Wednesday, January 18, 2017

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

I generally steer clear of memoirs, particularly about death.  However, this book has garnered so much press that I felt obligated to read it.  A friend passed it along, and I was happy to see that it was very small.  Paul Kalanithi learns, before he finishes his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, that he has terminal cancer.  He accepts his fate with grace but also a sense of urgency, because there is so much that he wants to accomplish.  This book, though, is not just about his approach to his own death, but, more importantly, I think, it is about his approach to the mortality of his patients.  Paul is intrigued by the whole idea of the mind as a product of the brain, where the mind embodies all those traits and emotions that we regard as human:  hope, love, courage, ambition.  I know that the role reversal of patient and doctor is supposedly a central theme of this book, but I didn’t really see it that way.  Paul very much participates in his own treatment, without browbeating his oncologist, but he researches his diagnosis thoroughly enough to have a peer-to-peer conversation with her.  My favorite part of the book is probably his widow’s epilogue, in which she gives us details that Paul chose not to share.  I’m glad I read this book, if only to find out what all the fuss was about, but I had a rather lukewarm reaction to it.  I love that this book is his legacy, particularly for his family, and that, through this book, his influence is far-reaching.  However, I think the lives he improved and saved with his scalpel and his compassion in a short period of time are his most important legacy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

Haven’t you always wondered what your life would look like as a movie?  The two families in this novel get to experience just that after Franny makes the mistake of telling her lover, a well-known author, the story of her stepbrother’s death.  A bestseller is born and eventually a movie.  Actually, everything begins at Franny’s christening, when a party-crashing assistant DA falls for Franny’s mother.  The ensuing divorces and marriage result in a blended family with six children--Franny, her sister, and their four stepsiblings.  We get to know all of these people as adults, but I had some difficulty keeping straight who were the offspring of which divorced couple, probably because there were two daughters in both families.  Maybe the names could have been a little less generic than Franny, Caroline, Holly, and Jeannette.  Only Albie, the only boy to survive to adulthood, has a standout personality as a child, and not just because he’s the only boy.  He’s a troublemaker of the first order, who becomes even less manageable after the two traumatic events of his life—his parents’ divorce and his brother’s death.  The timeline in this book is not strictly sequential, allowing the author to save the most important detail—how one of the six children dies—until very late in the book.  For me, this tidbit was what I kept reading to find out.  Not that I minded spending time with these characters.   As adults, they blossom from four virtually indistinguishable girls into four very unique and strong women.  I leave Albie’s fate for you to find out.  This book may not be as exotic as State of Wonder or Bel Canto, but it’s still a pleasurable read. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

THE PATRON SAINT OF LIARS by Ann Patchett

Rose is a young woman in the 1960s who does not love her husband and abandons him abruptly when she discovers that she’s pregnant.  She does seem to love her mother, however, but leaves both her husband and her mother in California for a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Habit, Kentucky.  She never divulges to the sisters there the fact that she is not, in fact, unwed.  She bonds with Sister Evangeline, who runs the kitchen, and Rose soon finds that she has a knack for cooking.  The striking thing about this home is that, of course, all of the occupants and their babies depart within nine months.  However, Sister Evangeline can discern certain things about unborn babies and predicts that Rose will not, in fact, give hers up for adoption.  Rose remains an enigma throughout the novel, never softening and rarely divulging even the tiniest scraps of information about her former life in California.  She lets down her guard only when she’s in a car.  I’m not sure I understand what the author was getting at here.  Does Rose only open up when she’s in motion?  Is that when she feels relaxed or confident or comfortable or what?  I so love this author’s other work, especially Taft and State of Wonder, but I did not love this book, which was Patchett’s first novel.  My biggest beef with it is that the pace was much too slow.  Plus, Rose was so inscrutable, and I never figured out why she so selfishly walked out on people who loved her, leaving sad and puzzled souls in her wake, although she may have just been incapable of loving anyone in return.  And the ending was a major disappointment for me.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE COFFEE TRADER by David Liss

Miguel Lienzo is a handsome Jewish commodities trader in Amsterdam in the 1600s, having fled Portugal during the Inquisition.  Who knew there was a stock exchange back then?  Miguel is now living on the edge, having lost everything and then some in the sugar trade.  Living with his brother and his brother’s beautiful wife, Miguel cooks up a scheme with a mysterious widow, Geertruid, to recover and surpass his previous fortune.  The big questions are whether or not Miguel’s plan for manipulating the price of coffee will work and whether his partners are trustworthy.  Constantly fending off his creditors, he never seems to become frantic, despite consuming excessive amounts of coffee, being hounded by a destitute and disgruntled client, and managing not to cross the Ma’amad--a Jewish Council that prohibits doing business with gentiles.  Meanwhile, he may be falling in love with his brother’s wife, who doesn’t realize that the coffee beans have to be brewed.  She eats the berries raw.  Whoa!  That’s hardcore.  There are a few twists and turns, especially at the end, and even some suspense, but, although Miguel may be full of coffee-induced energy, the pace of the novel is agonizingly slow.  This book was not my cup of tea, perhaps because I’m not a coffee drinker.  Maybe some caffeine would have helped me plow through it with more enthusiasm.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware

