Sunday, September 30, 2012

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot ****

  • Audiobook
  • Non-Fiction
  • US author
  • Story of first set of human cells ever to spontaneously reproduce, and the way they have impacted medical research and treatment worldwide, and continue to do so.  It is also the story of the woman who died, yet whose cells live on and the impact on her extended family
  • Review:   A fascinating book.  The author fairly adeptly weaves two true stories together, one of medical history being made and the other being the impact of that historical event on the extended family of Henrietta Lacks.  Both sides of the story involve a difficult medical ethics question about patient rights and their limits, along with the commercialization of scientific/medical research.  The audio version I listened to included an interview with the author at the end which was very interesting as well.

Friday, September 28, 2012

"Beautiful Mystery" by Louise Penny *****

  • #8 in the Inspector Gamache series
  • Audiobook
  • Canadian author
  • Setting:  St. Gilbert Entre des Loups, a monastery in isolated area of Quebec, home to a n order of Monks whose primary purpose is to sing Gregorian chants to the glory of God
  • Interesting survival v. spiritual survival, power of faith, the destruction caused by ego
  • Review:   And the hits just keep on coming!   How does Louise Penny consistently write such marvelous stories?  Without any spoiler...I cried at the end of this one!

"Swamplandia" by Karen Russell **

  • Audiobook
  • US author
  • Originally published 2011
  • Setting:  island off coast of Florida....."Swamplandia"...home to an alligator amusement park
  • Review: Great opening and it was downhill from there.  Overblown metaphors, fable wannabe, disjointed plot.  Just did not hold my interest. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

"The Hummingbird's Daughter" by Luis Alberto Urrea *****

  • Originally published 2005
  • Audiobook
  • Mexican author
  • He was an Arts & Lecture author 
  • His novel, "Into The Beautiful North" (reviewed elsewhere) is the 2013 "If All Rochester Reads......" selection
  • Historical Fiction
  • Review:   Urrea's reading of this piece of historical fiction is magnificent.  I felt like I was listening to an epic poem rather than prose.  The story of Saint Theresita is stirring and spiritual.  It compels the reader into the world of Mexican mystery, religion, history, superstition, and faith, just as Theresita compels more and more followers and believers.  I might have given this novel four stars, but the reading itself merits five! 

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Sarah Orne Jewett's Best Short Stories" by Sarah Orne Jewett ****

  • Audiobook
  • US author
  • Originally published 1994
  • Review:   This is a collection of precious gems, short stories which illuminate the character of the classic New England elderly lady.  Ever concerned about her image within her community, avoiding growing old, facing death, and keenly observing those around her.  The stories fit a stereotype which may well have been fairly accurate in its day, and some of which may still hold true.  Jewett writes superbly and has a subtle touch in her caricatures.  Very nice.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"The Art of Hearing Heartbeats" by Jan-Phillipp Sendker ****

  • Book Club Selection for September 2012
  • German Author
  • Originally Published 2002
  • Review:  A lovely story about a daughter discovering the story of her father's true love. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

