Thursday, February 11, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

What a brave and heroic way to live and die. I was inspired by Paul Kalanithi's approach to life and his continuous quest to learn and experience what it means to live a life of quality and meaning. Just when many of us would give up the fight and settle in and let illness guide our lives, Kalanithi decided to strive to accomplish his goals and live his passions - what gave his life meaning (gaining wisdom, family, friends, helping others).

This memoir is very tragic and sad but I loved how Kalanithi embraced and accepted death at the end as a natural part of the life cycle. His courage, dignity and integrity in the face of such an awful illness reminded me that although death is not something we strive for it is something we will all experience at some time. Yes, the unknown is always scary but death, too, is a part of life and must be embraced. I truly hope that when my time comes that I will be ready to accept death with grace, dignity and no regrets. I also hope that those that have been part of my life will have felt that I loved them fully and deeply and that I leave them having given all that I could.

My Thoughts: Truly inspirational. Highly recommended. Read-a-likes Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom.

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

What a great multi-generational saga. Galsworthy had such a gift of character and story building. How he kept the multiple perspectives interesting and intertwined the major themes of the novel throughout all three books and the characters' development was amazing. I was nervous at first about starting such a tome but I was interested in Galsworthy's attempt to capture such a transitional period, Victorian era to Edwardian era, and how industrial advances and the role of women would affect those of the moneyed-class.

Galsworthy did a wonderful job developing the themes of possession and materialism verses art and beauty. One of the most prominent storylines throughout the saga is Soames Forstye's, the Man of Property, who was such a dislikable tragic character whose need to possess everything from objects to people keep the love he so desires at bay throughout his entire life. One almost wants to feel sorry for him but cannot because Soames is his own worst enemy. He is rude, selfish, crass and self-centered. Everything is about him or about what he could possess and control. His most cherished possession is his first wife Irene who does not love him and is in love with someone else but he will not let her go. She belongs to him like the many pieces of art he collects. He treats her like property and abuses her and wonders throughout his entire life why she never loved him.

Toward the end of the novel one hopes that life has changed Soames but no, he is such a static character that he repeats his mistakes by marrying another woman, Annette, that does not love him but is beautiful, young and French something no one else in his family has. If that were not enough they have a daughter, Fleur, together that he raises in his likeness and she becomes her father's daughter and the heir to repeating the past once more. The saga ends with Soames at High Gate cementry reflecting on his life and still wondering why life turned out for him the way it did. He is alone and unloved but he is the still the man of property.

The novel deals with many more important themes like the restricted role and expectations of women during this time and how they changed with legal legislation: the Married Women's Property Act, which allowed women to own property; the Matrimonial Clause Act, which allowed women to legally separate from abusive husbands; and the Jackson case which "held that a man could not confine his wife in order to enforce the restitution of conjugal rights" (Galsworthy, Introduction).

My Thoughts: All in all, a wonderful book with many, many interesting characters. Some of my favorite characters and storylines were those of June, Old Jolyon, Young Jolyon and Irene. Although not perfect in any way they were the most kind, humane, and loving of the bunch.

The novel was worth the month long read!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Positive by Paige Rawl

Positive by Paige Rawl is an inspiring memoir of an ordinary middle-school girl whose life changes forever just because she shares some personal information about her health with her best friend.  Within hours, the bullies begin to attack with hateful words and comments. People she once viewed as her friends begin to alienate and mistreat her. School administrators dismiss her complaints as just school "drama" and repeatedly fail to protect her from bullying. Why? Because Paige was born with HIV, an incurable disease that could only be transmitted through the exchange of certain bodily fluids.

My Thoughts:
This was an amazing memoir of family, love, strength and bravery. I was moved by Paige's mom and her devotion to her daughter as well as, Paige, herself.  As I read about all the terrible bullying that took place, I kept wondering how, in this day and age, knowing what we now know about HIV and AIDS, could people still behave in such shameful, hateful and hurtful ways?  It was like reading The Ryan White Story once again.  As an educator, I, unfortunately expect but do not tolerate, teasing and bullying to take place among Tweens and Teens but for adults to not do anything about such behavior is completely abhorrent and un-humane.

I'm truly impressed by the young woman that Paige Rawl has become and the work she is doing to stop bullying and educate the world about HIV and AIDS. I truly hope that her work will have a deep impact on humankind.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern Light A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mattie Gokey is sixteen and dreams of going away to college to pursue her love of writing. However, with her mother recently deceased, a runaway brother, a father and several siblings to take care of as well as, a house and a farm, those dreams are quickly fading. Mattie would like to work at the Glenmore to earn enough money for a train ticket to New York where she has earned a college scholarship. However, her father wants Mattie to stay home and look after her siblings and the house. When the family finds themselves in need of money for a new mule, Mattie is allowed to work at the Glenmore where she meets a hotel guest by the name of Grace Brown who gives Mattie a secret bundle of letters to burn. When Grace's drowned body is discovered by the lake, Mattie soon discovers that the letters could reveal secrets that may explain the horrible tragedy.