Laura Blacklock, still reeling from a home invasion, embarks on a mega-opulent cruise.  She writes for Velocity, a travel magazine, and is filling in for her pregnant boss.  The ship has only 10 cabins, and cabin 10, next door to Laura, is not supposed to be occupied.  However, Laura borrows a mascara from a harrowed woman in that cabin and then hears something being thrown overboard. Laura sees blood on the glass door and a woman’s body sinking in the ocean.  She reports these events to the crew, but they don’t seem to take her seriously, especially since cabin 10 is now completely empty.  Everyone tries to convince her that she was drunk and imagined the whole thing.  There is no one she can trust, and the only person who purports to believe her is Ben, an ex-boyfriend who is also on board.  We readers, as well as Laura, have to guess whether Ben is on Laura’s side or in collusion with whoever committed the murder.  Laura is wary of all the other occupants and has no way to contact friends and family at home, as the ship’s wi-fi is mysteriously out of order.  Laura soldiers on, sticking to her guns about what she witnessed.  She may be sort of a bumbler, but who wouldn’t be in such scary circumstances?  The fact that she makes some serious mistakes further humanizes her as someone trying to do the right thing without the tools to do it.  The format of this novel adds to its suspense, since Laura’s narrative is interspersed with news bulletins that report her as missing.  I found this book to be quite entertaining—not as good as The Kind Worth Killing but a whole lot better than The Girl on the Train.  A friend suggested an interpretation of the ending that I hadn’t considered, and I think she’s spot-on.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

THE KIND WORTH KILLING by Peter Swanson

This novel is full of deliciously depraved characters, and I couldn’t get enough of them.  The author delivers one jolting surprise after another, starting with Ted discussing his adulterous wife Miranda with Lily in an airport lounge.  Ted has more money than he knows what to do with and wants to avoid a long and costly divorce.  He would really like to do away with Miranda altogether, and Lily eggs him on, so that the next thing we know, we have a rich guy plotting a murder with a beautiful, willing accomplice.  And why not take out Miranda’s naughty paramour, Brad Daggert (“Braggert” as one character dubs him), while we’re at it?  There’s a lot more going on here, though, than meets the eye, especially with regard to the past history of some of the characters.  Then one huge twist cracks the situation wide open and sets off an avalanche of murders, hooking me completely.  In the hands of a less-talented writer, the plot could have fizzled at this point, but, no, the action just gets more frenetic, and the shock value amps up as well.  Amidst all the sociopaths, a detective finally emerges to give the novel some kind of moral balance and someone to root for, because surely all these murders are not going to go unsolved—or are they?  Gone Girl’s ending was one of its few disappointments, but the ending to this novel is perfect in every way.  Go ahead and treat yourself to this exquisitely twisted tale.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

FOOL ME ONCE by Harlan Coben

As her brother-in-law observes, death follows Maya Stern.  Her sister was murdered in a home invasion, and her husband Joe has just been murdered in a park right before her very eyes.  Joe’s brother supposedly fell overboard years ago during a trip to Bermuda, and that’s the last straw:  something really fishy is going on.  Plus, Maya suffers from PTSD after a stint in the Middle East in which one particular mission tarnished her record.  Now she’s a single mother and wants some answers, particularly given that the same gun was used to kill both her sister and her husband.  When an image of her supposedly dead husband turns up on her nanny cam, even more questions arise.  She has to decipher what is reliable information and what is misinformation and, more importantly, who is trustworthy and who is not.  As an amateur sleuth, Maya is better than most, and she’s an expert marksman--if firearms are required, and you can bet they will be.  Character development is a little slipshod for the most part, but Maya is fairly well scoped out.  She’s tall, fierce, fearless, confident, and never backs away from a possible confrontation, even with her wealthy and overbearing in-laws who seem to have something to hide.  We don’t have much to go on with regard to the personalities of the dead sister and Joe, but the mother-in-law is obviously a snake in the grass.  When Joe’s sister Caroline shares a juicy clue, we don’t know if she’s the only truthful person in the family or if she’s just playing a role to muddy the waters.  Of course, there’s a twist at the end, and I feel particularly gullible here, because I did not see it coming.