Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

  Marion and Shiva Stone, identical twins who enter the world attached together by one blood vessel at the head, are orphaned only moments after birth when their mother Sister Mary Joseph Praise and Dr. Stone, whom everyone quickly assumes must be the father, flees the small Ethiopian hospital where both had worked.  Totally surprised and shocked by what has just happened, the rest of the hospital staff rallies to become a surrogate family to the infants.  Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors not only decide to marry and become the boys' parents, but they rededicate themselves to their medical careers in Ethiopia.  Their examples of selfless service are the lifelong models that Marion, and, to some extent, Shiva base their lives on.

Cutting for Stone has been a popular book club choice for several years and has probably been discussed hundreds of times.  At over 600 pages and rich with Ethiopian/Indian language and customs, the book can be intimidating at times.  Those who have no background on Africian/Middle Eastern events 1950-1980s will struggle. The focus of my book blog is inspirational writing (with a clear topic) and simple "good clean reads." This book is so much more complicated than that and  I hesitated to include this title on my blog. But I could NOT read the book and then NOT write about it! Like The Kite Runner and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Cutting for Stone takes the reader to settings we know nothing about and expands our understanding of cultures, while showing that love for family, understanding of self, and hope can take many different forms.  Verghese, himself a doctor, has written a novel dense with medicine - both the struggles that never diminish and the small successes which have far reaching effects.  Add in a complicated brother-brother relationship, a dark destructive romance, and a life long quest for a father, and this book has much to offer.  Many have criticized the book for its length, slow pace, and wordiness, but I feel if the reader perseveres, there is much to think about at the end.  In that respect, the novel is a bit like a Dickens novel -- at times tedious, but in the end, you've met so many interesting people and so much has happened.  One reviewer pointed out that beyond the main plot, the book is full of small miracles,instances where one person puts others ahead of his own needs or wants. Those were the parts I liked best.

Now that I've read Cutting for Stone I want to read Verghese's nonfiction to learn more about this compassionate physician and his life.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Wedding Dress by Rachel Hauck

Charlotte's fledgling bridal shop has begun to soar, especially when Miss Alabama picks Charlotte's shop as THE PLACE to find the perfect dress.  And Charlotte's personal life couldn't be better.  After a short, whirlwind romance she and Tim are getting married.  Or, at least that is the plan, if she and Tim will actually sit down, write up a guest list, and send out the invitations.  How can a bridal expert manage to put off the one simple task week after week?  And why hasn't she even begun the dress selection process?  Instead Charlotte finds herself on Red Mountain at a spot where she and her mother used to picnic, contemplating how she, an independent girl who had no one after her mother's death, will ever fit into Tim's large possessive family.  And what impulse drives her to spend $1000 at an auction for an old, battered trunk with no idea what the contents are?  Is it that decision that pushes Tim to call off the wedding, leaving both intented bride and intented groom emotionally numb? 

While Charlotte believes she should push all thoughts of romance aside and concentrate on business, the trunk with the welded lock seems to pull her in a different direction.  When she finally opens it, (with Tim's help), she finds a vintage bridal gown and a mystery to its past owner(s).

Much of the novel alternates between the contemporary Charlotte and young Emily, a feisty 1912 debutante. Unlike many her age, Emily has attended college and while there struck a friendship with Daniel, who hopes to make a better life for himself through sports and hard work.  Daniel joins a professional baseball team, but writes to Emily each day, expressing his growing love and his desire for a life together in the near future.  Emily never receives those letters, and feeling abandoned by Daniel, agrees to marry wealthy Phillip, her father's favorite.  Daniel's return, Phillip's apparent infidelity, and Emily's desire to have her wedding dress designed by a black designer all threatened the elaborate social wedding of the year planned by the society parents. 

