January 27, 2013

Emily, Alone

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
2011 Penguin
Finished 12/23/12
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)

Publisher's Blurb:

It's the fall of 2007 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The upcoming presidential race is starting to take shape. The Steelers are on the march to a division title. But on Grafton Street near Highland Park, the days and nights can be disturbingly quiet for Emily Maxwell, a woman in her late seventies still trying to adjust to life without her beloved and recently deceased husband, Henry. With her old cadre of friends dwindling one by one and her two adult children living far away and wrapped up in their own lives, Emily does her best to fill her days by listening to classical music on the radio, reading George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and caring for her aging but obstreperous dog Rufus. She lives an outwardly placid life of visits to art museums, gossip at her club, and two-for-one buffet breakfasts at the Eat 'n Park with her sister-in-law Arlene. That placidity is shattered, however, when, one morning at the Eat 'n Park, Arlene's speech suddenly garbles and she collapses to the floor. Arlene, after a brief stay at the hospital, is fine, but is Emily? Forced more than ever to look to her own resources, more conscious than ever that her own remaining time on earth will not likely be long, Emily quietly and slowly resumes a more active control of her life, determined to fill the days that she has left with thought, emotion, and meaning.

In Emily, Alone, with supreme sensitivity and exquisite detail, novelist Stewart O'Nan follows Emily through the better part of a year, illuminating her daily tasks, her holiday celebrations, and her unspoken yearnings and disappointments. In the pages of Emily, Alone readers already familiar with the Maxwell family from O'Nan's earlier novel Wish You Were Here are reunited with Emily's recovering alcoholic daughter Margaret and diligent, eager-to-please son Kenneth. Those who are meeting the family for the first time may find themselves strangely familiar with both the ties of emotion and experience that bind the Maxwells together and the subtle tensions that complicate their interactions. With a rare deftness of observation and minuteness of description, O'Nan shows us not merely a family but family itself—the sturdy but sensitive web that assumes so many different shapes but is somehow everywhere the same.

Eager for love but also unable to resist her need to direct the lives of her relatives, Emily Maxwell continually walks an emotional tightrope, striving simultaneously to recruit affection from her children and grandchildren but also to remind them that grandmother knows best. Ever conscious of her age and the widening gap between her own ideas and the mainstream of her society, she walks other tightropes as well: between a consciousness of change and a yearning for stasis; between the lengthening past and the shortening future; between the enduring preciousness of life and the inevitability of death. In Emily, Alone, Stewart O'Nan infuses the everyday with a miraculous vividness and urgency. Through Emily Maxwell, he firmly declares that no life is ordinary.

I loved this book! It was just the right thing to read during the busy holiday season, as the chapters are short (almost vignettes) and I could easily pick it up and set it down without losing interest. I loved Emily (and her loyal dog, Rufus) and I found myself nodding my head, feeling a bit like I was seeing a glimpse of my future self in some of Emily's situations and emotions. It also brought to mind memories of my maternal grandmother (who lived alone for 11 years after the death of my grandfather), as well as reflecting on my relationships with my mother (who turns 80 this year) and my daughter (who will be 30!).

One might consider the subject of an elderly widow too depressing, but I thought it was an uplifting novel and one in which O'Nan deftly paints a realistic portrait of the aging. The only other book I've read by this author is Last Night at the Lobster and I wasn't terribly impressed, although I sure had fun writing my review. I doubt I would have given Emily, Alone a second glance, had I not read Nan's wonderful review. I encourage you to visit her blog and see what she has to say about this gem of a book. She has included several passages that will give you an idea of the author's superb attention to detail. 

Final Thoughts: This one's a keeper! I am definitely adding Wish You Were Here and The Odds to my 2013 reading list!

January 19, 2013

The School of Essential Ingredients

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
2009 Penguin Audio
Reader: Cassandra Campbell
Finished: 11/30/12
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)

Product Description:

Once a month on Monday night, eight students gather in Lillian's restaurant for a cooking class. Among them is Claire, a young woman coming to terms with her new identity as a mother; Tom, a lawyer whose life has been overturned by loss; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer adapting to life in America; and Carl and Helen, a long-married couple whose union contains surprises the rest of the class would never suspect.

The students have come to learn the art behind Lillian's soulful dishes, but it soon becomes clear that each seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. One by one they are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of what they create, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love, and a garlic and red sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Over time, the paths of the students mingle and intertwine, and the essence of Lillian's cooking expands beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of their lives, with results that are often unexpected, and always delicious.

