Saturday, August 29, 2015

THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE by Sonja Yoerg (✮✮✮✮)

Publication date: 1 September, 2015
My thanks to Penguin-Signet for a review galley

Initially, I was very leery of this novel, which centers around a woman with emotional issues embarking upon a major hike, hoping that the journey will give her the physical space from her life and the headspace to contemplate where her life has gone awry. If you have followed my reviews, you know that I absolutely hated Cheryl Strayed’s similar nonfiction memoir, Wild (link to my review HERE). Because of my experience with that book, I thought more than twice about picking this one up.

I am so glad that I wasn’t swayed and agreed to review a galley of this one for Penguin-Signet. While the bones of the story are similar to Strayed’s, that is where the similarities end. Since a good portion of the people who read Ms. Yoerg’s novel will likely have read Ms. Strayed’s memoir, I will use it as a comparison so you can decide if this one is for you based on how I felt about the memoir.

First off, Cheryl Strayed was a complete novice hiker who had absolutely no business heading out alone on a through hike. Her ineptitude caused her to put others in danger, and that is just irresponsible ignorance. Since she felt no connection to nature, the trail as a stunning setting was absent in her book. By contrast, Ms. Yoerg’s main character, Liz, knew what she was getting into and there is a good deal of hiking info and parlance to which even the most casual hiker will be able to relate. As a foil, her boyfriend, Dante, a novice hiker, tags along for the ride, allowing the reader to watch him develop along the trail and see Liz’s strengths shine. Liz clearly loves the natural world (for the most part) and the trail itself is as alive as any of the characters.

By giving Liz one aversion to a natural element, Ms. Yoerg is able to create a woman-versus-nature tension that she successfully plays off from the other major source of tension in the novel, that of a mysterious and ominous pair of brothers who are dogging Liz and Dante’s journey. Wild completely lacked any kind of worthwhile tension, and it significantly weakened the story line. As the novel progresses, so does the level of suspense, pulling the reader through the tightly edited conclusion of their trek.

Both Liz and Cheryl have emotional issues that they are trying to work through. I could never connect to Cheryl as a reader because I disliked her so intensely. Many of her problems were brought on herself through her own choices and she never seemed to learn from them. I found her whiney and immoral. Liz’s issues were no less opposed to my own moral standards, yet I felt sympathy for both her and Dante given that two very different sides of the issue were expressed with equal sensitivity.

This novel is a satisfying blend of hiking tale, emotional journey, and thriller. The only reason that I did not give it five stars is because I felt that the author came right out and told the reader at the very beginning of the novel what Liz’s issues were. This robbed the novel of a lot of emotional tension, an element that I think would have woven nicely with the tension lent to the story by the trail itself, Liz’s one fear of the outdoors, and the sinister brothers.

I do not at all think that you need to be a hiker to enjoy this novel. The world of the trail is well detailed and gives the reader everything they need to know to follow the plot and feel engaged. If you like thrillers with a straightforward story arc, literary fiction, and travel writing, you will likely find this an enjoyable read.

REBEL QUEEN by Michelle Moran (✮✮✮✮)

The hunt for the Moran book that tops Madame Tussaud is still on, but I definitely enjoyed this one way more than her last effort, Second Empress.

Those who follow my reviews know that as far as I am concerned you can write your historical fiction as far out on the historical accuracy plain as you please.  Just give a solid author’s note at the end letting we the readers know where you deviated from fact.  This novel, which occurs in the court of Queen Lakshmi during India’s British colonial era of the mid-nineteenth century, does not cover a person or time period that I am at all familiar with, so as I read, I was reading purely for entertainment.  However, as is my usual MO, after reading I did some research and found that the bones of this novel are far more based in fact than those of Second Empress, which I panned for a number of reasons, among them the inaccuracies that were presented as fact.

