May 31, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Nonfiction - Memoir
2016 Random House
Finished on February 4, 2016
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanitihi's transformation from a naive medical student "possessed," as he wrote, "by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life" into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another faces away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. "I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything," he wrote. "Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: 'I can't go on. I'll go on.'" When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

I read Paul Kalanithi's touching memoir over the course of three days. I enjoyed the first half of the book quite a bit more than the second half, which became more heavily focused on his philosophical views about death and the meaning of life. The first half was more about his youth and career path to becoming a neurosurgeon. The epilogue, which is written by Paul's wife, Lucy, is beautifully articulated and extremely touching, as is the foreword, which is written by Abraham Verghese.
Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift. Let me not stand between you and Paul.
On Books:
After I was caught returning at dawn from one such late-night escapade, my worried mother thoroughly interrogated me regarding every drug teenagers take, never suspecting that the most intoxicating thing I'd experienced, by far, was the volume of romantic poetry she'd handed me the previous week. Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.
On a Life Worth Living:
While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact. In addition, to the patient and family, the brain surgery is usually the most dramatic event they have ever faced and, as such, has the impact of any major life event. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability--or your mother's--to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand's function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?
On Neurosurgery:
Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death. I had thought that a life spent in the space between the two would grant me not merely a stage for compassionate action but an elevation of my own being: getting as far away from petty materialism, from self-important trivia, getting right there, to the heart of the matter, to truly life-and-death decisions and struggles... surely a kind of transcendence would be found there?

Final Thoughts:

I had such high hopes for this memoir. Overall, I thought it was pretty good and I'm glad I read it, but I didn't find it to be quite as amazing as other readers have stated. It's a sad story, but not one that brought me to tears. Atul Guwande's Being Mortal had a much stronger impact on me. But to be fair, they aren’t really all that similar. Being Mortal is about the care of our aging community (whether that be in a nursing home or staying within the family home), as well as hospice care and the death of loved ones. This resonated strongly with me as my parents, while healthy and active, are both in their 80s. Discussions about their wishes for their future care is an important topic and Gawande’s book helped shed light on issues I hadn’t considered. When Breath Becomes Air is about a young man’s career as a neurosurgeon and his untimely death to cancer. I was fascinated with the medical segments of the book, intrigued by neurosurgery and the treatment of diseases associated with that area of expertise. However, I grew frustrated with the author’s desire to continue working when he was so ill. Not only did I feel that he was putting his patients at risk, but also that he was robbing his wife and daughter of valuable time together with him in his final months. And yet, to compare the two books is the proverbial comparison of apples to oranges. Both are worthwhile and stand on their individual merits.

May 26, 2016

Looking Back - Like Water for Chocolate

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel
1989 (English translation 1992) Anchor Books (Doubleday)
Finished on March 30, 1996
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

With more than two million copies in print, Like Water for Chocolate has taken its place alongside such beloved first novels as The Joy Luck Club and How to Make an American Quilt as a treasured part of America's literary memory.

Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.

The number one bestseller in Mexico and America for almost two years, and subsequently a bestseller around the world, "Like Water For Chocolate" is a romantic, poignant tale, touched with moments of magic, graphic earthiness, bittersweet wit - and recipes.

A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.

My Original Notes (1996):

Wonderful! I read it in one day! Very quick, easy and light. A happy ending, too. Some interesting mystical, almost unbelievable events or interpretations. Very well done.

Rented the video - Terrible! Dubbing instead of subtitles. Made the acting seem forced. Disappointing! 

My Current Thoughts:

This may have been my first exposure to magical realism. I still have my copy and after thumbing through a few pages, I know I can (and will!) easily read this again in a day or so. I haven't read anything else by Esquivel. Any recommendations?

May 24, 2016

Wordless Wednesday

Book Signing for Progeny at Barnes & Noble
(My husband with Tosca Lee)

May 22, 2016

Unremarried Widow

Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson
Nonfiction - Memoir
2014 Simon & Schuster
Finished on January 27, 2016
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In the tradition of The Year of Magical Thinking and What Remains, this breathtaking memoir by a young Army widow shares her heartbreaking, candid story about recovering from her husband’s death.

A world traveler, Artis Henderson dreamed of living abroad after college and one day becoming a writer. Marrying a conservative Texan soldier and being an Army wife was never in her plan. Nor was the devastating helicopter crash that took his life soon after their marriage. On November 6, 2006, the Apache helicopter carrying Artis’s husband Miles crashed in Iraq, leaving her—in official military terms—an “unremarried widow.” She was twenty-six years old.

