Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dear Books of 2011 (Part I of II)

Dear Books of 2011 (Part I of II),

It was my pleasure and delight to have read all of you this year.  Happily, 2011 was the year I started reading on a regular basis again.  Dear Husband has always had a goal of reading at least ten books a year.  The only years that he did not accomplish this goal were the first years of Dear Daughter and Dear Son's lives, when he was a bit more concerned with getting enough sleep than with reading.  Since having kids, I was never able to achieve this same goal... but this year was the year!

Below are books I had the privilege of devouring (metaphor intended), followed by a few of my thoughts about them.  These are not full book reviews, but just little snippets to remind myself of the books as I revisit this list at the end of the year.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Some writers have a way with words, and some writers are great storytellers.  Verghese, a physician and a writer, is a storyteller.  I read this book on my Kindle, and finished the book without realizing the length of it.  It is a fascinating epic story in first person narrative of one twin brother, Marion, and his life growing up in Ethiopia and later in America as a surgeon.  He and his twin brother, Shiva, enter the world as their mom, a missionary nun from India, die in childbirth.  Their British doctor father disappears after their birth, and they are raised by two doctors who worked at the same hospital.  The story is pivotal on the relationship between the twin brothers, bound by the strength of a special prenatal bond, and torn apart by conflicts that arise during their march into adulthood.  To flee from political uprising, Marion immigrates to the US to further his medical studies and subsequently meets his father, by accident or by destiny, and comes full circle to understanding the life his mother lived before him.  The intricate relationship between the twin brothers reveal themes of love and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption, and tragedies and miracles.  One of the aspects I enjoyed most from this book is the medical details, which were so fulfilling since I thrive on that kind of physiological/anatomical knowledge.  As Marion tells in the beginning, "What I owe Shiva most is this: to tell the story... Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me."  We spend the rest of the story finding out the 'hows' and the 'whys' in the most engrossing tale spanning continents and decades.  (Reading this book was like having a 10 course meal at Charlie Trotter's, both in length and quality of food.  4 out of 4 stars).

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
An instant sensation from a debut author, with over five thousand reviews on Amazon.com, this book leaves most people uplifted by a sort of sisterly tenderness shared by the characters in it.  A white college graduate, Skeeter, becomes interested in the plight of black maids in the 1960s in Mississippi.  She eventually interviews them and writes about their stories.  The book is written from first person narratives of three women: Miss Skeeter, and two black maids, Aibileen and Minny.  With parts written in dialect, the story is rich in details of these women's lives, relationships, and character.  Reading in dialect made me feel like I was actually listening to them tell me the story.  Again, a very long book, but I was so engrossed in the plot and characters that I finished the book in five days.  For those five days and many following, I spoke in Aibileen's dialect in my head; I swooshed the story in my head like one swirls wine in a glass.  What I found interesting was that while the book was so well-received, much criticism came about when the movie was released this summer.  Many African American historians found the movie perpetuating the same racism and stereotypes of that time in history.  I cannot comment on that until I watch the movie, which is next in queue from Netflix.  But I took the book for what I felt like it should have been, a fictional story that tells of the experiences of black and white women during the Civil Rights movement era in a most heartwarming, gut-wrenching, inspiring, and liberating fashion.  (Reading this book was like eating at your favorite breakfast joint, complete with the best comfort foods and morning coffee.  4 out of 4 stars). 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by James Ford
A sweet novel about innocent love, first-time author Ford writes about a Chinese American man in his fifties who discovers a parasol that belonged to his Japanese American friend, Keiko, when they were in middle school in Seattle in the 1940's.  The story jumps back and forth in time juxtaposing Henry's current life -- recent widower with a son in college with whom he wishes he was closer to, and his days as a teenager -- told to stay away from all Japanese people by his nationalistic and strict Chinese father while he found himself utterly attracted to Keiko's friendship.  As the story is revealed in intertwining timelines, the young Henry loses Keiko to Japanese concentration camps, while the old Henry rediscovers that part of his life as he tries to reconcile his relationship with his son.  The story lacks the depth of characterization and plot as the previous two books, but was nevertheless a quick and endearing read.  (Reading this book was like eating chocolate mousse: a dessert course one step up from ordinary pudding, light and sweet.  3 out of 4 stars).