My Thoughts:
I really enjoyed this book. Donnelly's writing is powerful and brilliantly crafted. The characters are very well developed and representative of the time period, 1906. Her development of setting and local norms kept me anxious, at the edge of my seat and worried about what they, especially Mattie, would do next. The themes of women's limited roles in the early 20th Century and the expectations that they would marry, raise a consistently growing family (pre-birth control), cook, take care of the home and work on the farm created much tension for me as a woman living in the 21st Century. It made me think about what women 100 years from now would think about the many women today in modern society who work demanding, 40 to 60 hours a week, jobs, raise kids, and still take care of the home. What about women in impoverished societies where not much has changed since 1906? I realized that the discomfort that I felt while reading about the women in the novel was partly due to that fact although women have come a long way over the years, much remains to be improved.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

The Story Hour The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maggie and Lakshmi are opposites in many ways: Maggie is a professional African American psychologist married to an Americanized Indian man who loves and respects her. Lakshmi is an immigrant Indian woman married to a man who basically treats her like garbage. However, both women are also similar in that they are both haunted and still affected by their past. Umrigar does a nice job braiding these women's stories and lives together until a culminating event unravels their bond and changes their lives. 

My Thoughts:
Despite the fact that the main characters were extremely flawed, I enjoyed the novel. The characters were complexed and damaged and they rattled me in a way that kept me reading even though I often wanted to slap them. I also loved the story within a story aspect of the novel and how it was used to provide complexity, background, story-building and allowed the characters to reflect on their lives and past mistakes. I definitely look forward to reading more of Thrity Umrigar's work.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

The Year of No Sugar was an informative book about a family who gives up "sugar" for a year. However, the title is deceiving because the family does not completely give up sugar but mostly fructose, some artificial sweeteners, and isolated fruit sugar. Schaub spends most of the year obsessing about sugar (when to eat? how to eat it?) and finding technical ways to consume sugar and all its many alternative forms. For instance, she sets up certain cheat rules or accepted wild cards for her and her family which I could understand when it comes to children. However, the cheating exceptions/rules kept sugar in the family's diet which, I believe, made the whole sugar craving a constant annoyance.

Additionally, the family incorporated a monthly cheat day where they selected and shared a sugary treat. I like the idea of people, especially families, coming together to share a meal. This is a very bonding and social experience and I believe was key to helping the family maintain the project. 

However, where Schaub's experiment fell apart for me was in her relentless quest to locate chemical sugar sweeteners such as dextrose to support her and the family's sugar addiction. Call me crazy, but with a title like The Year of No Sugar, I expected to read about people struggling to eliminate ALL sugar both regular and artificial.  If the goal was to eliminate sugar, and especially fructose, because of its toxic and damaging effects on the body and our health, why replace it with something unnatural that is also dangerous and toxic? Because it is the lesser of two evils? That’s like giving up crack cocaine for cigarettes. Okay, I am exaggerating but you get my point.

My Thoughts: 
Don't get me wrong, I respect any attempt to give up toxic foods from the human diet. Heck, I am a life-long pursuer of clean and healthy eating. I give Schaub tons of kudos for the fact that she dared to include her children in the experiment, brave undertaking. However, I just did not like the exchange of one poison for another. I would have liked it if Schaub found healthy alternatives, like using whole natural ripened sweet fruit and vegetables in her cooking and baking instead of chemical sugar alternatives. Natural foods would have helped the family re-train their taste buds and possibly teach the importance of eating real food.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Truth About Truman School by Dori Hillestad Butler

The Truth About Truman School by Dori Hillestad Butler is about two friends Zebby and Amr who decide to create an online school website that is informative and honest. However, when they proclaim that anybody can post to the website without censorship, things begin to get out of hand. Soon cyberbullies begin to write anonymous mean and vicious comments and posts about Lilly, a popular girl at school. 

The book examines the fine line between censorship and freedom of speech and honesty, responsibility and integrity within journalism. It also asks the question who are we really? The person online, who assumes an anonymous identity and thus says anything they choose? or, the person who we pretend to be in our everyday interactions. The book is a timely quick middle school read with thought provoking themes.

My Thoughts:  
I read this book in one day.  The idea of middle schoolers, or anyone for that matter, unleashed online without boundaries, censors, and supervision is not only timely, but terrifying. Just think how cruel some people can be in person; now give them an anonymous online persona. Middle school bullying and teasing was bad enough when I was growing up and we didn't even have the internet. This is a good book for middle schoolers to read and discuss with their peers.

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

First off, I want to say that I adore Lauren Graham. She is a talented actor who appears to be genuine in a manner unlike may other actors in Hollywood today. Her debut novel Someday, Someday, Maybe is a fast paced, light and humorous read that many Chick Lit fans will enjoy. The novel's protagonist, Franny Banks, is a likable character who is on a quest to create a life for herself as a theater actress in New York. Our heroine is brave, smart, witty, reflective, and just plain good. 

However, like many heroes she loses sight of her prize and veers off course and into the land of dating the wrong guy and making decisions that pull her away from her true path. As with any quest, Franny has her helpers and guides, Jan and Dan, her two roommates who support her as she navigates the rough waters of life. What stands out most is that Franny never loses that inner voice of reason, she outright ignores it and thus must suffer the consequences. Fans of Graham who enjoy her witty, fast-talking characters in Parenthood and Gilmore Girls will find plenty of character similarities and quirks and enjoy lots of laughs with Franny.


My Thoughts: 
I listened to the audio version of this book which was perfect because the book is read by Graham. I love how well she carries out the fast-talking and witty Franny. I also enjoyed listening to Franny's head ramblings: "should I do this, or that, or maybe, even that. Oh, no, maybe I should have done this." Graham just does neurotic characters so well. 

The book is a typical Chick Lit novel: there is a bad boy, good boy, dreams of true love, a goal in mind, decisions to be made that go terribly and humorously wrong and thus must be corrected, the heroine learns something about life or herself and rises anew.  Graham follows the formula beautifully. I found myself rooting for Franny and wanting for her to succeed.  If you are looking for a lite and entertaining read, especially during the busy holiday seasons coming up, this is a good choice.  Read-a-likes: Bridget Jones series.