Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Saga, a Tour, and a Tour Guide: A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

I have a couple of other reviews to write, but those are for a book I reread and one I bought, so I'm prioritizing and posting this one first...

Going into this book, provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review, I was both intrigued and apprehensive.  I've read Pamuk's works before and found them both a thing of beauty and quite a bit of work.  Luckily, in this case the beauty wins out.

The words "epic" and "saga" both leap to mind as descriptors and not solely because of the book's hefty size.  This is the story of a life.  Melvut is many things.  He is the son of a man who can never quite reach financial success and who holds a grudge against his brother (Melvut is a nephew caught in between) for a business slight.  Melvut is a husband who sent many beautiful letters to a woman he met for an instant and whom he steals away with the help of his cousin.  He is, briefly, a soldier serving out a required stint in the military.  He is a doting father.  And Melvut is a business-man who, despite dabbling in many arenas, is always most at home selling a traditional drink on the nighttime streets.

This is also, on a deeper level, the story of Istanbul.  We see the city and its surroundings evolve from an early land grab to a modern metropolis.  We see power and politics, both mixed with religion and regional loyalty.  The city is almost a second protagonist and it grows up right alongside Melvut.

This is a book that takes commitment, but also rewards it.  The reading isn't as hard as some of Pamuk's other works, at least as I remember them.  There are a LOT of characters, but a family tree and even an index can help (the index is off in the advance version and even in that form it helped by linking names to other characters, issues, and events).  I tend to like books about characters, but this felt much more like a book about place developed through a main character.  Although I certainly wouldn't call Melvut the man irrelevant, he felt more like an entryway into a world and a set of eyes for the reader to borrow.

Readers need to be prepared to dive in and pay attention.  This isn't an airplane read (meaning distractions should be minimal), but it doesn't feel like homework either.  A solid four stars, perhaps even 4.5 of 5.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Two Works About Art: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (Alborn) and The Improbability of Love (Rothschild)

...and two more books added to my shelves....oddly, given that they came from two different publishers, both focused on the power of art to impact artists and audiences...
This is a difficult book to describe.  It is set at the funeral of Frankie Presto, a gifted musician whose life begins in a tucked-away room of a burning church and continues to be marked by the extraordinary despite Frankie's desire to be left to be more ordinary and simply revel in his musical gift.  Music is the primary narrator, although the book also has "interviews" with numerous people, both real (but fictionalized) and not-so-real. Through Music and the others, we learn Frankie's life story, a journey marked by a powerful love for both Music and a woman he meets when she's just a young girl in a tree.  Frankie also possesses six magical guitar strings that allow him to make a profound impact on six lives.

Portions of this book are almost heart-breakingly beautiful.  In particular, I loved the image of various talents surrounding babies as colorful lights; the baby grabs at a particular light and is gifted with that talent for life.  I liked that Frankie's life included missteps and also miracles, creating a rounded and real character amid a tale of magic strings.  I'd never read Alborn (he wrote Tuesdays With Morrie and many other bestsellers, often weaving in a philosophy of life) and was a bit uncertain about whether he'd be a good fit.  I didn't find this drippingly sentimental but it was very much an emotional journey.

Still, I wasn't really drawn to Alborn's decision to weave numerous real figures into fictional Frankie's journey.  It was a distraction for me, particularly since I'm not really a music person so I'd often spend time wondering if a given name was real or fictional.  There were also a few plotlines that didn't work for me like the Woodstock scene that unravels in several chapters or some of the moments involving the physical guitar played by Frankie.

Four stars.  I think this book would be best-enjoyed by someone who has a deep connection to Music and could truly appreciated how Frankie relates to his gift.  A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Annie is nursing a broken heart and stalled career when she stumbles upon a small painting in a thrift shop.  While the reader knows from the start, it takes much longer for Annie to realize the painting is a lost, important work by a famous artist.  The opening scene, which in the novel's timeline occurs after much of the rest of the book, shows the preparations for an auction featuring the painting and introduces several heavy hitters expected to lead the bidding.  In addition to chapters narrated in the first-person by the painting, other chapters focus on Annie, a love interest who happens to be in the art world, Annie's boss (who is one of those heavy hitters), and several other characters.  

There are too many story-lines to identify them all here, but they include: Annie's relationship with her alcoholic mother; Annie's endeavors as a high-dollar chef with an interest in elaborate theme events; Efforts by more than one person to track down the painting; and A WWII story involving family, lies, and Hitler's art squad.  Characters range from a flamboyant and extravagant man who makes helping people rise socially a business and an art; the smitten love interest, Jesse; a wealthy woman brought up in the art world; and, of course, the painting.  Oh, and there's a lot about art, food, and, as the title promises, love.

There's so much here that it's hard to start...and perhaps that's where I can start.  There's a LOT in this book and not entirely in a bad way.  It keeps the reader alert and engaged and gives backstories to many of the players, although it does go a smidgen too far into "throw it all in the pot" realm (common for first-time novelists like Rothschild).  It took me quite a while to get a handle on all the names (tip: flag the descriptions in the intro chapter for help!).  However, I enjoyed the range of players even despite this struggle which says a lot about the author's talent for crafting characters.  I wouldn't say they are perfectly fleshed out, some are pretty one-dimensional, but there's talent in the crafting.  I got a bit tired of the gushing over the painting and its depiction of love, but I still wanted to pick the book up every night.

All in, this is a solid novel but not a favorite book.  I think it falls at the upper ends of my 3.5 star range (of 5).  I'll round up to 4 when ranking systems require it without hesitation, but it just isn't quite a "true" four for me.  I'm not a follower of art (although the novel certainly suggests there is value in even lay opinions on art) and imagine it might read differently to an aficionado.  There are clear viewpoints presented, a clear underlying belief in the power of art and love.  I found characters and plotlines that I really liked and others that felt too thrown in.  I loved the food scenes, but they seemed superfluous (another see-saw-like opinion...).  There are too many coincidences for my taste but (yet another teeter-totter) it bothered me much less than it would in other hands.  This can't be called an easy novel given the attention it demands if the reader wants to keep track of all the plots and characters, but the writing is smooth and inviting.  I wanted to read it, but I didn't feel the need to slow down to avoid leaving it behind (a hallmark of a great novel, in my opinion).  

Who might enjoy this book?  I think it needs to be someone who enjoys some form of art, be it painting or writing, and believes it can be transformative.  I can't say what having a background in painting and visual arts in general would impact the read.  At the risk of abusing two overused categories, the book is a good middle ground between "chick lit" and "serious literature" and it worked well as pre-bed reading that was more serious than easy-to-interrupt airplane fare and books where the reader needs to work to parse each line.

A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Wishing for the Elusive Half-Star: Reviews on Life After Life (Atkinson; 3.5 of 5) and The Canterbury Sisters (Wright; 2.5 of 5)

Really, I was NEVER overdue with a library book or school assignment...and don't really have a due date for these reviews (only time I did was for "blog tours" and those were on time!), but I've let these linger a are two for books I purchased on my own, soon to be followed (hopefully!) by two supplied by their publishers...
While most reviews for Life were definitely positive, the reviews among my friends (book-review-friends and in-real-life-friends alike) were mixed and largely mediocre.  But I love Atkinson and was still in a quiet-spell for reviews so I took a chance.  My own take -- fine, even good, but not great.

This book presents the unique lives of Ursula Todd.  After a brief preface, we watch in on a birth only to find the child strangled by the umbilical cord.  The next chapter is the first of many do-overs, this time she lives, but not for long.  In the subsequent chapters, small variations make all the difference in Ursula's survival and, eventually (after a series of life-or-death matters), in her path.  Ursula is born in England just prior to WWI and while (when she lives long enough, of course) that conflict shapes some of her earliest years, she really grows up during the period between the wars ans it is the WWII chapters that are the book's most dramatic.  There are many themes swirling about from the nature of time, to the purpose of life, to the similarities and differences between bitter enemies.