It's been over three years since I first discovered this lovely book. After receiving an ARC of Bauermeister's follow-up novel (The Lost Art of Mixing), I knew it was time to re-read The School of Essential Ingredients. I thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting Lillian's restaurant and Cassandra Campbell's excellent narration didn't disappoint. 

You can read my original review here and purchase The Lost Art of Mixing at your local bookstore on January 24th!

January 13, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
2010 Random House Audio
Readers: Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin
Finished 11/26/12
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)


Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

After reading so many positive reviews for this book, I was anxious to finally listen to the audio when it popped up in my library queue. The narrative starts off with a bang and I learned a lot about the history of HeLa cells. Unfortunately, as the story progressed I found it difficult to pay attention and felt the author focused too much on Deborah's life. I doubt I would've have finished the book, had I read the print edition. Disappointing.

Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
2012 HarperCollins
Finished 11/14/12
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific)

One of the gifts of a Kingsolver novel is the resplendence of her prose. She takes palpable pleasure in the craft of writing, creating images that stay with the reader long after her story is done.
—Dominique Browning (The New York Times Book Review)


Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. She hikes up a mountain road behind her house toward a secret tryst, but instead encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.

Flight Behavior was a wonderful read and, I believe, Kingsolver's best yet. The writing is exquisite and captivating and after two months, I'm still thinking about Dellarobia, Ovid Byron and the Monarch butterflies. I marked several passages in my book, but then made the decision to give up blogging and loaned my ARC to a friend. Now I don't have any to share with you, but perhaps that's for the best. This is a novel you will want to discover on your own. 

With the exception of The Lacuna and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I've read all of Kingsovler's novels and essay collections. I've enjoyed each book, but my favorites are The Poisonwood Bible and High Tide In Tuscon, both of which I'd love to re-read someday. Flight Behavior is now at the top of the list. Highly recommend!

January 6, 2013


Last week I made the decision to spend the month reading from my stacks. These books have been in my possession for close to a decade, if not longer (and have moved from Lincoln to Texas and back to Lincoln again!). With fairly strict adherence to my 50 page rule, I've managed to toss five aside. The good news is I finally found something I'm enjoying. These are the losers.

Read two dozen pages. No interest at all.

Bought this one at Powell's in the Portland airport. Isn't the cover art beautiful? Unfortunately, the coming-of-age tale didn't do anything for me.

I loved A Fine Balance and was anxious to finally give this one a read. Judging by the ratings on Goodreads, I'm in the minority, but after 40 pages it simply didn't appeal to me.

It's been such a long time since I read Big Stone Gap that I'd pretty much forgotten the entire back story when I picked up Trigiani's follow-up novel. I didn't even make it past 30 pages. With that said, I'm well over a 100 pages in Milk Glass Moon (the third in the series). Go figure. I may have to come back to this when I'm finished.

Another sequel that failed to pull me in. These Is My Words is one of my all-time favorite epistolary novels. I've read it twice and have hand sold well over a 100 copies. Unfortunately, Sarah's Quilt feels slow and plodding. I read over 50 pages and found I was beginning to check to see how much further I had to read. Not a good sign.

January 5, 2013


Don't tell my husband. I'm pretty sure he has a bet with one of his co-workers that I wouldn't last two weeks. ;)

Thank you for all your sweet comments. Between these and those posted on Facebook, I'm reminded that there are many readers out there who don't leave comments,  but are nonetheless following my blog and recommendations. I'm quite humbled.

It's been less than two weeks since I decided to close up shop and I have to admit that I'm missing it just a little bit. I don't miss the time involved in composing an informative book review, but I do miss the conversations shared with you. I'm still following my favorite blogs, but it feels like bit lopsided.

So... the compromise.

I am going to continue to keep a running list of the books I've read in my sidebar, as well post a very simple entry (similar to what I'll share on Goodreads) when I finish a book. If I mark a favorite passage, I'll include that, but no more long, involved reviews. Not much of a change from the past few months, is it? The big change involves commenting. Responding to comments has always been important to me, but as you all know, it can be very time consuming. So, unless asked a specific question, I will no longer respond general comments. I'm also going to refrain from joining any challenges this year and will only accept ARCs by my favorite authors. It's time to start reading more books from my stacks, many of which have been lurking for over a decade!

So here's to the New Year and a new plan. Thank you all for your loyalty and love.