In all, four women will have the opportunity to wear the timelessly elegant dress first created for Emily. Each woman's love story and wedding is unique, perfect in its own way, just as the dress miraculously fits each bride without any alterations or changes.  Readers will not be disappointed in this tale of interwoven lives, nor in the changes both Charlotte and Tim make as the mystery of the trunk is unraveled.  Discussion quetions that follow the book give readers a chance to think about the story on a deeper level.  Words delivered by a minister at a wedding (won't reveal whose wedding) concisely tell the overall theme of the book. I received an advanced readers copy of this book for review purposes.  Opinions expressed are mine.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sonoma Rose by Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini is known for her Elm Creek Quilt novels.  For readers looking for that quilting connection, this entry may be a disappointment.  A couple old family quilts are mentioned on early pages, but the connection between them and the story is never strong and soon disappears completely.  Those reading this story as a stand alone novel may be more satisfied than dedicated Chiaverini followers.  Rosa Diaz Barclay has born eight children, only to have four of them waste away and die of a mysterious illness.  Each death has pushed her husband John and Rosa further and further apart.  His frequent violence and his refusal to take Ana and Miguel to a doctor  are more than Rosa can bear.
When a neighbor woman offers to help Rosa escape after one more beating, the young mother gathers her children and hides in a canyon.
Hours later, spring rains begin to flood the canyon.  Lars Jorgenson arrives just before the river overflows and helps the battered group escape.  Lars, who had been Rosa's first love, has been told by the neighbor of Rosa's plan and rushes to the rescue.  Readers are quickly given the details of the young lovers' broken relationship, Rosa's need to marry John quickly, and the burden of two healthy children that speak loudly to John of his wife's betrayal.  Meanwhile John is arrested and jailed for bootlegging activities.  When the newspaper spreads speculation that Rosa and children perished in the canyon floods, she, Lars,and the children flee to the city and medical care.  A doctor believes that maybe Ana and Miguel suffer from a newly named disease (celiac) and suggest the family try an experimental diet.  Arrangements are made for the family to live and work on a Sonoma grape farm during the treatment

Rosa and Lars, having taken new names, find life in the former wine country a mixture of contradictions.  Some families strictly adhere to the federal quota of wine for personal use, some make no wine and have begun selling their grapes as table grapes, while others sell wine illegally so they can hold onto the land they've owned for years. A story, such as this, must have at least one villian.  Clearly John is Rosa's villian, but there are solid reasons for his bitterness and hatred.  But after he's jailed, Rosa and the whole Sonoma community face a greater villian - the dishonest and threatening IRS agent assigned to their area.

Although I enjoyed this story,  I was not as engrossed in the story as I have been Chiaverini's quilting stories. I was pleased for Rosa and Lars at the end, but did not embrace them as heros.  They were definitely flawed people who created some of their own misery. 

Wisconsin had its own gangster history during Prohibition   The movie PUBLIC ENEMY was largely filmed in Wisconsin towns a few summers ago.  I wonder if our Wisconsin look back at the Prohibition days had any effect on this Wisconsin author's decision to write her own Prohibition tale?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Woman's Place by Lynn Austin

Woman's Place, A, Lynn Austin, 978-0-7642-2890-2  Lynn Austin has won seven Christy Awards for her thoughtful and entertaining Christian fiction, and A Woman's Place will not disappoint those already familiar with her work
nor first time readers.  Set in Stockton, a fictional Lake Michigan shipbuilding town in World War II, four women undertake the challenging work of electricians wiring navy ships.  Actually, I recently read and blogged about another WWII homefront novel in which women entered the Rosie Riveter world to have their lives and expectations change forever. 
But there are few similarities between that darkly complex drama and this uplifting read.  Austin, as in all her books, uses the characters and the plot to  "offer a helping hand with our common struggles and longings." (  At the same time, she presents the historical time with an expert eye to detail.  While many dismiss Christian fiction as "too sugar-coated," authors like Austen show that the genre can present real problems and then give a roadmap to solution.

Helen has fought the limitations placed on her by her family's wealth and social status.  Having quite her teaching career to nurse her ailing parents, she finds herself desperately alone after their death. Past heartbreak and a belief that life has passed the fifty-something by, Helen seeks work at the shipyard, but fights any inclination to become part of her work group.  Idealistic Jean has left behind her farm life to join the war effort.  She has six brothers on active duty throughout the world, but she worries most about her twin brother.  As long as he's gone, she will put aside their joint dream of starting college and will work to see that America wins the war.  Virginia believes she has the American dream, two wonderful children and a loving husband.  But the dream is tarnished by her nagging doubts about her husband's faithfulness and her declining self-esteem.  Without telling her husband, she applies at the shipyard and surprises herself by successfully becoming a competent electrician.  Rosa is totally out of place in Michigan.  Born and raised in New York City, she has always fended for herself.  In most recent years that meant staying out of the way of her mother's lewd boyfriends.  Her dark beauty and spark attracted the attention of a young sailor resulting in a whirlwind romance and marriage.  Wanting Rosa to be taken care of when he ships out, he sends her to live with his parents in Stockton.  The couple honor their son's wishes but expect their daughter-in-law to meld into their church-centered life without any bumps.  Rosa, however, creates bumps and waves at every opportunity.  A job at the shipyard she hopes will bring her a few hours each day when she will not be under her father-in-law's disapproving gaze.