As several of my friends commented, this book would have been well-served by sharper editing.  I understand some of her reasons, but Atkinson could have lost quite a number of pages and ended up with a piece that was better for it.  That caused it to simply drag and also made for more than a few times when I back-pedaled through pages trying to recall a missed detail.  Still, there were some great characters, both major and minor.  I was particularly interested in how. and I'm trying to avoid spoilers, a sexual moment shaped the course of Ursula's life (I could see that alone supporting its own work!).  I also really enjoyed the portrait of WWII from a perspective I've only seen a handful of times despite having read a good deal of historical fiction set in the time-frame  And I'd be remiss not to praise Atkinson's prose.  

So, I end at a 3.5 star rating (of 5) that I'll round up to 4 on one site and 3 on another since two force me to pick but I am really feeling quite firm on the half.  You need patience, an interest in detail, and a willingness to re-read the same moment again (though, eventually, you do progress enough that it stops starting from birth each time...honestly, at one point, I feared that might never occur).  Rewards: language, character, moments of humor, and thought-provoking-issues aplenty.  Yes, this has been done in modern cinema, more than once, but this is certainly a more literary turn for the tale of moments tried and re-tried.

This book appeared on some recent list of books for 30-something women and I was intrigued.  Not only did I study the Canterbury Tales in AP English in high school, I took an entire Chaucer course in college that focused on the Tales plus an additional class dealing with medieval literature and art that also touched on Chaucer's works.  That is what drew me in, but the read proved to be rather dissatisfying.

Sisters opens on Che, a wine critic who recently lost her (rather eccentric, to put it mildly) mother and was left by her longtime boyfriend.  Che's mother leaves her with a final task, to spread her ashes in Canterbury, a request that includes an implicit direction to walk the famous trail.  Che ends up doing so with a group of women who decide to spend the trip sharing tales of love.  And, of course, there are a few (mis)adventures along the way.

I think I expected too much here.  I knew I was wading into a bit of "chick-lit"-land and I was okay with that.  The truth is, however, it takes a rare piece of "chick-lit" to truly capture me and to become more than just mind candy.  I think I was more interested in Che's reaction to a few wines than any of the characters themselves.  That said, it did pass the time and it wasn't bad, it just wasn't good (okay, the ending was pretty bad) and I'd hoped for more.  Perhaps my own fault to a degree, but I can't go over 3 stars and would be tempted to say 2.5 if not for small moments and because a lot of my opinion is tainted by the odd turn towards the end of the journey. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thinking About Context and Content: Reviews of Trigiani's All the Stars in Heavens and Dicks' Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Again, intentions have failed to translate into actions as far as blogging goes for me.  I love that my work world these days involves words, but it does make it more challenging to blog on my own at least while I'm still far from full-strength.

Regardless, I have still been reading and thus....

Memoirs is narrated Bodo who we learn quite early on is not like the rest of us.  Bodo is an imaginary friend and in this world imaginary friends are real but can only be seen by their imagine-r and by other imaginary friends.  Key to this world is that the Friends only exist as long as the person who imagined them believes that they are real.  This means some disappear almost instantaneously and that Bodo is quite old at 5.

The Friends we meet in the book are hugely varied and they are (as I note below) the book's biggest asset.  Some are very nearly human in appearance, often missing a small detail like the ears that a child might neglect to include in a sketch of a person, while others are wholly different like the one Friend who is pretty much a blob-like ink-blot-style creature.  They can typically leave their imaginer and explore the world, though this all depends on what the imaginer envisioned (i.e. some pass through walls, only a few need sleep).

Bodo is imagined by Max  The book avoids labels but it is clear Max thinks differently than most and is probably on the autism spectrum.  His parents fight a lot about Max, as I understand is quite common, and he is largely a loner.  Bodo is wiser than Max; he can think beyond Max's own abilities b/c that's what Max envisioned when he imagined Bodo. Bodo worries as Max struggles socially while also knowing Max's needs are unique.  Bodo also knows something is amiss when one of Max's teachers seems to take an unusual interest in Max, this interest serving as the starting point for most of the novel's plot.  Ultimately, Bodo fights to help Max within the unique limitations of his kind and while also dealing with his own emotions.

I came to this book both because of prior experience with the author and because the idea was utterly fascinating.  I loved the various Friends that populate the novel and the fact that they aren't all bubbly perfect.  I also saw a great understanding of the trials of childhood and how intense they can be.  However, I just didn't "feel" the main thrust of the action, never fully believing the storyline with Mrs. Patterson.  Certainly, Max wouldn't have understood her motives even despite seeing some of her story, but I think the author could still have weaved more in to make it ring truer.  I particularly disliked the store's storyline (I hesitate to specify more for fear of spoiling other readers) which felt completely thrown in, like it was one more idea Dicks had and he just wanted to include it as well....that impulse worked for me with the varied Friends who must have been fun to create, but not so much with the narrative thrust of the action.

Three and a half stars.  Loved the idea and the world Dicks creates but never connected with the main action of the story.

Stars is set in the grand age of Hollywood, a world somewhat apart from the struggles most of the country felt in the 1930s and dominated by the studio system.  There are two protagonists (is that a contradiction? if so, there are two main characters...).  One is Loretta Young, based on the real-life young actress known in large measure for her "romantic" entanglements (I'll get to the motivation behind those quotes).  The second is the fictional Alda, a woman who finds herself rejected from a convent after expressing too much of a connection to a young woman giving birth and putting her child up for adoption.  Alda is sent to serve as a secretary to Loretta and becomes more of an additional sister.

There are a lot of women in this book, including Loretta's mother and three sisters (there are two absent fathers in the mix).  Some of them blend a bit, but generally they are the support system that allows Loretta to shine as a young starlet.  Then there are the men, namely Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable who fall for Loretta.  Her relationships with these two (married) men account for a large portion of the story and stand in contrast to Alda's own love story.  Throughout the book, the characters are all affected by the odd world of the studio system and its strict moral code which is certainly more show than substance and much more of a concern for women than men.

First, the matter of history -- Reading other reviews and taking a brief look at the real Loretta, I leaned that in her later years she said that she had been raped by Gable.  In the book, this relationship is a story of star-crossed lovers.  Part of me wants to ignore the facts (well, the facts according to Young) and just settle in to the fiction, but it does haunt the novel and I can't discuss the book without reference to the disparity even if I'm not wholly sure what I think about the matter.  It does provide an interesting context that further emphasizes the powerlessness of women and the impact of the cult of celebrity then and now.  Even though it would never have been discussed in the day, it is also very clearly not the story presented in the novel.  The tie between fiction and reality is always complex, but much moreso in a novel built on real characters.

Moving on -- I liked the world of women in this book much more when it was apart from the world of romance.   I loved seeing Young's family interrelate and the warmth between Loretta and Alda is the highlight of the novel.  I really cared much less for the stories tied to Tracy and Gable.  In truth, I'm not a big fan of the romance genre.  I didn't care for my first into to Trigiana (Big Stone Gap, not that it is purely a romance story) but absolutely loved my second, The Shoemaker's Wife, falling for the rich world much more than the underlying love story even then.  I could never see Loretta's attachment to either of the men.  I did enjoy Alda's love story much more, but that also didn't really ring real.  I wish the men and the romances were more secondary to the plot, I'd have liked that book much more.  Loretta, the fictional one at least, was so strong and came from a family of strong women.  Like her mother, she took control of her life and her economic destiny, exercising an independence unusual in her time.  She got so lost, however, when it came to the heart.