In Unremarried Widow, Artis gracefully and fearlessly traces the arduous process of rebuilding her life after this loss, from the dark hours following the military notification to the first fumbling attempts at new love. She recounts the bond that led her and Miles to start a life together, even in the face of unexpected challenges, and offers a compassionate critique of the difficulties of military life. In one of the book’s most unexpected elements, Artis reveals how Miles’s death mirrored her own father’s—in a plane crash that she survived when she was five. In her journey through devastation and heartbreak, Artis is able to reach a new understanding with her widowed mother and together they find solace in their shared loss.

But for all its raw emotion and devastatingly honest reflections, this is more than a grief memoir. Delivered in breathtaking prose, Unremarried Widow is a celebration of the unlikely love between two very different people and the universality of both grief and hope.

Some readers shy away from sad stories. The death of a spouse, child or pet are topics that most people aren't comfortable talking about, let alone reading books whose main focus is the grief one faces with such losses. I, for some morbid reason, am drawn to these narratives. Perhaps losing a child and a parent has made me more curious about how others deal with their own grief; perhaps I am subconsciously comparing their grief to mine. 

I came across Artis Henderson's memoir in the ARC stack at work one day and took the book home before even glancing at the back cover or publisher's letter to booksellers. I had a gut feeling it was something I'd want to read (Note, I didn't say enjoy, because rarely does one enjoy such a book.) and added it to my stacks. It turns out I was right. Unremarried Widow is a engrossing memoir that reads like fiction. I rarely stay awake more than 15-20 minutes at night while reading in bed, but Henderson's debut kept me wide awake for well over an hour. On the first night, I finally turned the light off at 11:00 pm, but could have easily read the entire book (242 pages) in one day.

Final Thoughts:

For a book about death, Unremarried Widow is a page-turner, filled with raw honesty and beautiful prose. We know the outcome from the opening pages, yet the details are compelling and heartbreaking. The author has always dreamed of becoming a writer and I think she can safely say that she's achieved that goal. I will eagerly seek out her next book.

May 19, 2016

Looking Back - Wuthering Heights

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Fiction - Classic
1959 Signet Classic (Originally published in 1847)
Finished on March 29, 1996
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:
In a house haunted by memories, the past is everywhere...

As darkness falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to shelter at the strange, grim house Wuthering Heights. It is a place he will never forget. There he will come to learn the story of Cathy: how she was forced to choose between her well-meaning husband and the dangerous man she had loved since she was young. How her choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge - and continues to torment those in the present. How love can transgress authority, convention, even death. And how desire can kill.

My Original Notes (1996):

I have never read this, not even in high school! It started off a little confusing, with lots of characters to get familiar with, plus a flashback told by the housekeeper. I really got into the book, though, and couldn't put it down. Very tragic. Not your happy ending romance. Heathcliff was horrible! Not as good as Jane Eyre, but still enjoyable.

I rented the video, which was very disappointing. It left out the second generation of characters!

My Current Thoughts:

Although it's been 20 years since I read this novel, I can still remember certain scenes in my mind's eye. I also remember that I compared it to Jane Eyre (which I have read a couple of times) and while I liked Charlotte Bronte's novel better, I still enjoyed Wuthering Heights, so much so that I'm willing to give it another read some day.

This relationship map sure would have come in handy!

May 16, 2016

The Secret Place

The Secret Place by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries
2014 Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Read by Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson
Finished on January 22, 2016
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. “The Secret Place,” a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The Secret Place is a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.

I'm a big fan of Tana French's mysteries, having read everything she's published, starting with her first, In the Woods, which my book club read back in 2009. With each new book, I grew more and more fond of French's style and characters, looking forward to each new group of detectives. Typically, the new lead detective has had a minor role in the previous book, so it's fun to get to know more about them in the latest installment of the Dublin Murder Squad series.

My favorite book of French's is constantly changing with each new release; the latest always just a little bit better than the previous book. So why wasn't I chomping at the bit to read The Secret Place when it was released in 2014? Waiting to read some reviews from fellow bloggers, and not really hearing any positive remarks from friends and co-workers, I held off until early this year. I started with the audio and couldn't get interested, eventually calling it quits. After a few weeks, I decided to give it another chance and picked up the print edition. I finished, in spite of my overall dissatisfaction. There were too many unanswered questions about the supernatural aspect of the mystery (an on-going theme in all of French's books) and I didn't like either of the detectives or any of the eight girls. Also, the alternating time periods were confusing and didn't flow well, especially when listening to the audio book.

Final Thoughts:

Bleh. Definitely my least favorite of all of Tana French's books. 

May 10, 2016

Wordless Wednesday {more or less}

The Calm Before the Storm

  Eight hours later, a storm moved 
in with pea-sized hail.

