Cutting For Stone : a Novel by Abraham Verghese

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I started this book…last summer?…because the work book club was reading it. I really enjoyed it at first, but for some reason I bogged down in the middle because a) it was due back at the library and b) I was really frustrated with Marion, the protagonist, and some members of his family that annoyed me. Then I had to wait forever for it to come around on the holds list again, and stop being mad at Marion (because as my father always says, you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family, so poor Marion is stuck), and finally finish it off.

Basically, this is a love story about a man who is madly in love with both his profession and his country, while also thinking he is in love with a woman, but he’s really in love with his idea of a relationship with that woman, so that doesn’t work out. If you can get past being embarrassed for Marion over his one-sided, nearly imaginary relationship with a girl he grows up with, it’s actually a great coming-of-age story. We begin in Ethiopia at a hospital called Missing (Mission Hospital, actually, but no one calls it that). Marion is the son of an English surgeon and an Indian nun who work there. He and his twin were born unexpectedly – the nun never told anyone that she was pregnant, and their father was a blackout drinker and had no idea they’d ever consummated their relationship. There are complications, she dies, their father leaves Ethiopia in shock and grief, and the boys are taken in by another doctor at the hospital. Once the boys have a family, the story takes flight.

When the boys are about to finish high school – Marion plans to go to medical school and Shiva just wants to be done – there is a pivotal event that changes the life of Genet, the girl Marion loves. Shiva does something that hurts Marion deeply, and sets a whole sequence of events into motion that I can’t describe without ruining the story. Suffice it to say, Marion leaves Shiva by stages – first moving out of their shared bedroom, then out of the country to finish medical training in the United States. How they reconnect, what happens to Genet, what happens to their adopted parents and what happened to their missing father – it’s all out in the open by the end. I still am not quite sure I forgive Marion for being quite so stupid about Genet, but it was definitely worth reading the book despite his romantic ineptitude.

After I finished the book, I looked on Amazon and saw that it is reviewed there by John Irving. I found this funny, because throughout the book I kept comparing it in style to a John Irving novel. (Something about the grand scope of following someone from early childhood on, and feeling like you’ve become part of their life by the end. Plus all of the medical parts.) If you’ve read A Prayer for Owen Meany, or The Cider House Rules, Marion is very like both John Wheelwright and Homer Wells (and if I think about it too much, Shiva is rather like Owen Meany in the sense that he holds so much sway over Marion even when he isn’t present, and because he is odd and no one but Marion truly “gets” him). So if you like Irving, or Charles Dickens, or Thomas Hardy or any of those long rambling life story writers, you’ll probably like it.

Oh – and don’t be fooled by the history of the Ethiopian revolution while reading this. The events of the story follow the spirit but not the letter of the actual historic events. So you’ll get an idea of what life was like in Ethiopia at the time, but don’t take the story’s events as fact.

 

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (and also The Secret History because I read them together)

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My book club generally picks a few books ahead so that we can all get the book early. Two of our members, unbeknownst to each other, chose back-to-back Donna Tartt books for November and December. I had never read any of her books, and had heard completely opposing opinions of her work from coworkers whose taste I normally trust. How could she be the best author coworker H ever read while simultaneously being “not finishable” to coworker E? Well, after reading The Secret History for November’s meeting and The Goldfinch for December’s, I have a theory: H must have read Goldfinch while E read The Secret History.

The Secret History is basically Evan Hunter’s Come Winter updated for a new generation (sister Julia, are you reading this? You might like it). It’s full of completely unlikeable, unredeemable characters doing awful, thoughtless, painful things to other people and then taking no responsibility and feeling no remorse for those actions. It’s not just the protagonist – his friends, his parents, and his teacher are all pretty much a waste of DNA. I kept waiting for someone to actually learn something from their colossal mistakes, but (spoiler alert) no one ever did and they kept piling bad decisions on top of one another. Skip this one, seriously, unless you like books about self-involved assholes that make you sorry you’re a fellow human. (It’s like the literary equivalent of watching Pulp Fiction, just replace the gratuitous bible quotes with Greek literature.)