Still, I did enjoy my visit to the golden age.  Three and a half stars, a rating that falls pretty average for me and means I did enjoy the book but don't feel the need to tell others about it or have any impulse to revisit anytime soon.  I was more than ready for the book to be done, but I also never felt weary of the tale.  This review is based on an advance reader's copy provided by the publisher but contains my unbiased opinion of the work.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Nook -- A Strange Complex Trip Into a Culture and a Cult (You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine) + an In-Depth Look at a Much Simpler Topic (Cat Sense)

And so she continues on her reading and reviewing spree....and struggles with both sleep and the adjustment to a VERY gentle course of physical therapy and trial run at the pool (i.e. first one day of simple float time, then trying to participate as a member of the class as much as feels "right" until my scheduled return to the front 9/1)...

While I can manage my rambling in my professional writing, when it comes to my own blog and my book reviews I can earn my self-imposed "Rambling Blogger" moniker.  That's a warning as I try to provide a bit of context...  I usually summarize the book and then review, but this one seemed to lend itself to a more incorporated style....

Just about 11 months ago, we inherited a cat when my mother-in-law passed.  It was a sad way to get her, but Smoky has brought us much joy and she has our hearts.  I've never been around cats much, but my husband has and we've determined she's often more dog-like than cat-like.  At the very end of May, we agreed to cat-sit for a man being deployed (his brother backed out last minute).  I've watched them interact and move from animosity  to grudging acceptance and sometimes peeks of friendship. After some missteps (Lesson 1, learned after the fact: Don't hold two cats face to face as a means of forced introduction), I read up on cat behavior online and between that and simple observation I become quite fascinated.  I still maintain that "I'm not a cat person, just a Smoky person" but suppose I'll leave room for our "boarder kitty" (as in "room and board" even though she is a passport-carrying gal from Mexico) and they are interesting creatures.  NOT brief!!!  But it could have been MUCH worse!!!

This is how I came to order Cat Sense from a Bas Bleu listing (love the tee's not currently offered so glad I got a regular-wear one and a sleep-friendly larger size when they were on sale!).  Bradshaw is both a cat lover and an animal scientist.  He notes that there is relatively little research on cats and cat behavior, particularly in contrast to the volumes on dogs.  Seeking to help remedy this and using the research of others, his own scientific studies, and his experience as a pet owner, Bradshaw attempts to provide a pretty broad look at cats that basically involves three sections:
  1. Cat Evolution - This part looks at the evolutionary path (or paths) that led to the domestic cat.  He often contrasts the evolution of cats with the evolution of dogs which is helpful at times but also seems to me a bit off since the book looks to focus on cats and get away from the over-attention paid to dogs in scientific literature.  Honestly, while there are interesting moments/facts/theories/observations, this section drags and I got hopelessly lost along the way from wildcats to Smoky.  
  2.  Cat Behavior --This part is what drew me to the book and what I enjoyed the most.  I think he achieved a good mix between his perspective as a researcher and as a cat-owner.  Perhaps because of my personal situation, I found the stuff on cats interacting with other cats particularly interesting (in brief, they prefer not to...though females will collectively rear kittens in some cases).  I had to repeatedly remind myself that a lot of this is really theory and not fact.  In some cases, my own experience differed from the book's statements (I started crying once and suddenly Smoky appeared "dancing" in a circle on her hind legs somethingshe never did before and suggests some level of emotional/relational sensitivity).   
  3. The Future -- How will cats continue to evolve?  This section contained a point I'm sill pondering.  Currently, we neuter and spay most pet cats which means the ones that breed are generally feral (and they provide more kittens than will ever finds home).  This interrupts the evolutionary chain a bit since those with the most pet-like dispositions (which mix well-timed nurturing with the "nature" side of genetics) don't pass on their genes and those who are more aggressive do pass on their genes.  Bradshaw proposes letting cats have a single litter before getting them fixed...I'm mixed on it, but I had ever really pondered the genetic implications of listening to Bob Barker.  
Some general observations:  More than once, I was bothered by logical fallacies like "If not X, then Y" and "If we can't prove 'Not Y,' then Y."  There was a LOT of repetition, yet I still got forgetful and the book would benefit from some charts or other graphics and maybe a glossary of some sort.  Overall, the book was held my interest once I passed the first part, but I don't know that I'd recommend it unless specifically asked about cat history.  Three stars.  And an apology for the crazy length of the review!

This one is tough to explain.

The main character is simply known as A.  She has a roommate, B, who seems determined to become A's double, even cutting off her long braid and then handing it to A to keep. A tells us B has food issues, yet we rarely see A eat a bite. A is dating C.  She likes him because he feels simple.

The world they live in is similar to ours but also more extreme.  Consumerism is even more rampant in their land than ours.  In their world, one of the most popular tv shows tests a couple's relationship including a round that involves trying to pick the other out of a crowd of naked people in the dark.  The couple agree to a complete dissolution of the relationship if they don't succeed in all the tests.  A man becomes famous for buying veal.  And there's a phenomenon involving disappearing fathers who pop back up utterly befuddled, sometimes having managed to construct a new family. Wally's World is a store that sort of resembles our megastores but they rearrange the contents constantly so you can't find things without a hunt (workers wear crazy masks and don't really help).  Oh, and there's a strange snack cake known mostly for its ads that resemble an old-school Roadrunner cartoon.

And then it gets weird....or, more accurately, weirder...One day, A watches as the family across the street disappears one day, all three dressed in white sheets (think ghost costume, not KKK).  There's only so much one can say here without saying too much, but much of the book revolves around a cult-like group that attempts to live in opposition to most of the world around them.  Food is a big issue, as are bodies, but the cult also helps raise much more general questions of identity, culture, and alienation.

There's not a ton I can say in the "review" part of this review.  I feel like I probably missed a lot, although the lack of clear ideas/ideals is probably part of the point.  I simply didn't enjoy this book.  I kept hoping it would turn a corner but it never did.  I managed to finish, but I feel like it took more out of me than it gave back.  I felt like I should be thinking and feeling and reflecting and more, but I was just waiting to be done.

Two stars....there are some amazing sentences and some impressive word-craft.  It'll be taught in some class that mixed sociology, philosophy, and literature someday.  And a few will love it, but I suspect most will be hunting for Cliff Notes.  I got my copy from the publisher (and appreciate it even if it wasn't a win!) is probably quite apparent that they put no constraints on my review and that this is an honest and unbiased review.

On another note, I have a regular-wear and a sleep-wear version of this tee.  Super soft and totally on-point for me...Bas Bleu seems to have it shelved at the moment, but I suspect it'll reappear in time.

(Note: if they do restock and you want one, buy a size up from what you suspect you need.)

(Also Note:  She's from the Bas Bleu site.  It's not me.)

Books Are Better Tee

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Uncomfortable and Unproductive vs. Ambiguously Imperfect but Utterly Charming: Reviews on You Don't Have to Live Like This (Markovitz) and Crooked Heart (Evans)

I'm plowing through them lately.  Here's one I loved, presented (and read) after one I struggled to complete:
Greg, or Marny to his old college friends is a bit lost.  After graduating from Yale and earning a PhD in literature at Oxford, he fell into a non-tenure track job teaching at a college in England.  A brief meeting at a reunion leads to Greg quitting his job and returning to his parents' home in Louisiana.  He decides to move to Detroit to be part of something akin to a social/economic (somehow that sounds more accurate than 'socioeconomic') experiment.  A college friend is trying to get people to apply for and join a planned community, buying cheap abandoned and often dilapidated homes.  The back cover references a line calling it "the Groupon model for gentrification."  In Detroit, Marny navigates a social life while also confronting issues of race and class that develop as the participants in "New Jamestown" face animosity from some long-time residents who refuse to sell.  

This seemed like an interesting topic, but it never really flew for me.  It seems pretty clear the author doesn't want us to like Marny and the lack of sympathy for his own lead character made it hard to feel invested in his fate.  I'm not sure if he's an "everyman" or simply a loser...or maybe both.  The author provides brief sketches of far too many characters and I was often a little lost because I knew a name was familiar but I hadn't been invested enough to remember which of many characters was in action.  

