to “save himself” and could hardly fault him for it. My only issue with Middlestein is his cowardice: If he ever loved his wife at all, he should have stood up to her sooner, acted like a man, and issued a fair warning well before ending their relationship. Whether or not such an ultimatum would have been effective or the least bit helpful, didn't Edie deserve the courtesy of a “wake-up call” from her life partner so she could consider how far she was willing to go to put the brakes on her addiction and save her marriage?
I think Kenneth (the Chinese chef) got it right. He loved Edie for who she was, fat and all. He lovingly cooked for her—foods that she enjoyed eating. He spiced them with things he thought would “turn her on” or make her healthy (in the hope that it would stop her craving so much junk and processed food). But he got incredible joy from being around Edie regardless, and the feeling was mutual. Some might label Kenneth an “enabler,” but his approach to Edie and his feelings for her were more life-affirming than her own family’s. I think if she had any shot at getting healthy, it would have happened because she felt cherished and desired by him, and not as a result of being harassed by her family. That only fuels the cycle of self-loathing addictive behavior. Just because Edie was obese did not mean she didn’t deserve to be loved and accepted like anyone else. Isn’t this all any of us craves as a human being?
Let us not forget, just as some people are genetically predisposed to alcoholism or drug abuse, some of us are prone to overeating and becoming fat. I have known many thin people who eat crap, don’t exercise, and take their health completely for granted. If they develop health problems as a result of their poor habits, they aren’t condemned like heavy people, simply because they happen to be slender by stroke of genetic luck. For many others (like me), it takes a whole lot of discipline, time, effort, and commitment to keep those excess pounds at bay. Even with my daily struggle to stay mindful about food and my unfailing commitment to exercising each day, the best I can manage is to remain "acceptably plump" and not balloon up and sail away like Harry Potter's Aunt Marge at the dinner table.
For me, the “take-away” message from The Middlesteins is this: We each choose to live however we do. We each do the things we think will bring us comfort—however misguided our choices may be. At the end of the day, each of us has to decide whether we can accept a particular type of addict in our "inner circle" and love them exactly the way they are—whether they be smokers, drinkers, workaholics, shopaholics, shoplifters, recreational drug users, overeaters, or those seemingly “perfect” self-righteous folks who are just as addicted to bragging, preaching, showing off, and/or controlling others. It is indeed painful to watch someone we love destroy herself through substance abuse (whether that substance be food or something else), because self-destructive behavior can and does bring down everyone in the abuser's midst. Nevertheless, we should not judge one type of addict (i.e., obese people) any more harshly than another simply because they don’t have the luxury of hiding their addiction behind a slender body or (like drinkers, spenders, etc.) disguising it with seemingly socially-acceptable behaviors. Let's each deal with our own prickly sensibilities and prejudices before heaping moral judgment on those already in enough emotional pain. (less)
A great follow-up (lead-in, really) to The Glass Castle. I couldn't help but question the accuracy of some of the more hilarious, radical, eye-opening...moreA great follow-up (lead-in, really) to The Glass Castle. I couldn't help but question the accuracy of some of the more hilarious, radical, eye-opening antics of the first-person narrator and protagonist (as recounted by the author about her real-life grandmother), but if half these events are even remotely accurate, Lily Casey Smith was one "off the chain" female who led a fascinating, inspiring life well worthy of notice. A thoroughly enjoyable read. (less)
Astor Place Vintage is a seamlessly-woven tale about two women living a century apart but connected by a weird combination of mystical and historical...moreAstor Place Vintage is a seamlessly-woven tale about two women living a century apart but connected by a weird combination of mystical and historical phenomena. Amanda Rosenbloom, a Manhattan vintage clothing dealer battling insomnia and exhaustion, stumbles upon Olive Wescott’s diary (written in 1907-08) while purchasing garments from an eccentric old lady. Amanda becomes enthralled by Olive’s fascinating journal entries, which seem to bring the turn-of-the century protagonist eerily to life. But this isn’t a novel about time travel so much as an imaginative, well-executed story about the interconnectedness of two human souls through time and space.
