February 28, 2009

Handle With Care

Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult
Contemporary Fiction
2009 Atria Books
Finished on 2/16/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
ARC - Due out on March 3, 2009

Synopsis (from author's website):

When Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe’s daughter, Willow, is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, they are devastated – she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain. As the family struggles to make ends meet to cover Willow’s medical expenses, Charlotte thinks she has found an answer. If she files a wrongful birth lawsuit against her ob/gyn for not telling her in advance that her child would be born severely disabled, the monetary payouts might ensure a lifetime of care for Willow. But it means that Charlotte has to get up in a court of law and say in public that she would have terminated the pregnancy if she’d known about the disability in advance – words that her husband can’t abide, that Willow will hear, and that Charlotte cannot reconcile. And the ob/gyn she’s suing isn’t just her physician – it’s her best friend.

Handle With Care explores the knotty tangle of medical ethics and personal morality. When faced with the reality of a fetus who will be disabled, at which point should an OB counsel termination? Should a parent have the right to make that choice? How disabled is TOO disabled? And as a parent, how far would you go to take care of someone you love? Would you alienate the rest of your family? Would you be willing to lie to your friends, to your spouse, to a court? And perhaps most difficult of all – would you admit to yourself that you might not actually be lying?

Jodi Picoult fans are in for a treat. This Tuesday, Handle With Care will be available for purchase and I know it will be yet another winner for so many readers. I also know it will be an easy book to recommend to friends and customers (and even my father, with whom I spoke the other night; he mentioned that he was reading—and enjoying—Picoult's previous release, Change of Heart!).

Handle With Care is classic Picoult. The conflict around which the plot revolves is revealed through multiple points of view, with each chapter divided among five main characters, giving voice to their perspectives on an emotionally charged situation. I can't recall the last time I so enjoyed a book in which one of the main characters was so unlikeable. I even considered tossing the book aside for something more uplifting, but after reading a few more pages I was hooked. I tried to put myself in Charlotte's position, wondering what I would do in her situation, but never once found myself in agreement with her decision to go forward with the lawsuit. I can't begin to imagine the life of a parent of a child afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). Every day, every hour, every single moment poses a potentially dangerous situation. The constant worry about each new break, the emotional drain and exhaustion, not to mention the incredible financial burden imposed on a family (even one with insurance coverage), must test even the strongest of parents. From beginning to end, I was angry about the choices Charlotte made, unable to understand what still I believe was a selfish act of greed and betrayal. I was much more sympathetic toward Sean and Willow's older sister, Amelia, oftentimes wanting to reach through the pages and shake some sense into Charlotte.

In classic Picoult style, the novel raises an ethical question—that of wrongful birth:

A wrongful birth lawsuit implies that, if the mother had known during her pregnancy that her child was going to be significantly impaired, she would have chosen to abort the fetus. It places the onus of responsibility for the child's subsequent disability on the ob-gyn. From a plaintiff's standpoint, it's a medical malpractice suit. For the defense, it becomes a morality question: who has the right to decide what kind of life is too limited to be worth living?

Many states had banned wrongful birth suits. New Hampshire wasn't one of them. There had been several settlements for the parents of children who'd been born with spina bifida or cystic fibrosis or, in one case, a boy who was profoundly retarded and wheelchair-bound due to a genetic abnormality—even though the illness had never been diagnosed before, much less noticed in utero. In New Hampshire, parents were responsible for the care of disabled children their whole lives--not just till age eighteen—which was as good a reason as any to seek damages.


If you chose to stop a loved one's suffering—either before it began or during the process—was that murder, or mercy?

I enjoy reading books in which the characters are represented in alternating chapters. My only quibble this time, however, is that the characters sounded like they were talking to Willow, not in dialogue, but as if the story itself were being retold to her at a later date. I generally don't care for a character speaking directly to the reader and that's what this felt like. It became a distraction early on and it wasn't until the closing chapters, when I was so intent on the final outcome of the courtroom drama, that I was able to ignore this minor annoyance.

Handle With Care is a powerful book, one that will remain with me for a long, long while. I highly recommend it!

For more information about osteogenesis imperfecta, go here.

Visit Picoult's website to watch a trailer for the novel, read an excerpt, or listen to a podcast about the story behind Handle With Care.