I can't complete this review without turning to the topic of racism, class-ism, and other -isms.  There are a number of times when Marny's words and/or actions contain outright racism.  I do believe that there's a place for literature that contains more-than-uncomfortable lines but it needs to be done right (see Huck Finn).  Sometimes the best works of art make you uncomfortable.  Here, it doesn't really enhance the context, the plot, or the point (if he has one) which mean every time Marny recorded a racially charged thought (and that's pretty often....he dates a woman seemingly just to be able to say he is dating a black woman from the other side of the tracks) I wanted to throw the book at the wall and give up.
I give this book 2 of 5 stars.  I read it quickly not because I enjoyed it and was propelled along, but because I wanted it to end.  I might have initially gone for 3, but the more I think about the book the less I like it.  This review is based on an advance reader copy of the novel supplied to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Noel has had something of an unusual childhood but then again he's an unusual child.   He has been raised by godmother Mattie, a former suffragette who teaches her own lessons and who is truly the boy's kindred soul.  As WWII settles in, Mattie begins to show signs of dementia and eventually passes on leaving Noel to the care of a much-hated tangential family member.  The family is all too happy to send Noel to the suburbs along with the rest of London's children during the Blitz and the meat of the story comes when Noel finds his way into Vee's care.  Vee lives by her own moral code, bending (okay, breaking) the law to support her mother and her son, Donald.  Vee and Noel clash at first but eventually team up in their own little scheme.  Of course, that can't go well...

I really enjoyed the vast majority of this book.   I loved Mattie and mourned her right alongside Noel, hoping with him that things might somehow take a different turn. The characters of Vee and Noel were beautifully rendered, perfectly imperfect. Noel is not your typical 10-year-old, but he's also very much 10 as is best displayed when he's complaining about perceived injustices (I was reminded of Snow White as a child in Once Upon a Time....moral, but young).  The language is lovely.  

Where this book lost me and where it lost that elusive fifth star was with the story of Vee's lazy lump of a son, Donald.  I disliked him from the start, as we are meant to, but I also disliked having to read about him.  In particular, the story involving Donald near the end of the book just felt wholly out-of-place in a novel that otherwise felt quite genuine.  

Still, highly recommend. I all-but-devoured this one.  It isn't complex and probably fits a mass-market fiction audience (vs a more literary fiction that has a narrower audience), but a good solid read nonetheless with enough moral ambiguity to ring true.  I loved visiting with Noel and, ultimately, Vee as well.  Might have hit 5-stars if it hadn't wasted time on a side-note.  This was provided to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two Pieces of Literary Art About Art..and More: The Small Backs of Children (Yuknavitch; 4.5 stars) & What I Loved (Hustvedt 3.5-4 stars)

It's time for a couple of book reviews, along with a rambly Rambler aside...

First, a "warning" --  This book incredibly intense and readers should be aware that there is violence and graphic sex, often intertwined.  I think these scenes are meant to disturb/disrupt but I know these scenes are simply not something every reader is comfortable with.  Okay, again I'm caught in my own language a bit, few will be "comfortable" with these scenes, but it does limit the audience substantially.  I'd skip this book if you have any distaste for the use of graphic depictions of sex (including consensual BDSM-ish sex as well as child rape) violence (sexual and non-sexual) in fiction.

Moving on -- The characters in TSBOC are labeled but not named and the narrator/protagonist shifts from chapter to chapter.  In many ways this is a book about characters and intangibles, but there is an underlying plot that begins with the picture of  young girl running away as her home explodes with her family inside.  The moment occurs in an unnamed country plagued by violence that has been largely ignored in the "first world."  The photograph wins acclaim.  It also has a deep impact on "the writer" who shares much of her history with the book's author herself; both are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and both have experienced the anguish of a stillborn child.  As the writer falls into a suicidal depression and is hospitalized at the cusp between life and death, a group of artists gather.  They decide to go get the girl in the photo and bring her to the writer.

There's a lot to say.   This is art, not "just" words.  This is the type of book that you truly experience rather than simply read.  Some chapters felt like a long exhalation and I felt compelled to read quickly, like I was speeding through breath.  I could definitely see plowing through in one seating, in fact that may be the ideal way to experience TSBOC.  There are an incredible number of themes including the nature of art, the construction of meaning, and the struggle to own one's own (female) body.  One interesting element is the fact that the few men who play major roles in the book are largely defined by their relationship to women.  They are called "the playwright", "the artist", and "the filmmaker" but they are really the brother, the ex, and the husband.  A reversal of cultural norms, this is particularly interesting for those who've pondered things like the Bechdel test (and its limitations..and I do link Wikipedia often, it is far from an ideal source but sometimes gives more detail than, say, this basic Bechdel test page) that draw attention to how we define women.

I'm giving this four-and-a-half stars.  I'll even round up to five.  This is NOT for everyone.  It was a quick read but by no means an easy read.  This is the polar opposite of an airplane book (both poles have merit); I'd recommend reading alone when you have energy and emotion to invest.  Elements may be VERY triggering for survivors of abuse.

Note: An advance copy of TSBOC was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  Harper in no way constrains the contents of this review.
This is a story in three parts defined, in large measure, by various forms/stages of love and loss.  It would tell too much to lay out the plot points of each part.  The story is narrated by Leo, an art historian.  Leo discovers a painting by Bill and the two become close friends...actually, those two words fail to encompass the deep connection and affection between the pair.  Leo is married to Erica and there are two women in Bill's life, Lucille and Violet.  These four characters and the families they form are the backbone of the story.

Although a few other key players do emerge, these four are all intensely/intimately connected and all are also, in various forms, artists.  Art is, in fact, probably another main character and there are discussions about real artists and about fictional artistic works "by" the main characters. There's a good deal of discussion about art more broadly including the role of women & women's bodies* in art, the dichotomy of seeing & being seen, and the interplay between how art defines us & how we define art.  Ultimately, however, while art matters deeply, this is a story about relationships and, more specifically, love.  To use more paired descriptions, it is about what love does to us & what we do for it and also about what love cannot do & what love cannot save.  Elsewhere, I titled this review: "Gorgeously Written Story of Loving/Being Loved/Loss, of Seeing/Being Seen, and of Making Art/Being Art/Viewing Art.

Overall -- I very much enjoyed the first two parts.  I truly disliked the third part.  this book is very literary and very concerned with what some might call "academic" matters.  In truth, calling this book pretentious may understate the case; somehow, though, this didn't really turn me off, perhaps because it fit the characters.  Overall, the language is quite beautiful. I'm torn between three-and-a-half and four stars and suppose this time I'm lucky many review sites don't allow for half-stars.  The rating reflects the fact that my enjoyment of the language overall.  Ultimately, it also reflect the fact that my interest in parts one & two overshadow my dislike for part three, especially since I've had a little time to remove myself from the immediacy of the concluding section.

Honestly, I can't tell you how long this one has been sitting on my "to read" shelf...well, I couldn't until I checked Amazon and saw I bought a used copy for a penny ($4 with shipping) on 12/7/11.  I'm glad it finally surfaced.  It calls for a reader who will admit to enjoying the literary and artistic.  This reader is probably comfortable admitting to enjoying the pursuit of learning, a philosopher in the true sense of one who loves wisdom (and talking, or at least reading about it!)....okay, the ideal reader is used to hearing terms like "dork" and "nerd."  It is, as I say above, pretentious and you need to accept that about the book and about the characters.  