"The Guinea Pigs" by Ludvik Vaculik *****

  • Open Letter Series
  • Czech author
  • Originally published in 1968
  • Author was banished from the Communist Party during the Prague Spring of 1968, writing was censored, and he was persecuted for decades
  • Characters: 
    • Vasek, the father , bank employee
    • Eva, the mother, a schoolteacher
    • Vasek Jr, interested in underground networks
    • Pavel, younger son,
    • Mr. Maelstrom, lives under the train bridge, works at bank, shunned for his prediction of impending economic doom
    • Mr. K, tells Vasek that guinea pigs have a purpose and Vasek tries to figure it out....they feed weasels (metaphor....workers feed Communist leaders aka weasels?)
    • Three guinea pigs: Albinika (first, female), Red (second, male, red), Red the second (male, saved from weasels,most well behaved and submissive)
  • Vocabulary:
    • monophyletics:   consisting of organisms descended from a single taxon.
  • Quotes:
    • p.5...."Sometimes, though, man departs from some of his intentions, while he follows alternate routes in the interest of maintaining his standard of living.".....a touch of foreshadowing
    • p.10......"He had become accustomed to a life of danger, he didn't want to live any other way.  If it cost him his life, nobody would hold an investigation or bear him any ill will, only a few cats will bear a few litters of young ones, more or less, for a while after he is gone."......Vasek's observations about their kitten......again, foreshadowing
    • p.12......."The position of a poor sap like that, at the bottom stratum of the social structure, is typified by his absolute helplessness  The one at the bottom is unhappy because everybody, and there is no one to obey him.  But if he finds that he has at least one creature even one creature lower than himself, the world takes on an entirely different aspect.  Social structures expand, and the bottom stratum retreats by a horse's length, by the height of a crow, by the breadth of a dog."......Vasek's experience with the guinea pigs?
    • p.14....."The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will.  Even if you are absolutely convinced that you're the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it's usually somebody who knows much less than you do."
    • p.47...."Nothing turns out as bad as it seems at the start:  every dish of  porridge ultimately cools off, according to an old Czech saying.  Most clouds don't bring rain, most rifles don't have any effect on the steamrolling of highways."
    • p.57...."Fear of death prior to death is something that has been reserved for mankind."
    • p64....."Speak up or shit letters!"
    • p.70....".....the dying need to concentrate on their departure, and as long as they are not forcibly brought back to consciousness--which at best means an awareness of their pain or their concern--they no longer suffer."
    • p.74......"there are excellent ideas that become unfeasible by the very fact of their having been proclaimed on the street.".....hence the need for an underground network
    • p.146...."As long as he knew that the guinea pig was in the water, he couldn't think that he wasn't..  And also, he was the only person in the world that knew it.  From this fact the banker deduced that if there is a God,as He is guilty, even if no one, not even a mouse, in this whole world believes in Him."
    • p.175....."When decay causes everything to give up its will and wishes like fine wisps of smoke, for whom is the sacrifice being burnt?  And what is being asked?"......and then he the time the guinea pigs are born......
  • Ideas:
    • God as the best type of observer, never intervenes  p.22
    • economic depression as a whirlpool, or maelstrom......p.41
    • music calmed the dying guinea pig, just as it did my dad
    • can only pass a judgement about someone after having witnessed their first "deed"
    • switched from first to third person narrative when ashamed of his actions...p.145
  • Review:  The nearest I can figure is that this novel is about the process of decay and loss of will caused by the tight controls placed on human beings under Communist regimes.  The protagonist's experimentation seems to represent the playing with humanity by regimes and an uncaring God.  The guinea pigs are the example of how paralyzed and unthinking, how devoid of wishes and dreams, people become when socially, economically, culturally, or otherwise confined.  A powerful, thought provoking novel, by an author from the Czech Republic who himself was persecuted and ostracized for the expression of his independent thoughts.
  • Link sent to me which has a good review:

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Tenth of December" by George Saunders ****

  • Early Review edition for LibraryThing
  • US author
  • due to be published January 2013
  • short stories
  • Review:  This collection of short stories is deceptively simple and then broadens into a collection which will stick with you for quite a while.  Plots include returning veterans,a suicidal man saving a boy's life and consequently his own, a world where drugs can induce and reduce any emotional state desired, and more.  If pressed to find the thematic thread which connects them, I think it is both the fear and reality of loss of self.  Very good read!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Children in Reindeer Woods" by Kristin Omarsdottir ****