Starting to fall pretty heavily now.

Torrential downpour and flooding.

Looks like snow!

Thankful it's only this size. 
Softball-sized hail just to the east of us!

If this was a video,
 you'd be able to hear the tornado sirens
 (and the hail!)
This lasted for over 3 hours!

Two tornadoes touched down in Lincoln. 
Almost 5 inches of rain.
The roof and siding are fine. 
The basement is dry. 
The flowers will rebound.

We got lucky.

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, go here.

May 5, 2016

Looking Back - Katerina

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.

Katerina by Aharon Appelfeld
1991 Random House
Finished on March 17, 1996
Rating: 1/5 (Disliked)

From Publisher's Weekly (1992):

With piercing clarity, Israeli novelist Appelfeld tells the profoundly moving story of Katerina, a Polish housekeeper who works for a succession of Jewish families in the years before WW II. Raised in a culture permeated with virulent anti-Semitism, she must constantly try to overcome the prejudice instilled by her bitter mother, who beat her, and her callous father, who attempted to rape her. One by one, Jewish people who are good to Katerina die: an employer murdered by thugs on Passover; a moody, perfectionistic female pianist. Then her own baby, whom she has raised as a Jew, is snatched from her arms and killed. For knifing her son's murderer, Katerina spends more than 40 years in prison. Other inmates cheer as freight trains take Jews to concentration camps. Released from prison, Katerina lives in a hut on her deceased family's deserted farm and, at age 79, narrates her life story, lamenting that ``there are no more victims in the world, only murderers.'' A theme that might be didactic in the hands of a lesser novelist is here conveyed with moving, unpreachy simplicity. This masterful novel is a powerful study of the poison of prejudice, a poignant meditation on life's horrors, beauty and God's inscrutable ways. Appelfeld imbues every scene with deep humanity in a riveting tale of universal appeal.

My Original Notes:

So-so. Not a whole lot of depth and has a simplistic feel to it. Somewhat boring.

My Current Thoughts:

I have no memory about this book other than my disappointment. I don't think it was one my book club read, so I'm not sure what inspired me to pick it up.

May 4, 2016

Wordless Wednesday

Wertheim, Germany
October 2015

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, go here.

May 2, 2016

A Month in Summary - April 2016

After three months of great reading, my streak has ended, at least with regard to the numbers. I blame this on all the ARCs I gave up on after reading well over 50-80 pages of each. Four DNFs should count as the equivalent of one book, right? But I did wind up finishing a total of five books and they were all very good, so I shouldn't complain, especially since they were all from my personal library (or audio books). 

Once again, I stuck to my goal of reading from my own shelves, but next month is going to be a different story. Two weeks ago, I found myself at the library for the first time in years and I came home with seven books that I've been eager to read. I'm devoting the entire month of May to a personal challenge of "Support Your Local Library," even though it doesn't help reduce the stacks of unread books around my house. I've already begun one of the novels and it pulled me in from the very first page, so I'm looking forward to some great reads.

Miller's Valley by Anna Quindlen (Own) 4/5

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (Borrowed - Audio) 4/5

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh (Own) - DNF

Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon (Own) - DNF

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson (Borrowed - Audio) 4.5/5

Close My Eyes by Sophie McKenzie (Own) - DNF

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (Own) 4.5/5

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian (Borrowed - Audio) 4/5

The Why of Things by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop (Own) - DNF


Triple Dog Dare Challenge - Disregarding the books I did not finish, 2 of the 5 books read were from my own stacks (the other 3 were library audio books, so I believe I stuck to my goal).

5 books
5 novels
1 childrens
1 new-to-me-authors 
2 print
3 audio
3 female
2 male
3 borrowed
2 from my stacks 

Favorite of the Month: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Reviews to follow 

May 1, 2016

{Gratitude Lately}

Lately, I've been thankful for

Inexpensive wine that tastes great!

Beautiful sunrises that make
 my early commute more tolerable.

My beautiful tree-lined neighborhood
 and that gorgeous sunrise.

This girl who knows just
how to spend her Saturday mornings.

Bike rides on a 
wind-free day in Nebraska!

Cool neighborhood yard art!

An extra hour in my day, 
thanks to Daylight Savings Time.

Short commutes and beautiful skies.

The beauty of spring blossoms.

Neighborhood trees in full bloom.

Tulips in my garden that, for once,
 the squirrels and rabbits ignored.

This sky.

That cloud!

Friday afternoons and this view from a stoplight.

Soaking rains and double rainbows.

and most of all, these two.

Happy Sunday, friends!
What are you grateful for this week?

For more Gratitude posts, click here.