Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer's here... almost

So, it's Memorial Day weekend and it's hot -- well, I am in Texas right now so of course it's hot. Anyway, what am I reading? Over the last few weeks I've read another in the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I've started A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper.

I'll start with Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. This is a big book but very worth the read. It's set in Addis Ababa for the most part and then toward the end the setting is New York City, with a little bit of Boston thrown in. This is in short a story about twins born (joined at the head) to a nun and a surgeon, conceived while both parents were serving at a hospital in Ethiopia in the late 1940s to 1950s. The mother dies during childbirth; the father (eccentric, alcoholic brilliant surgeon) walks away from the twins and they are raised by two other doctors at the same hospital. The usual family drama, sibling rivalry and betrayal ensues. What kept me reading is Verghese's ability to follow the "write what you know" doctrine. He's a surgeon when he's not writing so there is a lot of, well, surgery and medicine in the book. I loved that. It won't be everybody's cup of tea because it gets graphic, bloody and gory in a lot of places. But Verghese's passion for his true love, surgery, is palpable almost. Those were the strongest parts of the book when the protagnist/narrator was focusing on his work. Work and love seems to be the overarching theme here. You have these two boys, Marion and Shiva, growing up in a house with two doctors who are madly in love, bound by their commitment to this creaky hospital in a country on the brink of political upheaval. Marion and Shiva cocooned by their hospital family seem destined for a life of medicine. Marion goes a more traditional, ambitious route and Shiva stumbles into excellence by just doing his own thing. The Shiva character is unforgettable. Marion is the narrator and we get inside his head a lot. We can't see much of Shiva because of his disability but I found myself drawn to the character because it seems that there was so much in him that he could never express in the typical human way -- instead he dedicates his life to fistual surgery, one of the most undesirable lines of work a surgeon could ever choose. In the background there's Ethiopia and the rise and sort of fall of Haile Selassie, Mengistu, the Eritrean uprising, Marion's escape to America where he finally meets his wayward father in Boston. Again, this is a huge, grand novel and I highly recommend it. I learned so much about Ethiopia and its culture -- and about surgery. And you never know when that stuff might come in handy. My main criticism -- pacing. Too much happens in the last hundred pages or so; the ending felt rushed to me and because of all the tragedy it was just a bit too much to take all at once. Again, this might be because I fell too deeply in love with the Shiva character. Read this book!

Next is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Oh, my. For the first couple chapters I kept going back to look at the author's photo just to make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. I have to give it to Stockett -- she is one bad chick! I think a lot of Caucasian writers would have been afraid to go as far as she does in this novel and I applaud her for her courage and a job well done. This book is also pretty hefty but worth every page -- also it goes by fast because it's very engaging and well-plotted. I'd put big money on a wager that a Natalie Portman/Charlize Theron type gets to play the Skeeter role in the inevitable big screen version. This story is set in the 1960s in Mississippi and is told from the viewpoint of three main characters: Two black maids, Abileen and Minnie and Skeeter Phelan, the wealthy debutante who can't stand her empty-headed, prejudiced Junior League crowd, wants "change" and a different way of life other than marrying well etc. She sets out to write the stories of the black maids who work in the homes of the Jackson well-to-do and things fall apart in many ways but come together at the end. Stockett takes her time building the characters so they seem real even though one could see how easily they could have become "types." The Minnie character -- feisty, independent -- has a secret that gives depth to all that outward bravado. The Abileen character is probably not as well-drawn -- I think Stockett was hinting at a rage (along with the sadness) deep down inside Abileen (who's had to care for white women's children her whole life while facing her personal losses) that Stockett never fully explored. The other maids' stories were compelling and Stockett treated these characters with an honesty and respect rarely seen from most writers who tackle that period in U.S. history. The language was amazing. I'm not from the South so I'm no expert on Southern dialects but from my viewpoint she got it spot on. She was also very honest with using the words, conversations and situations that may make many uncomfortable. Overall, I loved this book and Minnie will stick with me for a long time. I will go see the movie and grudgingly and respectfully help make Stockett a gazillionaire. A definite must-read.

I zipped through another Daniel Silva novel one cold weekend back in March when I should have been cleaning the house. This one was The Messenger. Nothing much to say here, it's a perfect escape for a long flight or a rainy day or a sunny day at the beach. Silva went really deep into the politics with this one (although I haven't read the entire series but this is the first time I've seen any of his novels so firmly take a position on the Arab-Israeli conflict). An interesting portrait of terrorism -- and who's supposedly financing their operations. Overall, it was great -- fast-paced plot, tons of action, obscenely rich bad guy, far-flung glamorous locales, etc. It made me want to travel somewhere. Read this book if you need some excitement. I have The Defector and I shall read it soon.

What I'm reading right now? Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper. This is one of my favorite writers and I'm loving this sweet little book. It's set during the Great Depression in Oklahoma. It's the story of one family and its various branches living through hard times in a growing town populated mostly by black folks and Native Americans. Again, J. California Cooper can do no wrong in my eyes. So, yes, I know she lays on the religion really thick and yes, I know, the story can be predictable. But she tells it so simply and well! I care about every single one of these characters because they were so real and true. I could feel the poverty seeping through the pages, the pain and longing of the Rose character who lost so much and never got what she deserved. The reason Tante felt that she had to flee or just wither in that town. Cooper's style seems simple but it's such a trick; I'm near the end and I'm realizing that she told an epic American story using plain old language with zero pretense, expertly drawn characters and a tight plot. I especially enjoyed the relevance to today's economic crisis. I wish more people read this woman's books because she is such a treasure. Please, buy this book and read it slow.

I'm also reading A Mercy by Toni Morrisson. I hate to end on a negative note but Toni's a legend so she can take it. I mean, who am I anyway? Can I throw a bunch of beautifully written, loosely plotted words against a page and then win a Pulitzer? I don't think so. And that's my review of A Mercy. There's something going on in those pages but I don't really know what that is. I'm trying though. My pedestrian take is: there's some dude *lovely phrase here* who buys slaves and another dude *breathtaking phrase here* who's in debt who has a tacky wife *little-known history fact pattern here* and some lady who was sold with her baby *evocative, stirring mini-story here* or something and *lovely phrase* = win Nobel/Pulitzer/NBA!!! Anyway, I like the words -- the book itself is another story. I guess that's what happens when ordinary folk encounter true talent and brilliance. It just goes way over my head. But I'm okay with that. Sheesh, Toni! Can we just go back to the days of Sula and Song of Solomon?

Happy reading!


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