Monday, July 18, 2016

"When Breath Becomes Air": The Heartbreak of Cancer

*A note on the picture and my cat, Hamlet: Hamlet does not enjoy having his picture taken, nor does he enjoy having a book placed next to him while he is trying to sleep.  I miss my office pug, Loki, so very much with his happy energy.  He was always willing and excited about having his picture taken for this book blog.  Stay tuned! We are slated to get a pug puppy before the end of summer 2016.  Cute baby pug pictures will be forthcoming :)

"In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory.  Listen to Paul.  In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back.  Therein lies his message." quoted from the forward by Abraham Veghese in Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air"

I hesitated when my good friend who always loves the same books that I do suggested that I read Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air." She told me the short memoir dealt with Kalanithi's diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer when he was just about to complete his decade's worth of schooling and training and striving to become a neurosurgeon.  At the end of his journey he became a patient rather than a doctor.

Why did I hesitate?

I've been marinating in sad cancer stories for years, and I didn't know if I wanted to read another where I already knew the outcome was not favorable.  Cancer is a sad topic.  Almost everyone knows someone or has been personally affected by some sort of cancer.  My aunt died from breast cancer that came back in her lungs.  My grandmother died from pancreatic cancer.  My sister recently finished her treatments for tongue cancer (and no, she never smoked or did anything that would be considered cancer causing).  My husband's boss just finished his treatments for a rare form of leukemia.  My neighbor has cancer of the esophagus and is currently undergoing treatments.  My other neighbor's sister has brain cancer and was just told the devastating news that there is nothing else that they can try and to get her affairs in order.  My other neighbor's mother is undergoing treatment for throat cancer.  And my other neighbor just found out that her dog has cancer in his gums.

Cancer sucks.

Sometimes the signs make sense.  Behavior A caused Cancer B.  Sometimes it's the sticky finger of fate that points at an unsuspecting victim who has trouble getting up stairs, or just feels like something is off in their bodies and all of a sudden it's treatment time.

The burning away with the radiation.

 The poisoning of the body with chemotherapy.

The never ending cycle of other medicines that ward off the side effects caused by the burning and poisoning.

So, the prospect of reading the sad tale of a promising doctor whose life ended way too early at the age of 37 due to stage IV lung cancer wasn't super appealing.  I read it anyway, and just as Abraham Veghese says in the forward about the dialogue that Kalanithi presents as he wrestles with his diagnosis, the impending birth of his child, what actually gives life purpose and meaning . . . it could be anyone's story who has ever suffered from cancer or watched a love one suffer.

Being a neurosurgeon who has been on the other end of devastating diagnoses his whole professional career, his perspective goes even deeper than those with no medical background.  I know his book helped me see inside what was happening with my sister and the thoughts and feelings she must have been wrestling with as she underwent her complicated tongue surgery and subsequent 35 radiation treatments and 4 chemotherapy appointments.

The uniqueness of Kalanithi's story stems from his extraordinary writing ability and the way he presents his feelings with such unflinching honesty.

I cried.  If you read this book, there is no way not to cry.

But it's worth it to read it.

Cancer doesn't suck any less because I read this book, but the insider's perspective has helped me make sense of the process of treatment, the trial and error that needs to occur, the devastation, the ability to let go, and the hopefulness of moving on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"A Man Called Ove": Hard on the Outside, Soft on the Inside

“Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.”

We all know one curmudgeon or two in our lives.

These cantankerous individuals grumble at insignificant things that they really can't change.  Just the other day when I was at the local Jewel, I stood behind an angry older man who decided to lose his anger on the unsuspecting cashier.  He waited in line too long to buy his bottles of seltzer water and he wanted answers as to why they recently removed the self checkout aisles.  His words were condescending and rude, and he wanted very much to prove the point that he considered every employee at Jewel an idiot.

When I met the main character Ove of Swedish writer Fredrik Backman's debut novel "A Man Called Ove" I was reminded of every curmudgeon that I met while working on the farm (where they were rampant going as far as returning a quart of strawberries because they weren't juicy enough), or while I waited tables through college.  I thought of past colleagues when I was a teacher and even some family members.