February 25, 2009

Photo Meme

I was tagged by Wendy at Caribousmom for this fun photo meme:

Find your 5th photo file folder, then the 5th photo in that file folder. Then pass the meme to 5 people.
Here’s my photo (click to enjoy a larger image):

This is a view of my street, taken from the top of the hill, looking east. Our house is behind me, out of the shot. I took the photo one morning as I was heading out for a bike ride. I believe it was shot in mid-July, probably sometime after breakfast.

Thanks for the tag, Wendy. Now to pick five bloggers to play along.

Nancy of Bookfoolery & Babble (also at Aminus3 here)

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

Nan of Letters From a Hill Farm

Nat of In Spring It Is the Dawn (also at Aminus3 here)

Heather of Beauty That Moves

February 21, 2009

The Laws of Harmony

The Laws of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Copyright 2009 Harper
Finished on 2/5/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!!)

Publisher's Blurb:

In 1989 Sunny Cooper escaped to Albuquerque. Fourteen years later she's still there, struggling to make a living, to shore up her floundering relationship, and to forget her childhood on a commune, where a freak accident killed her younger sister, Mari.

Just when the "normal" life Sunny craves appears to be within reach, another accident—the sudden death of her fiance, Michael, and revelations that their relationship was not what it seemed—will turn her world upside down. Once again Sunny escapes, this time to the town of Harmony on San Miguel Island. But a surprising discovery sparks an emotional encounter with her estranged mother and forces both women to reexamine the truth of their memories. Only by making peace with the past can Sunny finally step out of its shadow and into a new life.

Mary Doria Russell. Marisa de los Santos. Jeanne Ray. Rosamunde Pilcher. Barbara Kingsolver. Patricia Gaffney. Elizabeth Berg. Lorna Landvik. Jodi Picoult. What do these authors have in common with Judith Ryan Hendricks? Well, they're my favorite female authors and I've read nearly every single book they've written, most of which line the bookcases in my home. I've met a couple in person, have a few signed copies of their early novels, and have recently received ARCs of their latest works, accompanied by warm and chatty emails. These are the authors that bring great pleasure to my reading experience; the ones who thrill me when I learn they've written a new book; the ones I rave about to friends and customers; the ones who don't seem to write fast enough for me! ;)

I discovered Judith Ryan Hendricks several years ago when I happened upon her debut novel, Bread Alone. I don't recall anyone recommending the book to me, so I must've fallen for the cover art and blurb. I thoroughly enjoyed the book—so much so that I re-read it prior to reading the sequel (The Baker's Apprentice). I also loved Hendricks' stand-alone, Isabel's Daughter, and was absolutely thrilled to learn she had written a fourth book.

Hendricks sets her stories in some of my favorite locations (the Pacific Northwest) and places I'd love to visit (Santa Fe). She has also made mention of two small beach communities in Southern California (Del Mar and Leucadia), both of which are towns I've lived in. In addition to the great settings, Hendricks' culinary details are also of great appeal to this reader. I discovered and sampled a wonderful recipe for homemade bread in Bread Alone and found my mouth watering as I read the description of several baked items in The Laws of Harmony. Oh, how I wish she had included a recipe for her blackberry brownies!

After spending a couple of weeks cruising the San Juan Islands, I find myself drawn to books describing the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Bread Alone and The Baker's Apprentice take place in Seattle, but this latest novel takes the reader out of the city and into a friendly community very much like those I encountered in the summer of 2007. I was immediately drawn into Sunny's life, eager to see what awaits her in Harmony on San Miguel Island. This location reminded me so strongly of Friday Harbor, that I found myself wondering if it was the basis for Hendricks' fictional community. Could her Ale House be the same as the similarly-named pub on the corner of Front Street (same street name!) in Friday Harbor? It really doesn't matter one way or another; I loved living vicariously through the characters' lives, reminded of my own experiences in the years I've visited that particular area. I could easily envision Sunny catching a ferry out of Seattle, serving customers an icy cold beer in the Ale House, hanging out with friends in a small independent bookstore, buying fresh seafood at the local fish market, and learning to ride a motorcycle on the windy country roads outside of town. At times, I found myself wishing to trade places with Sunny!

On ferry travel...

Everybody else rushes ahead, apparently knowing exactly where they want to sit. I follow the smell to the cafe, get myself a greasy bacon-and-egg sandwich and take it to an empty seat up front. The boat shudders with the exertions of the big engines as the pilings on either side of us begin to slide away and the window in front of me becomes a giant movie screen of water and sky.

