Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Fiction: The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue

Barbara Samuel's enjoyable novel, The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue, weaves together the lives of four very different women, each grappling with issues of career, love, and life. The women, all neighbors on a quiet street in Pueblo, Colorado, grow to be each other's friends and supporters as their lives intersect.

Trudy, the main narrator of the novel, is struggling to put her life back together and rediscover her identity after learning that her husband of twenty-plus years is having an affair. Her next-door neighbor, Roberta, has just lost her beloved husband after sixty-two years of marriage. Roberta's beautiful granddaughter, Jade, turns to boxing as a release from conflicting emotions after divorcing her con-man husband. Shannelle,a young mother and aspiring writer, lives across the street and is trapped between her dreams and financial reality.

Samuel uses unique approaches to invite the reader into each woman's life. She alternates between the four women's perspectives in separate chapters. Roberta's story is told mainly through letters she writes to her sister, and we view Shannelle's struggles through the e-mails she sends to her writing mentor. Trudy's and Jade's voices are heard through more traditional first-person narration. Each chapter is headed by quotes that reflect that character's values: inspirational quotes from Shannelle's writing wall, Roberta's favorite bible passages, facts about women's boxing from Jade, and Trudy's excerpts of Spanish poetry and references to mythical goddesses. While I enjoyed the constant change of perspective, readers who prefer a more traditional narrative may find it a bit distracting.

The interwoven stories and happy endings have an idealistic tendency, but Samuel's warm, well-drawn characterizations made the women seem real. By the end of the book, I felt like the characters were familiar friends and was pleased to see them learn, grow, and unravel the knots of their troubles in their own unique ways. I happen to like happy endings.

(NOTE: My only annoyance with the book was that the cover photo of five same-age thin, white women sharing dessert had absolutely no relevance to the varied ages and races of the characters in the novel.)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Health/Inspirational: The Anatomy of Hope

Looking for comfort and inspiration during a relapse of my illness this week, I turned to The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness by Dr. Jerome Groopman. I found just what I needed in this fascinating exploration of hope.

Much of the book reads like a novel, as Dr. Groopman shares stories of his patients and his own 20-year struggle with severe back pain. He tells of a devout Orthodox Jewish woman who was convinced her breast cancer was a punishment from God, of a veteran who refused treatment for a very treatable cancer, and of the miraculous recovery of a pathologist stricken with one of the deadliest cancers known.
Each story sheds light on his growing understanding that hope can be a powerful force in recovery -- something not taught in medical school.

Woven throughout these compelling stories, Dr. Groopman humbly admits to his own shortcomings as a doctor and shows how each patient contributed to his eventual enlightenment as to the power of hope.

This is not one of those new-age books that claims anyone can heal himself if he just thinks positively. Dr. Groopman echoes my own feelings when he points out that this kind of approach often makes patients feel worse because it implies that your illness is your own fault and you could get well if you just tried hard enough. He carefully defines real hope - different from indiscriminate optimism - based on what he learned from his patients:

"Hope is the elevating feeling we experience when we see - in the mind's eye - a path to a better future. Hope acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path. True hope has no room for delusion."

Toward the end of the book, Dr. Groopman also takes a look at the scientific side of hope, reviewing what little research exists and recounting his discussions with various experts. Having a scientific background, I appreciated this link to science to further prove that what Dr. Groopman observed in his patients can be backed up by data and isn't just another "think yourself well" platitude. Despite his obvious excitement about the power of hope,he puts it in perspective as just one element that can contribute to wellness and recovery.

The Anatomy of Hope successfully combines compassion and science in a book that is both inspirational and practical. Dr. Groopman's considerable talents as a writer and storyteller wrap these important lessons in an engaging view of the medical world that patients rarely see. Just reading his book makes me feel more in control of my illness and more hopeful for my future.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Memoir: All the Fishes Come Home to Roost

My husband bought me All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India by Rachel Manija Brown for Christmas this year. It was one of dozens of books that I'd circled in the Bas Bleu catalog that I left lying around the house in strategic places. He made a good choice in selecting this funny, moving memoir from my overflowing wish list.

Rachel Manija Brown tells the story of her bizarre childhood spent at an ashram in India. Until age seven, her life was relatively normal, growing up in Los Angeles and nurturing her two loves, animals and reading. Then her parents, followers of the Indian guru Meher Baba, decided to move to Ahmednagar, India, to live at a commune with other Baba lovers. Rachel suddenly found herself torn from everything familiar, living an isolated existence among religious fanatics.

There were no other resident children at the ashram, and Rachel's enrollment in the local private school (the only option for an education in English) doesn't help much. "And so, despite being Jewish by birth and a Baba-lover by parental decree, I was sent to Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Savior Convent School." Rachel is an outcast at the school as the only foreigner and the only student who doesn't speak Hindi or Marathi, the local language. She also discovers that the nuns and teachers at her new school have a sadistic penchant for corporal punishment.