Ove is the kind of man who sticks to his routine without fail.  He has black and white ideas about the types of people he likes (those who drive Saabs like he does) and those who he does not (those who are unable to back up a trailer or computer salespeople or those who drive on a on a motor vehicle prohibited street which is clearly marked or especially anyone who drives a BMW).  He walks around the neighborhood spreading more complaints than joy and everyone seems to be able to ruffle his 59 year old, cranky feathers.

But, everyone has a story to tell about how their past influenced their present day emotional status and Ove's story is one of sadness and hardship as well as love and companionship.  He grew up to be a man of principles and little compromise on his hardened belief system until he met the love of his life, Sonja, who was able to see the beautiful person that he was inside.  Their love story is full of touching moments. "People say Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was all color.  All the color he had." Even when someone finds the perfect mate, life has a way of not turning out the way you expect it and Ove's life hardened him until his outer shell was so thick he didn't even want to go on living.

And that is where the reader meets him - when he's at the end of his rope from life's stupidity and outrage, missing Sonja's color in his life of black and white.  He would rather cease to exist than go on living.  At least that is what he believes.  When his new neighbors move in - Parvaneh (the pregnant mom), the dad (who Ove just names The Lanky One), and their two daughters - Ove's whole life begins to change.

I don't want to give away too much about this novel, because the real joy stems from the way Backman skillfully unfolds the backstory and present day story of Ove simultaneously.  At first I was irritated by Ove's unbending ways, but by the middle of the book, I couldn't wait to read more about his past and see what other circumstances would surface in the present.  Quite a few moments made me laugh out loud or smile.

And, yes.  I did shed a tear or two (maybe way more than that).  I love a good story about how even the hardest of hearts can soften (just think about how you watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol every single year), or how many people who seem like the grumpiest recluses are really the ones who have a history of good deeds and who are the most helpful in a crisis.

Redemption, friendship, love, a stray cat, an amazing cast of neighbors, a grumpy old man bent on ending it all, and the beauty of owning a Saab all combine to make "A Man Called Ove" one that might make you rethink your internal remarks about the crabby old men who yell at the cashiers in Jewel.  It will remind you for sure that everyone has a story to tell.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"Chains": Another YA Historical Fiction Victory for Laurie Halse Anderson

An Important Note: It has taken me awhile to muster the courage to return to my book blog.  My loyal friend and office assistant, Loki, passed away on May 26th 2016.  I've never had a dog that I loved like Loki, and it has been so much quieter and a little less joyful now that he isn't at my feet every day while I work.

But as in all things, life goes on, and whenever I see the stack of books that I have already read, the pictures of Loki with all those books (he absolutely loved to pose with books because he always got a special treat afterwards.  I only had to hold a book and my camera and he would run to a good spot and pose) and have yet to write about, I am reminded that it's okay to move forward even if it hurts a little.


As I have mentioned before, my daughter, Raina and I have our own book club.  There are only two members (the two of us), and we try to read a variety of books that we think are worth discussing.  A few requirements:
1) the book has to be something we both want to read
2) the book has to be one that neither of us have read (or if I have read it, it was so long ago that I don't remember it)
3) the book has to be substantial enough that we have something to talk about
4) we need to go out to dinner somewhere to discuss the book

For our third selection, we chose Laurie Halse Anderson's National Book Award Finalist, "Chains." Both Raina and I read Anderson's Fever 1793 and loved it, so we thought another glimpse into early American history would be a good bet for both of us.  Raina also decided that we needed to have our discussion dinner at the local restaurant, 1776 (clever, right?). Neither of us were disappointed by the harrowing insider's perspective of slavery in 1776 that Chains depicts (or with our dinner at 1776).

The story revolves around a 13 year old slave girl named Isabel and her sister Ruth.  When their mistress dies, her will states that the girls whose mother also died are to be set free.  Unfortunately, two young slave girls don't have control over their fate in 1776, and their former mistress's nephew refuses to consider that Isabel and Ruth are not property on which he can make a profit. Dismissing the fact that Isabel is able to read and read the will herself, he sells the sisters to a very wealthy Loyalist couple, The Locktons.

To say that the girls suffer under the ownership of Mrs. Lockton would be an understatement.  She takes an instant liking to Ruth, but casts her aside thinking she is infected with the devil after she has a series of seizures.  As much as Mrs. Lockton immediately likes Ruth, she feels the same in disdain for Isabel and makes it her sole mission to inflict pain and punishment on the independent, headstrong girl.