*Random Aside (more a personal experience given context by the book than a reaction to the text itself, though the word "reaction" is quite on point)-- The book mentions women who used their bodies as art, "drawing" on their skin by scratching it lightly to make red marks appear.  This caught the narrator off-guard a bit and sent me on a bit of a search.  I remember many a doctor over the years running a dull edge along my skin and noticing that a red mark arose a few moments later.  I can't recall any ever mentioning it though until this year when my dermatologist was looking at an intense allergic reaction.  I didn't catch the word she used but offered to demonstrate on her own since she didn't want to irritate me further and as soon as she mentioned scratching her skin I responded by saying "and a red line appears."

Anyway, apparently the term is dermographism.   Honestly, I don't know if there are degrees of severity, but it is nothing I've ever found really troublesome.  But it surprised me to learn that only 4-5% of people have it.  I knew it wasn't something that happened to everyone, but it was always my normal so I guess I assumed it was pretty common.  It does explain a bit though....whenever something has been itching and I've inevitably given in and scratched. the area becomes very red and angry.  Again, normal to me (and I assume anyone could irritate an already itchy area by scratching, but probably not to this extent) but sometimes concerned onlooker and I never understood why until I dug into it because of the book. 

It is a really interesting condition and there are indeed people who've turned it into art.  There are also a lot of people who go online looking for a cure (there isn't one though antihistamines can help) but it isn't something I feel any need to treat given other maladies.  It has also made me think a lot about how we construct our concept of "normal" and how intensely personal that term truly is.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Fighting Back, Part Three: Recovery at Home

This is my third post in a series about my recent back surgery (specifically, a posterior lumbar fusion at L5/S1...a procedure intended to fix instability remaining after a 2011 anterior lumbar fusion).  If you missed them and are curious, here are links to Fighting Back, Part One: Overview of the Surgery and the Pre-Op Period and Fighting Back Part Two: In-Patient Recovery.

The First Days
  • When you leave the hospital, they give you a number of instructions.  Some are pretty standard post-op stuff and some are fusion-specific.  The key fusion-specific rules are referred to as "BLT" bending, lifting, or twisting.  I had built enough strength to be able to squat instead of bend and I'm pretty "handy" with my toes (e.g. I can pick up a dropped piece of a kid, I'd developed the skill of writing with my toes, big letters but legible).  It was definitely little twists that got me in the early days.  It's so natural to swivel a little to grab the shampoo bottle etc.  The rules are largely to prevent unnecessary pain, although it is possible a patient could knock something out of place before things heal and strengthen.
  • I left the hospital with the same meds I had when I went in.  This did mean there was quite a bit of pain at first, especially with getting up or shifting position. 
  • Most docs limit sitting to 15min increments following a lumbar fusion.  Mine doesn't.  He was clear he wanted me up and out of bed as much as possible.  Riding in a car is frowned upon and we had to stop several times during the drive home (it takes 90-120 min normally...the complexity of my issues demanded an out-of-town expert).
  • All docs encourage walking after a fusion surgery.   I did use a walker for the first couple of days at home.  As expected, I tended towards overdoing it.  I'm not going to provide details b/c I know if I read someone else's mileage I'd be tempted to keep up.  Don't be me with this stuff...I have some nasty demons in my head that push me to go further than I should.  
  • I was able to use the same brace I had last time.  For the first two weeks, it was on whenever I was out of bed.    
  • Two incision-related items:
    • One area in which a posterior surgery differs from an anterior approach is, obviously, the location of the incision.  When the incision was on my belly, I could handle my own dressing changes.  Not so much this time.  Honestly, I didn't see what it looked like the first day or two but after that it wasn't as bad as I imagined.  Still, grateful for my husband's helping hand with daily changes.  It was probably about a week to ten days before I stopped covering the wounds.
    • As my red hospital bracelet warned, I've reacted badly to both steri-strips (crazy itching) and medical tape (same plus hive-like skin allergy) in the past.  For the main incision, I had a Tegaderm-style bandage.  I also had a small, latex-free band-aid covering the wound from the drain (looked similar to an entry point for an IV).  Despite the attention to detail, I STILL managed to react getting red and itchy precisely where the bandages were adhered (and scratched since I'm apparently no better at resisting an itch than I was when I had chicken pox in preschool); there was even a "space" in the irritation where the gauze was located so it was definitely the bandages. Given that both are intended to be hypo-allergenic, it's pretty impressive how much my body hated them.  I need to talk to my GP about this one...
Initial Post-Op Appointment and the First Month Post-Op
  • I saw my surgeon again at the two week mark.  He took x-rays and checked the incision.  He said everything was looking good.  He reiterated his firm belief that "It will work" and again remarked on the fact that my skeleton looks like a child's (not a weight issue, as he said one can't eat one's way to bigger bones)
  • Since the 2w appointment, I only use my brace when I leave the house or am walking on the t-mill.  It is there to provide protection in case of a fall or a car accident (or even a sudden stop).  It is a bit embarrassing but I like that it warns people to avoid bumping into me and explains when I'm slow-moving.
  • I'm allowed to drive (per the doc, you can drive when you are confident you could react to a kid running out in front of your car), but prefer to stick close to home.  It is still hard to turn my body (and still best avoided) which makes it hard to change lanes and really hard to back out of a parking spot.
  • By around the two week mark, I was able to tell that the pain I was having was different from my "normal" pain.  This is REALLY good.  It suggests the pain is tied to recovering from the surgery itself and means they may have "gotten" the cause of my pain.  I've had small spells where I'm nearly pain-free.  It's amazing how much one notices (and appreciates!) a lack of pain after years of unrelenting severe pain.  Most days, I do have a decent level of pain and I need to remind myself that it's expected (more're gonna hurt for a few months when someone cuts you open and hammers screws into your spine).  Overall, I'm hopeful.
  • I'm still on the same meds.  Yesterday, I saw the clinical pharmacist who helps my GP manage my meds.  Although I was game to start decreasing (in large measure b/c I'm scared of how long it'll take and how rough it might be), she wants to wait till after my two month follow-up to make changes and (hopefully) begin the process of weaning me off them.
  • I've had setbacks.  I definitely hurt a lot more during bad weather.  I also have days when I simply feel depleted and that causes a pain spike.  I moved oddly one day and had a return of my old pain for a few days which was terrifying.  It has subsided.
It's about six or seven weeks now.  It's still hard.  Overall, I'd say dealing with these back issues is the hardest thing I've ever done (and I took the bar exam!!).  Recovery has been, and will continue to be, a matter of "two step forward, one step back."  There are good days and bad days and I can't always pinpoint a reason for the bad ones. I need to remind myself often that I can't expect much beyond that and that the bad days part of recovering from major surgery and are not a sign of doom.   Hopefully, it continues to add up to moving forward.  Slow and steady.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

One I Couldn't Finish, One I Can't Quite Classify: Book Reviews on Spectacle (Newkirk) and Love May Fail (Quirk)

I'm back to my regular law blog writing and looking into some additional projects and I'll blame that for my silence here.  Plus my required twice-a-day walks which just add up, esp as the type who SWEATS...never a girly-"glisten"...I've had to wring shorts out before getting in my car after a workout.  Even though these are low-impact, it's still enough to get the faucets going...

Anyway, that's more than enough on sweat....I'm interrupting my post-op tale (planning at least one more post) to bring you your regularly-scheduled book reviews:

I did not finish this book (yet? ever??). I received a free copy from Harper Collins so I wanted to write a review anyway and I suppose placement on my "partially read may not finish" shelf is a review in itself.

I thought the underlying story was utterly fascinating, disturbing yet fascinating, and I "enjoyed" (not quite the right word for a human in a zoo cage) the early chapters. Unfortunately, my motivation to read waned fairly quickly, in part because I simply couldn't mentally juggle all the players. Excellent topic choice, but the habit of discussing almost every player's life story got to be too much for me. For a while, I figured it might be a book I read in bits, reading a chapter here or there while I kept another primary read going. It has been many weeks and I haven't picked it back up.

