Wednesday, January 25, 2017


A group of folks from Ireland set out for a better life in America—on the Titanic.  Seventeen-year-old Maggie seems to be the only one not really excited about going, and that’s because she’s leaving behind the man she loves.  Now that her mother has died, though, she must accompany her aunt back to the U.S.  We know that Maggie survives, because 70-odd years later, she is the great-grandmother of Grace, who has given up college to take care of her ill and grieving mother.  Grace, too, left a boyfriend behind, as well as an opportunity to submit a feature story to the Chicago Tribune.    Maggie encourages Grace to resume her college career, reconnect with her boyfriend, and write Maggie’s story.  I sort of liked this novel, but I found it hard to separate it from the movie.  I was glad, though, that the book did not dwell on the disaster itself, because certainly I saw enough of that in the movie.  I also did not feel that this novel tugged at my heartstrings, as the victims are not very robust characters.  An unexpected twist at the end was gratifying, and the prose is smooth but not noteworthy.  I discovered at the end that true events, besides just the sinking of the ship, inspired this book.  I think this novel works as a tribute but not necessarily as an absorbing read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


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


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


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.