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
A surprisingly excellent read, this is a story about life in a traveling circus.  The book opens with old Jacob in a nursing home, and flashes back in time to tell about his life with the Benzini Circus during the early part of the Great Depression.  In the circus, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the charming yet demented animal trainer/circus boss; takes care of many animals and forms special bonds with them; and learns about the harsh realities and dehumanizing ways of a circus.  The author clearly went through extensive research on the details of how a circus is run, and conveys an extraordinary truthful account of the hardships the crew and the animals had to endure for the success of the show.  My favorite parts of the book are of the sarcastic humor of old Jacob, something that is unexpected to be written in first person narrative by a young female author.  I am looking forward to seeing the movie, next in line for movie night.  But I am definitely glad that I read the book before watching the movie, as a book is much better in my imagination than having to replace the characters with the stars cast for the movie.  (Reading this book was like eating fois grois: something I didn't think I would like, but upon trying it, I utterly fell in love with its richness, complexity, and delicacy.  4 out of 4 stars).

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
My first reaction to the snippet that Wall Street Journal ran on this book was full of rage, disbelief, and dismissal.  From my own upbringing, I am all too familiar with this type of parenting -- one that I am careful not to replicate.  Although, I can understand the reason why many immigrant families raise their children this way: in a foreign land, they believe that a good education is the only way to success for their children in this country.  But Chua is not a first generation immigrant, and depriving her children of play dates, sleepovers, and extracurricular activities this day in age seems very extreme to me.  Then a friend (with my very same beliefs) sent me a free an electronic copy of this book, and I decided to see what Chua really had to say.  In the end, I thought the book was actually worth my read.  Many self-deprecating parts are funny; Chua is brutally honest (sometimes to her own detriment, as she makes such sweeping generalizations that are quite offensive to non-Chinese cultures); and her recounting her lessons learned with her younger daughter seems to make her more human than not.  Although I still do not agree with her methods or style of parenting, I can say that her underlying motive is of the same as the most of us: wanting our children to reach their potential and nothing short of it.  Having said that, I still think there is a middle ground: children can be raised in a nurturing way and still be high achievers.  Ironically, I now recognize myself as a Cubby Mom -- one that tries to balance raising my kids to do their best without coercion, deprivation, or any other extreme Chua Ways.  And I think it's very doable.  (Reading this book was like eating a Costco hot dog: not the healthiest food, makes you feel kind of icky afterwards, but it satisfies the hunger for the time being.  2.5 out of 4 stars). 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Having worked in a science laboratory for at least ten years of my life, I've come across the term "HeLa cells" many times, but I never knew the origin of them until I read this book.  Science labs across the world use these cells that came from Henrietta Lacks to do experiments that have made profound medical advancements, but neither she nor her family ever knew that the cells were extract from her, much less distributed around the world.  What's worse, the family members received no compensation and could not even afford medical care themselves.  Furthermore (and sadly), the cells came from a very virulent strain of cervical cancer cells from Ms. Lacks, from which she died a very painful and agonizing death.  The author conducted extensive research for nearly a decade to understand the life and death of the woman whose cells made scientific history, and told her story with unfailing truth, determination, and will.  This book is a superb tribute to Ms. Lacks and her family, and a great historical account of the evolution and legality of patient consent in the medical field.  (Reading this book was like eating Julia Child's beef bourguignon: exquisite, rich taste of beef and red wine melded in perfection, as only the best ingredients will do.  4 out of 4 stars).

As I finished and closed each of you at the end, I always savored that last taste of you in my mouth, and chewed on that flavor for a few days.  This was a wonderful way to revisit those flavors and remember what it was like for me to experience each of you.  (Part 2 is next; please stay tuned.)



  1. This was the year I read the most too since having children. I read The Help last year, The Immortal Life..., and Water for Elephant this summer. I loved them all but the immortal life was so interesting, so well written and so many things covered. She did an amazing job. This summer, I read another great book I recommend, Shadows Bright as Glass, the true story of Jon Sarkin whose brain trauma transforms his life, also beautifully written and really informative about brain function.

    I have yet to decide what to read next, maybe cutting for stones since I have it already.

  2. Ok, I saw movies of 2 of the books you read ;) I have been reading a ton, but none of them are books you've read. And I could never name all the books I've read this past year. Wow. I think you need to sign up for the adult book club at the library so you can get some rewards for your reading ;)

  3. Laura, I will have to look up Shadows Bright as Glass! I am partial to fiction, so I like nonfiction recommendations. I highly recommend Cutting for Stone, although it's not for everyone. There are long and windy parts, but I enjoyed it immensely. Happy reading!

    Michelle, I made a point to remember the books I read this year since I actually got further than 2 or 3! Making this list made me feel accomplished =) I know you read quite a bit! I've just now learned how writing book reviews really help draw out even more from the book, especially ones from a while ago.