The Goldfinch, on the other hand, I loved. The protagonist is just as flawed a person as the characters from Secret History, but I sympathized with him because unlike the overprivileged, snobbish characters in Secret History, Theo has horrible life experiences to overcome, so I cut him a lot of slack. (Also, his crimes don’t seem so heinous. I could see myself committing a few of them if I was a motherless shell-shocked teen. Richard and his friends’ crimes in Secret History? No excuses, they shouldn’t have done any of them. Ever.) Warning: The beginning of the novel takes forever. It says right on the book jacket that his mother dies. He tells you himself on the first page that she dies. And then it takes like 40 billion chapters for her to actually die so we can get on with the remaining events of the story. Once his mother is safely disposed of, the story picks up. We watch 13-year-old Theo as he stumbles through life with no idea what to do next, or how to do it. A childhood friend’s family takes him in temporarily, and he tries his best to fit in with them, but it doesn’t last. Neither does his stint living with his deadbeat dad in Las Vegas. It is only when Theo takes his life into his own hands, seeking out a family of his own choosing, that things start looking up for him. The problem? Theo has been essentially allowed to raise himself, and no matter how old he gets, he still keeps making decisions a 13 year old boy would make, and they keep working out about as well as you’d expect.

It all comes to a head once Theo is in his 20s, when every bad decision he’s ever made gathers to smack him in the face at once. Watching the chips fall is highly entertaining – can it get worse? Yes! It can! But wait, it’s getting EVEN WORSE!  I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story. I’ll just throw out a few reasons you might want to read it: Art theft, antiques fraud, the Russian Mafia, rampant drug use, infidelity, mental illness, denial, unrequited love…it’s all in there. And the glorious descriptions of Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch – the painting at the story’s center – made me want to steal it myself.

So – if you like long, rambling stories that teeter just on the brink of disaster, and you often find yourself sticking with a novel just to see what horrible thing will happen next, you might like The Goldfinch. To be fair, you might also like The Secret History – it has the same “oh shit they’re going to …” vibe, but the things that happen are far more horrible and the people far less redeemable than Theo and his collected “family”.

As a side note, I wonder seriously about Donna Tartt’s drug use. They say that writers should write what they know, but if Tartt uses even a tenth of the drugs and alcohol her characters do, how the hell does she have enough brains left to string together coherent sentences? I know I am a fairly conservative person when it comes to substance abuse (well, except for grad school, but really, what else was there to do in Kansas City for 3 years?), but holy cow, how many drugs can a person wash down with how much alcohol before they just fall down and DIE?

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

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The third time’s a charm for Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott (I rambled about the first and second earlier). This book gets more personal than the previous installments, showing the reader glimpses of Robin’s past life that give us reasons for her confidence issues. We see more of Strike’s past, too – his mother has apparently provided him not only with enough enemies (and strange allies – we meet a friend of Strike’s from childhood who I hope against hope becomes a recurring character) to keep him busy but also enough material to keep his therapist (if he had one, and he should) occupied for years.

The setup: Robin gets a package, delivered by motorcycle courier. She’s in the thick of her wedding plans, so she assumes it’s the disposable cameras she ordered for the reception – until she opens it to find a woman’s severed leg. Strike reveals that he knows 4 different people that could have sent it – and the novel takes off, with the police chasing after the person Strike thinks least likely, and he and Robin tailing the other three. There is the usual stress between Strike and the police (there are those on the force still sensitive about his previous successes, which have made them look bad), Robin and her fiancé (will they resolve their differences in time for the wedding?), Robin and Strike (what exactly did Strike mean when he called her a “partner”? Will she finally be recognized as a real detective?), and once again the agency teeters on the brink of financial ruin…and of course, the suspense thickens as it becomes clear that the killer has set his sights on Robin.

The thing about this book that I really liked (though I read a review that thought this was awful) was the fact that it was told partly from the killer’s point of view. The killer himself gives us tons of tantalizing clues in his segments, but the three suspects are so similar in personality, motive, and methods that I never managed to figure out which of them it was. This is why I love this series – I haven’t picked the killer YET, and failure has never made me so happy.

Speaking of reading reviews, I found this in a review by Christobel Kent  in The Guardian:

If your taste in detective fiction runs to the minimalist, then this is not for you. If Georges Simenon is a simple, perfect kitchen stool and Agatha Christie a sensible wingbacked chair, then Robert Galbraith is a vast, overstuffed sofa, complete with dog hair and something unmentionable behind the cushions.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Also the couch is upholstered in a vigorous, colorful paisley print. With texture. Enjoy.

The Moment of Everything : a Novel by Shelly King

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The cat on the cover of this book does not even come close to the description of the cat inside the book. But that’s a minor detail. This was another one of those books that I have no idea why I put it on hold, but I did, and I enjoyed it well enough once it came, so why waste time wondering? Think Storied Life of A.J Fikry meets Bridget Jones’ Diary meets the Gen Y/Millennial equivalent of Generation X, and you’ll have a pretty good feel for this book.