In many ways, Love May Fail (supplied to me by HarperColiins) is a story in four parts.  Like many in recent years, it is told by a series of narrators (and, thankfully, they are distinct enough to avoid confusion....though, it also helps that they each take one turn rather than alternating frequently).   We open on Portia and find her hiding in a closet and watching her very wealthy porn-director husband sleep with a much younger woman.  Portia eventually flees to her hometown in New Jersey where we meet her mother, a compulsive hoarder, and watch her reunite with her former hair-metal loving self.  

Over time we meet several other players, among them are the three whose voices we later hear (one via letters): Mr. Vernon, the beloved teacher who has had pretty much everything in his life go wrong; Mom Vernon, now a nun who has been shunned by her son for many years; and Chuck, brother to troubled Danielle, uncle to young Tommy (a hair-metal fan....seriously, there's a lot of hair-metal in this book!), and a recovered drug addict who is telegraphed far too quickly as a love interest for Portia.  Portia tries to rescue Mr. Vernon, who is very clear about not wanting to be rescued, and becomes enmeshed in the lives of Chuck et al.  

I have such mixed feelings on this one.  I love Quick's writing and that alone could have motivated me to eagerly pick this one up each night.  I also fell too hard for young Tommy, despite feeling like he was made far too perfectly-adorable  and adorably-vulnerable.  And, despite mixed feelings about most of them (adult Portia's interaction with Mr. Vernon was beyond aggravating and I didn't buy her relationship with her finances), I cheered for a good ending.  BUT, there are also a LOT of...well, the phrase I can come up with is "convenient moments" in this book and that's a pet-peeve.  We meet Mr. Vernon on a particularly awful day (one early moment in his section was far too tragic and far too unnecessary) and Portia and Chuck are far too perfectly-paired.  I had trouble with several plot-lines and there's just far too "much" here; it felt like Quick threw it all in at once for fear of never getting another chance.  There are a lot of "too"s in this paragraph and that little word tells a lot...

Three and a half stars...easy to read popcorn-lit with some really dark themes but the writing saves it from being just another book you'd pick up in the airport...

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Fighting Back, Part Two: In-Patient Recovery

This is the second post dealing with my recent back surgery (posterior lumbar fusion and laminectomy w/ screws and rods, a revision to a prior anterior lumbar fusion w/ cages).  In addition to updating friends/family, I really hope these posts provide some useful insight to others who are undergoing the same or similar surgeries and/or their loved ones.  The words at the top of my blog page are particularly apt here since the format is pretty darn basic: Nothing fancy, just some thoughts.

This part will cover my in-patient recovery period...I had surgery on Wednesday and was in the hospital until Saturday around 1PM. Here's a link to Part One.

These posts are all just my personal experience and recommendations and thoughts should be taken as such.

Day of Surgery & First Night
  • I was the second surgery of the day and got delayed a bit because of trouble waking the woman before me  The wait sucked.  It was early evening when I awoke in the recovery room (and got my glasses!).  It was probably 8:30 before I was taken to my room where my husband, mom, and step-dad were waiting.  They told me the doc said all went well (initial info had been passed to them by a nurse, the doc called and spoke to my husband just as I arrived).  The doc confirmed that he'd seen instability, that was a very good thing since it meant they were tackling what was likely the right problem.  He also mentioned it taking a bit of extra effort placing the screws because my skeleton is quite small...I could have told him that dentists sometimes use pediatric tools and my last physical therapist was fascinated by "the smallest patellas (kneecaps) I've seen on an adult."  
  • The first night was LONG.  I didn't sleep one wink.  For most of the night, the nurse was very attentive and kind (she got called away but had been planning to come sit and do her charts in my room to keep me company) although the 12h shift and a rough neighboring patient ("Please, Lady X, don't try to get out of bed" "Please, Lady X, keep your gown on"...) wore on her.  Over the night, there were two hiccups....
    • A Bedside Alarm --  The bedside alarm seemed to be for non-urgent matters and I learned that bending my arm too sharply triggered it b/c of the IV placement.  It went off, as it had before, around 5AM.  I knew how to use my call button but didn't press it since I presumed that the alarm would trigger some sort of alert...I figured if no one came there was a mighty good reason why (i.e. Lady X).   Eventually, after a good thirty minutes of an unrelenting alarm noise causing a massive headache on top of everything else, I burst into tears and started calling for someone to help and just make it stop.  A volunteer eventually heard me.  It turns out that alert only sounded in my room and my mostly closed door prevented the staff from hearing it. The nurse was less than kind when she explained this, insisting she'd showed me the call button, which she simply reiterated that when I said I didn't think I needed to use it when the alarm was going off since I presumed it alerted the staff.  She said she didn't want to hear a volunteer found me bawling again...probably well-intentioned but came off sounding like she felt criticized.  Lesson: Press the button, even if you think you don't need to!
    • TMI Alert!  Catheter Issue -- Yes, this is TMI, but maybe it'll help someone to share it.....For hours, I mentioned that I felt like I needed to use the bathroom but I "knew" I had a catheter so that shouldn't have been a true issue.  Eventually the nurse did go in search of a bladder scanner that wasn't in its usual location but it was low-priority and she got diverted.  I'm not sure what triggered the eventual response, but suddenly an aide rushed in around 4AM.  Long story short: The catheter wasn't ideally placed and there had been ZEROl output from it all night (which should have told them something!!)...the adjustment led to more than an entire container's worth of output!  Lesson: If you know something is amiss, keep mentioning it even if it feels "silly"...I had mentioned it, but I think I almost dismissed my own complaint.
The Rest of the In-Patient Stay (Days One to Three of Recovery)
  • Honestly, I had a good deal of pain throughout the in-patient period and pretty poor pain control, largely b/c of how long I'd been on pain meds and my high tolerance. I also found it incredibly hard to push myself up from lying down and/or sitting.  I worried about doing it without bedrails but found I really did make fast enough progress that I could handle it by the time I was discharged/
  • Each day included two visits from physical therapy.  The first time, I just stood and walked across my room and across the hall.  Eventually, we did trips down a couple of hallways and practiced the single step I'd need to take up my stoop at home to get in the door.  I had a walker and usually both a physical therapist and an aide.  
  • I also saw Occupational Therapy twice.  They are focused on more general life skills from putting on socks to getting in the shower to using a grabber tool.  Honestly, I didn't need the help since I'd heard much of it after the previous surgery.
  • While it has moved into more normal ranges in recent years, I've often had fairly low blood pressure.  I still have it sometimes but I used to feel like the world closed in on me when I stood up.  Although I had high BP before the surgery, it got pretty low in the following days especially on day two.  I had to laugh when an aide dismissed a 90/55 reading and said it was probably an error.  She retook it and got 90/51.  Not surprisingly, I felt like just keeping my eyes open was hard work and even slept through a visit from my husband (he would text me in the AM and come by for a couple hours in the early PM and again post-dinner).
  • The hospital had a "Room Service Menu" longer than many restaurants.  I wasn't really hungry, but seeing it by my bed the whole time incited some intense cravings.  Kinda sucked since I was on "clear liquids"until lunch on the last day when I was given a nod to move up to the "Light" listings which meant I got crackers and dry toast!  While I never placed an "order," they still delivered broth every meal...which I never touched but the thought of broth still makes me queasy!!  I mostly had popsicles and water ice.  Lesson 1: Don't look at the menu if you can't have it.  Lesson 2: The meal cart girl had extras of the pops/ices and had better flavors than I got from the nurses!
  • By the end of the stay, when they finally unhooked everything (actually, they gradually unhooked certain pumps, my wound drain, etc.) I had a song from Pinocchio in my head: I Got No Strings.  It felt incredibly freeing not to need someone to hold up/move the IV etc and not to have to either have them leave the bathroom door ajar to accommodate the equipment!
  • I was terrified to go home.  I wanted home, but I feared I couldn't handle it esp on morning 2 when the doc said I'd probably leave the next day.  I was fine  It wasn't easy (see Part Three!), but I could do it.. Reminder: The docs and nurses really do know what they're talking about when they plan for discharge.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fighting Back, Part One: Overview of the Surgery and the Pre-Op Period

I intended to write, both on the blog and for myself, during my recovery downtime but that hasn't materialized.  Part of the issue is that sitting is hard on the back and so I'm in bed much of the time and only using my tablet instead of my laptop -- I'm a slow enough typer normally, let alone on a smaller touchscreen!  Still, I want to have more of a record of this recovery and also want to share it for anyone who might be looking for firsthand accounts of spinal fusion, I'll compromise with a throwback to my beloved bulletpoint style posts that may take a bit to complete but hopefully will cover the surgery and the early weeks of the recovery.