A Woman's Place is a novel of friendship, but it also examines prejudice, misconceptions, new chances and forgiveness.  It looks at the changing social landscape of 1940s America and the most important relationship between man and woman.  Every reader makes specific connections to a story as they read.  It is part of what makes reading fiction a popular pastime.  It was the little details of history that made connections for me this time.  First the setting itself of a shipbuilding town resonates since Wisconsin had several during WWII.  I've visited the Maritime museum in Manitowoc several times and have learned about Manitowoc's war effort.  Second, Jean's boyfriend has a farm deferment and she is not sure how she feels about him being safe while her twin brother is at risk.  My father was a young farmer at the same time and he too received a deferment.  It was very common in our farming community, but I now wonder if there was any resentment about such.
Last, I am so glad that Austen gave an accurate portrayal of the home effort, including victory gardens and rationing.  My parents were married in 1943, and years later she told me that they pooled sugar rations for the cake and even gas coupons so they could travel a short distance for a honeymoon.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

Beatrice, a late twenty-something Brit is living in America, when she and her fiance receive word that her sister Tess is missing. Within hours Beatrice is in London trying to convince police that her sister would not just disappear without contact. Then when her sister's body is found a short while later, Beatrice becomes the only one who believes that she must have been murdered, knowing that no matter how depressed or distraught her artsy, unconventional sister was, Tess would never take her own life.

Lupton has chosen rather unconventional narration style for the book. Beatrice is retelling the "solving of the mystery" to a law enforcement official. He appears to be part of the prosecution team and he is a very patient, understanding listener as Beatrice retraces everything that happened as she seeks to find out who murdered Tess. Was it her married lover, a professor at the collete? Had Tess uncovered some sinister plot involving the gene therapy research she and her unborn child were part of? As the elder sister painstakingly retells all the facts, she has more emotional side conversations with the dead Tess, giving the whole book a dark, thrilling edge. As a reader, I waivered between feeling all was well, after all
the killer had been caught, hadn't he, and another more uneasy feeling underlined by Beatrice's frequent references to her own ill health and weakened condition. Yet, until the end, there is no explanation for such asides and I just knew some key piece, beside the killer's identity, was still missing.

The twist at the end is worth that read for those who like crime novels, and as many reviewers are saying, it is also a good crime read for those who don't like crime novels. I will add a disclaimer that the book does contain rough language and I usually shy away from blogging about books with such language. In this case, the language fits the character's personality or emotional state. This book uniquely combines a story of family relationships with a crime story, providing something for multiple audiences.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Violin of Auschwitz by Maria Angels Anglada

 This novel, with its sparse 100+ pages, was written in the 1990's by Maria Angels Anglada, a Catalan author, but was not translated into English until recently. I do not know much about Spanish history or people, but it appears that Catalonia is a region within Spain and its people are recognized as a distinct nationality.  Some Catalans(sp) live in Southern France.  I did not find much specific information about Anglada except that she was a recognized author and scholar, with Violin being her most successful writing.

The book begins in 1991 as a successful concert musician hears an older woman play near perfect sounding violin at a performance.  Her playing and demeanor stay with him hours after the concert and he decides he must learn more about the violin and the player.  String musicians can tell you that age, wood types, shape, placement of the sound board, even glue and varnish will create each violin's distinctive sound.  When he finally meets the older woman, she tells that the violin had belonged to her Uncle Daniel.  In fact, he was the luthier who built the instrument.  That begins the unraveling of how a prisoner in Auschwitz's death camp is thrust into a cruel contest with his own life being bartered.  The commandant, who sees himself as a music connoisseur, will win a case of wine if the young man can construct a quality violin with materials provided within an unspecified time period.  If not, Daniel will become yet another victim of the camp doctor's hideous experiments.  You will admire Daniel's determination to finish the violin and preserve his own life, at the same time he begins to have the courage to face the atrocities that surround him.

Despite being fiction, this slim volume is another testament to the human spirit at the same time it illuminates our unfathomable cruel capabilities.  Each chapter begins with an actual document from a German concentration camp, lending validity to the actions Anglada has chosen to describe.

This book would pair well with a high school unit on the Holocaust or would be a great inclusion for a book club that offers readers a selected list on a same topic.  It would be a good companion read for
Sarah's Key or The Reader.