Maggie, our protagonist, moved to San Francisco from South Carolina during the dot-com boom and started a company with her best friend since childhood, Dizzy, a software engineer. But the company becomes successful and is purchased by a larger company, and Maggie’s job is outsourced. Dizzy (still employed) tries everything to get Maggie “out there”, scheming to get her involved with a book group of high-powered women for the networking and nagging her to follow up on various opportunities. But Maggie is far more interested in spending her days in the decrepit used bookstore (Dragonfly Books) owned by her landlord, Hugo, where she spends all day every day reading romance novels. She knows she needs a job – her money is running out and she is growing increasingly desperate as her mother begs her to move home and get married like a good girl – but she just can’t seem to find the motivation.

Hugo gives Maggie a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to read for the book (networking) club, and inside Maggie finds love notes written in the margins by Henry and Katherine, presumably two customers of Dragonfly Books. The notes show a growing intimacy between the two and end with a proposed meeting, and Maggie is entranced – who were/are Henry and Catherine? Did they ever meet? Why did they stop writing messages in the book? In an attempt to impress one of the book club members who might be able to help her find her a job, Maggie offers to help Hugo make the Dragonfly more successful by promoting it on social media. She posts some of the notes between Henry and Catherine, and business booms so enthusiastically that Maggie eventually receives an incredibly lucrative job offer…working for another bookstore across the street that is part of a commercial chain. But in the process of working at the Dragonfly, Maggie has fallen in love with the used bookstore’s quirky charm and become fiercely loyal to its clientele. Soul searching ensues….

Oh, and there’s a cute boyfriend who she can’t fully enjoy because of past issues with her parents’ marriage, repeating conflict with a cranky employee of the Dragonfly who resents her interference, and some self-confidence problems from always playing second fiddle to Dizzy’s genius to spice things up. Oh, and a psychopathic store cat. You’ll be a little annoyed with Maggie for her habit of (repeatedly!) shooting herself in the foot (in both life and love), but you’ll root for her anyway.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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I got the new Margaret Atwood in prepub last August, and was delaying telling people about it because wasn’t out yet. But now it’s been out forever and I just forgot. Believe it or not, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped. I admit that I have ridiculously high hopes for Margaret Atwood after a lifetime of reading her books with worshipful fascination. But this one…I had previously read parts of it on Amazon (it was originally published as a series of Kindle shorts), and thought a longer, fleshed-out version it would be better than it  turned out to be. But don’t let this discourage you. Even a less than stellar Atwood is still Atwood, and the woman’s worth reading even at her worst (and I should know, I’ve read Life Before Man).

Charmaine and Stan are a married couple in a very near future North America (I’m not certain whether they are in Canada or the U.S.). The economy has gone so sour that they are living in their car, in constant danger of being murdered for their few possessions. Then Charmaine, who works in a bar where there are televisions, sees a commercial for a new planned community that is accepting applicants. She begs Stan to apply, and while he has serious concerns, he is desperate and they sign up. Their new home is based around a prison (Positron) and the community that supports the prison (Consilience). Residents are to spend one month living in a nice house in Consilience, working at jobs that support the prison, then report the following month to be the prisoners in Positron while their counterparts take their places (home and job) in Consilience. Then, they switch back the following month, and so on. 6 months a worker, 6 months a prisoner – all even and fair. It seems agreeable enough at first. Their house is clean and modern, their jobs are easy, and even being a prisoner isn’t bad for a month at a time. They are a little bored by the routine, and by the fact that they have no contact with anyone outside. Stan is particularly bothered by the fact that the TV shows and the music are cheesy, but he thinks Charmaine is happy, so he’s not complaining. But then Charmaine finds a note under the refrigerator – a sexy love note that causes her to become obsessively attracted to the man who lives in their house when they aren’t there. She leaves him a note back, an affair ensues…and then things get start getting progressively darker and darker.

All in all, I was certainly interested enough in the story, and it’s grimly funny enough to keep anyone going until the end (well, anyone who likes very dark comedy). I’m just sorry that it wasn’t more profound. Most Margaret Atwood novels keep me thinking for years afterward about Big Life Issues, but this one was more like a fun romp that I can look back on fondly but the details are already fuzzy.

Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera

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I listened to the first book of this series (Furies of Calderon) in my car. It was soooo loooooong I had to check it out twice to finish it, and I really didn’t get into it – until the last third of the book, where suddenly I began really caring what happened next. I think the problem was that it took me that long to figure out the world – the characters’ social positions, the political structure, the magic they use and how it works…it was complex and until I got it all straight, I was too confused to like it very much. But then I got to like the characters, and stuck it through to the end to see if they all made it through. I went through the second book in much the same way, but then the third grabbed me by the collar and forced me to read it in about 3 days. I had to get the actual print book because I couldn’t think of enough places to drive to listen to it. I read book 4 on my day off and started 5 yesterday (thank goodness for instant gratification ebooks) and between listening to it on my commute and reading it at home, I think I’ll need 6 (the last, alas!) by tomorrow. I would try to scale back and listen to them slowly to make them last, but it’s far, far too late for that. I must see this series through RIGHT NOW.

The basic premise: The land of Alera is loosely based on ancient Rome – the political system, naming conventions, and military strategies are all vaguely familiar (there are centurions, legionaires, etc.). But somewhere along the line, the Alerans allied themselves with “furies” – spirits of earth, air, water, and wood – to harness their natural powers. Generations later, the Alerans have sorted themselves into a pecking order with Lords (those who can command powerful furies of many types) to Citizens (who can control one or two types) to Freemen (who usually only command 1 fury) to slaves, who have little furycraft and are screwed. The story begins with Tavi, a 15-year-old orphaned boy who is a “freak” – he has no furycrafting abilities whatsoever. Despite his disability, he is extremely intelligent, and his dream is to go to the Academy and learn everything he can. He lives with his uncle and aunt on a small steadholt in the Calderon Valley, which is famous in Alera for being the site of the Marat invasion that killed the Princeps Gaius Septimus, leaving the current First Lord, Gaius Sextus, without an heir. We are also introduced to Amara, a cursor (spy) for the First Lord, who has been betrayed by a fellow cursor who is in cahoots with one of the High Lords to overthrow Gaius Sextus. She flees to the Calderon Valley, where…

Well, you can see where this is going. Aging leader with no heir, scheming lords who all want to be next in line for the throne, long animosity between the Alerans and the Marat… it’s a political field day and the battles are thick and fast and twisty. New enemies (the Cane, the Vord) and unexpected allies keep turning up in each book. The story shifts between the major characters’ perspectives – we see the story through Tavi sometimes, then throuigh Amara, then through Tavi’s aunt Isana, then later as other characters gain importance, the story shifts to them in turn.

Basically, this book is everything I hate in a fantasy –  lots of politics and a weird world that takes forever to understand, and it’s a patriarchal society to boot – but I have would up loving it. Maybe you will, too if you like epic battle stories like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, or if you share my love of brilliant protagonists who might just be insane but everyone follows them anyway. (Miles Vorkosigan, Scarlett O’Hara or Harry Dresden, anyone?) If nothing else, it’s well worth reading just to enjoy the character Kitai’s take on everything.

[I saved this post as a draft a while ago, and by now I’ve finished the series. I would be all sad but the first installment of Butcher’s latest series (The Cinder Spires series, starting with The Aeronaut’s Windlass) was released last week and I’m already on hold for it. Any day now!]

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

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Jon Ronson became interested in the concept of public shaming after he was impersonated on Twitter by a spambot that tweeted inane, random comments under his name. He approached the creators of the bot and asked them to stop, but they would not – so he asked if he could interview them. He posted the resulting interview on YouTube, and the outcry from viewers convinced the bot-creators to deactivate the fake Jon Ronson account. At first, Ronson was vindicated and even elated that people were on his side, but as the comments grew more vicious in nature, he grew frightened – what had he started?

And so began his quest to understand the nature of public shaming. He explores the stories of several people who have been shamed either online or in the press (or both). He studies the history of public shaming (whippings, being put in the stocks, etc.). He visits a judge from Texas famed for unusual shame-based punishments. Along the way, he gets interested in the difference between people who are destroyed by their shaming, and people who emerge unscathed – what is the secret to shrugging off shame, and can these people teach us how?

As a recovering Catholic, the concepts of guilt and shame are always intriguing to me, but what made Ronson’s book so compelling was the human element. He presented his shaming victims so sympathetically – and yet he didn’t demonize their shamers, either. His examples show that often the shamers as well as the shamed suffer in these cases, and there is sometimes no clear victim when all is said (or posted) and done.

If you are interested in social media as a cultural phenomenon, this book is worth reading. I’d put Ronson right up there with Mary Roach and Henry Alford for making exhaustive research interesting and entertaining. One lesson you will come away with if you read it: THINK BEFORE YOU POST.