This is a novel full of powerful women, women strong in spirit, body and determination.  However, similar to The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, a novel marketed as being about Catherine the Great, Rebel Queen is somewhat falsely advertised.  Like Stachniak, Moran chooses to center her novel around a member of the more famous character’s retinue, and the queen becomes very much a background character.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is through the background of Sita, a girl driven to become a member of Lakshmi’s famed all female guard, that the reader truly gains an appreciation of what attaining the position could mean.  My irritation is that I am tired of reading, and reading, and reading, waiting for the genuine historical figure, about whom the story is purported to be written, to step up into the spotlight.  Since very few people have ever heard of Lakshmi, I felt the artifice on the part of the marketing department was unnecessary.  The story of her guard is equally compelling, and I felt the book could have been marketed on Sita’s merits, notwithstanding those of Lakshmi.

Once you accept the fact that Lakshmi is not going to take over as the central character and you begin to embrace Sita as your leading lady, the novel becomes a wonderfully engaging story.  It has been awhile since I read a story that sucked me in from the outset and had me flipping pages to see where the plot was leading.  Although you know from the beginning that Sita will win a rare and coveted spot in Lakshmi’s guard, Moran keeps the journey from village girl to court pebbled with enough deviations to keep the reader interested. Her characterizations are colorful and diverse, and she gives the reader a satisfying sense of place.

The only thing that kept this from being a four and a half, or maybe even a five, star read was the fact that the marketing had me seeking a plot arc that did not exist and left me feeling a bit frustrated.  Go into this one knowing who the central heroine is, and you should have a great reading experience.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

WIDE-OPEN WORLD by John Marshall (✮✮✮✮⭐︎)

There are a number of memoirs available written by people who take the trip of a lifetime and then share their stories.  What sets John Marshall’s account aside is first and foremost that he is not a young, single person taking a gap year, and second, his writing is a wonderfully deft, often humorous, dance amongst joy and sorrow.  Not only is John not young and single, but he took along on his journey his wife and their two teenage children.  To anyone who is also a parent, that adds an additional allure to this memoir.  Their choice as a family was to unplug and detach, to spend six months in places with little or no internet, phone service, or even running water and electricity.  The original mantra that kept running through John’s head was “year of service”, and his wife, Traca, and the kids were more than happy to buy into the idea, which they modified to six months to better accommodate the kids’ desire to return to Maine in time to start school in the fall.

Marshall and his wife had often thought of extended travel, but it just never seemed to be the right time to pack up their lives and launch.  Eventually, they came to the realization that the time is never “right” and that if they were going to ever go they would need to just take off.  They packed up their son, Logan, aged seventeen, and their daughter, Jackson, who was fourteen and headed for Costa Rica’s Osa Wildlife Refuge, where they worked with monkeys.  Other stops along the way included organic farming in New Zealand, teaching English in a village school in Thailand, exploring yoga and buddhism and helping orphans in India, and finally, a visit to a small village in Portugal where the family had spent a year when the children were pre-schoolers.

As great as their international travel experience was, John infuses his story with many additional elements.  Beyond the growth that they all were blessed with through serving in various capacities, John tells a story of marriage, family, and self-discovery.  What saves this book from becoming a pedestrian life story is the depth of insight John is willing to honestly portray and his gift for seeing (and being able to smoothly shape into a narrative) the humor in all things.  He successfully tread the fine line between sharing an candid and relatable tale and maintaining respect for his wife’s and children’s privacy.

If, when I receive a galley of a book from a publisher, as I did with this one, and I get my review out after the publication date, I like to address some of the criticisms from other early reviewers.  Several reviewers mentioned that they felt that although the book is marketed as a family’s story, it was really John’s.  Of course it is John’s memoir.  He is the author, and the book is told from his viewpoint.  I felt he did an excellent job sharing insights and experiences that were related to him or experienced together with the other family members.  The reader also has the opportunity to see, through John’s musings, the persona of each person at the outset of the trip and how they changed as they worked their way from place to place.  Another complaint is that the daughter, Jackson, is portrayed rather unsympathetically as a self-centered teen.  I didn’t see that at all.  Jackson was, I felt, at the outset, a fairly typical representation of an American girl of her generation.  I loved her part in the story because I felt that she grew the most of any family member; John gives the impression that he thought so too.