One of the reasons I was attracted to this book is that my husband is a 'fledgling violin player" (his words, not mine).  After reading the descriptions of this violin being made, I wish I could hear the sound that the author meant it to have.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Seek Me with all Your Heart by Beth Wiseman

The field of authors writing Amish fiction keeps increasing and I always approach each title I read with an eye and ear for accurate depictions of their lifestyle and faith.  But with so many groups within the Amish, just what is allowed or embraced varies greatly.  Amish have been part of our Wisconsin rural community for over 30 years now, and they remain very strict and quite separate, except for casual friendships among neighbors.  And of course, their business endeavors put them in daily contact with English!  When I saw that Beth Wiseman had set her new Land of Canaan series in Colorado, I decided to read the first book.  The son of the first Amish family in our neighborhood actually moved to Colorado last year, so I was curious what life would be like for his young family.
I wonder if he knew what his new place would be like, or if like the Detweilers from Ohio and the Stoltzfus’s he was in for a complete surprise.  Emily Detweiler has moved with her siblings and parents, but can’t make the initial steps needed to make friends and fit in.  In fact, she is sure she will never fit in again.  She believes she has left Ohio in shame and despite her faith, she cannot shake her fears of anyone or anything new.  When David Stoltzfus  enters the family store with a grocery list and a irritated manner, Emily crumbles in a fit of tears and escapes to the house.  Ashamed of his gruff behavior, David tries to make amends and befriend the pretty girl with a mysterious scar.  Of course, readers will recognize the budding romance right at the first meeting, but there are enough complications to make the story interesting and unique.  The hardships both families face as they try to establish typical Amish lives flushes out  the action, along with an interesting friendship with a lonely English widow. I felt the rocky relationships between Emily and her mother, David’s illness, and his uncle’s faltering marriage took the story beyond the tired, already written.  The book does not end with everything tidily resolved, so I can imagine some of the action in  Book Two of this series, which is already out. Book Three is due out in October.2012
     I saw a PBS special not too long ago about the Amish and one segment focused on a group who had moved to Colorado.  Leaving behind places like Ohio and Pennsylvania which are long established, densely populated Amish communities for the harsher mountain land of Colorado is a big challenge.  If you get a chance to see that documentary on rerun, I recommend it.  Also Beth Wiseman and three other authors maintain a blog Amish Hearts that some of you might find interesting.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring ahead

My tulips have broken through and my crocus are in bloom!  Daylight savings time starts this weekend.
Can spring be far away?  The crocus had much wider blooms two days ago, but the strong winds have forced them to close slightly for now.

A friend and I are off to Green Bay tomorrow to hear Jodi Picoult speak about her new book.
I will be packing some reading.  When spring does come to stay, I will have much outside work and if I want to blog, I need to get reading now!

Till then! 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Night with a Perfect Stranger by David Gregory

Night with a Perfect Stranger
Six years ago Nick’s life was changed when he had an unexpected invitation to dine with Jesus.  Sure it was a practical joke, he went and encountered not a prankster, but the Risen Lord.  Later his wife had a similar encounter.  Those  two powerful  and bestselling parables( Dinner with a Perfect Stranger and A Day with a Perfect Stranger) by David Gregory gave readers intimate jolts as we pondered how we’d react to such personal visits from Jesus.  Would we accept the stranger as Jesus or would we deny his presence?  Would we change our lives immediately, or in the daylight of the next day, would we deny having met Jesus?  Despite the slim size of each of those books, Gregory left readers with plenty to ponder.
Night with a Perfect Stranger  reconnects us with Nick six years later.  He and his wife  Mattie have settled into life as Christians.  Settled doesn’t sound appropriate does it?  Well, for Nick that is the problem.  He feels he has settled into a pattern of belonging to church and saying he is a Christian, but he is disappointed in himself and his growth.  He is sure that Mattie is further ahead in her journey and he just can’t seem to get back that ecstasy that he felt after meeting Jesus.  Then Nick visits his parents in Chicago and  old arguments surface causing Nick to take off in the middle of the night in the rented U-Haul truck.  When he runs out of gas, he is rescued by a perfect stranger.  What follows is another lengthy conversation with Jesus, another lesson in who we become when we accept Jesus and what it means to be loved by God.
For me, many of the doubts and lows that Nick describes match feelings I’ve had at certain times.  Gregory’s books aren’t about church; they are about a personal relationship with God and how that changes the spiritual person.  Again, the format is more parable than story.  I suggest more than one reading, and like many series, I would suggest reading all three books within a close time period.
Night with a Perfect Stranger

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I Gave My Heart to Know This by Ellen Baker

  The six-page prologue to I Gave My Heart to Know This takes the reader to a 1925 Superior, Wisconsin farm as Violet sets out to get help, knowing if she does not, she will give birth alone.  Her husband Jago will not make it home in time.  Then the scene abruptly changes to 1999 as Julia arrives to house sit while her Aunt Alice and Uncle George leave to try the RV lifestyle.  How could lives seventy-five years apart be connected?  Readers will find out in small doses, while you become immersed in the story of Violet and her family.