The chapters narrated by Olive offer a marvelous glimpse at feminism’s “first wave” in the form of Olive’s personal challenges as a single woman living and working in the same lower-East Side neighborhood now inhabited by Amanda, but during a far more conventional and inequitable era. Through equally engaging past and present-day narratives, Astor Place Vintage provides an eye-opening education into the plight of women at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the ripple effect their disenchantment had on future generations. Second- and third-wave feminists often forget that an oppressed crop of feisty females laid the groundwork for the feminist surge that took place during the Sixties and Seventies. Women like Olive were not only unable to vote, but also faced societal norms that would keep them both ignorant of their biology and tacitly dependent on men’s physical needs for their financial survival (whether through the “legitimizing” marriage marketplace or the unsanctioned trade of sexual favors in exchange for financial ones). Outside of marriage, women of that era had few viable means of garnering a living wage, much less partaking equally in social and civic life alongside their male counterparts.
Olive experiences this injustice firsthand when a devastating setback forces her to find work and fend for herself. I was reminded of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth in the way Olive had to cope with socioeconomic restraints and sexual mores stacked squarely against women in general, but especially unmarried ones. Readers will easily understand why Olive’s warmhearted co-worker friend, Angelina, supplemented her meager wages by “keeping company” with a wealthy married man. However, ostensibly independent Amanda—a modern-day businesswoman who clearly should know better—strikes a far less defensible bargain by accepting financial help from her married boyfriend, Jeff. Although the fact that he was her high school sweetheart makes their affair somewhat less detestable, I found Amanda rather vexing at times (as I am sure the author intended). Lehmann’s irresolute protagonist yearns for motherhood, yet remains hopelessly embroiled in a dead-end relationship, knowingly trading her prime childbearing years for financial support and erratic male companionship. Though frustrating, I found Amanda’s dilemma both plausible and authentic—and not all that different from Olive’s in the sense that, unlike men, women have a biologically finite timeframe within which to link up with a man if we want to create families of our own, and still find it emotionally challenging and less than desirable to remain child-free by choice.
Replete with fertile scenes and mounting emotional tension, Astor Place Vintage climaxes with a masterful birthing event that sets this novel apart for its realism and suspense. Until then, it’s an easygoing thrill ride with just a hint of understated edginess. But that passage—including the forthright discussion that follows between Olive and the Johnny-come-lately doctor—imbue this otherwise pleasurable novel with an important substantive component that makes it worthy of “must read” stature as contemporary women’s fiction and historical fiction. (And lest anyone doubt that women could be as ignorant as Olive when it came to sex and reproduction, I can personally attest that my mother, born in 1917, misinformed me that a woman is most likely to conceive immediately before her period. I definitely got a chuckle over Olive’s ongoing confusion over that erroneous detail!)
A simply delightful read from first page to last, I didn’t want Astor Place Vintage to end. Nevertheless, Stephanie Lehmann wraps it up neatly and convincingly, leaving the reader perfectly sated yet still longing for more. (less)
A little too long,info-heavy, and mighty depressing, but I will not soon forget this book. Barbara Kingsolver deserves five stars for educating reader...moreA little too long,info-heavy, and mighty depressing, but I will not soon forget this book. Barbara Kingsolver deserves five stars for educating readers about the effects of global warming in this original and compelling work of fiction.(less)
First, a confession (in the interests of fairness and full disclosure): Khaled Hosseini has attained “untouchable” status in my view—so much so that,...moreFirst, a confession (in the interests of fairness and full disclosure): Khaled Hosseini has attained “untouchable” status in my view—so much so that, as my all-time favorite author, he can do no wrong. When an artist bestows upon me so much pleasure with his unbelievable gift, that shared connection engenders a sort of intimacy and expectancy. We begin to grow together.
Like Hosseini’s first two novels (The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns), And the Mountains Echoed delivers unmatched sensitivity, poignancy, and subtlety. Pari is the unifying thread connecting the many subplots flowing throughout this incredible book. Literally wrested from her older sibling’s arms as a toddler and sold to a wealthy Kabul couple, she quickly forgets her early years with her father and brother and grows up in the lap of luxury. Eventually raised in Paris and given every material comfort by a beautiful and manipulative mother—and spared an almost certain, senseless death from the bitter-cold winter in her small Afghan village, Pari retains a gnawing, vague sense that she does not know who she is or her true place in the world. Through Pari, Hosseini poses the first of many unanswerable riddles: Which is more important to a happy and meaningful life—a stable upbringing free from want, or the irreplaceable love of one’s biological family of origin?