At the conclusion of his memoir, John gives a very brief sketch of what happened with all of them in the years after they returned home to Maine.  He also lays out a brief summary of how their family, on a working class income, was able to finance the trip and gives some advice about finding reputable service vacation opportunities online.

I absolutely recommend this book for any armchair traveler or those thinking that they might like to take their family on a similar service oriented vacation.  The only reason this book came up half a star short of perfect for me was that I would have liked tighter editing—it was a tad lengthy.  John has a great website at johnmarshall.comwhich I highly recommend checking out after you read the book—lots of great pictures!  However, I do recommend not logging on before finishing, as it will spoil the memoir’s ending.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

THE DOCTORS' PLAGUE by Sherwin Nuland ✮✮✮⭐︎

One of the great truths of science is that in seeking the answer to one question, the greatest discoveries are often made.  It is of such a quest that Sherwin B. Nuland seeks to enlighten his reader in his nonfiction work, The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis.  Nuland writes with passionate enthusiasm about the history of childbed fever and Ignác Semmelweis, the discoverer of its cause, a man all but lost in the annuls of history.  In helping the reader to understand Semmelweis and the importance of his discovery, the author outlines the history of the illness that sparked his single-minded quest for answers and introduces many important medical and political figures of the time.  Informing about the clinical aspects takes precedence, but along the way readers learn a fair amount about the medical culture of the primary setting of the book: Vienna, in the middle of the nineteenth century.
After a lovely narrative telling the tale of a young, pregnant woman dying of childbed fever after the hospital delivery of her child, a fairly comprehensive recitation of the history of childbed fever is given.  Covered are the many people who attempted to dig their way to the root of the devastating illness whose eradication is the central theme of the book.  This information is given in a couple of chapters—one about the earliest postulations and another setting the scene for the medical community which Semmelweis would soon join.  
Finally, the author begins telling the story of Ignás Semmelweis, a young physician, who chose obstetrics after unsuccessfully attempting entrance to more respected fellowships, because he knew he would not face rejection again.  It might be said that fate led Semmelweis, who originally aspired to the practice of law, to the Allgemeine Krankenhaus and thrust his agile, inquisitive mind towards solving a problem that had bedeviled midwives, physicians, and their patients for more than 2,200 years.  It was Ignás Semmelweis who finally drew the first lasting connection between the importance of hand-washing in halting the spread of infection, including that which caused childbed fever, from patient to patient.

What makes Semmelweis’s story so engaging is not only the fact that he solved a medical mystery that had an import stretching beyond hospital delivery rooms.  His story shows the importance of two practices long viewed as necessary in ensuring that discoveries of scientific import are acknowledged as credible: establishing laboratory experiments that can be replicated by others in the field and publishing written accounts of all findings.

Sherwin Nuland does an excellent job highlighting Semmelweis’s resistance to laboratory experiments, which the doctor deemed unnecessary; he felt the recorded drops in mortality rates of childbed fever in hospitals which instituted mandatory hand-washing spoke for themselves.   Another area the author spends even more time discussing is the effect of Semmelweis’s failure to write about his findings.  Semmelweis was very fortunate that he had friends who were well respected within the medical community and wrote on his behalf.  Their enthusiasm for his discovery, however, hurt Semmelweis in the end, because they didn’t adequately cover all 
aspects of his research and a critical detail was neglected.  The other doctors claimed that Semmelweis had found that infection was spread when doctors went into the delivery room, without adequate hand sanitizing, after dissecting corpses of those who died of childbed fever.  They neglected to mention that Semmelweis also discovered that infection transferred from other sources, such as an infected knee and cancerous pus from an infected breast.  This omission caused doctors at hospitals that did not practice autopsies to discount Semmelweis’s theory; since they did not deal with cadavers, their cases of childbed fever could not be attributed to the only cause that Semmelweis apparently espoused.  