While many aspects of Rachel's childhood in Ahmednagar are appalling, she tells her story with an endearing wit that highlights her resilient spirit. She has plenty of fodder for her humor, as she describes her bizarre life in a remote area of India. In the first chapter alone, we encounter a gnome-like taxi owner who welds the car engine while her family is sitting in the backseat and the taxi's driver, a man so short that he can't reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time and doesn't seem to know how to work the clutch, as they take her family on a harrowing trip up a mountain. And these aren't the strangest characters she meets in India, by far.

It's impossible not to compare this book with Augusten Burrough's Running With Scissors. In fact, Rachel herself explains in the last chapter how Burrough's hilarious and horrifying memoir inspired her to write her own. She learned from him that she could recount her more disturbing experiences with plenty of humor to keep from alienating her readers. It's a rare talent, to move readers smoothly from laughter to horror and back to laughter again. Rachel Manija Brown manages this approach handily, pulling it all together with her unique voice into a funny and compelling book.




Saturday, March 11, 2006

Science Fiction: Replay

I just finished reading Replay by Ken Grimwood for the third time, and it was just as compelling this time as it was the first two times I read it. This is my favorite book of my 35 years of reading, and I have no doubt I'll be picking up my tattered paperback copy to read again in a few years. Although Replay is officially categorized as science fiction, it transcends its genre incorporating in-depth characterization, suspense, romance, and the timeless question of life's purpose.

The book opens in 1988 with 43-year old Jeff Winston dying suddenly of a heart attack while at the desk of his job as a news radio journalist. Moments later, Jeff wakes up in his freshman dorm room in 1963 in his 18-year old body but retaining his memories of the life he recently left with its disappointing career, financial troubles, and failed marriage. This is a book about second - and third and fourth - chances, as Jeff replays those 25 years of his life again and again. He finds this bizarre situation and his unique foreknowledge to be both a blessing and a curse as he relives his life many times over.

More than anything else, Replay is a book about choices. Jeff makes different choices each time he replays (after all, it would be impossible to relive your life exactly the same once you knew what was coming up) and experiences vastly different outcomes, all the time struggling with questions about what is happening to him, what it means, and what he should do.

The copious pop culture references throughout the book are entertaining, and the plot pulls you in immediately and doesn't let you go. Most of all, though, I love this book because it is so endlessly thought-provoking. Right from the start, you can't help comparing Jeff's experiences to your own life and wondering what you'd do in his situation. Could you just hang out with 18-year olds again, retake all your college courses, go through the motions? Given another shot at life, what would you do differently and how would it turn out?

As Jeff replays these years of his life, making different choices each time, he learns a lot about himself and about what's important to him. Although he stops aging at age 43, he continues to mature with each replay, experiencing many lives' worth of sorrow and joy. Although ostensibly a book about time travel, Replay is really a story of love and despair and hope. When you finally set this book down (after reading it all night), you're left with an appreciation of your own life and a desire to make the most of each of its finite moments.


Saturday, March 04, 2006

Middle-Grade Fiction: The Underland Chronicles

Life has been especially hectic lately, so I haven't had much time to myself for reading. One thing we always make time for, though, is our nightly ritual of reading to our two boys. At 8 and 11 years old, Craig and Jamie are both proficient readers on their own. In Jamie's case, voracious might be a better descriptor; he devours books in big, hungry bites, one after another. Even though both boys can now read independently, my husband and I still read to them at bedtime. Our selections over the years have evolved from Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry to lengthy chapter books, often infused with adventure and magic.

For several months now, all four of us have been thoroughly engrossed in The Underland Chronicles, a four-book series by Suzanne Collins. We have been so taken with this exciting, well-written series that I reviewed it for FamilyFun magazine (look for the review in the May 2006 issue).

In the first book, Gregor the Overlander, Collins introduces us to the series' unlikely hero. Gregor is a typical 11-year old boy until the day that he literally falls into the Underland, a whole world existing underneath New York City. The Underland is populated by pale-skinned, violet-eyed humans, as well as human-sized bats, rats, and cockroaches.

I know what you're thinking...if anyone had told me I'd enjoy books filled with enormous creepy-crawlers, I'd have thought they were crazy. Besides having a fabulous imagination, Suzanne Collins is a talented writer, filling her books with suspenseful fast-moving plots, in-depth characters, and enough humor to offset the fright factor. In fact, I not only enjoy these books along with my boys, I've even come to care about many of the oversized critters.

Gregor and his two-year old sister Boots find themselves pulled into the conflicts of the Underland. Along the way, Gregor discovers he is a legendary warrior and joins an unusual team of Underlanders to fulfill a prophecy and find a clue to the mysterious disappearance of his own father.

In Book 2, Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane, Gregor and Boots return to the Underland to help the humans head off a possible coup by the rats. Gregor has his own personal motivation for helping the Underlanders in Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods when a member of his own family is affected by a deadly plague in the Underland. In Gregor and the Marks of Secret (due for release in May 2006), Gregor again fulfills his role in the Underland prophecies by helping the humans defend themselves against attacks by the rats. Through all of the action-packed books, Collins keeps us caring with her realistic portrayal of the young hero and keeps us laughing at Boots' typical toddler antics. At our house, we can't wait for bedtime to find out what happens next.