  • Open Letter Translation
  • Icelandic author
  • Originally published 2012
  • Setting:  An isolated valley in a country at war
  • Characters:  Rafael (paratrooper, tired of war, wants to be a farmer, but has a little problem stopping himself from killing), Billie (11 year old girl, only person spared from shooting death at a children's home by Rafael), Abraham (Billie's father, believes he is a puppet whose strings are held by hands from another planet, writing a book of laws to send to the other planet)
  • Vocabulary:
    • orgulous: haughty
  • Quotes:
    • p.43....."365 days is an acceptable length of time for a lover yto wait, but once the earth returns to the same place it was when the waiting began, it's over, the waiting ends."
    • p.69...."...a theater of the absurd, a summerhouse of loneliness."......great description of the novel
    • p.70..."The problem with war is that one doesn't know what to do with the children."
    • p.78..."Each person should thread her own crow-path." 
    • p.127....."She was getting practice in contradictions."....single killing is murder...millions is was
    • p.132..."Each person has to go and thread her own crow-path.  Giving is another way of loving.  The heart fills the sail with air.  The number of fatalities is unknow.  Justice is a goddess.  If you want something you can achieve it.  Soon better times will come, there'll be flowers in the meadow.  The well of wisdom never runs dry.  I am alone but I am not lonely.  I must stop wearing a mask."....Phrases Rafael repeated to himself when he got headaches after killing.
    • p.135...."Rafael scattered manure and assorted tinctures over the bed in a struggle against weeds.  He called this "depression medication for vegetable0-growing," since, he explained, "depression is like weeds around the spirit."
  • How many men need to be killed for it to be murder?
  • Review:   This modern day fable has a dramatic, frightening opening and is then followed by a strange tale of a soldier who is tired of war, and an 11 year old girl who is wise beyond her years yet still a child, and how they help one another.  It is a disturbing and thought provoking story by an Icelandic author whose work I haven't read before.  I will be looking for more!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"The Samurai" by Shusaku Endo ****

  • Part of the year long author read on
  • Japanese author
  • Originally published 1980
  • Quotes:
    • p.24..."These people are like ants.  They will try anything!  When ants are faced with a puddle of water, some of their number will sacrifice their own lives to form a bridge for their comrades.  The Japanese were a swarm of black ants with those very instincts."
    • p.26...Once again the image of a great swarm of black ants crossing a puddle of water in search of food flashed before his eyes.  In pursuit of profits from trade with Nueva Espana, the Japanese were at last on the verge of crossing the Pacific like black ants.  The missionary sensed that he could use their greed to benefit the missionary cause."
    • p.43..."He tried to persuade himself that his dream of becoming Bishop was not the product of worldly ambition.....".   The Japanese sacrifice themselves, while the ambitious sacrifice others.
    • p.46...."But the peasants looked up with dull eyes that exp0ressed neither excitement nor surprise.  They were like old dogs who regarded all the affairs of men with apathy."
  • Review:   This is the fourth novel by Shusaku Endo which I have read as part of a year long read of his works by a group of readers on 

    I have now started this review three times because I am not quite sure what to say.  This story is another effort on Endo's part to illuminate the failure of Christianity to take hold in Japan.  It is the story of a samurai who remains faithful to his mission to the death.  It is the story of a priest who remains faithful to his mission to the death.  It is the story of their disillusionment with their leaders.  It is the story of the search for a way of life which will allow a person to live a life of integrity and honor and compassion.  It is, in the end, a story of trying to maintain faith in the face of duplicity and abuse practiced by governing groups to obtain their own ends at all costs.  Ultimately, I believe this is a story about each person's personal journey to find something to believe in beyond themselves.  The writing is powerful and the imagery is outstanding.  I do not think I have come across an author such as Endo before, who repeats the same theme so deliberately across very different story lines.  He was, himself, a man obsessed with a theme.

"Mission To Paris" by Alan Furst ***

  • Early Review edition for
  • US author
  • Originally published 2012
  • Actor in Paris in 1938 gets caught up in political warfare between Germany and France, just prior to the German invasion
  • Review:  Furst's historical espionage novel, set in 1938 Paris, just prior to the German invasion, was interesting in terms of the workings of "political warfare", but was average in terms of plot and characters.  Sometimes I read a book which makes me feel as if the author wanted to educate and explain a historical phenomenon and had to come up with a plot to fit it.  It ends up becoming an uncompelling story with quite compelling historical content.  I prefer when both are compelling.