Dory L.'s blog

Tsunami Trauma

In college, I often dreamed of tsunamis. The waves were enormously high and transported me far inland but were amazingly gentle behemoths that if I did not fight against, eventually landed me upon the shore without any damage. The tsunami that struck Sir Lanka the day after Christmas 2004 was nothing like these, but was instead brutal, fierce, and deadly.

Imagine losing your husband, two sons, and both parents on the same day. This unbelievable tragedy happened to this British economist.  The memoir starts quietly with her description of a typical morning at a beach resort in Southern Sri Lanka that her family had been visiting since her childhood. Sonali knew all the hotel staff and park rangers; the place meant home to her and her family. Ironically, the family was packing to go home later that day.

As her children are dressing, she speaks to a close friend who has accompanied them on their holiday outing. Suddenly, both women notice an unusual wave in the far distance. Sonali calls to her husband in the bathroom, but

   
Wave   

Bad Parent, Good Child

I picked up Richard Russo's latest book with some hesitation. I knew Elsewhere was a memoir about his relationship with his mother, but I remembered that in his last novel, That Old Cape Magic, he had created a decidedly crazy "mother" character. But as is so often the case with memoirs, the first sentence hooked me.

Because he was an only child and his parents separated when he was very young, Russo and his mom shared an extremely close relationship. In the 50s she had a job for General Electric, dated engineers, and dressed elegantly. Her independence was extremely important to her, but it took Richard years to understand that she depended on her parents bail-outs to survive. It didn't help that Russo's dad contributed almost nothing to the household or that women were paid poor wages.

This book is also an exploration of a place - the town of Gloversville where Russo grew up and which he's fictionalized in his novels. It was a town built on making gloves; in fact, his grandparents did this. It was hard, polluting work and when the government cracked down on water pollution, the whole operation moved overseas. But in small-town Gloversville surrounded by relatives, Russo felt secure and loved.

   
Elsewhere   

The Fault in Our Stars

This young adult novel by the popular John Green fell into my arms at the YMCA. An exercise buddy suggested that I read it; she was turned on to it by her teenage son. The novel opens at a cancer support group in a church.  Because it's set in Indianapolis some of the landmarks will be familiar. A 16 year-old girl suffering from stage IV thyroid cancer is returning at the insistence of her Mom. "Go out and meet somebody" her mom suggested and without any hope that she will, Hazel does. 

Asked to speak about what she's thinking, Hazel describes how everyone on earth is going to die. It is the only end we can expect and that we have. Her speech is more philosophical and much more eloquent but totally lacking in hope. Afterwards, handsome Augustus who's on the mend from osteosarcoma - 80% chance of survival--tells her he likes what she said.  Not only that but she looks like Natalie Portman. Augustus and Hazel have a mutal friend, Isaac, who is about to lose an eye from another form of cancer.  

Hazel can't leave the house without her oxygen tank. Her prognosis is poor; it's not a matter of if but when. Her parents are extremely kind and protective. She overhead her mom say once that when Hazel dies, she will no longer be a mom.

If The Fault in Our Stars sounds depressing, amazingly it isn't. Green has created a sardonic, wise beyond her years, poetry-loving heroine with an edgy sense of humor. She finds a soul-mate in Augustus who has already lost one girlfriend to death. Hazel holds back. She doesn't want to die and be another "exploding torpedo" in his life.

   
Fiction   
Think Library    Teens    Reviews   

The Violinist's Thumb

OK, I selected this book based solely on its title, but boy did I luck out. What an incredibly gifted writer Sam Kean is.  In The Violinist's Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code, he translates dense scientific concepts into lucid, beautiful prose.

He also knows how to tell stories. The first chapter contrasts the biographies of two of DNA's discoverers, Mendel and the less well-known, Johannes Friedrich Miescher, who because he studied fish slime had to work in very cold conditions so that his material would not deteriorate before he could examine it. And who knew that Mendel joined a monastery so he could secure a university education? His passion for raising peas taught us so much about human inheritance.

This book tackles and at least partially answers many of life's great questions including: Why did it take eons for life to become complex? What is our most ancient DNA? Why do humans have no more DNA than so many smaller, less complex creatures?  Why did we almost become extinct?  Why did we break away from monkeys? Is the impulse for art conveyed by our DNA? Why are identical twins not identical?

   
Nonfiction    Science   

Of Spies and Literature

Do you like spy novels? Ones that mix in politics and love?  If so McEwan's Sweet Tooth is for you.

It's set in the rollicking early 70s in England - a time of drugs, rock and roll, miniskirts, and--on a more serious note--women's entry into careers en masse. It tells the story of Selena, a bright vicar's daughter who loves to read and read fast.  Her mother, in the only moment of life- dissatisfaction she's ever expressed to her daughter, advises Selena to go to Cambridge and study math so she can have a challenging career. Selena, being the good older daughter, follows her mom's advice and gives up studying literature for something better career-wise.

But Selena's real education begins the summer after college.  An older tutor she meets through a boyfriend soon becomes her lover. In the process he teaches her about food, wine, politics, international relations, and how to read the newspapers for hidden facts and government policies. He's grooming her for a role in M15, the spy service.  But then Tony leaves her abruptly after an argument so Selena goes to London and does find a job with M15.

   

A Cornucopia of Books

If you look back to those long summer afternoons of reading during your childhood with longing, this book is for you. Three years after losing her beautiful and talented older sister, Anne-Marie, to cancer, Nina Sankovitch decided to do something she had long dreamed of doing, making books central to her life again. Of course as the mother of three teens and one preteen - all boys - she didn't have much free time. But from Oct. 28, 2008 to the same date in 2009 Nina read and read and read some more.