Fast-forward fifty years or so, and Hosseini hits us with another impossible moral dilemma: How do we help those facing incredible, tragic, and limitless need in far-flung places when we are so thoroughly mired in (and continually seduced by) our own “first-world” lives of luxury? Dr. Idris Bashiri (who as a child lived across the street from Pari’s adoptive father in Kabul) returns to Afghanistan with his coarse but well-to-do cousin, Timur, to reclaim his father's property (lost during the Russian invasion). Idris is deeply moved when he meets a tragically disfigured young girl living in a Kabul hospital (Roshi was attacked by her axe-wielding madman of an uncle over a petty property dispute). While Idris badly yearns—and genuinely intends—to use his medical connections to help this girl, once he leaves Kabul and returns to his cushy California lifestyle, more pressing (if less important) concerns (a demanding work schedule, a home renovation project) gradually steal his focus: “Talking about Afghanistan—and he is astonished at how quickly and imperceptibly this has happened—suddenly feels like discussing a recently watched, emotionally drenching film whose effects are beginning to wane.”
Meanwhile, cousin Timur (a bawdy, womanizing real estate investor who cheats on both his wife and his taxes) swoops in to play the hero and snatch the glory. Through these two opposing characters, Hosseini subtly and cleverly poses yet another vexing question: Which is the better man—the one who can easily and grandiosely throw money around to garner popularity and admiration (and, as a secondary byproduct, help a few people out along the way)? Or the one whose authentic, feeling heart is in the right place, but who (like so many of us) is paralyzed by his own carefully-crafted, hard-won sense of wellbeing and cannot (or will not) follow through on his well-intentioned promises?
As if this were not enough to ponder, And the Mountains Echoed poses yet another universal dilemma in its portrayal of Pari’s conflicted relationship with Nila (her adoptive mother); Markos’s relationship with his mother (Odelia); and the relationship between Pari’s niece (and namesake) and her father, Abdullah (the original Pari’s long-lost brother): How do we reconcile our wish to remain loyal to family with our instinctive need to pursue our own dreams and fulfill our destinies? Odelia makes an apt and wise observation about this most irksome of life’s realities: “It’s a funny thing, Markos, but people have it mostly backward. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.” Besides being a brilliant writer, Mr. Hosseini is—as all good writers must be—a keen observer of human nature.
Several readers have complained that And the Mountains Echoed contains too many characters and confusing story lines, but Mr. Hosseini is an unimpeachable talent who has more than earned the right to experiment with characters and settings. And while his third novel can be a bit “tell-y” in places (Pari’s abbreviated recounting of her married life and the raising of her children, for example; Mr. Markos’s ruminations of his years in Tinos, Greece and his exodus to the far corners of the earth to escape his stifling young life), we should not punish Mr. Hosseini for having set the bar so high with his two prior books. Despite these minor flaws, Hosseini pulls this epic third novel off the ground and launches it through time and space with unequaled skill; his male characters in particular—Nabi (Pari’s step-uncle), Suleiman Wahdati (her adoptive father), Saboor (her biological father), and Abdullah (her brother) are each nuanced, complex, and deserving of compassion. Yes, this is a big story, and Hosseini uses numerous interdependent characters and subplots to deal with such unpleasant topics as the far-reaching consequences of war, separation, and disfigurement. Along the way, he handles—with his trademark sensitivity and grace—the various sacrifices we humans sometimes make balancing survival against our principles and beliefs.
But what really knocks this novel out of the ballpark is its ending. I read this book twice, and each time I finished, I was reduced to tears. The scenes between Abdullah and his grown daughter (whom he named Pari after his missing sister)—and the powerful messages of hope and connection that the concluding scenes evoke—make this work deserving of five stars and render it a classic in its own right. (less)
Always amazes me when I can agree with both the five star and two star reviews. I liked this book for its tone and what one reviewer labeled the "econ...moreAlways amazes me when I can agree with both the five star and two star reviews. I liked this book for its tone and what one reviewer labeled the "economy" of Spark's writing. As a matter of craft, she is probably a genious for so seamlessly weaving so many quirky characters and sublots through such a cohesive, cleverly-written vehicle. For that talent alone, she deserves five stars.
But the story itself fell just a bit flat for me. I didn't especially care about any of the characters; I found them mostly unlikeable, and not compelling enough to counterbalance their individual and collective self-centeredness. There were so many old, failing, privileged characters who harbored gripes and held grudges against so many others that I, with my own fuzzy brain, found it hard to keep them all straight.
A good friend of mine really liked this book, so I wanted to like it, too. And I did--but as an academic exercise in appreciating Spark's fine writing. But the book failed to deliver an emotional punch (unlike several other reviewers, I did not find it especially humorous, either), nor did it make me think or grow in any way. And this despite what promised to be a most compelling "hook"--the notion that we all need to be reminded of our own inevitable mortality. (less)