With heart racing suspense and uncomfortable torture scenes, Laurie Halse Anderson creates the tense world of life from the perspective of a young slave girl caught in the middle of Loyalists and Patriots at the advent of the Revolutionary world.  She explores the depths of torment and imprisonment as well as lofty ideals of loyalty and freedom.

Over a sea scallop spinach salad (say that 10 times fast) and a wood fired chicken pesto pizza, Raina and I both agreed that this was a great book that taught us so much about the life of a slave girl. Both Raina and I squirmed when Isabel was publicly branded for trying to escape.  We both loved the  relationship between Isabel and Curzon which showed that even in the most dire of situations, a friend is exactly what you need.  And, we also loved that Mr. Lockton's aunt looked out for Isabel and helped her to survive.

Raina thought that many parts were a bit slow, but ultimately that she really enjoyed this book.  She also thought that it was awesome that it took her deeper into the dynamics of the start of the Revolutionary War than what she learned in Social Studies at school.  I thought it was an amazing gazing ball into a tumultuous time in US History.  What I love so much about Laurie Halse Anderson is her attention to the historical accuracy of her historical fiction.  She included quotations from actual documents from the time period that coincided with what was happening in the story.  I can't remember ever being engaged in learning about the Revolutionary War when I was in elementary school, but if I had read this book, I am sure that I would have been captivated and wanting more information.

The best part of this book is the action packed ending which really isn't an ending at all because this is only part 1 of the Seeds of American Trilogy.  Although we aren't going to choose Book 2: Forge for our next book club book (we both decided that we needed something a little bit lighter for the summer), we both will read it as well as Book 3: Ashes (out in October 2016) because we need to know what happens to Ruth, Isabel and Curzon.

We are rooting for them!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Last Anniversary & The Hypnotist's Love Story": Two Liane Moriarty Snacks that Do Not Make a Meal

It's May!

In the spring, my reading style lightens a little.  I choose less of the dense "rip your beating heart from your chest" sorts of books, and lean more towards the "I know I will fly through this book, but it will have a little bit of substance" sort of books.

In honor of the switch from my heavy winter reads, I turned to tried and true Liane Moriarty whose huge sensations "Big Little Lies" and "The Husband's Secret" propelled her into the literary spotlight.  I've also read her earlier book "What Alice Forgot" which was my favorite of the three.

For spring travel I picked up two of Moriarty's older books, "The Last Anniversary" and "The Hypnotist's Love Story." Both were readable, sometimes predictable, sometimes lovable, and sometimes put-downable.  It wasn't that I struggled to get through either, but the page turning of the three aforementioned books did not occur for me in either of these books. The characters in both were good, but not great.  Both of the books had female characters that were a little bit too neurotic for me.

In "The Last Anniversary" Sophie Honeywell stars in an unlikely inheritance tale.  Although her ex-boyfriend, Thomas Gordon, did not turn out to be the love of her life, his Aunt Connie was so taken with Sophie that she willed her house on mysterious Scribbly Gum Island to her. Undaunted by the disapproval of Thomas's sister, Sophie can't wait to begin her new life in her new home.  Twists and turns ensue including postpartum depression, potential suitors, a Weight Watcher's affair (sorta), a bizarre love interest, anniversary carnival drunkenness, and the unraveling of a family mystery.  Sophie is at times likable, and other times annoying, as were the plot twists of this convoluted tale.  I read it but was not necessarily satisfied at the end.

In "The Hypnotist's Love Story" Ellen O'Farrell who helps others solve their problems through hypnotherapy can't seem to solve her own problem - finding a relationship that will last.  She blames a bit of this on her unconventional upbringing by her stern mom and her mom's two best friends.  When Ellen meets single dad Patrick, she thinks she may just have stumbled onto the love of her life.  There's only one big problem - Patrick's ex-girlfriend, Saskia, stalks him.  Oh, and another problem, he's a widower who might just still be in love with his dead wife, Colleen. At times a bit ridiculous, this book may have annoyed me a little bit more than "The Last Anniversary."  Patrick seemed adorable at times, but other times, he was miserable.  For all of Ellen's open mindedness and knowledge of the human mind and relationships, she has a hard time showing empathy for others and gets neurotic in her own relationship.  She is more concerned with the feelings of the woman stalking her boyfriend (and her), than she is in working through her problems or showing compassion for her fiancĂ©'s feelings.