Since a single post was becoming unwieldy, I'm going to split this up a bit.  I'll add in links to the other parts once they are complete but here's a bit of rambling on the procedure and the pre-op timeframe...

Note: These posts are all just my personal experience and recommendations and thoughts should be taken as such.

The Procedure (copying myself from Facebook)
  • This will make more sense in combination with the links below (obviously generalized so may include irrelevant pieces or miss important ones) -- My surgeon did a posterior (i.e. from the back) laminectomy with fusion (much bigger endeavor than w/o), the term "PLIF" is often used for Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion.  The doc used pedicle screws and rods plus a bone graft of “locally harvested” material taken from the earlier in the surgery.  It was complicated since I had a previous surgery at the same level from the front (anterior, ALIF) using two cages plus bone morphogenetic protein (supposed to encourage bone growth).  We believe the area never fully fused leaving instability that caused pain.  The underlying reason is basically unknown…they’ve referenced “degenerative disc disease” (read: bone broke down and no one knows why) and also “failed back surgery syndrome” which pretty much means what it says! 
  • Here's a short animated video shows a procedure much like mine; 
  • This page has lots of words but more info than most;
  • This page provides an overview of fusion (as one person said in an online discussion about a procedure akin to mine “[t]hink of it as fusion being the primary surgery with laminectomy just a part of the process”;
  • One more link with a bit of detail on the screws 
  • Background: Many years ago, I waited much too long to speak up about pelvic in I was put in a cab and dispatched to the doc after passing out at work.  By then the pain was bad and no longer confined itself to my period and when I finally did seek help it felt pretty urgent.  Despite both the doc and I "knowing" it was endo, they ran through tests for a number of other possibilities first since endo is a surgical diagnosis.  Finally, we were ready for what I "knew" was the procedure that could diagnose and even help treat the pain.  The date was set...until I showed up to the pre-op with a "little" congestion and found out it was walking pneumonia!  That meant a heart-wrenching delay and means I freak out a bit about pre-op issues.  
    • Before this surgery, I needed a clearance from my general practitioner and a bunch of tests.  I was worried but I "passed."  
    • The week before surgery I felt kind of weak and had cold symptoms.  It isn't the right response, but I didn't say a word and figured I was fine as long as I didn't have congestion or a fever on the big day.  As a kid I'd get strep throat without the slightest temp rise and my norm is closer to 97.6, a degree below average...still I felt like I might have one about 5 days out (I refused to check).  So I held my breath when the nurse took my temp in pre-op and my heart stopped when she voiced the read-out "One hundred even."  Thankfully, and perhaps b/c they didn't know it was more equivalent to a 101 in someone else, they still allowed me to go ahead.
  • One of the many reasons I like my surgeon is that when he stopped by my pre-op bed (side note: it was in a little bay with a real door and this odd toilet that folded into the wall!) he gave me a hug and told me he'd pray for me.  It seems standard for the surgeon to check-in, but this truly made me feel like he cared.  Despite not being a religious person, I truly do appreciate prayers and I also appreciate any sort of thoughts/energy/wishes that people put out there.  I will admit, as another aside, I told people that for the day of the prayers/wishes/vibes/energy should all be directed towards the doc to guide his "part" would come after.
  • I'd had surgeries before and knew I couldn't wear my contacts.  The staff seemed a bit befuddled by me refusing to just send my glasses with my husband.  I knew I'd be in recovery for an hour or so before I saw my family when I was moved to a room.  I couldn't imagine the added anxiety that not being able to see would bring.  I pushed and, despite insisting patients couldn't take anything with them, they eventually agreed to have my glasses travel alongside me.  Absolutely worth the push (though truly surprised that I seemed to be the only person who made the request)!

Click for Fighting Back, Part Two: In-Patient Recovery.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In Envy Country -- A Strong Collection by Joan Frank

Despite good intentions, I haven't blogged recently.  I did intend to write about the day they pulled my Aquacise class out of the pool and spilled us onto the parking lot (at least we were given the nod to dress first and it was fairly warm despite flurries the week prior!) because of a suspicious sound in a mailbox (spoiler alert: it was a LifeAlert style device that was vibrating bc it was separated from its tether).  I also have had many a "deep thought" as my next surgery quickly approaches.  But I didn't write about any of it is my book review habit that brings me back, even though this is a rare time when the book was not given to me in exchange for a review (I bought it used many months ago and it sat lonely for some time).

I often find myself frustrated by short stories since the format tends to prohibit the kind of in-depth, rounded characters that I look for when I read.  Joan Frank, however, manages to make me rethink the genre.  In Envy Country is a collection of stories, all fully independent from one another (vs. the overlapping characters/story-lines favored in recent years).

Many of the stories look at women and their relationships.  In addition to the more common focus on relations between men and women, many of Frank's pieces examine relationships between women -- A college-aged woman watching an older woman interact at a dinner party; A woman reflecting on her step-sister's teen years; A story narrated by a woman recalling a female coworker; and Two women talking about the unexpected twists in the life of a girl who'd been popular in school.

There is also a heavy emphasis on perception such as one story in which a woman watches a picture-perfect couple fight and another involving a woman telling a story about how differently men and women reacted to a very well-endowed.  I particularly enjoyed this element of the collection, especially the clear recognition of the paradox (not quite the right word) of writing/reading stories about observation.

I enjoyed this collection.  There were a few pieces I could leave, but I suppose the beauty of short stories is that those end soon.  Overall, I enjoyed Frank's clear voice and the depth of emotion and strength of character contained in the stories.  Four stars (of five).

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Too Much for Too Little

I have some other blog topics playing in my head, but I still struggle with the energy to do "spare time" writing.  In my ideal vision, I'll be on my way to healthy(ish?) soon and then be able to amass enough freelance work to consider it my career.  I can't decide if that would leave me jazzed to return to more active blogging or stymied by writing then being all work...

I am glad, however, that I've already been returning to reading more often and, therefore (to throw too much in one sentence), a review...

Kingsolver was, for a time, my favorite actively-writing author.  Far too often, I seem to fall in love with the type of books that are one-time affairs and I can't pick up additional/future pieces by the author.  For a while, however, after being introduced to her by the manager of my college bookstore way longer ago than I care to admit, Kingsolver was an exception.  Her characters and her gift for place drew me.  

I gradually fell back a bit in my fan-dom, but I was still quite excited to be able to receive an advance-readers'-edition of her newest book from the lovely folks at Harper.  I started it...and I couldn't manage more than a couple dozen pages.  The lines were wordy, still evocative but I felt like the effort had doubled while my interest diminished.  I put it aside.  I recently picked Flight Behavior up again after gaining control of my to-read pile.  This time, I made it through.  