All around me people eat and talk, read newspapers and kiss, play cards and pound on their laptops, oblivious to the gentle pitch of the boat and to the fantasy world just outside the windows—rippling blue-green water, rocky islands upholstered in conifers, shreds of mist. Each time I start to eat, there's something that distracts me, makes me pause with the sandwich halfway to my mouth—a perfect, toylike red lighthouse or a log cabin tucked into a secluded cove, or the white ellipse of a boat lying at anchor on a glassy bay. I star transfixed, finally forgetting about the sandwich.

I loved reading the detailed passage in which Sunny learns how to ride a small motorcycle for the very first time. My husband has come to own a few motorcycles in recent years and I only just recently rode as a passenger for the first time a little over a year ago. I have my own helmet and Kevlar-padded jacket, but I don't own a bike, nor have I ever ridden alone. And I wouldn't say that after reading the half dozen pages describing how to ride a motorcycle, I'm capable of hopping on a bike and riding off into the sunset. However, I do feel like I have a better understanding of how the clutch, throttle, shifter and brakes work on a motorcycle. As Sunny says, it's so illogical!

On riding a motorcycle - alone - for the first time...

"Feet up!" he yells, and the bike magically balances itself. It feels like flying. I hear myself laughing inside the helmet, like a little kid with the training wheels off for the first time. Suddenly I understand the thrill of this, and then almost as suddenly I see the driveway fast approaching. Shit! How do I brake? My mind's gone blank.

I love discovering new music, so I'm especially happy when an author incorporates real music into a narrative. Hendricks' main character listens to a CD entitled Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories), a Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny collaboration. It's a simple arrangement combining the music of an accoustic guitar and bass into soothing pieces. I've listened to the sample tracks and have decided I need to own this album.

After all this gushing, I do have one complaint. Even with 478 pages, this book simply wasn't long enough! As I turned that final page, I was sorry to see Sunny's story come to an end. While there weren't any holes in the plot, I felt there was more to reveal and I hope we haven't read the last of Sunny and her life on San Miguel Island. Either way, you can bet that The Laws of Harmony will be one of my favorite recommendations and that I'll eagerly await any news of a fifth book in the coming years!

February 15, 2009

Kabul Beauty School

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson
Nonfiction - Memoir
Copyright 2007 Random House
Finished on 2/8/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Product Description

Soon after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a group offering humanitarian aid to this war-torn nation. Surrounded by men and women whose skills–as doctors, nurses, and therapists–seemed eminently more practical than her own, Rodriguez, a hairdresser and mother of two from Michigan, despaired of being of any real use. Yet she soon found she had a gift for befriending Afghans, and once her profession became known she was eagerly sought out by Westerners desperate for a good haircut and by Afghan women, who have a long and proud tradition of running their own beauty salons. Thus an idea was born.

With the help of corporate and international sponsors, the Kabul Beauty School welcomed its first class in 2003. Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez stumbled through language barriers, overstepped cultural customs, and constantly juggled the challenges of a postwar nation even as she learned how to empower her students to become their families’ breadwinners by learning the fundamentals of coloring techniques, haircutting, and makeup.

Yet within the small haven of the beauty school, the line between teacher and student quickly blurred as these vibrant women shared with Rodriguez their stories and their hearts: the newlywed who faked her virginity on her wedding night, the twelve-year-old bride sold into marriage to pay her family’s debts, the Taliban member’s wife who pursued her training despite her husband’s constant beatings. Through these and other stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style.

With warmth and humor, Rodriguez details the lushness of a seemingly desolate region and reveals the magnificence behind the burqa. Kabul Beauty School is a remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom.

Kabul Beauty School was chosen by my book club for our February selection. I'm not sure why, but I was prepared to not particularly enjoy this memoir. Maybe I'm burned out on Afghanistan stories. I loved The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, yet The Swallows of Kabul and Three Cups of Tea were huge disappointments. When one of my book club members mentioned that Kabul Beauty School read a bit like The Namesake, with its lack of narrative tension or arc, I was worried that I'd be bored with this selection and would struggle to finish. Boy, was I wrong!

Deborah Rodriguez's intimate story of her experiences (and ultimately marriage) and life in Kabul drew me in from the opening pages. Unlike the challenge of reading Three Cups of Tea, I was mesmerized by the details of this story, never once counting the remaining pages, never once having to assign myself a specific number of pages in order to finish the book before our meeting. I devoured the book in less than two days!