Ultimately, with both of these books, I was mildly entertained while reading them.  They were quick, but they weren't very satisfying like an empty calorie snack when you just need a pick me up at 3pm.  If you haven't read any of Liane Moriarty's books, I recommend the aforementioned first, then maybe if you need a quick snack turn to these two novels.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Circling the Sun": Into Africa With a Fearless Heroine

We’re all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren’t your own person at all—are you? The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy.

Beryl Markham's prophetic statement "I could come through nearly anything my world might throw at me" after being nearly mauled by a neighbor's pet lion, becomes her mantra for a life of adventurous tumult.

In Paula McClain's "Circling the Sun" McClain delves once again into a novelized memoir like her huge success "The Paris Wife," the fictionalized autobiography of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson.  Instead of focusing on expats behaving badly in New York during the 1920s, this time McClain sets her sites on expats behaving badly in a more wild and earthy backdrop, Kenya before it was Kenya.

"Circling the Sun" follows the unflappable Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo, east to west, across the Atlantic.  Her 1942 memoir "West with the Night" came to fame when Ernest Hemingway raved about it and the writing prowess of Markham.

McClain's account of Markham follows more of her upbringing - moving with her family from England when she was 2 years old to the untamed landscape of a 1,500 acre farm in Kenya.  Her father was a distracted farmer who was better at horse training and her mother was neglectful and unsuited to the African wilderness and subsequently leaves Beryl and her father.  Beryl's childhood is far from ordinary.  She learns to spear fight with the local tribe boys and runs free on her father's ranch.  She's fearless and headstrong.

Her life continues to throw obstacles in her path from poverty to a loveless marriage to a jealous and cruel drunk to being exiled and giving up a baby, and she navigates each with grace - each tragedy that could destroy an ordinary person only serves to strengthen Beryl's resolve to live life her own way. She becomes the youngest and only female race horse trainer in Kenya, and she also becomes a famous female pilot.

The novel focuses heavily on Beryl's love interest - the womanizing, poetry spouting, large game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton who Robert Redford played in "Out of Africa." Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) loved him much the way that Beryl did.  He was a commitment phobe who used women for his own purposes, but that didn't stop Beryl's infatuation and pursuit of Denys.

It is Hatton's love of flying that draws her to it, and leads to her to pursue it even after Denys dies in a tragic airplane crash.

The novel is easy to read with beautiful imagery of the untamed African wilderness throughout.  It's ambitious with a rowdy cast of secondary characters who are for the most part historically accurate in their depiction. I did get a little bit restless by the end of it feeling as if McClain was hurrying through the years too quickly or maybe trying to do too much and was running out of room to finish.

Overall, though, I was caught up in the romantic sun drenched Kenyan landscapes, and the unflinching life of a very strong woman whose mere presence felt magnetic.  If only all of us could use the tragedies of our lives to build us stronger than weaker.  And if we could learn to live our own lives vs. follow what everyone else deems appropriate for us.  Beryl Markham will remind you what it means to live your life out loud.

Friday, April 29, 2016

"Preparation for the Next Life": An Achingly Gritty Love Story

But, he said, you cannot have these beautiful things if you lead a bad life, if you are sinning, doing what you want.  of course you must live properly and obey the law.  he pointed at the bilingual Arabic and English sign over the mosque's doorway, which he read aloud for her.  It said Preparation for the Next Life. 

Sometimes reading a book hurts.

Atticus Lish's highly praised debut novel "Preparation for the Next Life" might just break your heart. It might make you rethink The Patriot Act.  It might make you understand the endless cycle of tragedy that many veterans face.  It might make you consider the plight of illegal immigrants who only want to work hard and find a way in to the American dream.  It might make you ponder what real love means, and sacrifice, and poverty, and PTSD, and prison release, and justice.