The opening chapter finds Dellarobia (I'll call her Della for ease, although she'd protest) ready to leave behind her husband and two kids for a much younger man.  She's hiking through the water-logged landscape of rural Tennessee when a sight arrests her.  Call it a miracle, call it fate, something amazingly beautiful is hidden on the edge of her in-laws' land and she returns home.  What follows is a many-faceted, complex affair (not the affair Della planned!).  Something has brought "visitors" to Appalachia, visitors that are arrestingly beautiful but carry a complex tale.  Many turn to religion, a powerful force in the world Kingsolver portrays, yet one with a less-than-admirable element of social structure and grown folk acting like popularity-obsessed teens.  Others seem bent on something close to denial.  Eventually, another (human) visitor arrives with a tale of climate change and science that leaves Della evaluating all she's ever known.

I wanted to like this -- I'm amenable to some parts of the social (and liberal) agenda and Kingsolver holds a dear spot in my heart -- but, even on a second approach, I struggled to get through it.  In her early works, Kingsolver drew true-feeling characters, landscapes and stories "with real toads in them" but that remain incredibly readable..simple texts that still managed to be round and full.  Her more recent works have gotten more complex in their language.  Sometimes that works beautifully.  Here, however, she loses me.  The language and the plot itself are, to put it plainly, too much work and, to put it bluntly, not worth it.  She's thrown it all vs. religion, modern vs. traditional, family vs. newcomers...even the often unacknowledged pain of a lost baby.  There are bright spots -- Della's children whose abundant personalities show traces of who they'll become despite their tender ages are far and away my favorite characters -- but not enough.  I'm willing to "work" for a book, I'll read books that are far from easy, but I need to feel the text rewards the effort.  This, sadly, did not.  

Two to two-and-a-half stars.  There are some lovely pieces but they get lost in the 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle without so much as a defined border.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

another "meh" review: The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen

I just don't seem to be having much luck with books of late.  Like many others, the following review is just kind of "meh"...the book wasn't bad, but I can't call it good either...and the book I'm reading now isn't looking much better (and is long to odd phrase that appears to have nothing to do with footwear).

Mercy Louis is a star, Illa is not.  Mercy lead the basketball team to the championship game last season where they had an unheard of loss that weighs on her since.  Illa is the team manager who passes through most of her days feeling utterly invisible.  The book alternates between the two girls as they go through the last summer of high school and into their senior year.  Both have complex relationships with their guardians with Mercy's grandmother convinced 12/31/1999 will be the end of days and Illa's mother trapped in a failing body after an explosion at the plant that had been the backbone of their small town.  

The book opens with a grisly discovery by a store clerk of a dead baby.  The discovery leaves all the town's girls marked as suspects based merely on the fact that they are females.  This event is followed by a mysterious condition affecting teen girls starting with an uncontrollable tic in Mercy's arm.  There are many themes here including the danger of religious fervor, the suffering of the town and its economy after the plant accident, and the confusing time of first loves.  

I'm not sure if this is marked Young Adult, but it felt like it based on the text and not just because teens are at the forefront of the story.  There's nothing wrong with that, some wonderful books are marketed as YA, but it seems to hold the book back.  There are too many themes, all explored with too cursory of a stroke.  Some things felt too cliche (ex. the plan developed by Mercy's hyper-religious grandmother) and I never felt the depth of character or plot that make me love a book.  I was definitely more interested in Illa's path than Mercy's but neither compelled me to read excitedly, instead I picked up the book in an effort to reach the finish.  It wasn't a bad book, but (in my humble opinion, an honest one not influenced by having gotten an advanced copy of the book for free from the publisher) it wasn't good either.  Three (of five) stars.

Who might like this?  I'd think it would do best with a younger crowd.  It does have some sex in it, so if that's a problem then steer clear.  It might appeal to people interested in how a powerful message can attract devotees who make dangerous decisions justified by complete, unquestioning belief.  There's plenty of plot here so I think it would interest those who like action/plots but be less appealing to readers who focus more on fully fleshed out characters.  It isn't a hard read so could be read in public situations (ex. on a train, in a coffee shop, etc)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

a trio of book reviews from "meh" to "nah"

It’s that time again, book review time!  I do hope that regular readers enjoy the reviews and readers who stumbled on looking for the specific book find their efforts rewarded.  I’ll admit I’m writing these in the midst of a “winter funk,” but it’s sadly a low scoring bunch.

One of the most widely read novels of 2014, Gone Girl introduces us to several fascinating characters.  After losing his writing job (bc papers are failing) Nick recently moved back to the small town on the Mississippi River where he grew up. His wife, a New Yorker through and through, is definitely displeased.  One day, Amy disappears.  Nick is eyed. There are lawyers, the press, a scavenger hunt, a diary.  While there is certainly action, the heart of the book is more of a character study, a look at modern marriage, the lies we tell even ourselves, violence and, of course, justice.

I found the psychological questions interesting but I’m a character-gal and, while rounded out and complex, the characters left a lot to be desired.  I don’t need to love all my characters, but some of these pushed me too far.  Further, I need to at least care what happens to the characters and I simply didn’t.  Still, there were intriguing “folds” to the characters that showed Flynn is a student of the human race. 

Three stars.  Not recommended for anyone too squeamish or who needs a book to have a hero and a rainbow.  Fits the mold of a psychological thriller and I don’t think it gives anything away to say it is something of a study in evil.

Middle aged sisters Lady, Vee, and Delp are planning a triple suicide to occur on 12/31/99, a fact we learn pretty early on in the book.  They tell us they come from a family of suicides, pointing the finger to one relative whose sins are being taken out on his descendants.  That relative abandoned Judaism because his love for Germany was stronger. He ultimately invented a process for creating synthetic fertilizer, a project that also led to the chlorine gas used on soldiers in WWI (he watched it do the work of many guns) and in the death camps of WWII, a gas later blamed for much of global warming.

Readers learn about some of the other relatives and about the sisters themselves through a joint suicide note-in-progress.  Vee is battling a recurring cancer and is in constant pain.  Of the women, she’s the only one to make a happy match in love, although that too has its tragedy.  Delph hides from the world beneath a mass of hair, only truly feeling free during a span of time partying with gay men, one of whom is probably her true love (from her side).  Lady is the eldest and is devoted to the boss she’s having an affair with after having had a bad marriage.  While distinct, the sisters are at the same time one entity.  They come home to each other, pad around their rent-controlled apartment with wine in hand, and often seem to have no interest in the world around them, although the truth is more complicated.  Their wit helps lighten a generally dark tome.

This novel had potential, but I don’t think it was realized.  I enjoy dark humor, which abounds. I did feel compelled to read, but not always in a good way…more like a mountain I was determined to climb.  Three out of five stars…..points for originality and scattered pieces of interesting tales among others that were kind of dull.  Advance reader copy supplied by publisher in return for honest review.

Meet Kitty, an independent and quirky woman who co-owns a small bookshop with her best friend in Denver in the early 1960s.  She paints her bedroom a cheery bright yellow, eagerly anticipates a daily note from her mother who is on an extended trip to Hawaii, and acts like she’s given up on love but is a hopeless romantic at heart.  When she falls asleep she enters a dream world, one set apart in Sliding Doors fashion by just one altered moment that makes a world of difference.  Here she’s Katherine, wife and devoted mother navigating a busy social scene that is notably missing some of the most important people in Kitty’s world.  Katherine’s story includes a bit of a twist that provides insight into some major societal changes over the past 50-ish years.

I wanted to like this so much more than I did.  It had some interesting themes and touched on some issues of major significance but still felt a bit too “fluffy.”  I wanted a bit more seriousness than I got and major elements simply didn’t feel realistic (ex. Katherine’s all-too-perfect husband).  While I try not to judge a book solely by its ending, the conclusion to this one was a sharp disappointment that clouds my opinion.  Two (maybe 2.5 since I didn’t struggle to finish it like most two star books) stars (of five).  “Chic lit” with a gloss on some serious issues.  Advance reader copy supplied by publisher in return for honest review.