Still Alice by Lisa Genova
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Still Alice by Lisa Genova
320 Pages


#45 
 
At the age of fifty, Alice Howland is at the pinnacle of her career. She has been a psychology professor, a Ph.D, a noted author, an accomplished researcher and a respected speaker. For the past 25 years, her career in the Harvard community has been a source of pride for her and her family. How ironic then, that this gifted, intelligent woman, whose intellectual capabilities have secured her identity in her professional community, should suddenly find herself unable to remember the simplest details, disoriented in a onetime very familiar location and missing important engagements because she simply forgot. This happens often enough for Alice to seek a medical opinion and, after many tests and examinations, the diagnosis is frightening: early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Genova’s sensitive exploration of this insidious disorder provides the basis for the story Still Alice and details its heartbreaking outcome. We travel with Alice and her family through each phase of the disease, its effect on the brain, and how it changes her life and that of her family. The author holds a degree in neuroscience from Harvard herself and is able to tell the story through Alice’s point of view which provides a fascinating perspective.

As the disease progresses and it becomes apparent that her career is over, Alice’s family undergoes profound changes also. Two of her three children decide to undergo testing to ascertain whether or not they carry the gene that will result in their developing the disease. Alice’s relationship with her third child, daughter Lydia, changes also, but not necessarily in a bad way. A new acceptance seemed to develop between the two that was absent before because Lydia didn’t want to go to college and chose a career in acting instead. Mid-way through the book you have:

“She could see Lydia’s history as well, but somehow this woman sitting across from her wasn’t inextricably connected to her memories of her youngest child. This made her uneasy and painfully aware that she was declining, her past becoming unhinged from her present. And how strange that she had no problem identifying the man next to Anna as Anna’s husband, Charlie, who had entered their lives only a couple of years ago. She pictured her Alzheimer’s as a demon in her head, tearing a reckless and illogical path of destruction, ripping apart the wiring from ‘Lydia now’ to ‘Lydia then,’ leaving all the Charlie connections unscathed.” (Page 200)

I loved the way this family came together after overcoming their initial anxiety. Even her husband John, who grieved for the loss of the woman he knew, finally was able to come to terms with their new life. I’m not sure this is the way every family would be able to handle this and the author concluded the story before Alice became totally incontinent, unable to communicate, completely bedridden or in the last throes of the disease. At the end of the book, she realizes all she’s lost:

“I used to be someone who knew a lot. No one asks for my opinion or advice anymore. I miss that. I used to be curious and independent and confident. I miss being sure of things. There’s no peace in being unsure of everything all the time. I miss doing everything easily. I miss being part of what’s happening. I miss feeling wanted. I miss my life and my family. I loved my life and my family.” (Page 285)

So very sad. Highly recommended. ( )

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers 
335 Pages
 
       

Descriptive words prompted by this book: unsettling, despair, terrifying, discouraging, frightening.

Time to read this book: measured in hours rather than days

Final opinion: priceless

Hang onto your hats if you choose to read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers because you are in for quite a ride. I thought I knew pretty much all I could about Katrina: the failure of FEMA to provide timely help for the victims, and the failure of the city of New Oeleans and the state of Louisiana to provide even basic necessities for those affected, but that which is exposed by Eggers in this book, which is a biography that details actual events that happened, stunned me. Maybe I'm among the naive few, I'm not sure.

Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun own a highly successful painting and contracting business in New Orleans. They also own several rental properties in the city and have lived through more than one hurricane. The book tells their story and it's only one story out of thousands which is what makes it so frightening. I don't want to give away too much of the story, but I'll say that Kathy and her four children leave New Orleans at the start of the hurricane and her husband stays behind to protect all of his business interests and their home, just as he has done in the past when hurricanes were predicted. When the storm turns out to be the hundred year storm that no one really expected, Zeitoun uses his canoe to help in the rescue of stranded citizens and to check on his various properties. As the story unfolds, he discovers that the country he loves can not be counted on to provide even basic human rights.

