Thursday, January 28, 2016

Winter Reading 3.0

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
It is hard to describe this book.  On the surface, it is a memoir written by a 36 year old neurosurgeon, who has just finished his residency, yet faces stage-four lung cancer.  This is the story not only of his past, but of his two years spent with cancer.  And I deliberately say 'spent,' not 'battle' as Paul Kalanithi chooses to make his life, and his death, meaningful.  He knows from the inception that his cancer is not curable, that it is indeed a death sentence.  As he searches for meaning in his days, he writes honestly, poignantly, poetically about philosophical choices, his career, his wife, his childhood, his new baby girl.  After reading the rave review in the New York Times, I knew this book was something special.  So for one afternoon, everything was turned off in my house and I enveloped myself in the quietness of Paul's book.  With a preface by Abraham Verghese (The Tennis Partner, Cutting for Stone), I knew my heart was in for a pummeling.  This is a breathtaking book, written by a man with a golden pen who fully embraces what life is, and what it is not.  Having bought two copies, one to keep and one to loan out, this is another life-changing book in the steps of Atul Gwande's Being Mortal.  It is a reminder that like all organisms, we all will die...the question is how do we face our death with dignity, with clear eyes, without bitterness or regret.  Kalanithi is a spectacular guide for the final journey.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
A companion book to Atkinson's huge hit, Life After Life, this book follows the story of Ursula's brother, Teddy, and his 'ordinary' life he lives after surviving WWII.  In her first book, we see Ursula's life as one different chance after another, discovering what her life would have been like if X happened, or what it would have been like if Y happened, etc.  It was a very unique, complex plot design that I thoroughly enjoyed.  How many of us have not thought about what our life would have been if we had only taken that job, turned the corner at that junction, or chosen to take that plane ride?  All of life's choices lead us down a specific path, and our lives touch people that might not have been touched without us present.   She continues that idea with Teddy, a British schoolboy whose aunt writes famous children's books about him, flies over 30 ops as a RAF bomber, marries his childhood sweetheart, and raises a difficult child.  The 'ordinariness' of his life is belied by the author's plotting, the constant question of 'what if?'  While at times I felt the book was too long at 465 pages, the ending is literally one of the most unique, creative, thought-provoking finishes I have read in quite some time.  This is a worthy companion to Life After Life -  if you read and enjoyed that one, I suspect you will appreciate her latest effort.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
You know those 'kids' books that read like 'adult' books...yep, this is one of them.  Reminiscent for me of The Book Thief, this is a beautifully written, creative, thought-provoking Newberry Honor Book of 2016.  Long (well over 500 pages), it reads quickly as it is written for middle readers. However, the themes and characters are rich and complex.  It begins with a fairy tale, a story of three sisters trapped in the woods, waiting to save a person's life so they can resume their life in the castle.  Hence, the stories of the three children (yes, like all good fairy tales, the magic number three is important).  First we meet Friedrich, a young musical genius in Germany, who must battle the Nazis and their murderous ways, as well as somehow save his family.  A special harmonica becomes the conduit which ties together the subsequent characters.  As the harmonica wings its way to America, we are left wondering about Friedrich's survival.  Next, two young orphaned brothers, Mike and Frank, struggle in the American depression, and count on this special harmonica to buy them a new life.  Again, at the 'end' of their story, we wonder...will the boys be adopted or will they be put on the streets?  Last, we meet little Ivy, a Mexican migrant worker in 1942 California, whose relationship with the Japanese family at the farm becomes pivotal in her future.  Author Munoz-Ryan, whose book Esperanza Rising won many awards, is a beautiful writer, who in the end ties together the fairy tale, the children, and the harmonica in a magical way.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as would anyone of the age of ten through ninety.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
If you have never read a book by Isabel Allende, you really should; she is a beautiful, lyrical writer who understands the emotions that lie deep under the surface.  Once again, in her latest best-selling book, Allende creates a story full of not only complex characters, but their intricately complex relationships with one another.  The main character is Alma Belasco, a Jewish orphan from war-torn Poland who comes to San Francisco to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin, Nathaniel.  Alma is a complicated woman; on one hand she is loyal, loving, and thoughtful, yet she is also often selfish, manipulative, and elitist.  As an elderly woman, she resides in Lark House where she tells her life story to Irina, a refugee from Belarus with a dark history of her own.  Alma receives gardenias in the mail each week, and occasionally slips away for weekend assignations.  Irina and Seth, Alma's grandson, begin to investigate and discover a secret life of Alma and Ichimei, her Japanese Lover.  The story sweeps us to many places:  WWII Poland and England, the relocation camps of the Japanese-Americans, Boston's world of art, and the high-society of San Francisco.  However, the most important aspect of this book is not the setting or the plot - it is the relationships, the complex nature of who we love, and the ultimate destiny of those associations.  It is a beautiful tale, told by an icon of the literary world.

The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak
One of my favorite authors of the past decade, Shafak has been a controversial figure in the Turkish literary world, exiled after her first novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel of family dysfunction in Istanbul as well as their history with Armenia,  and creating more controversy with Honor, a tale of Turkey and immigration to England, along with the issue of 'honor' killing.  She is a brilliant writer, who writes searingly and honestly on the issues of sexism, race, and historical context in today's world.  Her latest book is a distinct departure from her modern tales, taking us back to the 1500's and the time of Suleiman the Magnificent.  That century was the last 'hurrah' for the dominance of the Ottoman Empire and we see the last gasps through the eyes of Jahan, an apprentice for Sinan, the architect who created the skyline of Istanbul that can still be seen today.  Jahan is not only a gifted builder, he is also the mahout (caregiver) for the white elephant who comes to live in the sultan's menageries.  Intrigue, love, murder, name it, it is in this book.  I found the narrative and setting to be fascinating, a slice of Eastern history of which I was quite unaware.  If you are planning any trip to Turkey in the near future, this would be a great book to read to get you prepared for the history and architecture of this fascinating land.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
This book has been a slow-growing hit over the last year, as people slowly discover the beautiful writing of debut author Jackie Copleton. Having spent three years teaching in Japan, this is where Copleton sets her initial story, in the naval-shipyards and red-light district of Nagasaki, a city of infamy, death and destruction in WWII.  Amaratsu, the narrator of the story, lives alone in her Pennsylvania home, an elderly woman seeing only more years of loneliness and alcohol ahead of her.  Yet when a 46 year old badly burned Japanese man knocks on her door to tell her he is her grandson, Hideo, presumed dead in the atomic bombing of their city, Ama is swept back to the decades of her life in Japan.  We see her emotional relationship with her daughter Yuko, a secret love affair that changes many lives, the bonds of grandparents and grandchild, and most of all, the effects of 'pikadon' (bright light + boom) to the world of Nagasaki.  Lyrical and emotional, I found this book draped in sadness, with so many questionable decisions, but also a complexity of relationships that I found breathtaking.  It is hard to find redemption in a world destroyed by an atomic bomb, or to see any value in a nationalistic war fought by ordinary people; Copleton does a magnificent job of taking us into this world and letting us see the aftermath of destruction, both physically and emotionally.

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