I'm still thinking about the edgy story of Zou Lei, an illegal immigrant from Central Asia, who only wants a better life, but finds instead a dirty mattress in a New York tenement building that redefines living in the slums.  She meets Skinner who is fresh off of his third, violent tour in Iraq.  While she wants to work and make New York City her home and prove that she can make it as an American, he wants to find a good time and forget the lost friends and exploding life in Iraq.

Their story broke my heart.

Skinner isn't a bad guy, but his circumstances made it hard for him to be a good guy.  He suffers from PTSD and suffers even more from the neglect of the U.S. Government after he served 3 tours in Iraq. Drinking, drugs (prescription and non-prescription), smoking and pornography cloud his days spent in a small basement apartment in Queens.  Zou Lei tells him "Something has shook your mind.  It could be some bruise inside the head." Maybe that is why he chooses the terrible place to reside where he's only asking for trouble due to his landlady's  ultra violent son, Jimmy who recently was released from prison.

Zou Lei and Skinner fall in love even though she is older than he is, even though she is an illegal immigrant, and even though he is sometimes very mean and rough with her.  They bond over an almost spiritual love of hard workouts.  She loves to run (which comes in handy for her many times throughout this novel) and he loves to push his body over his edge with weightlifting.

Lish's style is jarring and coarse and at times hard to slog through.  Each sentence is densely packed with details.  There are no quotation marks for dialogue and everything in this novel is grim, depressing and violent.  At times the song "Skid Row" from the musical "Little Shop of Horrors" popped in my head, but even skid row is too happy of a place for Skinner and Zou Lei who can't get a break regardless of how much they try.  And they do try to get ahead, but life and circumstances don't always allow them to get where they want to go.

It's a tough read, but I was reminded of Ken Kesey and his rambling "fog" chapters with the Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." There is power in the rambling stream of consciousness writing style of Lish and the book needs the grittiness of the prose to tell the story truthfully.

Life isn't always beautiful, and this book is a harsh reminder of that brutal reality.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"A Monster Calls": Letting the truth loose

"Stories are wild creatures," the monster says.  "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

Back in the summer of 2011, I attended a Summer Writing Institute at Millersville University.  The professor in charge of the whole institute recommended the book 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness to all of us.  I paged through it when she passed it around for us to inspect; it looked dark, and creepy - a twisted childhood nightmare.

It's not that at all.

This book is one that I will be recommending to everyone, and one that I am so glad my daughter, Raina, and I chose for our 2nd mother / daughter book club selection.

I finished it in a day.  Raina (who is now in 5th grade) finished it in about 3 days.  We both loved it.

The premise of the book is that thirteen year old Conor is visited by a giant yew tree monster different from the monster in his reoccurring nightmares.  The visiting monster tells Conor that he only comes walking in matters of life and death.  Conor's mother has been very sick so Conor believes the monster is there to save her, but in reality what the monster wants more than anything is for Conor to tell the story of his truth.  When the clock strikes 12:07,  the monster comes walking and shares 3 separate stories with Conor that explore the complexity of human beings.

Big questions of evil and good, invisibility and loneliness, loss and pain, the power of holding on to our beliefs, betrayal, revenge, and telling the truth resonate through this beautifully crafted novel.

The story itself was inspired by Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer before she was able to write it. Ness does her story incredible justice and 'A Monster Calls' won both the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration (the illustrations by Jim Kay are haunting and absolutely perfect for this novel).

Raina and I decided to go out for sushi (which she discovered that she loves on our trip to Mexico ).  At first she was distracted by the activity or people pouring into our favorite local sushi place, Kumi.  But when we started uncovering the layers of the monster's 3 stories, she got her quizzical look on her face and asked important questions and gave insights into what she believes in situations where the truth is involved.  We discussed at length when it is important to lie to yourself and when it is important to tell the truth because the monster tells Conor "Sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all." Most people in the book (with the exception of the monster) lie to Conor possibly to protect him, but it is only to his detriment.

I don't want to give the entire story of this book away, so I will stop gushing about it.  Know that it is short.  It isn't necessarily a happy book, but there are moments that the banter between the monster and Conor might make you smile.  You also might cry, but I don't think this book will give you nightmares of any sort.  It will stick with you after you finish it. And, it will make you think deeply about the complexities of the human spirit; we often have contradictory thoughts, but it is our actions that are most important of all.