Well aware of the harsh discrimination against women by the Taliban, I was still shocked and angry by the rules and barriers Afghan women continue to face in this part of the world. Debbie Rodriguez has helped create an opportunity for many women, regardless of their marital status. They are able to utilize the skills they've learned at the Kabul Beauty School to open their own salons, ultimately providing financial assistance to their families or themselves.

On Kabul...

From the moment that I met Roshanna during my first visit to Kabul in the spring of 2002, the first spring after the rout of the Taliban, I puzzled over the sadness in her. Why did I respond so strongly to her sadness when there are millions of sad stories in Kabul? It's a city that's dense with sadness. There are so many people who lost loved ones in the twenty-seven years of war in Afghanistan, who have lost homes and livelihoods, who have lost entire towns and families, who have lost every dream they ever had. And there is still the occasional bombing or surprise mine explosion that rips away the happiness people finally think might be theirs. So why did Roshanna stand out amid all that sadness. I think it was her gaiety, her warmth and exuberance, her colorful clothes and bright smile. She was trying so hard to be happy that it hurt me when her sadness showed.

On marriage...

To keep Roshanna safe, her parents did what many Afghan families did at this time. They searched frantically for a suitable husband among members of their tribe, hoping to marry her off to a good man before the Taliban found out that she was available. They thought they had succeeded when they heard that there was a single male cousin living in Germany. It was a buyers' market for grooms in those days. The girls' families couldn't afford to dicker over dowries, dresses, and gold rings with the Taliban circling like wolves. So an agreement was quickly reached, with only a very small dowry. Because the families wanted the union to take place as soon as possible, the groom came back to Afghanistan for the engagement party right away. And because the actual wedding would take place in Germany months later, they signed the nika-khat that same night.

The nika-khat is the marriage contract drawn up according to Islamic law. This contract, more than the wedding itself, is what makes a couple legal husband and wife. In ordinary times, the nika-khat is signed well after the engagement party to give the groom's family time to put together their resources for the dowry, the clothes, the wedding, and so on. Roshanna's family took the less ordinary step of allowing her to become this man's legal wife before the wedding by signing the nika-khat at the engagement party. His family had insisted upon it, so that she couldn't change her mind about marrying him after he went back to Germany. And everyone agreed that it would be easier for her to emigrate if she was already his legal wife. But within days her new husband left&#8212without a word, without reason, and without her. She was crushed and humiliated, but it only got worse. Two weeks later, she was told the cousin had divorced her when he got back to Germany.

From the Kabul Beauty School website:

The mission of the Kabul Beauty School was to provide women in Afghanistan with access to a comprehensive vocational training program. The program taught women the skills needed to work in an array of beauty-related businesses: salons, distributorships, bookkeeping, beauty education, wellness program, birth spacing, basic nutrition, literacy program including reading and writing in both English and Dari. Graduates of the program have learned the skills needed to create a substantial, self-sustainable future for themselves and their families.

We believe in helping Afghan women build a bridge from where they are now to where they want to go. The beauty industry provides an income for millions of people throughout the world and Afghanistan should be no exception.

The Beauty School project objectives are to:

1. Maintain a beauty school in Afghanistan with a culturally appropriate, hands-on training curriculum that provides beauty and business training for Afghan women.

2. Provide post-graduate support to graduates to operate their own businesses.

3. Develop a cadre of trained Afghan beauticians who can replicate the training program around the country.

As with A Thousand Splendid Suns, upon finishing this book, I felt sadness for the harsh and restrictive lives of the women in Afghanistan; I remain ever so thankful that I was born into a culture in which the extent of my rights as a human being are not determined by my gender.

I'm anxious for my book club meeting later this month. I suspect the discussion will be quite lively and I'm looking forward to persuing topics such as ethnocentrisism and women's rights in the Middle East, as well as the author's arranged marriage to her Afghan husband.

I'm also interested in reading up on some of the controversy surrounding the author and the school. You can find detailed information about this here (New York Times), here (NPR, with a powerful audio report), and here.

To read about potential strife in Rodriguez's marriage, go here.

To learn more about the Kabul Beauty School/Oasis Rescue Home, go here.

To listen to the author speak about the book and her life in Afghanistan, go here.

I discovered a marvelous photo blog on Aminus3, which has some fabulous photographs of the people and landscape of Kabul. You can find it here. Enjoy!

February 14, 2009


Yesterday marked the third anniversary of Lesley's Book Nook!