Most of the story centers around the WWII years, as Violet and her teenage daughter, Lena, join the legion of American women who replace men in the workforce.  They daily make the trip from the farm to the Superior shipyards.  Lena quickly befriends Grace, a town girl, who thought she had escaped the confining life of Northern Wisconsin, but who returned after her father had a stroke.  Now Grace is determined to do her best as a welder, always asking herself, what if a sailer died because I didn't do my best. When Lena begs her to write to Lena's twin brother, Derrick, now in the airforce, Grace relents and writes, even though Derrick is younger than she.  Plus Grace considers herself commited to her high school sweetheart, Alex, also in the service.  Derrick who is stationed on the west coast feeds Grace's dreams of going to Hollywood and soon the correspondence grows into a long distance relationship.   Meanwhile, Grace earns herself the nickname "Hot Shot" and the respect of the male welders.  And despite her allegiance to Derrick and Alex, she begins to feel an attraction to Joe, a railroad worker.

I became so wrapped up in Grace's story and the furthering story of Violet's family that I almost forgot the contemporary Julia who was house sitting.  When the story returned to her, I wasn't too interested, until a
frail elderly woman (really, really elderly) shows up at the farm asking if Julia knows where Grace or Lena are.  By this time, Julia has found a signed picture of Grace in the attic, but she knows nothing more about the woman. 

I can't tell you any more about Violet and Julia or the other women without tellling too much.  I will tell you that you will rush to finish the book to find out what happened to everyone.  Loyality to the farm and to family become obsessions for some, while the desire to escape the confines of "a small world" pushes another to abandon those who should be held dear.  As the story reveals its final secrets, I felt there were some coincidences that were too far fetched, but by then I needed to know all the answers to this twisted family story, so I accepted Baker's method.  Jago, that soon-to-be father, who appears at the beginning of the book, is so integral to everything in the book, especially essential to the relationship between Lena and Violet, yet almost everything about him remains secret until near the end of the book.  When his story is finally told, we are taken to another place in Wisconsin history, 1914 iron mines, a horrific fire, and another secret -- one that may explain all.

I am always on the lookout for strong regional authors, and I can now add Ellen Baker to my list and will have to find time to read her first book, Keeping the House.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones  Denise Hildreth Jones sets her emotionally powerful contemporary novel, First Gardener in the Tennessee Governor's mansion.  Fictional first couple, Gray and Mackenzie London, appear to have it all - a solid, passionate marriage, a successful political life, and possibly a growing family.  But all that changes one autumn afternoon, and both spouses are plunged into personal grief so deep that they cannot help each other. 

The novel is named First Gardener which has a double meaning.  God, as our Creator, is obviously First Gardener, and his presence throughout the book is most evident through the actions of Jeremiah, the Governor's Mansion gardener.  Having been at the mansion for over twenty-five years, he has seen the comings and goings of several first families and has liked them all, but never has a family grabbed hold of his heart like the Londons.  So when Mackenzie is so enveloped in grief that she cannot even dress or eat, Jeremiah sends one special flower a day as his message of love and support.  Jeremiah will tell everyone what blossom he sends is always determined by the "tug" that God places on his heart.  The special language of flowers will be part of the complicated healing that is the The First Gardener.  Jeremiah is the one character who has a solid, consistant relationship with God throughout the book.  He is the one who knows that God has not abandoned the London family, despite the depths of their pain.  Just who this humble man is, will remain a partial secret until the end. 

Despite knowing this was fiction from the time I read the first book review, I did NOT want Gray and Mackenzie to experience what they did. Knowing a little bit about the plot of the book before I read it, I even considered returning the book to the library without reading it. Why read about someone else's deep grief and pain, even if you know it was created in the author's imagination. But I started the book and my feelings for the couple were even stronger after reading the first chapter.  By the time I got to that horrible autumn car ride, I just wanted to scream, "Don't write this!  Make it a different story!". 

 I even wondered why Hildreth Jones would choose such a painful subject, and she must have anticipated that others would have the same question because she addresses this in the book's afterward.  Despite being a story of loss ( and more loss), Hildreth Jones was able to infuse some humor, mainly through the antics of the Southern girl friend bunch who tag along wtih Mackenzie's mother, Eugenia.  The author also does a solid job of creating a believable political/economic setting for this fictional time in Tennessee, and even weaves in some historical and recent Tennessee events.  I recommend this book, but I will warn any mother or grandmother who reads it, you will feel pain along side of Mackenzie and Eugenia, and you will want to put the book down just to take a hug break -- just because you can (and should!)