While the author writes in a convincing and vivid fashion about the main themes in the book, the book does have a couple of definite weaknesses.  Foremost of them is that the book is in desperate need of a more definitive timeline.  For the vast majority of the book the reader is bounced literally from Before the Common Era into the mid-nineteenth century and back and forth to various times in between.  This structure makes following the process of discovery very challenging.  The second issue that makes the book more challenging than it likely needs to be is that in a couple of chapters right at the beginning of the book the reader is subjected to a very dry, arduous recitation of names, dates, and theories.  The information is necessary to the story but would have gained a more attentive audience if woven in a more anecdotal fashion into the flow of the narrative.

Overall, I definitely feel that the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.  Nuland creates a convincing argument for Semmelweis’s place in history—in the beginning he is a bit too enamored of his protagonist, but he does come round to an honest assessment of his subject in the end, making his opinions seem well-reasoned and valid.  A complete, if disorganized, history of childbed fever is presented in such a way that the book will appeal beyond the reader of medical chronicles.  General history and politics, social issues, women’s studies, and even the psychological make-up of Semmelweis are all interwoven into the narrative, making for a story with broad appeal.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

MAMA KOKO AND THE HUNDRED GUNMEN by Lisa J. Shannon (✮✮✮✮⭐︎)

Currently, I am doing a multiple year reading challenge through most of the African nonfiction on my TBR, with the addition of a few novels.  Based on the advice of a friend who also enjoys reading nonfiction about The Dark Continent, one of the first books to go on my challenge list was Lisa Shannon’s The Thousand Sisters.  Since my Congo books were slated for next year, I had yet to experience her writing; however, when I was offered a review copy of this, her newest book, I jumped on it.

Lisa had the opportunity to travel to the home village of a friend, a Congo born woman married to an American who served in the Peace Corps in her village.  Francesca’s family’s region had recently become embroiled in the tragic despotic conflict that has been spreading across the borders of several neighboring countries.  Lisa convinced her that they should travel to the area together, with Francesca acting as translator and guide, in order for Lisa to document and then share with the west the continued abuses and trials suffered by the people of the region.

Lisa Shannon is a well-known activist for the women of Congo and has devoted her life to raising awareness of their plight.  As such, I expected an insightful look at the hardships experienced by her subjects, but I was completely unprepared for what an outstanding narrative writer she is.  She brings Congo to sweat-soaked, dust-laden reality.  Its people come vividly to life as she shares their humor under duress, their love for each other, and their despair over the calamity that has descended on their once bucolic corner of Africa.

Mama Koko is primarily the story of Francesca’s family (Mama Koko is her mother) and their reminiscences.  Lisa relates first person interviews, observes the situation at the time of her visit, and shares her insight.  In addition, Lisa is unflinching in her analysis of her own motivations and emotions.  There is an appendix at the end of the book where a brief but very informative history of the descent of Congo into chaos is detailed.  Lisa states that she wanted the focus of the book to be on the family and their experiences, but as someone unfamiliar with the genesis and progression of the conflict, I appreciated her synopsis.

At the conclusion of the book, Lisa gives a list of organizations that aid victims of violence in Congo and encourages readers to learn more about their critical efforts.  There is also a listing of all the people mentioned in the book and a distinguishing characteristic.  My guess is that list will be moved to the front of the final publication, but if not, be aware that it is in the back and rather useful while you read, as there is a large cast of players in the narrative.  Although they were not included in my galley, it looked as though there are going to be a significant number of maps in the finished product, which has been available for purchase since 3 February.

Chronology was the sole reason that this book did not garner five stars from me—I gave it a solid four and a half in places that allow halves.  Lisa gives a linear narration of her interviews in the order she conducted them, along with her own experiences, as opposed to the order in which the events being recounted happened.  At times, I lost my grasp of how the many occurrences slotted together.