Eggers intersperses the story of before and after Katrina with the story of Kathy and Zeitoun's past lives. The effect is that you know these two so well that you can't understand how they could be treated in the way they are. This is non-fiction that reads like fiction and, because of what transpires, I kept reminding myself that this was a true story. Fast, fast read because you truly cannot put it down. Very highly recommended. ( )
 


The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan
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The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan
327 pages


#43

“Bethan cried herself to sleep tonight. I leave her hiccupping and snoring as I rise up, up, up into the sky where the air is as soft to rest upon as Mrs. William Penrhiw’s powdery bosom. Up here, far away from everybody, the night is peaceful; there’s no sound except the hum of the Earth. At school, when I sang the note to Mr. Hughes Music he said it was B flat but he laughed when I said it was the note the Earth hummed.” (page284)
Mari Strachan’s astonishing debut novel brings us the voice of one of the most endearing adolescent narrators in recent memory. Gwennie Morgan is 12 years old, lives with her mother, father and sister Bethan in a Welsh village in the 1950’s, goes to school with her best friend Alwenna, is a budding detective and … oh yes, she flies-unaided by an airplane or any other contrivance. The story begins as she is flying at night through her village and fretting as to why she can’t seem to fly during the day. Immediatley I fell in love with her, mostly because I can remember myself dreaming of flying at her age too.

Gwennie is very much in tune with everything around her and her creative spirit kicks in when she attempts to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her neighbor, Ifan Evans. Add to this, Gwennie’s growing pains that accompany her pubescent maturation, a mother suffering from mental illness who emotionally abuses her, growing alienation from her good friend Alwenna, a father that loves and understands her, a tender love for all things in nature and it is easy to see how Gwennie needs to fly to keep herself abreast of all that’s happening in her small town and to sort out her baffling feelings. When her detective work leads her to a resolution that strikes very close to home, Gwennie must decide how much information she will share and with whom, knowing that the knowledge will hurt those close to her. It’s the flying above this humming earth that soothes Gwennie’s spinning head: “But he doesn’t know how the Earth’s deep, never-ending note clothes me in rainbow colours, fills my head with all the books ever written, and feeds me with the smell of Mrs. Sergeant Jones’s famous vanilla biscuits and the strawberry taste of Instant Whip and the cool slipperiness of glowing red jelly. I could stay up here forever without the need for anything else in the whole world.” (page 284)

Strachan does a terrific job developing Gwennie’s character, as well as all the other characters in the story. I really felt I knew them and could easily empathize with them. I wanted to be in that close-knit little town in Wales and I was sorry to see the story end. I’m hoping this is just the beginning for an author who shows great promise. Highly recommended. ( )

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

309 pages

#42

When I first decided I wanted to read Lolita it was because I wanted to broaden my appreciation of the classics that I was sorely missing. I had a rough idea of what the story line was: I recognized that it concerned a pedophile and a young girl but beyond that I really didn’t know what to expect. I had always assumed that there was a lot of graphic sex in the story. Then again, the book received many good reviews and was generally a four or five star read for other readers. It sat on my nightstand for over a year and when I realized that last week was Banned Book Week, what better time to attempt this classic.  I was very surprised by what unfolded as I read the book. Certainly it involves a pedophile and his experience with young Delores Haze, whom he tenderly calls, Lolita. Absent is the graphic sex I had expected and present is some of the most beautiful writing I have ever had the joy of reading. Nabokov had a gift for language that was stunning to behold. I had only read one other Nabokov novel, the very light-hearted Pnin, which actually was a good springboard for getting into this meatier read.

Of course, the idea of a story about a pedophile is gruesome, but somehow in Nabokov’s hands, the beauty of the language overcomes the disgust of the storyline. You certainly feel sorry for Delores and yearn for her to escape from Humbert Humbert, as they traverse the country in their one year journey (August 1947-August 1948). He was such a complicated character though, that I’m not sure I ever actually despised him, although I disagreed with him on many levels. But the pictures Nabokov drew as the story progressed were just so beautiful and memorable that it’s very difficult to think of not liking the book because of its lewd reputation. It’s so much more than that. Picture this:

               “The new and beautiful post office I had just emerged from stood between a dormant movie house and a conspiracy of poplars. The time was 9:00 a.m. mountain time. The street was Main Street. I paced its blue side peering at the opposite one :charming it into beauty, was one of those fragile young summer mornings with flashes of glass here and there and a general air of faltering and almost fainting at the prospect of an intolerably torrid noon.” Page 224

Passages like this are evident throughout the book. Nabokov paints the picture for you to see and all you can say is, “Beautiful.” Highly recommended.


Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
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Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
#41    191 Pages


Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov tells the story of professor Timofey Pnin who teaches Russian at a small New England college in the early 1950's. It is the story also of the immigrant experience at that time.

It is Nabokov's intense development of this one character that takes up the entire book. Other characters are present but they really don't matter. It's Pnin that this book is about. You get to know him intimately, but find that you really don't know him at all. There is no shortage of characters that take advantage of him and his many shortcomings help to spell out his predicament.

As the story begins, he is on his way to give a speech to a ladies' group in a nearby town. So like the character we come to know, he gets on the wrong train and needs to constantly assure himself that he has his speech in his pocket, and his awkwardness among others becomes apparent.

The love of his life has dumped him for another, more suitable husband, a "genius" but Pnin will take her back, no questions asked and under any circumstances. He is preparing to leave France and emigrate to the United States when Liza shows up again. "He was halfway through the dreary hell that had been devised by European bureaucrats for holders of that miserable thing, the Nansen passport, when one damp April day in 1940 there was a vigorous ring at his door and Liza tramped in, puffing and carrying before her like a chest of drawers a seven month pregnancy."

He is totally oblivious of his strange characteristics and has no idea that his colleagues at the college ridicule him but all of this make him that much more sympathetic and you can't help but like him. Highly recommended. ( )

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
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#40

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
411 pages




What if in 1948 the newly established state of Israel collapsed? And what if the Alaskan panhandle(named Sitka) became the home for 4 million Jews instead? And what if, after 60 years, this "home" reverted back to the Alaskan Indians and left those Jews looking for a place to live? This is the premise of Michael Chabon's fascinating novel.

The protagonist, Meyer Landsman, is a police detective with a drinking problem, an estranged wife who has suddenly become his boss, a moral compass that prevents him from going with the flow and no idea what will become of him when the reversion is complete. He is half-heartedly trying to solve the mystery surrounding the murder of Mendel Shpilman, a flophouse junkie, who just might be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor,that individual who, according to the Hsaidic concept, is a special, saintly person, born once in a generation, who could become the Jewish Messiah if conditions are right in the world. "Landsman feels a profound ebb in his will to pursue the matter of the dead yid in 208. What difference will it make if he catches the killer? A year fron now, Jews will be Africans, and this old ballroom will be filled with tea-dancing gentiles, and every case that ever was opened or closed by a Sitka policeman will be filed in cabinet nine."

There is so much action and so many characters to keep straight, and so much history to these characters, everything sprinkled with lots of Yiddish vocabulary that it takes a good hundred pages to begin to appreciate Chabon's genius. The alternate history has you second guessing your own knowledge of the past and the character development, especially of Landsman and his wife, Bina is so thoughtfully done that you empathize with them completely. And you root for them! Oh do you root for them because what they're up against is so much bigger than a murder.

At one point in the story, after Landsman has been interrogated for over 24 hours, the author gives us this: "The night is a cold sticky stuff that beads up on the sleeves of his overcoat. Korczak Place is a bowlful of bright mist, smeared here and there with the pawprints of sodium lamps. Half-blind and cold in his bones, he trudges along Monastir Street to Berlevi Street, then over to Max Nordau Street, with a kink in his back and an ache in his neck and a sharp throbbing pain in his dignity. The space recently occupied by his mind hisses like the fog in his ears, hums like a bank of fluorescent tubes. He feels that he suffers from tinnitis of the soul." Wow. Beautiful language is the name of the game throughout. Highly recommended. ( )

(no subject)
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BBAW Give Away #5

This morning I found a nice surprise in my inbox: a message from Michael Greenberg's publicist saying that she had seen my giveaway for his book Beg, Borrow, Steal. She wanted to know if I was interested in giving away five copies of his book Hurry Down Sunshine to my readers. How could I say no to that?

Hurry Down Sunshine was on the Time top ten non-fiction list in 2008. The trade paperback version (which is what is being offered here) just released on September 8, 2009.