In the intervening years after her sister's death, Nina had kept fiendishly busy, driving, cooking, cleaning, heading committees, and organizing literary projects--all the myriad duties of raising a family and being involved in her Connecticut community. But each day she felt guilty to be alive because her sister had died. This lovely book is both a tribute to a sister, and a memoir of their relationship. It's also a narrative about how concentrating on reading finally healed Nina, so that she was eager to go forward again.   

Nina resurrected (reupholstered) the big purple chair that one of their cats had made its own by spraying on it. Here in this regal chair for two, three, even four hours a day, Nina both lost and found herself through books.

Besides telling Anne-Marie's story, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair also relates the story of her father, Anatole, who lost three aunts and uncles in a shooting during WW II. All were shot in his family's kitchen in Poland while their terrified mother lay upstairs in her sick bed. Anatole also suffered from TB after WW II and spent over two years in a sanatorium in the mountains recovering after the war. Nina compares her year of reading to those years of rest and recuperation that her father experienced there.

   

Dear Life: Stories

No other author manages to squeeze so much historical detail and under-the-surface emotion into her short stories as Canadian writer, Alice Munro. Her short fiction has enthralled me for years. Although she's written a novel or two, almost her whole output - 17 published books - is in the short story form.

In Munro's stories time is never strictly chronological. Munro artfully flits between the present and the past. She never loses control. Her transitions are seamless; the reader never has to search or root around for the correct time and place. Also, important to these stories is the emotional arc.

Dear Life is her most personal collection yet. To the ten stories included, Munro has added four memoir pieces that are not fiction, although Munro said that she fictionalized certain elements of them. If you've read the author's other collections, you'll recognize the farmland and small towns near Lake Huron, marked by poverty that Munro returns to again and again. There's also the young girl or woman breaking away from her family, seeking a better life.  Sexuality often becomes a main theme and the endings are seldom happily-ever-after, but more like life, both good and bad, always complicated.

   

The Lifeboat

Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat restores your faith in 21st century writing.  In this historical novel, two narratives intertwine: the more dramatic one being the story of the shipwreck of the Princess Alexandria during the first months of WWI on a voyage from England to America.  The second story is about Grace, a young woman whose family has suffered a financial collapse. Suddenly, needing to make her own way in the world, Grace's choices are narrow:  to become a governess or find a rich husband, Grace being resourceful and not wanted to be tied down by a job with long hours and little pay chooses the latter.

She finds her husband material in an unlikely place:  the engagement listings of a London society paper.  Henry Winter, an American financier, is handsome and rich and works for a company rapidly increasing in power and influence. Amazingly, this part of the plan works. They marry and set off for America. On the ship, as a sign of her newly altered status, Grace and Henry are invited to sit at the captain's table.

But there Grace's good luck ends. For one thing, Henry has not cabled his parents about the marriage, and seems reluctant to do so. His parents send him telegrams about his former fiancee but does she even know that she's become history to him? In the middle of the night the Empress mysteriously explodes and the new bride finds herself the last person squeezed onto a lifeboat, and without her husband.

   
Fiction    History   

The Last Runaway

In The Last Runaway (as in all Tracy Chevalier's historical novels), you feel as though you are living exactly in the time period that she is describing. Her combination of research, realistic dialogue, characters true to the day, plus her skill at capturing the myriad details of daily life make her writing very believable.  In this novel, Chevalier transports us back to 1850s Ohio to a small town at the edge of the wilderness. But first, we experience a grueling ocean voyage from Quaker Honor Bright's perspective.  

Honor Bright accompanies her sister to America where Grace plans to wed someone from their English hometown.  After Honor suffers terrible seasickness on the journey, she refuses to take the lake route to Ohio, so they proceed by train and carriage. However Grace comes down with yellow fever and dies on the trip. Not knowing what else to do, Honor continues the journey to Faithwell, Ohio.

She catches yellow fever also and stops in Wellington at a local milliner's shop. Belle Mills takes her in.  Unfortunately, she's already met Belle's brother on the journey. Donovan is a slave hunter and he has stolen the key to Honor's trunk after ransacking the carriage while searching for runaway slaves.

   

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

TED talks, "pay yourself in chard", shoeless Microsoft techies, Molly Moon ice cream--you don't have to be a current or ex-Seattleite to enjoy this funny book by Hollywood scriptwriter (Arrested Development) Maria Semple. If you've ever lived in a politically correct zone (Bloomington anyone?), you'll recognize many of the interpersonal dynamics pictured here. Where'd You Go, Bernadette tells the story of a family - Bernadette, Bee, and Elgin Branch-- and their relationship to their child's school community.

Bernadette, a former architect and MacArthur genius award winner, has given up working on any creative projects to devote herself to her family. Her daughter Bee was born with a serious heart condition and for years Bernadette felt that she could not commit herself to any new designs due to her daughter's condition. But Bernadette, a woman full of prodigious talent and energy, has been driving herself and everyone around her nuts while her husband worked his way up the Microsoft hierarchy.

Minor Seattle annoyances set her off, say five-way traffic interchanges where one waits an eon for a turn at the green light. Too friendly Canadians provoke Bernadette's ire also. And turning her almost ballistic are messages from her daughter's private school that ask for volunteers. She ignores these but the fellow parents, whom she calls "gnats", mock her for her lack of community involvement--a major Seattle lapse. And then there are all those obnoxious Microsoft slogans that she must turn away from whenever she and Bee visit her husband's office.

   
Family    Fiction   

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