That single gripe aside (and truly, it in no way affected the impact of the story Lisa was trying to tell), I would recommend this book to anyone who seeks to better understand the non-combatant viewpoint of a region in violent crisis.  This story is not told as a journalist might report the conflict.  It is the chronicle of one motivated, compassionate woman driven to share the anguish of families caught in the cross-fire of a tumultuous battle which came unbidden to their doorstep and which they have never embraced as their own.  This is a book aimed at encouraging each of us to engage, both on an emotional and a hands-on level, in one of the great tragedies of our time.  

Friday, January 23, 2015

☊ An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (✮✮✮✮)

What a lovely little novel!  This tale of Japan, set just after the Second World War and with flashbacks to the pre-war period, gives its reader a peek into the culture of the time and carries a message relevant to the plot of the book and even modern lives.

The story follows Ono, an artist of some repute, and slowly unfolds a tale of how the past bleeds into the present and can have far-reaching effects on those we love.  Centered around the marriage negotiations for his daughter, which brings the reader quite nicely into the sphere of Japanese culture at the time, the novel has a much deeper theme.  In a subtle unfolding of choices made and how they are perceived by Ono and others, and thus reaching forward through time to affect the characters, the reader glimpses life in post-warJapan.  However, the message is such that it is one easily grasped by and relevant to a modern, western reader.

Narrated by David Case, this brief audio clocks in at a mere six and a half hours.  While I would not call the narration outstanding, Case does a creditable job of voicing each of the characters distinctly.  I would probably recommend reading this one in print, as there were several parts where I backed up the audio in order to hear again passages which I found especially engaging.

If you are a reader who enjoys a gradually unfolding plot and a message that takes an infinitesimal turn just as you think you have grasped the heart of the moral, this tale, gentle on the surface but roiling beneath, will give you a contemplative few hours.

☊ A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR by Mark Helprin (✮✮✮✮)

Certainly, this tome by Helprin is not for the faint of heart: the book is just shy of eight hundred pages and the audio clocks in at thirty-one hours.  Until the end of the book, I was not thinking it would earn more than three stars from me.  In the end, I had to acknowledge that despite its weaknesses, the book deserved more regard.

Helprin gives as our narrator a man in his seventies, who, having missed a bus, ends up taking a walk of some great distance through the countryside with a young man.  Along the way he shares wisdom, philosophical musings, and the biggest story of his life.  

Loving as I do great characterization, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Alessandro Giuliani and all the people from his very full life that his narration brought alive.  In light of his conversations, we come to know what life was like in Italy before, during, and after the First World War.  We learn how people thought, what they dreamed of, and what their struggles were.  Helprin’s marvelous gifts of description and depth of thought shine through Alessandro as the teller of his tale. 

However, at times the descriptive language goes, in my opinion, a bit overboard.  The author writes very expressively and has command of the subtle use of metaphor.  Unfortunately, he is also far too fond of similies, and they often jump glaringly out of the prose.  That is not to say that all of them are over-written (although I still groan at the description of a lady’s chin being likened to an opera house balcony—seriously?); some are lovely and apt, but the bad outweigh the good and there are just far too many.

The timeline of the book is crisp, and the format of beginning and ending the book when Alessandro and the young man are on the road walking makes for a smooth narrative.  Unfortunately, not all the intermediary transitions were as easy.  For instance, at one point Alessandro is seemingly at death’s door from a fever, and then, rather jarringly, he is suddenly in a museum admiring a painting.  At first I thought he must be in a fever induced delirium and flashing back, but no, the narrative really did make that leap.

I would be absolutely remiss if I did not give a lot of the credit for how much I enjoyed this novel to the outstanding narration of David Colacci.  His reading infused every character with distinct personality, respected the author’s intent, and effectively carried me through both the active and more passive parts of the novel.

Weighing the good and the bad, I debated between three and a half and four stars and finally decided that the general fluidity of the writing and how arresting and contemplative it was deserved the higher rating.  While parts of the plot sped along, others dragged quite mightily, and to enjoy this novel you must be a reader of patience who enjoys a lot of introspection and observation in between the action.