Alyce of http://athomewithbooks.blogspot.com is giving away 5 copies of Michael Greenberg's memoir, which I have on my TBR list, so I'm hoping I'm chosen.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week
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image 
Book Blogger Appreciation Week has the following meme on their website and it looks like fun so here goes:

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of
writing in books horrify you? 

I never ever mark my books.  I guess that comes from a lifetime of using the public library and also wanting to swap my books now. 

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?
I always use a book mark and try to avoid at all cost dog earring a book.  I'm horrified at the idea of defacing books in any way.

Laying the book flat open?
And risk breaking the binding?  See above.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?
Usually fiction but I am also drwan to non-fiction with a narrative style modeled as fiction such as any Jon Krakauer book or The Devil in the White City by Erik Lawson which is on top of my TBR pile.

Hard copy or audiobooks?
I like to listen to audio books when I'm on a walk but other than that I mostly want to actually read the book.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you
able to put a book down at any point?
I really need a break point whether it's the end of the chapter or a break on the page.  If I can't have either of those it's always at the end of the first paragraph on the left.  And that's very firm.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?
I usually use context clues to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  Very infrequently will I actually get out a dictionary and look a word up.

What are you currently reading?
Right now I'm reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.

What is the last book you bought?
 The last book I bought was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery 
                  
Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can
you read more than one at a time?
My brain can only handle one book at a time I'm afraid.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read? 
My favorite time of day to read is anytime I can squeeze a few pages in.  My favorite place is out on my deck in the summer and in cozy corner of the sun room in the winter.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?
I have read a couple of trilogies (The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies and Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen) but other than that I prefer stand alone books.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
I recommend The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Louise Erdrich and Richard Russo all the time.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)
My books are alphabetized by author's last name.

Other fun things can be found at http://bookbloggerappreciationweek.com/index.php/site/event-calendar
 


Teaser Tuesday and It's Tuesday Where Are You?
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teasertuesdays31 Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

 

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers! 
  •  
  • My Teaser is from The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon:The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon "He was oblivious to the raucous frontier energy of downtown Sitka, the work crews of young Jewesses in their blue headscarves, singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx.  The lively stench of fish flesh and felled tree and turned earth, the rumble of the dredgers grading mountains and filling in Sitka Sound, none of it seemed to touch him."  (Page 30)

 

I am in Sitka, Alaska in Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
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Cutting for Stone: A novel by Abraham Verghese
534 Pages

#39

"After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother's womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth century of September in the year of our grace 1954."

So begins Abraham Verghese's wonderful sweeping novel that takes us from India to Ethiopa to New York City and covers the years 1954 until 1986. The story is told by Marion Stone, twin brother of Shiva, son of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a Catholic nun, and Dr. Thomas Stone, noted surgeon. The circumstances of this birth are not the strangest things to occur in this saga but with a beginning like that, you get the idea. You also know, after reading the first page, that you are in the hands of a master and that thought does not diminish over the next 533 pages. Verghese, a physician and professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, wields the pen just as he probably wields the scalpel. His writing is poetic and flows eloquently.

The story itself follows the lives of the twins; their mother dies in childbirth, their father so traumatized by the event (no one was aware that she was pregnant)that he abandons his children. The obstetrician who delivers them, raises them along with another doctor, whom she eventually marries. It's essentially a story of love, abandonment, bonding, coming of age and redemption.

Medicine plays as big a role in the novel as any of the forgoing themes and is the medium that propels the narrative forward. We learn a lot about medical practices carried on in the backward areas of Africa, as well as pioneering practices of great sophistication for the time.

Africa, and all the political upheaval transpiring at that time,provides another backdrop for the story. It's all wonderfully done by the author and you are carried along as Verghese allows you to unfold the many layers of narrative.

Something must be said about the intriguing title. The author explained in an interview that 'cutting for stone' refers to a part of the Hippocratic Oath that says "I will not cut for stone" referring to ancient problems with gallstones, where practitioners actually tried to cut them out, with no care for sanitation so the patient usually died a few days later. But the main character is named Stone, and he, his brother and his father are all surgeons, so there is that connection that cannot be ignored and provides food for thought. Highly recommended. ( )

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