3 years

480 posts

180 book reviews

114,691 hits

2 spin-off blogs (cooking and photography)

Countless new friendships

Blogging has been such a rewarding experience and, although there have been times when I've felt too busy to post, I can't imagine my life without my blog and blogmates. Thank you all for helping to enrich my life. I've enjoyed each and every enthusiastic comment, felt each tender virtual hug in times of need, and am grateful for every one of you.

Good friends
good books ~
we want to
hang on to

If someone said to me,
how did you spend your life?
I'd have to say,
lying on the sofa reading.
~Fran Lebowitz

I still find each day too short for
all the thoughts I want to think,
all the walks I want to take,
all the books I want to read,
and all the friends I want to see.
~ John Burroughs

February 9, 2009

A Month in Review - January '09

I had planned to get this posted a few days ago, but I was laid up with a stomach virus and am only just now beginning to feel human again. Thank goodness the stomach flu only lasts 24-48 hours and isn't like a cold, lingering for weeks at a time!

But enough of that. Let's talk books. I began the New Year with a wonderful coming-of-age novel, set in Seattle during World War II. The characters came to life and I still find myself thinking of them. From there my reading took me to Dublin, Ireland, where I quickly became engrossed in a marvelous murder mystery written with an amazing literary quality. I've got the author's second book and am anxious to get to it once my husband finishes! I ended the the month with a collection of short stories by a favorite author; satisfying, to say the least. I look forward to her next release with great anticipation.

Only three books, but they were all very good. February's off to a great start, too! I've finished two winners and hope to have those reviews posted later this week.

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Hotel on the Corner Between Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

In the Woods by Tana French

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg

Favorite of the month: In the Woods by Tana French

Books Read 3
Male Authors 1
Female Authors 2
New-To-Me Authors 2
Epistolary 0
Audio 0
Fiction 3
Nonfiction 0
Historical Fiction 1
Coming-of-Age 1
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 0
Short Stories 1
Essays 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 1
Re-read 0
Mine 2
Borrowed 1

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

February 1, 2009

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation by Elizabeth Berg
Fiction - Short Stories
2008 Random House
Finished on 1/26/09
Rating 3.5/5 (Good)

Product Description

Exhilarating short stories of women breaking free from convention.

Every now and then, right in the middle of an ordinary day, a woman rebels, kicks up her heels, and commits a small act of liberation.

What would you do, if you were going to break out and away? Go AWOL from Weight Watchers and spend an entire day eating every single thing you want–and then some? Start a dating service for people over fifty to reclaim the razzle-dazzle in your life–or your marriage? Seek comfort in the face of aging, look for love in the midst of loss, find friendship in the most surprising of places?

Imagine that the people in these wonderful stories–who do all of these things and more–are asking you: What would you do, if nobody was looking?

I recently learned that Elizabeth Berg has just completed another novel, due out on April 28th. It's entitled Home Safe and the early product details sound intriguing! In spite of a few lackluster novels in the past couple of years, I still get excited when I learn about a new book by Berg. I've been reading her novels for over a decade and I believe this new release will be her 20th!

I spotted her current collection of short stories (The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation) at the library last month and decided to give it a try, hoping to find a gem or two in the collection. Well, I'm happy to say it was better than her last few novels. I'm not usually a big fan of short stories, but Berg has such a way of describing the most basic domestic scenes, full of details and images that help transport the reader into the lives of her characters.

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted is very much a brain candy read that melts away after the final sentence is read. My favorites are "Mrs. Ethel Menafee and Mrs. Birdie Stoltz" (a story about two elderly best friends dealing with a fatal disease), "How To Make An Apple Pie" (a marvelous birthday letter with a rambling description of -- you guessed it -- how to make a perfect apple pie), and "Sin City" (about a sixty-seven-year-old widow who decides to bust out of her rut and start spending her children's inheritance). All the stories are entertaining, but I'd be hard-pressed to describe a single one in the lot in great detail! I really need to take notes the next time I pick up a short story collection. I always feel that they should be read one at a time, perhaps between a novel or two, so that the story can remain independent of all the others in the collection. Of course, I never allow enough time to read them in this fashion (especially if it happens to be a library book!), as I'm always chomping at the bit to finish one book and move on to the next. Not that I don't savor what I'm reading, but I don't do well with reading one book over the course of several months.

In any event, this was quite a worthwhile read; one which is tempting me to go back and re-read those three favorite stories. And once I've finished with those, I can continue to read Elizabeth Berg's entertaining blog while I wait for April 28th to roll around. That is, unless I happen to luck out and get an ARC!